Unpacking Six Of Our Favorite Souped-Up Station Wagons
Avants, Tourings, station wagons, estates, bricks: if it has a rear gate and the trailing three-quarters of the profile are more or less rectangular, it’s valid here. But only the high performance variants—while cars like the P1800ES are pretty, they can’t keep up with this list. And on that note, rather than being upset that your favorite was “forgotten,” why not instead share why it tops your personal charts? Exclusions are not indictments.
The fact that the big car-producing continents—USA, Japan, and Europe—all have their own sports slabs is evidence of the universal appeal of combination over compromise, because packing big motors and substantial suspension into shapes designed for shopping is, in a way, a more genuine pairing of form and function than any traditionally pretty sports car. You can’t put baby seats in your typical “weekend toy,” but you can take the whole family to redline in a CTS V Sport Wagon, and sitting here writing this on the plane with a crying kid to my right and another kicking my seat from behind, the appeal of flooring one of these beasts and sending the brats flying into the trunk is even more appealing.
Sadly, I think the halcyon days of these kinds of cars are behind us (yes, I do in fact know about the RS6 and its ilk), and even those times were fleeting, as there was nothing truly quick until the early ‘90s (big blocks in earlier American road barges were more or less good for burnouts and not much else, let’s be honest). Of course even today’s diesel 5-Series Touring is pretty quick, but barring a few exceptions like the Audi RS and Mercedes AMG wagons, there aren’t many of these types of cars left on the road, but I suppose that only makes each sighting more exciting, if we’re going to put a positive spin on things.
A few months back we featured a very clean example of Audi’s first go at RS’ing, and while that badge adorns all shapes and sizes now, its maiden voyage saw it slapped on the back of a station wagon, or as Audi alliterates, an “Avant.” As anyone who knows RS2s is already aware, this ‘roided rectangle wasn’t all Audi’s doing, as their pals from Porsche were going through a financial doldrum in the early/mid-‘90s, and so had begun farming out their talent to their fellow Germans. This took the form of things like helping Mercedes with the 500E, and of course, Audi with their RS2.
A more fleshed-out writeup on this partnership’s creation can be found in the previously mentioned article—including photography of the car in its element in the Swiss Alps which could easily be mistaken for promotional material—so instead of talking again about which Carrera its wheels come from, I’ll skip the stat sheet. And while there’s no lack of potency, of course ‘90s high-performance doesn’t stack up to today’s, and so the real lasting provenance-creating mark on history written by the RS2 is of the early and more blatant, distinctive days of the modern German hot rod. BMW had M cars before this, but I still think the RS2 can comfortably sit at the table of the forebears of the trifecta of M, AMG, and RS. At the very least, this was Audi pulling up a chair; the Sport Quattro was kind of a one-off, homologation special, but there was no “need” for the RS2, and that makes it important, in the wagon and the wider world.
BMW E34 M5 Touring
A few model years before the Audi above though, BMW’s M was also glued to the first wagon in their lineage. What Audi calls an Avant, BMW names a Touring, and this one was a tour de force. That’s a lame pun, but not an inappropriate one. The E34 M5 began as a sedan, but as the Europeans love their wagons, MPVs, and really just about anything with a glass hatch instead of a metal trunk, the M5 line added its first wagon in 1992. And as fans of the E34 will know, the straight-six S38 motor was bumped from a 3.6L to a 3.8L in most markets (the US models of course retained the smaller motor throughout their brief run in part for emissions, and now Trump talks about the idea of clean coal, so go figure I guess). That 3.8 though, or S38B38 for the nerdier bunch, is to this day BMW’s biggest straight-six they’ve put in a production car, and it was the only motor you could have in the M5 Touring. This car is the antithesis to every clapped-out 3-Series wearing askew “M” badges.
Here was a vehicle with a truly capacious ass that could also haul it well past 160MPH in a time when the only way to beat that kind of speed on the Autobahn would bring you into supercar territory, and though now it’s safe to say that 90% of E34 M5s are owned by true car enthusiasts, that wasn’t the case when they were new; earning the title of “Executive Express” represents the when-new ownership profile of the sedan: a wealthy person who needed get around. Surely some people bought the sedans back then didn’t use them just for commuting in the left lane, but I can’t picture the person who would buy the Touring and not be a bonafide fan of not just well-made cars, but of cars in general, and that’s a key distinction that makes this car, in my mind, the best M5 ever made. It’s quintessential early-M in every aspect, and its 340HP is still quick enough to embarrass anyone who doesn’t understand it.
Subaru Impreza Sports Wagon WRX STI Version III V Limited
The full name of Subaru’s top-trim five-door version of their STI production car is a mouthful, and if you launch it correctly it might just get from zero to sixty in less time than it takes to say the whole thing, as this wagon came with a shining example of what can be achieved with turbocharging small four-cylinder motors. Using the same motor from the STI sedan, the single-turbo boxer pushed 276HP to the crankshaft of the measly 2.0L no less. 20 years on, the formula is still working for Subaru’s fastest road cars, and the fact that the output hasn’t changed much in that time can be thought of as either a slow evolution, or the fact that the 1997 Sports Wagon was just nuts when it was new. Fun fact: although there are many versions of this car out there, Subaru only called them V Limiteds when they won in WRC in the same year. The Audi RS2 also had all four wheels getting power, but the Subaru had both more of it, and was more closely related to its rallying cousins than the Audi.
