Wagons Ho! Eight sub-$10K Estates to Chase Away the Minivan Blues
True story: It was 2004, and we were in England on vacation: four Hitchcocks, two in-laws, and a fun and roomy diesel Volkswagen crossover/minivan thing. At the time our kids were small, but the practicality of getting six people comfortably into a single vehicle with room to spare was mighty appealing. Generally speaking, when people came to visit us at home we had to caravan anyplace we wanted to go. Not ideal. Anyway, upon our return to the US of A, my wife and I decided that we needed to shun our devil-may-care automotive lifestyle and replace her 2000 BMW E39 528iT wagon (with 5-speed manual) with a 2003 Toyota Sienna people-hauler. I won’t disparage the van – it was a perfectly fine appliance, with electric doors, six seats, and everything else one might expect . I still remember vividly the salesman – with a big grin on his face – asking my wife if she “loved” her new van. Deadpan, she replied “I’ve been driving a stick shift BMW – I don’t have to like it drive it.” He was deflated, but there we were – minivan owners.
We remained minivan owners for about 10 months, before we finally coming to the realization that this was not who we were as drivers. Heck – one of the things that first attracted me to my wife (now of 24 years) was that when I met her she was driving a four-on-the-floor Ford F150 pickup. And she borrowed my little Honda Prelude that could every chance she got. Keeper material for sure, but I digress. My sister was in need of a family car and we wanted out of our van, so opportunity knocked and we didn’t pass go nor collect $200 – sister got the van and we bought a station wagon. In this case, we still wanted the seat space that the van afforded, so we decided to buy a 2001 Mercedes-Benz E320 4Matic wagon with the third rear-facing seat. With small kids, this move actually increased our seating capacity by one to seven. I instantly became a 21st-century Clark Griswold, and we’ve never looked back.
Given that we seem to have a penchant for black Mercedes wagons, the 2001 S210-chassis E320 4Matic begat a black S211 2005 E320 4Matic which, in turn, was replaced by a black S212 2011 black E350 4Matic. We still have the 2011, and it is the only car I have been specifically forbidden from selling. It is also the one we bought with the lowest miles (40K) – and it now has about 95K. All three were three-row cars, although our kids have assuredly outgrown the third row.
While everyone’s needs are different, we at TTS are absolutely Totally Stupid enough to forego the practicality and ease of a minivan, crossover, or big SUV for something from what is a rapidly-shrinking market of available wagons. You can still buy a handful of new ones: Mercedes, Volvo, and Audi comprise the new luxury/sporty station wagon while Subaru and Buick are sort of the cheese standing alone among new mid-range models. Sure, you can now buy a long-roof Porsche Panamera, but for a starting price of about $100K I can think of a lot of other cars to buy (several at once, in fact!). Besides, for Car Geeks like us, part of the fun is in the chase. So I set out to find some examples of wagons for $10K or less that I am TTS-enough to buy – you know, if I wasn’t bonded for life to the one I’ve got now. Not in any particular order….
The Brawny Germans
1. BMW E39 540iT
We make no secret of the fact that we like German cars around here – and it’s been that way since, well, forever. When thinking of our favorite wagons, the BMW E39 comes immediately to mind. Yes, I had an E39 wagon, and it was a stick, but I do like a V8. Sadly, BMW didn’t sell Americans manual 540 wagons, although you can make one with money and time. Even as an automatic the 540iT is a party on wheels, its M62 4.4 liter V8 delivering 282hp and 328 lb-ft of torque giving one of the best seat-of-the-pants experiences in any station wagon of the era. They can be maintenance-heavy from time to time, but I’d have another in a heartbeat. This driver with just 119K miles with lots of maintenance and history is available in Bedford, MA for $9,000. Sadly, the E39 didn’t offer a third row seat, but five are very comfortable in this car. Six-cylinder versions are available and fun in their own right – and can be had with a manual transmission. We miss BMW’s 5-series wagons. A lot.
2. Mercedes-Benz S211 E500
Oh, look! A black Mercedes wagon! Haven’t we seen enough of those?? Hear me out: Mercedes starting shoehorning V8 engines into their E-Class wagons with the 210-chassis, but sadly none of those ever made it to these shores. It wasn’t until the 211-chassis wagon got the 5 liter M113 V8 (basically a slightly smaller version of the previous generation E55 AMG motor) in 2004 delivering 302hp and 339 lb-ft of torque that the three-pointed uber-wagons made the journey across the pond. It’s sort of a yin to the BMW’s yang delivering comparable performance and yet a more luxury feel versus the BMW’s sportiness. The Mercedes was available with a third row, meaning it could seat up to seven assuming two are small. No manual was offered, although with a lot more money you could have the E55 or E63 super-wagon version – still in automatic. This well-equipped and documented E500 4Matic with 141K miles is available in Raleigh, NC for $9,250. Interestingly, the 211 was the first but also the LAST “normal” V8 Mercedes wagon sold in the U.S. – I assume because it was too close performance-wise to the AMGs. Good ones are getting hard to find.
