When station wagons first appeared they were meant to be purely practical ways of getting from one place to another. Most of the time, they were derivatives of a sedan, which meant buyers kept the same dimensions but had a lot more space to carry things around. You could also carry more people around too; back in the day you could throw your kids in the back and not get a second glance from Mr. Officer. Or if you wanted to do things correctly, you could get third row seats. This meant that they became extremely popular with families, and this is where the problem lies. Anything that’s meant to be a practical family hauler ends up being quite an unexciting car. They’re seen as personal shuttle buses for screaming, crying, pooping kids.
I call it the “family effect”. Basically a new car comes out, it’s cool, a bit different and exciting at first, then when families start buying them, their image is suddenly transformed to family hauler. Look at minivans; in the 1960s they were bought by young people who liked to “smoke” and not be tied by the norms of society, but by the 1980s they were family-mobiles. It’s also the case for a lot of 4x4s. At first they were bought by rugged, adventure-seeking outdoorsmen. Now they’ve been softened up so much that a lot of them cant make it up a slight incline with light snow. Some of them don’t even have four-wheel drive. Why? Because families bought them, and they said they don’t really need the locking diffs, nor the butch looks, nor the size. So now you’ve got crossover SUVs like the Mercedes Benz GLA and Nissan Qashqai, none of which I would trust to get me across a football field, let alone an off-road trail.
It’s not all bad news though, through the years there have been some fantastic examples of transforming boring family haulers in to something a bit naughty – especially with station wagons. In fact they perform so well that they immediately fall under the sleeper category. Looks of an ordinary family hauler but with performance to put a lot of sports cars to shame. Who says you can’t have a family chariot and have fun at the same time? Check out these 15 examples of standout wagons gone bad.
Volvo 850 T-5R and 850 R
Let’s start with Volvo. If there was ever a marque known for making boring family wagons, Volvo is it. That’s not to say their wagons are bad cars; they're safe, hugely dependable, and the 200 series had a trunk big enough to land a Boeing 747. But it wasn’t until the introduction of the 850 series that Volvo decided to spice things up. Taking advantage of their involvement in some touring car racing series in mid-1990s, they introduced the 850 T-5R in 1995, which then became the 850 R (sold from 1996-1997). The great thing about these cars is that they sounded a lot like Audi Quattros, because they came equipped with turbocharged, 2.3-litre five-cylinder engines – with the T-5R having 225hp and the 850 R having 250hp. They were fast, and Volvo were finally able to show that they too knew how to bring fun to the family man.
Audi S and RS wagons
It doesn’t really matter which hot Audi wagon you get, if it has an S or RS badge you’re probably going to have a great time. But if we were to narrow it down to personal preference, I would of course go for one with a V8 engine, preferably the B7 RS4 (2006-2008). It came with Audi’s fantastic high-revving 4.2-litre V8 producing 420hp, and as standard came with a six-speed manual transmission as well as Quattro all-wheel drive. But you wont be short-changed if you went for its B5 predecessor, which is equipped with a twin-turbo V6 engine producing a healthy 381hp. Also, if you’re in to modifying your cars, the B5 RS4 seems to be quite popular in the tuning community as well.
Mercedes Benz AMG wagons
When it comes to Mercedes Benz wagons gone bad, none captures the heart more so than the C63 AMG. Mercedes Benz’s in-house tuning firm has managed to transform what is essentially a relatively compact car into a mean little hot rod. It has a massive 6.2-litre V8 engine, and its 457hp is enough performance to wipe away any of that boring family car vibe. Then there’s the way it sounds; there are muscle cars that don’t sound anywhere near as angry as this. But other AMG wagons are quite cool too, like the CLS 63 AMG Shooting Brake, but it does cost a lot of money (a new one has a starting price of over 122,000 euros in Germany). Early C63 AMG wagons on the other hand – with around 85,000km – can be had for around 28,000 euros in Germany.
Dodge Magnum SRT8
The Dodge Magnum was only around for four years, selling from 2004 to 2008. Unfortunately it fell victim to the financial crisis of 2008, so the Chrysler Group decided to cut its losses. As odd-looking and as slow-selling as it was, in the correct colour and wheel combination there was no denying that it had a certain cool, sinister vibe to it. It even featured in several popular urban music videos of the mid-2000s, including anthems like “How we do” by The Game. However, it’s the SRT8 with the big 6.1-litre Hemi V8 that I’d go for. You get 425hp, 420lb-ft of torque, a comfortable ride, and the ability to shred its rear tyres with ease as standard. The kids should find that very entertaining.
