Coolest wagons of the 21st century

Wagons are cool. If you’re struggling to understand how I can possibly think that, the rest of this list is going to be a struggle.

Admittedly, there was a time when wagons were most definitely not cool. Vast family land yachts like the Ford Country Squire or Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser cemented the wagon’s status as depressing family transport. Clark Griswald’s Wagon Queen Family Truckster made them a punch line. Minivans and then big SUVs made them extinct. And extinct they are.

To be clear, those are not the wagons we’re talking about. 

Over in Europe, the wagon or “estate car” if you’re British, continued to flourish. These were smaller, “long-roof” versions of compact and midsize sedans. They drove just as well as their sedan counterparts but provided superior cargo space and versatility. True, we got some of them over here in the 1990s along with comparable examples like the Ford Taurus, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry wagons. Things really started to pick up in the 21st century, though, even as the number of available wagons continued to dwindle. That’s because carmakers increasingly started applying the high-performance engine and chassis upgrades of sport sedan models to their wagon counterparts. This seemingly oxymoronic fusion of max fun and max practicality is probably why car enthusiasts love them so much. That they are better to drive and often just as practical as high-performance SUVs are another feather in their cap. 

While we’re pretty sure every wagon sold in the 21st century is at least somewhat cool (we welcome your examples to the contrary), there are definitely ones that are cooler than others. Most are those max fun versions, be it in terms of high-performance or occasionally off-road prowess. It’s also important to boldly state the following: We’re only considering those wagons sold in the United States. As much as we’d love to call out wagon versions of the V10-powered M5, Mercedes C63, Volkswagen Golf R and various Audi RS models, plus the beautiful Alfa Romeo 159 and any number of hot Subarus from Japan, we wanted to keep things local so maybe, just maybe, this can inspire an actual car purchase. 

Every Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG

Big power, big space. The Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG has been delivering that since the ball dropped on the new millennium. OK, so the AMG version of the E-Class wagon was originally dubbed the E55 AMG due to its smaller-displacement supercharged V8 and then the Mercedes-AMG E 63 because Mercedes decided to futz around with its naming order. In any event, they’ve all been sensational.

Special attention goes to the original, S211 generation E63 AMG, which swapped that E55 V8 for one of the coolest, snarliest V8s of all time: the 6.2-liter AMG V8. That marvel would live on in the greatly superior S212 generation (above in silver with the German plates) for only a handful of years before a downsized turbocharged V8 replaced it. Today’s AMG E 63, pictured above in blue, has an even smaller displacement V8, but it’s the most powerful yet with 603 horsepower.

Some have made better noises than others (the 6.2-liter, no question), but all have been great to drive and, get this, have seating for seven. That’s right, it has an old-fashioned, rear-facing third-row seat that pops up from the cargo floor. 

 

BMW 540i (E39 or 1999-2003) 

The E39 BMW 5 Series is widely considered the quintessential sport sedan. Possibly THE best sport sedan. Logic would therefore dictate that the 5 Series Touring is the quintessential sport wagon, right? Well, not quite, but it’s still a damn fine example of the breed. The trouble, if you could call it that, was powertrain combinations. First of all, there was no E39 M5 Touring, which is a tragedy (the following generation would get an M5 wagon, but it wasn’t sold here).

That meant the zestiest 5 Series Touring was the 540i with its 4.0-liter V8 good for 282 or 290 hp depending on model year. Great, but unlike the 540i sedan, you couldn’t get it with a manual transmission. Booo! That doesn’t mean rowing your own wasn’t a possibility. For 1999 and 2000, you could get the 528i and its 193-hp 2.8-liter inline-six paired with a five-speed manual transmission. Yay! Sadly, the 528i was discontinued for 2001 and the succeeding 530i was never offered in the Touring. Booo!