Those Wacky Swedes
3. Saab 9-5 Wagon
Say what you will about Saab, but like that old Apple advertising campaign, they used to “Think Different“. We had a 2001 9-5 2.3T, but not the Aero version like you see here – putting out a sprightly 247hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. Our 9-5 was also an automatic, while this car is a fairly rare manual version. Frankly, with 64K miles and an asking price just under $10K, I’d have seriously considered the relatively easy drive up to Levittown, PA to check-out this lovely 2003 example had I not recently bought a new (to me) daily driver. I love the 9-5’s key in the middle, the goofy “night” mode that turns all the dash lights except the speedometer off, and even the funky vent control joysticks. These cars also came with heated seats all around, and a low center of gravity that makes them a lot of fun to toss around the twisties. Saab used to be to European cars what Subaru is to Japanese cars, and we think that their shuttering still leaves a hole in the quirky car market. They are most definitely not making them like this any more.
4. Volvo V70
When one thinks about European station wagons, it would not be unlikely to envision a Volvo. Volvo has been making station wagons consistently going back to the 122s of the 1960s, and the Volvo 245 was (and still is, in some cases) the flagship of college professors in the U.S. and Europe alike for decades. Volvo is one of the few manufacturers still making station wagons today – both compact and mid-sized and all luxury. I’d argue that the current V90 is one of the prettiest wagons ever. Regardless, we’re not talking new cars here. If you just search the internet for “station wagon” you’ll find a metric crap-ton of Volvos. Even with 143K miles, this clean 2008 V70 in Ventura, CA is a pretty decent deal at $6,495. Like Mercedes, Volvo has offered third-row seats for a long time, although someone looking to seat more than five will need to look at Volvos up to 2007: 2008 and newer no longer offered the extra row. This car is a mid-range 3.2 liter 235hp inline-6, but there are V70s out there with 300hp and/or manual transmissions for those looking for a little more.
5. Subaru Legacy GT
It’s a great thing that you can go to your Subaru dealer today and buy a brand new station wagon. Sure, it’ll be a high-riding Outback model, but it’s still a bona-fide wagon. Looking back over the years, we like the performance-oriented Legacy GT wagon which, if anything, sits a little closer to the ground than the average ordinary car. Manual transmission GTs like this 2005 in Sutton’s Bay, MI are usually snatched-up as soon as they come on the market. This car, at just $2,750, is sold as a project with 2 of its 4 cylinders exhibiting low compression and needing a rear wheel bearing. Neither of these are unknown issues for Subarus, and in this condition even with 161K miles would likely be worth investing in the repair. More often than not these cars are adorned with all sorts of aftermarket bolt-ons, so this honest, clean, original car appeals to the optimist in me. Keep in mind that this car comes with the same 250hp/250 lb-ft of torque EJ motor as the WRX. With this car’s manual transmission and all wheel drive, it’s a rally car for five.
6. Toyota Camry
What? A car enthusiast site talking about a CAMRY? Of all the….! But WAIT: we’re talking wagons here, and the 3rd generation Camry made a pretty darned good wagon. It’s a shame they stopped making them after this (thank the Highlander and the Sienna for that). This is also the generation of Camry that nearly rendered the Lexus ES series moot, the latter being based on the former, but both offering near equal levels of build quality, performance, and amenities. What we like about the Camry wagon is that it is a true mid-sized wagon and offers seating for seven. It also comes with trick dual rear wipers. Excellent examples of Camry wagons are hard to find, most having been used hard as family and stuff haulers. A lot of them that you see these days are work cars for guys like painters or handymen – because they keep going, and going, and going. At $2,950, this 120K mile 4-cylinder in Oakton, VA is no rocket ship (130hp although there was a 185hp V6 offered), but is likely to be a dependable partner for years to come – assuming it doesn’t start to rust.
Doesn’t Anyone Buy American Anymore?