Subaru Impreza WRX wagon (2nd generation)
The second generation Subaru Impreza WRX wagon easily made it to this list. It came out in 2000 with big round headlamps, making it known within the automotive community as the “bug-eye” Impreza. It was facelifted in 2003 (as shown above) then again in 2005, with production ending in 2007. The wagon did not make a return for the third generation Impreza. For the European market, you initially got a turbocharged 2.0-litre boxer engine with 218hp, which was then modified to produce 224hp in 2003, and then 230hp in 2005 with the engine having grown to 2.5-litres. A five-speed manual transmission was standard. The Subaru Impreza WRX wagon in many ways seems to be the perfect car on paper: it’s fast and at the same time decent on fuel, they’re practical, it’s got a nice distinctive exhaust note, it has all-wheel drive so it should keep going even when the surface gets a bit slippery, and they’re cheap.
Mitsubishi Lancer EVO IX wagon
You can’t mention Subaru without at least mentioning Mitsubishi, specifically the Lancer EVO IX wagon. Yes that’s right, Mitsubishi made a wagon for the 9th version of its nutty road-going rally car. They only made 2,500 examples of these though, and it was only sold in Japan so it is quite a rare car – I’ve never even seen one in person. Also, the Lancer EVO IX was more of an Impreza STI rival rather than the softer WRX, so you got more performance than the Subaru wagon. Power was provided – as usual – by a turbocharged, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine producing 291hp and 392Nm of torque, sending power through a six-speed manual transmission (five-speed automatics were optional) and high performance all-wheel drive system.
Skoda Octavia Combi vRS
The Skoda Octavia Combi vRS is probably the sleepiest of sleeper wagons, but vRS badges, big wheels and aggressive looking bumpers suggest to the unsuspecting that there’s more to what meets the eye. The vRS has been around for all three generations of Octavias, with the first one appearing in 2001. The vRS has always made use of Volkswagen Golf GTI engines, the first one having a turbocharged 1.8-litre engine with180hp, while the current one now has a 2.0-litre engine with 220hp (a 2.0-litre diesel with 181hp is optional). The result of this is a wagon that has the driving characteristics of a hot hatch, which makes it incredibly appealing to car geeks all over. The best part is they’re just as affordable as their Golf GTI cousins, so they make a lot of financial sense. Normally, being sensible with car purchases means settling for something that’s not much fun. The Octavia Combi vRS is that rare exception.
BMW M5 (E61) and M550d x-Drive Touring
These two BMW wagons are absolutely mad; one has three turbos while the other has a V10 engine. The M550d is probably the world’s quickest diesel wagon, and the first ever road car to have three turbochargers. Thanks to this you get an impressive 740Nm of torque from its 3.0-litre engine and a healthy 380hp, all this while using a claimed 5.5l/100km on the highway. But if you’re not that bothered about turbocharging or diesel engines, then the E61 M5 Touring was home to one of the best high-revving, naturally aspirated engines ever made, a 5.0-litre V10 with 507hp. There’s nothing more spectacular than seeing a station wagon going nice and sideways in a nicely controlled drift, which the E61 M5 was only happy to do. It also has a very nice exhaust note, and with a full aftermarket exhaust system it sounds like pure evil.
The 1955 Chevy Bel Air was quite a popular car in its day, but the same can’t really be said for its two-door station wagon equivalent, the Nomad. It’s not that the Nomad was a bad car, it’s just that the market for two-door wagons wasn’t that big in the mid-1950s, and as a result it was was only around from 1955 to 1957. The Nomad name did come back in 1958, but as a trim level on the new four-door Bel Air wagon. The Nomad had a small-block 265 cubic-inch (4.3-litre) V8, and in 1957 it came with a 283 cubic-inch (4.6-litre) V8, with fuel injection available as an option. Fast-forward to the 21st century and the Nomad is quite the popular choice for hot rodders, and it shows in their prices. One in rough condition can still fetch around $15,000, whereas one in good working condition can fetch more than $30,000. A fully restored hot rod can cost well over $50,000. It doesn’t get as much attention as the Bel Air coupe, but it is just as cool. And with a limitless choice of Chevy small- and big-block engines, they can be transformed to the ultimate hot rodder’s dream.
