Designing utilitarian vehicles used to be simple: Take a family sedan, extend the roof to the rear bumper, replace the rear coil-spring suspension with heavy-duty leaf springs and--bam!--a station wagon that cost $500 more than its sedan counterpart. Later, automakers applied a similar formula to pickup trucks, extending the roof over the tailgate and--bam again!--a sport/utility vehicle that cost $5000 (or even $10,000) more than its pickup progenitor.

Today's consumers are more sophisticated. They want all the best attributes of a sport/utility (ruggedness, cargo capacity, off-roadability, good visibility) combined with the best attributes of a sedan (smooth ride, precise handling, performance, comfort). What they want are "crossover" vehicles--station wagons for the 21st century.

To station-wagon aficionados, all-wheel-drive crossovers like the three '04 models gathered here--the Volvo V70 Cross Country (XC70), the Chrysler Pacifica, and the Volkswagen Touareg--are nothing like real station wagons. Well, that's what we heard anyway after driving our trio from Detroit to the annual gathering of the American Station Wagon Owners Association, held this year in Princeton, New Jersey (see sidebar in the October 2003 isse of Motor Trend magazine).

The Lineup
Against the field of ASWOA station wagons arrayed in the parking lot of the Princeton Radisson Hotel, Volvo's XC70--with its carlike size and stance and traditional wagon-style cargo area--is closest to the wagon "norm." It carries Volvo's Haldex all-wheel-drive system, which detects wheel slippage and automatically sends torque to the wheel with the most grip. Last year, Volvo upped the horsepower on its twin-cam 2.5-liter turbo five in time for it to appear in the XC90--and the XC70 benefited as well. Horsepower is up 11, to 208, and torque has improved by 26 lb-ft, to 236. The engine is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission with manumatic control. Our test car also carried the $2045 Touring and Versatility package, which includes integrated booster seats in the second row; a two-passenger, third-row seat; a Homelink automatic garage-door package; an auto-dimming mirror; tinted and laminated side windows; and a cargo-area 12-volt outlet. Our Volvo was the only vehicle in this group not equipped with a navigation system (it's an $1895 option). As-tested price: $40,535.

The Pacifica features a variable-torque-split all-wheel-drive system composed of a viscous-coupling center differential and an open rear differential. Its engine, a 3.5-liter single-cam V-6 developing 250 horsepower and 250 lb-ft of torque, is the most powerful of our three nouveau wagons, but its automatic has just four gears. Chrysler's AutoStick manumatic feature is standard. Like the Volvo, the Chrysler has a carlike towing capacity: 3500 pounds (3300 for the XC70).

If you don't need all-wheel drive, you can order the Pacifica with front drive and save $1750 off the sticker. (Likewise, a front-drive V70--non XC--with the 2.5-liter turbo starts at $2410 less than a Cross Country.) We think the extra cost is worth the enhanced wintertime capability and added traction on rain-slicked roads, though. Our well-equipped Pacifica checked in at $41,200. The new Volkswagen Touareg is really an SUV, and a smooth-looking one at that. It comes only with all-wheel drive and only with two rows of seating for five, but it's available in two flavors: The top model sports a 4.2-liter V-8 engine (310 horsepower, 302 lb-ft of torque) and a height-adjustable air suspension that makes the vehicle equal to Jeeps and Hummers in serious off-roading. But to keep this comparison fair and prices close, we stuck with the standard 3.2-liter 15-degree V-6 (220 horsepower, 225 lb-ft) and the standard, conventional steel-coil suspension.

If you need a wagon for towing, the Touareg is your ride. Its factory-rated capacity, whether you order the V-6 or the V-8, is 7716 pounds. Either engine is hooked up to a super-slick six-speed automatic transmission with manumatic control. A Dynamic Shift Program offers a sport mode that holds gears to much higher revs before shifting. The transmission sends engine power to the wheels via VW's 4XMotion permanent four-wheel drive, with a low-range gear and adaptive torque distribution. Our test model also had the optional $550 rear-differential lock. The Touareg comes standard with front buckets, a floor-mounted gearshift, and a three-passenger 60/40 split back seat that folds flat. The seat's center armrest also folds down to accommodate skis. As-tested price: $41,365.