7. Oldsmobile Ciera
General Motors released their front wheel drive A-Body cars in 1982 as the Buick Century, Chevrolet Celebrity, Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, and Pontiac 6000 with the wagon versions following in 1984. As a teenager I spent a lot of time driving my parents’ Pontiac 6000 company wagons (an ’85 and an ’89 S/E), and have a soft spot in my heart for the whole range. Although Chevy and Pontiac got out of the A-body game a few years earlier, Buick and Olds kept making them through the 1996 model year – making this 1996 Ciera SL Wagon in Tucson, AZ for $3,000 the end of the line. By modern standards, these old A-body cars offer archaic handling, casual performance, and old but not quite classic styling. However, they also offer durability, seating for seven, plenty of cargo space, and basic creature comforts like freeze-you-out air conditioning, power locks and windows, and cushy velour seats. Like the Camry, this Ciera is somewhat of an appliance – but one that just about every mechanic in every city can work on, and with parts readily available. The 3.1 liter V6 is adequate with 160hp and 185 lb-ft of torque, but this will never be a performance car. The beauty of these cars now is that you can get a low mileage example like this (with just 53K miles) for cheap because they are all but invisible. And while these probably won’t be $200K cars on your favorite internet auction anytime soon, they offer turnkey station wagoning at its most basic. With A/C. And old school torque steer.
8. Buick Roadmaster
A couple of years ago I was on a photo shoot with a bunch of aircooled Porsche 911 guys. The photographer on the job was a small English guy who’d set-up shop in the mountains of Southern California. His vehicle of choice was a Buick Roadmaster wagon not unlike this one. Honestly, this Roadmaster in Cedar Rapids, IA with 121K miles for $9,700 with its meaty Ridler wheels and a handful of other subtle performance modifications is even cooler than his – and his was arguably the best photo car I’ve ever driven. The trick dual-opening tailgate was perfect for hanging a photographer out of a car in the name of art and journalism – in a harness, of course. These cars represent the last of the big, rear wheel drive, 8- or 9-seater American station wagons. Sure, the Corvette-derived 5.7 liter LT1 engine is thirsty, but it is also torquey. Power when new was rated at a beefy 260 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque. These cars represent all that was great about the American car industry for so long: big displacement, big comfort, big space along with creature comforts and wrought iron reliability. They also represent some of what brought down the American auto industry: dated engineering and dated technology. Still, I’d argue that of the list of wagons here, this one would compete for first place when it comes to nostalgia, usefulness, desirability, and collectibility of all the station wagons on this list. All the more so as long as gas remains cheap.
So what is your wagon of choice and which wagons available for $10K or less do you think are missing?
Love wagons and own five at the moment. BMW, Audi, Saab (3). Kids drive two of the Saabs. They wanted the space for soccer gear and my daughter finds the 9-3 Aero SportCombi with the 270 hp turbo fun to drive if not particularly fuel efficient.
Living in the Northeast I’ve owned 6 Subaru wagons and one 2003 TDI, manual, brown wagon. They were all very useful and fun. The VW offered 40mpg even when driven at 10/10ths while the Subarus were little rally-wagons with snow tires in winter. I’d love a BMW or Audi wagon but am afraid to own an old, expensive german car due to repairs and $$$$.
We are definitely Subaru fans around here, and diesels too! You’re in the right place for sure!! FWIW, my wife and I are on our third consecutive Mercedes wagon, a 2001, a 2005, and now a 2011. None was sold out of necessity or heartbreak, although the 2001 was a bit crispy and fighting the rust was a losing battle. Other than a couple of repairs on things like seat heaters or lumbar adjusters, all of them have been rock solid, reliability-wise, and the V6s are known quantities with parts that are not catastrophically expensive. Won’t be as cheap as a Subaru, but not a whole lot more. There’s also a good amount of info out there for DIYers.
We had an E39 BMW manual transmission wagon several years ago, and loved driving it. That car had an intermittent stall issue that would usually rear its head mid-intersection – not ideal for wife with new baby. When the rear suspension needed an overhaul, we bailed. I think costs on those pieces have come down and there is more known about fixing those yourself as well, so these days may not have made the same decision.
Can’t say on the Audis, but personal experience has been that the (non-turbo) BMWs and the V6 Mercs are not at all bad to own. Let us know if you find something!!
Here you go.
Hello from England, how about the Audi A6 Avant C5 98-04? Or Google MG ZT-T or Rover 75 Tourer they even did a V8 version. Myself and my wife have had Saab 9-5’s & 9-3’s, Volvo V70’s & V50’s, a Mercedes S212 and now a S204. Out of all off them I miss most the A6 it was an absolutely superb balance of them all really, If I lived in the USA I’d pick the Roadmaster.