To the naive car spotter, wagons like this one can easily be mistaken for the type that seemingly come from the Subaru factory with a canoe on the roof and a level of eco-righteousness that can even best those of the haughtiest Prius pilots, and that only adds to its sleeper status. If they’d ever offered this in America, it would be the best kind of immature and stupid fun to crash the local campgrounds with some exhaust-popping donuts as the love-it-or-hate-it growl of the boxer-four sends the wildlife running. Though not as fast as the Version III V Limited, an honorable mention goes to the less powerful but deservedly dubbed Gravel Express variant of the WRX, pictured above to the right of the V Limited. This wagon came with raised suspension, bull bars, and an externally-mounted spare wheel complete with a paint-matched cover emblazoned with the name of the special edition in large block lettering. To poke at Audi again, what All Road?
Volvo 850 T-5R Estate
If any manufacturer can claim reign over the wagon, it is Volvo. I don’t care if they don’t make the fastest or what the production numbers are (though think of just how many 240s are still on the road today), the Prancing Moose is the kind of this domain. Like many of us, I’ve spent a large chunk of childhood in the third row rear-facing benches of Volvos, looking out at following traffic from the coolest seat on the road, but in keeping with the nature of this group, let’s focus on one of Volvo’s earliest forays into fast: the 1995 T-5R Estate.
Like a lot of these cars, this was also offered as a sedan, but posterity favors the funky, and so the Estate is the one you want. Only offered for a single model year before becoming the 850R, the T-5R was a limited edition run that most people incorrectly assume was to homologate the infamous BTCC 850 Estate, which was actually quite competitive as a touring car. It’s probably more accurate to think of the T-5R as a supplement to the marketing move of that racing effort, produced by the brand to change the minds of those who would never think of Volvo being synonymous with speed. With safety being their real forte of course, it’s no surprise that the T-5R came with side airbags and child seats as standard, and the self-leveling suspension and cargo net were also box-stock features, maybe to ensure that the 240HP/221LB-FT of torque didn’t hurl the groceries too far. And beyond the stout engine, the car also had a more aggressive bumper and side skirt kit with an optional roof-mounted spoiler on the Estates to evoke a similar look to that of the racing 850s.
Because this was the ‘90s and Porsche was seemingly leaving fingerprints all over Europe, this car also benefited from a bit of their fettering in the engine bay, and as a sort of homage to them, the T-5Rs came with an interior upholstery mix of suede and leather seat inserts, supposedly to mirror that of many 911s of the era. If this is coincidence or not I’m not sure, but I choose to believe these things because it only adds rosiness to the past.
Ferrari 456 Venice
The mid-’90s was a rough patch for design in a lot of ways; not quite out-there enough like the ‘80s, and a turn towards grunge and “realism” turned fashion into anti-fashion, because raging about the “system” in mall-bought pre-scuffed jeans was really making a statement on the evils of corporations (yeah, you tell ‘em what’s wrong with the world from the back of Mom’s SUV you little rebel!).
It wasn’t all dirty denim and crappy cars though obviously, because we also got things like the Ferrari 456 Venice. Well, “we” isn’t exactly the right word, because out of the seven of these that exist, the Sultan of Brunei’s family both brought about their creation and are hoarding six of them. Every article on the Venice mentions how Pininfarina was commissioned to turn the V12 456 coupe into a wagon at the behest of the Sultan’s brother-prince at a cool cost of about one and half million dollars a pop, so there, it’s been said here now too. Rather than regurgitate the facts that have been retread too many times already, it’s more fun to speculate on whether this car’s strange existence helped show Ferrari the light that is the FF. There are decades between the two cars, but how different are they really? Both V12s, both with room for four, and though the FF is technically more shooting brake than wagon, both have a lift gate. Not many Ferraris have those.
Even though this list is otherwise comprised of cars that would have been spinning on showroom floor rotation stands at one point, it’s hard to leave out some Italian style, even though I can’t say I understand why a car would be named after a place that isn’t exactly known for driving. Oh well, it’s best not to bring rationality into this: the car has space, but not for logic.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX Wagon
Concluding and moving this group into the ‘00s is Mitsubishi’s Evolution IX Wagon, and while I can’t help but miss the obnoxious wing of its progenitor, the dramatic creases of the Evo lend themselves nicely to the more rigid shape of this body style. The wagon ditches a some of the techno gizmos of the sedan like the renowned Super Active Yaw system, but it still has a turbocharged 4G63 under the gaping hood vent which is good for horsepower in the high 200s, depending on which variant of the limited-production Evo wagon one opted for when it was released as a model year 2006 option alongside the 9th-generation standard Evolution.
Even though every other wagon in this list has had its body reworked to give subtle hints at the increased performance over the typical haulers, this one is by far the most dramatic relative to its sedate Lancer Wagon sibling. Treated to the same prominent box flares front and rear, as well as the rest of the front fascia from the angry-Japanese-robot Evo IX, this is probably the least likely to be mistaken for something slow. Only 2,500 of these were made for the Japanese market—the only place they were offered when new—and of that, some of them are automatics, making the holy grail manuals even more elusive. I would be willing to guess this car was an immediate collector’s item, and that many of these have never had to pull serious station wagon chores, and if the state of most used Evolutions is anything to go by, I’m glad these extra special wagon variants have likely avoided the usual horrors an Evo goes through at the hands of their second owners.