By the Numbers
While the Touareg and the Pacifica are all-new models, we've tested the XC70 before. We first put it up against the Audi allroad in 2002, when both models made their debuts. In that comparison, the '02 allroad ($49,480 as tested) blew away the XC. But Volvo has since improved the Cross Country. Besides the extra horsepower added last year, the company has switched to ZF rack-and-pinion steering gear for the '04-model year. It's a terrific enhancement, eliminating previous on-center vagueness. In this test, the Volvo acquitted itself well. Even wearing Pirelli Scorpion tires that sported the most aggressive off-road pattern of the trio, the XC provided the smoothest, quietest, and most comfortable ride, without much of a handling compromise.


The Pacifica's raison d'etre is rear seating. Seats fold quickly and easily. Ingress to the third row is smooth, and a panel can fill the second-row gap over the console when seats are folded.

These three get better mileage than the V-8 wagons of the '60s and '70s, but, with fewer cylinders and modern computer-controlled fuel systems, that's no accomplishment. The VW Touareg scored at the low end of EPA fuel-mileage testing, with a 15/20-mpg city/highway rating, while the Volvo XC70 topped the trio at 19/24 mpg. The Volvo and VW drink premium unleaded, while 89-octane midgrade is recommended for the Chrysler.

The Chrysler doesn't quite have the Volvo's ride isolation, but it's close. And its steering has a light, accurate feel. The Pacifica did suffer some tire slap and suspension rumble over expansion joints, however. It's something you hear rather than feel as a roughness through the suspension.

VW's new baby rides and handles like a large European sedan. That's not by accident: The Touareg's upscale demeanor is meant to help prepare North American buyers for the next step up VW's lofty new status ladder, the $55,000-plus Phaeton sedan, designed to take on the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. In character with most other Volkswagens, the Touareg is soft at turn-in, but firms up the harder it bites into a corner. But there are forces working against the supple, progressive suspension. The 17-inch wheels and tires limit wheel travel, and their relatively high unsprung weight creates rumble and affects damping. The aggressive treads of the unidirectional Dunlop Grand Trek ST 8000 tires, while not as noisy as the Volvo's Scorpions, create a constant sizzle heard during highway cruising.

In the end, none among this trio is a serious corner-bender. Slalom speeds were on the low side, thanks to foul-weather tires, generous body roll, and ground clearance higher than what you'll find in a typical sedan.

With the possible exception of early '70s GM wagons, with their 455-cubic-inch V-8s, station wagons have never been quick cars. They've always been built to haul things and people, and they've usually weighed more than their sedan counterparts. Back in 1966, MT tested six American station wagons of varying size and status. The largest, a Chrysler Town & Country with a 325-horsepower/383-cubic-inch V-8, weighed 4920 pounds and clocked a leisurely 0-60-mph run of 13.4 seconds. The quickest was a Rambler Ambassador, with a 270-horse/ 327-cubic-inch V-8. It weighed 3920 pounds and sprinted to 60 in 11.8 seconds.


Our XC70 test car came without the optional rear-facing, two-passenger third-row seat. With rear seats folded, cargo capacity is about equal to its two taller competitors.

These three get better mileage than the V-8 wagons of the '60s and '70s, but, with fewer cylinders and modern computer-controlled fuel systems, that's no accomplishment. The VW Touareg scored at the low end of EPA fuel-mileage testing, with a 15/20-mpg city/highway rating, while the Volvo XC70 topped the trio at 19/24 mpg. The Volvo and VW drink premium unleaded, while 89-octane midgrade is recommended for the Chrysler.

Inside Story
The XC70 has the most rugged interior of the three, with Berber floormats over thick, high-quality carpeting. The optional cargo net helps keep things in place under heavy braking, and the seats have the most aggressive bolstering in our trio. Fit and finish are excellent, and materials are top-notch, although a bit more understated than the VW's. As in most Volvos, the XC70's interior takes inspiration from Sweden's neighbor, with a Danish-modern look. Our only serious cockpit gripe: Volvo has gone too far in simulating an SUV-like command-seating position. The steering wheel felt too low in the lap of one of our testers, even with the driver's seat in its lowest position and the steering wheel in its highest.