Taking its place as the entry-level 5 Touring was the 525i. You could get it with the manual, and they do in fact pop up with some frequency these days on auction sites. Unfortunately, its 2.5-liter inline-six might have made basically the same power as the old 2.8, but it produced only 181 lb-ft of torque, a 26 lb-ft drop. It was subsequently quite slow, meaning you were/are left with the choice of fast-but-auto, or manual-but-slow. At the very least, you’ll be treated to the same exceptional E39 chassis and classic good looks. 

 

Cadillac CTS-V

Cadillac made its fame producing grand luxury sedans, coupes and convertibles the size of Connecticut. Then it became something your grandpa drove. So when Cadillac decided to sell a fire-breathing, V8-powered monster of a BMW M5 fighter … well, it was a change in direction. There was almost an irony to the CTS-V. That Cadillac sold it as a wagon, and with a manual no less, almost felt like a joke. Even those, like us, who thought it was the best thing ever had to admit we thought it was crazy that Cadillac was actually making the thing. Values on these suckers will only go up as the years go on. You can read our first drive of the CTS-V Wagon here from way back in the day.

 

Audi RS6 Avant

This is one of the greatest cars on sale today. Giant power, razor-sharp handling, ample practicality and killer looks. And by “killer” I mean both “excellent” and “looks like a professional killer from a movie would look right driving it.” That Audi chose to sell this RS6 Avant in the United States, in seemingly the dying days of of wagondom, when it chose not to for previous generations is equal parts inspired and perplexing. Whatever, we love it. Maybe not as much as the E 63, but really, comparing those two was like trying to rank your children. You could, but you ultimately do love’em both.

 

Volvo V70 R (2004-2007)

One word: spaceball! No, not the Mel Brooks spoof, but the unique manual transmission shifter found in the most-desirable versions of arguably the hottest Volvo wagon (another one on this list might have something to say about that). The spaceball shifter was basically a shifter with metal-look shift boot that moved with the stick, rather than a stick that moved around shrouded in a leather shift boot. It’s extremely cool. More things should have a spaceball.

The rest of the V70 R wagon was rad, too, with its standard all-wheel-drive and big turbo power. Its body add-ons, blue gauges and unique interior colors (Atacama brown or Nordkap blue) clearly differentiated it from sedate V70s.

The previous-generation V70 R was sold in the year 2000, and I guess I could’ve included it, but as it just snuck into the century, I felt OK simply leaving it here as an honorable mention.

 

Subaru Outback Wilderness

And now for something completely different. A cool wagon doesn’t have to achieve its coolness with performance upgrades that align it with their sport sedan siblings. The Outback Wilderness goes in the exact opposite direction, going beyond the Outback’s usual off-road capability with all-terrain tires, beefy roof rails, meaner styling and an absurdly high lift that eclipses the vast majority of SUVs. It can go almost anywhere, and that’s cool. Of course, if it had bigger power, we wouldn’t complain.

 

Dodge Magnum

Speaking of big power, the Dodge Magnum R/T packed a good, old-fashion Hemi V8 under its blocky hood packing 340 hp. The Magnum SRT8 had a bigger Hemi good for 425 hp. Either way, nothing like lightin’em up on the way to school. While its Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger platformates would live on with multiple updates, the Magnum only lasted a single generation. Jerks. There assuredly would’ve been a Magnum SRT 392 Scat Pack Widebody Daytona by now available in purple, orange and slime green. So sad.

 

Saab 9-3 Turbo X Sport Combi

This is probably the best car on this list no one has ever heard of. Or at least ever seen, as Saab sold only about 250 in America. But damn it, I not only saw one, but drove one when it was new, and it was shockingly good. I can still recall the sharp, feelsome steering; exceptional road holding courtesy a sport-tuned suspension, Haldex all-wheel-drive system and eLSD; and characterful snarl of its 2.8-liter 280-hp V6. Up to 90% of that power could go to the rear, by the way, thanks to that Haldex AWD.

It also looked great (black only, BTW), and although the back seat was small compared to the BMW and Audi wagons of the time, the cargo area was much bigger. The earlier 9-3 Viggen gets more attention, but this was much much better.