Alfa Romeo 156 GTA Sportwagon
A V6 engine is not particularly my favourite type of engine, but there’s something about an Italian-made V6 that makes one just that bit more appealing. Italy knows how to make a great-sounding V6 engine, cars from the 1960s Ferrari Dino to this Alfa Romeo 156 GTA Sportwagon just sound a lot healthier and happier than the ones found in the average family hauler. It doesn’t end with the sound either, the look of the 156 GTA’s engine itself is fantastic. Its nicely polished intake runners making it look like it belongs in a mid-engined sports car rather than your regular runabout. You get 250hp and 300Nm of torque from its 3.2-litre engine, and a great looking-yet-affordable car that comes along with it.
Cadillac CTS-V Sport Wagon
Cadillac had a bit of an image problem before the first CTS-V arrived in 2004. For some reason a lot of Cadillacs were bought by senior citizens, and they were very often referred to as vehicles of choice for retirees in Florida. In order to make the brand more appealing to a wider audience, they slot in a 400hp Chevrolet Corvette motor in the CTS sedan and gave it a six-speed manual! It was a hit, and with the second-generation CTS-V, a wagon and coupe were made available as well. This time it made use of a supercharged 6.2-litre V8 with 556hp that was closely related to the engine found in the C6 Corvette ZR1, and a six-speed automatic transmission was now optional. This was probably the first fast wagon to come out of the United States probably since the muscle car era of the 1960s, which in itself makes it worthy of praise.
Volkswagen Passat R36 Estate
The Volkswagen Passat to this day is still not the most exciting car on the market, but there have been versions that have tried to change that. The R36 is the one that immediately comes to mind, and yes a wagon was made too. The Volkswagen VR6 engine first made its appearance in the early 1990s as a 2.8-litre unit, and over time was made available in various sizes including the 3.6-litre unit found in the Passat R36. The VR6 engines are among Volkswagen’s most iconic engines, they’re right up there with the boxer engines that powered millions of Beetles and Type 2 vans. The R36's 300hp sounds good too, and although a Passat R36 is set to understeer quite a bit when you approach the limit, it makes an otherwise ordinary ride to a reasonably fun one.
Vauxhall VXR8 Tourer
The UK and Australia (sold as the HSV Clubsport R8 Tourer) are the only countries that were lucky enough to have this Corvette-engined family brute. Equipped with the 431hp 6.2-litre V8 from the C6 Corvette, the VXR8 was probably one of the most exciting fast wagons you could buy. It came standard with a six-speed manual transmission and a limited-slip differential, and getting the big Vauxhall in a nice sideways drift is easy. Despite the big powerful engine, its forgiving handling characteristics gave you confidence to drive with enthusiasm. If you could live with the Vauxhall badge and a cheap-ish interior (albeit well-equipped), then you’ll be living with not just one of the most fun wagons, but one of the most fun cars you could buy.
Jaguar XFR-S Sportbrake
This is the car for the gentleman and his family. It is also the car for the person who wants something different to the obvious premium brand choices that are the Mercedes Benz E63 AMG, Audi RS6, or BMW M5. The Jaguar XFR-S Sportbrake is powered by a 5.0-litre supercharged V8 with 550hp, sending it through an eight-speed automatic transmission to the rear wheels. It’s the same engine found in the beautiful F-Type R, but it’s more refined in the Sportbrake. It handles really well despite being a heavy car at nearly two tonnes, and being a rarer sight than its German competitors makes it that bit more desirable.
Ford Mondeo ST 220 wagon
Finally but definitely not least, is the Ford Mondeo ST 220 wagon. This is very similar in concept to the Skoda Octavia vRS, in that it is based on a very unassuming car. The main difference here is that this manages to stand out by being a bit more purposeful in its appearance, thanks to a more aggressive-looking body kit, big sporty wheels, and Recaro leather seats for the interior. It makes use of a 3.0-litre Duratec V6 engine that produces 226hp, and is connected to a very slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission sending power to the front wheels. The Mondeo ST220 is also one of the cheapest performance cars available in the second-hand market. In Switzerland you can have one for as little as CHF 4,500 showing around 155,000km on the odometer. This car shows that as long as you do proper research, you can have plenty of fun with a modest budget.
Written by Alex Kisiri