The Chrysler has a manual-tilt wheel, but no telescoping feature. With its high beltline and short greenhouse, it feels un-SUV-like, its driver's seat low and the steering wheel high. The windshield is large for good forward visibility, but the rear window is small, which made us extra careful when backing up. The Pacifica's tinted rear side windows were too dark when backing out of a driveway at night, but they do roll all the way into the door. The seats, covered with a midgrade leather, are comfortable, with a power lumbar control for the driver. The center-console plastics look cut-rate, with some uneven panel gaps, while the dash materials, especially the brushed-metal trim and even the fake woodgrain, were upper-crust. The door panels, especially, are a mishmash of uneven-quality pieces.

When all six seats are occupied, there's little room in the Pacifica for luggage without resorting to the roof rack, but the same also can be said of the big classic wagons. And the Pacifica has a nifty panel on the back of the middle-row driver-side seatback. Attached by Velcro, it flips to cover the gap between the two middle seats when both are folded down. The two front and two middle-row buckets are heated, and the second row has its own heater/air-conditioning fan control. Power controls for the two front seats are Mercedes-style seat-shaped buttons on the door panels (middle-row seats have manual fore, aft, and recline).

The instrument panel is Benz-like, too, with a big half-moon-shaped speedometer in the center, flanked by the fuel-level indicator on the left and a pint-size tachometer on the right. The large speedo makes room for the Pacifica's neatest interior feature, its navigation-system map, which fits right between 0, 80, and 160 mph. Its controls are on a small touchpad just to the right of the rev counter. The system is intuitive, accurate, and readable.


The Touareg emphasizes rear-seat comfort over cargo capacity. To fold the rear seats, you have to lift the bottom cushion up and over. Find the owner's manual; it's not intuitive.

We wish we could say the same for the nearly inscrutable nav system in the Touareg. This one takes up a larger space, in the traditional center-stack location. The stereo controls are incorporated into the nav screen, which makes manually fine-tuning an FM station almost as tough as finding a small suburb.

Unfortunately the display maps lack detail. Running with no direction input, just the map zoomed out to show several states, the system displayed Denver on the western corner of the screen and Chicago on the eastern corner, with no city listings in between. Finally, the nav/stereo has one CD/DVD slot, so you can't run the map and play a music disc at the same time (for that, you'll need a dealer-installed cargo-compartment CD changer).

The rest of the VW's interior is much more successful. Seats covered in optional leather trim (vinyl is standard) are firm and supportive on long trips, the steering wheel has a thick rim wrapped in leather, and the entire cabin is accented in a warm, modern combo of aluminum and walnut. The glovebox is even air-conditioned. At night, the bright chrome instrument bezels reflect the speedometer/tachometer calibration, for a terrific jewellike effect. Two displays, the fan and climate control, use cool, vivid blue lighting. A two-tier open binnacle at the top of the center stack is perfect for storing parking cards, sunglasses, cell-phones, change, and the like.

Despite hard work by U.S. and Asian competitors, this VW's interior, for fit, finish, and materials, remains unparalleled. Some details may even be too sexy, such as the chrome instrument rings and the big climate-control knobs--which resemble some of the chrome-encrusted dashes we saw on early '60s wagons at the ASWOA meet.

Conclusion: Maybe wagon aficionados have had the right idea all along
Whatever you call it, Chrysler's Pacifica impressed us with its smooth ride, precise and light handling, excellent ergonomics, comfortable seating, and good load space. But in the end, it's less useful than the minivans it so doggedly tries not to be. It also fails to project the adventuresome image of a traditional truck-based sport/utility, and it doesn't nail the polished profile of premium Japanese or European crossovers.

With its Touareg, VW has created a great-looking, great-driving SUV in a marketplace filled with premium entries. But its ride quality is compromised on rough roads, and, with its high weight and smallish narrow-angle V-6, it's only adequately powered. The Touareg offers less load and people space than a conventional midsize SUV, but its interior is a work of art. It offers an optional V-8, which will address any power issues, and it's the most capable off-roader among this bunch.

Our choice when it comes to wagons is, well, a wagon--the improved XC70. The Volvo is handsome, it's the right size, and it delivers an ideal balance of fuel economy, acceleration, ride and handling, all-weather capability, and excellent people- and cargo-moving room. Maybe wagon aficionados have had the right idea all along.

  • «
  • |
  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
  • |
  • 4
  • |
  • 5
  • |
  • View Full Article