 

Audi S4 Avant (B5 and B6)

The first S4 Avant sold in this country remains one of my all-time wagon favorites, a classic design that looks just as good today (especially in yellow) as it did when new. Its bi-turbo V6 was a clear upgrade over the turbo-four and 2.8-liter V6 engines of lesser A4 Avants, but the real artillery showed up for the second, B6 generation S4 Avant that packed a 339-hp 4.2-liter V8. Also found in the S4 sedan and S5 coupe, I can still hear the deep, guttural rumble for this engine. There was a reason we were all sad when Audi went to a supercharged six-cylinder. Oh, and of course, you could get it with a manual.

 

Subaru WRX Wagon

This was the first WRX to make it stateside. While its original “Bug Eye” face was very controversial at the time, resulting in two facelifts during its generation, I think it’s actually aged the best. Also, raise your hand if this is the body style you think of when someone says “first Subaru WRX.” I know I do. Sadly, this was the first and only WRX wagon. The next-generation was a hatchback, which I suppose is better than the two subsequent sedan-only generations, but still isn’t as cool as a wagon. 

Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Saab 9-2X, which was basically a WRX wagon in a fancy-ish Swedish suit. I always considered that a very sad and bizarre example of badge engineering that foreshadowed Saab’s ignominious end. In other words, I did not think it was cool. There is definitely something to be said, though, for two of the world’s quirkiest car brands coming together. Jim Halpert from “The Office” owned one, too. 

 

Volvo V50 T5 R-Design

You know the first-generation Mazda3? Brilliant to drive, so too was the mechanically related second-generation Ford Focus we never got here. Well, the Volvo V50 was on the same brilliant platform, albeit with a lot more polish. Driving it felt like a Mazda3 that had all its primary controls coated in a thin layer of marshmallow to make things just a bit smoother, quieter and more refined. It was great! Timeless design, too, especially inside with its floating center stack that still looks fresh today. The coolest of the V50s was the T5 R-Design, which had the bigger engine and R-Design style flourishes. Getting red recommended. And the manual.

 

Volkswagen Passat W8

“So let me get this straight. You’ve spliced two narrow-angle V-4 engines together into a crazy-pants W formation?”
“Yes.”
“And this is to pack eight cylinders into cars that normally couldn’t stuff that many inside?”
“Yes.”
“And one of those cars is going to be the wagon version of your midsize family sedan?”
“Yes.”
“Okey dokey. Don’t suppose you’re also offering it with a manual, cause at this point, how could it get any wackier?”
“It couldn’t. It’s just that wacky. Enjoy!”

 

Audi Allroad Quattro (1999-2005)

At the same time that parent company Volkswagen was out back smoking something fierce while concocting the Passat W8 Wagon, Audi was creating something far more ahead of its time: a off-roading wagon. OK, so Subaru came up with the idea. No wait, AMC did. Whatever, the Allroad Quattro took the timelessly handsome A6 Avant (C5 generation), gave it some body cladding and bigger tires, stiffened the chassis, added low range to the Torsen-based Quattro all-wheel-drive system, and allowed it to achieve 8 inches of ground clearance thanks to an adjustable air suspension. It could also lower the Allroad to 6 inches and stiffen the spring and damper rates for better on-road handling.

Sure, that air suspension has almost certainly been a near-constant headache for every owner, many of whom have swapped it for a fixed suspension, but it was definitely cool. So too was what was underhood: either the 2.7-liter twin-turbo V6, or starting in 2003, the 4.2-liter V8. You couldn’t get either in the regular A6 Avant. This is an extremely cool wagon. 

