Back in the halcyon years of the 80s, everyone knew what a station wagon was. They also knew how it differed from a hatchback. Patient fathers drove the former on long-haul road trips, and the latter was a mainstay for adventure-seeking cops with futuristic car radios that spoke to them and helped solve a crime. Alas, nothing gold can stay, and these days hatchbacks and wagons are starting to look more and more similar. What's more, the wagon market is increasingly encroached upon by the SUV and crossover market. This makes it even more difficult to tell what kind of car we've got. And what it can do for us. However, some important differences still ring true today and some great examples of models that highlight the difference.
What do wagons and hatchbacks have in common?
Generally, hatchbacks and wagons are both characterized by a considerable amount of space in the rear area, with bigger cargo areas and seats that fold down to create enough space to transport a full pickup bed worth of goods. However, both hatchbacks and wagons are built on an automobile platform rather than a truck body, so they both still drive and handle like cars. Moreover, both carry with them a bit of nostalgic stigma, and so neither is necessarily considered to be all that cool unless you're a hipster who cold brews their coffee and searches their grandpa's closets for cardigans. Importantly, size is not a difference between the hatchback and the wagon, as smaller wagons may be the same size as hatchbacks and larger hatchbacks may rival mid-sized wagons.
What sets them apart?
A few key differences mark the two models, and indeed car enthusiasts can get passionate in their claims of the difference between a wagon and a hatchback. Without entering too heavily into a debate, most agree that a hatchback's roofline will start slanting after the rear door and that a wagon roofline extends beyond the rear door and covers at least 50% of the cargo area. The second major difference is that a wagon will have a separate side window dedicated to the cargo area. No window, no wagon.
How has the wagon changed over the years?
Sometime in the 1970's, the wagon was resigned to the same fate as the minivan to become the epitome of middle-class suburban purgatory. Gas mileage wasn't as great as other models, and the larger size of the wagon made it an awkward sell for those who didn't have their own two car garage. Enter the SUV, which by the 1990's had become the standard bearer for fun family style, and the station wagon looked headed for extinction. However, the wagon has bounced back, and there are plenty of models that provide the same or better storage than an SUV or crossover with a smoother drive and highly respectable aesthetics. With some car makers using the wagon as a more accessible platform for higher trims, and with the SUV/Crossover market becoming predictably saturated, people are turning back to the station wagon as a functional family vehicle that might just be a little cool. Either way, wagons have come a long way from their wood-paneled awkward years, and for many car buyers they're the ideal solution for SUV sized storage with a car-like feel.
Isn't a hatchback, like, a Ford Pinto?
When you have a car as iconic as the Pinto (or the AMC Gremlin, for that matter), it's hard to shake the notion of the hatchback as a squirrely little guy bouncing on the road with his rear trunk for the world to see. But hatchbacks appealed to a large segment of the buying public who liked its utilitarian looks and the fact that it combined some of the features of a sedan with the additional storage of a station wagon. Hatchbacks have remained popular throughout the years, with the European market especially clinging on to the model as the number one preferred model in car sales. It makes sense: smaller roads mean smaller cars, but the storage solutions offered with a hatchback also make it a practical alternative for commuters and urban families. And let's not forget the hot hatch, a high-performance version of the hatchback that has amassed such a loyal cult following that Ford insists on continuing production of its Fiesta ST hot hatch model.
What are some examples of new model wagons?
These days, wagons generally come in two classes, as smaller sports versions or larger luxury models. Because the SUV and Crossover segments have become so dominant in the market, car makers have tended to pare down their wagon offerings. This is actually a great thing for car buyers, as they can sometimes get better deals on cars that may not be best sellers on the lot. But don't be fooled, there's a lot on offer with a wagon. Smaller models like the Subaru Outback and the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen offer great fuel economy and more storage space than a comparable SUV, for a much lower price. Higher trim luxury models like the Mercedes-Benz E Class Wagon or the Volvo V60 have the feel of performance vehicles, but instead of fussy sedans that you can only take out when the kids aren't around, they're built for everyday use.
How do I know which one is right for me?
That depends on your taste, and your needs. Hatchbacks are generally a more versatile vehicle, as they can come in smaller three-door versions (the rear counting as a door) or larger five-door models with lots of different features. If you're concerned with parking space, you might feel naturally inclined towards a hatchback due to their historically smaller overall size, but there are plenty of smaller wagons like the Outback or the Kia Soul which can squeeze into a tight space painlessly. Hatchbacks also work a bit better for single drivers or couples as the back seats might often be turned down to carry cargo, so if you're a bigger family, a wagon might be the go-to for you. Finally, the visual is quite different on each, with the slanted roof of the hatch contrasting to the straighter lines of the wagon. The overall appearance has its fans and detractors on either side, so if you know which side of the fence you sit, you'll know which model works for you.