 

Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo and GTS Sport Turismo

I drove the Taycan GTS Sport Turismo up L.A.’s famed Angeles Crest Highway on the way to driving it to Willow Springs Raceway. As I emerged from the twisty bits, I took a contemplative deep breath and asked myself, “Is this the best car I’ve ever driven?” The subsequent laps on aforementioned raceway did nothing to dissuade that answer from being, “Yeah, I think it might be.” Now, is the Sport Turismo much of a wagon in terms of added utility? Not really, but it is literally a wagon and it’s extremely cool. Fewer points go to the other Taycan wagon models, dubbed Cross Turismo, which have body cladding and a minuscule lift to achieve a sort of Taycan Outback vibe. That’s a bit lame, though the car itself remains cool.

 

Volvo V60 T8 Polestar Engineered

The best modern Volvos are either wagons or plug-in hybrids. Alas, there is only one model that combines those two bests together: the V60 T8 Polestar Engineered. While it’s a crime this expensive, low-volume version is the only way to get a long-roof PHEV from Volvo, it’s nevertheless a very cool wagon. It’s the most performance-oriented V60 available, and in fact, the only performance-oriented Volvo wagon available now. Not only do you enjoy some all-electric range and the power afforded by the PHEV powertrain, you get chassis upgrades engineered by Polestar (hey, it’s right there in the name!). Before it was a stand-alone purveyor of EVs, Polestar was Volvo’s tuning firm, a sort of equivalent to old-school AMG or still-school Alpina. It did good work here.

 

Lexus IS 300 Sportcross

At the turn of the century, fuddy-duddy Lexus needed to add some youthful sizzle to its lineup and present an answer to all these cool sport sedans coming out of Germany. Thankfully, there’s a whole whack of stuff Toyota sells in Japan that could always come in from the bullpen (also see Scion), so voila, the Toyota Altezza became the Lexus IS 300. It was a rear-wheel-drive compact sedan that was reasonably sporty and had those sweet clear taillights we were all gaga for. Good enough! Of course, there was also an Altezza wagon, so someone at Lexus USA must’ve shrugged their shoulders, gone “what the hell?”, and sent a ship over to bring back a few to sell as the IS 300 Sportcross. No, not a wagon, that would be uncool and bereft of youthful sizzle. A Sportcross. Whatever it’s called, it’s one of the coolest Lexuseses of all time.  

 

Saab 9-5 Aero Sport Combi

Perhaps this is stretching the definition of cool, but I think the hottest version of the Saab 9-5 Sport Combi is cool, and I’m putting together the damn list. Besides, check out those wheels! And the fighter jet! Saab! Oh, how I miss thee. The 9-5 would get really unfortunate as the years dragged on, but in the beginning, you could get the Aero seen here packing a 2.3-liter turbo inline-four good for either 230 or 250 horsepower depending on year. And yeah, you could get it with a manual. That combo, much like the other Saab on this list, is obviously super-rare, but if I could find one, I’d happily give it the good, quirky home it deserves.

 

BMW 3 Series Wagon

Admittedly, there’s not really one in particular to call out here. Partly that’s because BMW never fully committed to making these as cool as they could be. The first 3er wagon to show up stateside belonged to the famed E46 generation (it was literally the E46/3 and dubbed the “Touring”), a totally brilliant car in every body style. You got the looks, the chassis and even the manual (a five-speed, but still) with the wagon, but BMW only sent over the smallest engine available in America, the 2.5-liter inline-six. That trend would continue with the next-generation, the E91 “Sports Wagon”, although the smallest engine was at least the burlier 2.8-liter and you could get it with the six-speed manual. Still, no 3.0-liter turbo-six and no M3 (though folks have DIY’d them).

The final 3 wagon showed the most potential with its available M Sport package that made it look hot, especially in Melbourne Red or Estoril Blue pictured above. You could once again get it as the 328i, which was now a perfectly cromulent four-cylinder turbo, but now added was the spunky turbodiesel 328d. Alas, the manual was cut.

And then, for this most recent generation, the Sports Wagon was cut altogether for the United States even though it lives on elsewhere. The worst part? There’s finally an M3 version! You can’t see it, but there’s a middle finger being raised in the direction of Munich.

 

Reference

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