A few weeks ago, we headed up to Los Angeles for one of the better reasons to make a trip up there – the annual LA Auto Show. It’s a pretty strange experience – walking through a carpeted parking lot full of nearly every car currently made, all of which you can take a seat in and see if they fit your liking. Whether you are in to 500+ horsepower leather-lined rockets, massive luxury trucks that weigh more than some domiciles, or the humble 3 cylinder subcompacts, everything is represented. Fear not, as we’re here to sort out the mess of the current automotive landscape for you!
Before we go jumping into any specific suggestions, I come bearing a very exciting piece of news: the wagon is cool again! Or at least, it’s about to be. To understand why, we have to consider how generational car preferences are. Consider the irony of the current flock of 30-somethings, all of whom inevitably swore they’d never drive anything as dorky as the minivan of their childhood. No, these people are too cool, active, and adventuresome for that. But hey, got to have room for all of Jimmy’s soccer balls and baseball bats, right? Oh, and wouldn’t it be nice to have 5 extra seats so we can take the team out for pizza? These poor souls stroll over to their local dealer and walk out with a soft-roader that has as much ground clearance as a morbidly obese house cat. But not to poke too much fun at these guys – they’re just doing what we’ve always done.
The truth is, these things go in cycles. All of the body styles above have been around in some form for a long while now, and all have enjoyed moments in the spotlight. The wagon is of particular interest, as it has been in a popularity drought for a long time now. They’re back on the way in – just take a look at all the young hip couples swooping up VW TDI wagons in whatever area of your town has the most MacBooks in its coffee shops. This is great news, because wagons are cheaper to buy, cheaper to run, faster, more environmentally friendly, better to look at, and more comfortable than the rest of this practical lot – all while being just as commodious. So don’t go buy a cute-ute when they’ve already reached their coolness peak. Check out the below instead.
5. Subaru Impreza
If you said “but I want my crossover because it has four-wheel drive”, here’s your answer. Believe it or not, this feature is available in other types of cars too! Subaru popularized four-wheel drive in the small wagon, and they’ve recently made it much more appealing by updating their engine to get more reasonable fuel economy. An Impreza Wagon now clocks in at 31 Combined MPG, and there’s enough grunt to get you where you’re going. These things have gotten a lot bigger in the last few years, so the Impreza should be big enough for most. The Outback is now large enough to take up a not insignificant portion of the actual Australian outback. If you need more oomph, the wagon variant of the rally-inspired WRX should return in the next year or two, but no dice for now.
If you like camping and want to do a bit of off-roading, the Impreza-based XV Crosstek offers nearly the same fuel economy, but with ground clearance better than anything this side of a Toyota FJ.
4. Mazda CX-5
If you read through the above and you are still thinking to yourself that you prefer the higher ride and butcher style of an SUV, and its impending uncoolness doesn’t phase you, then I present you the Mazda CX-5. As far as SUV’s go, you could do a lot worse. The thing is, 95% of these things won’t see more than a freshly-grated dirt road in their lifetime. Of the 5% that do see worse, a few extra inches of ground clearance is more than enough to take you up very rough Forrest Service roads for reaching trail heads or a campsite. The Mazda CX-5 can do all of these SUV things, and you can even have it with a manual if you live without the all wheel drive.
3. Mazda 3
I’d prefer this to the CX-5 however. They’re similar, but the 3 will be cheaper to buy and run, more fun to drive, be faster, and provide essentially the same practicality. For 2015, the 184 horsepower 4-cylinder can be had with a manual. That might not sound a lot, but consider that a BMW 528i has to move around an additional pound per horsepower. If that amount of power is good for someone paying $55k, you’ll be grinning ear to ear for having paid well less than half of that. If speed demon economy cars aren’t your thing, stick with the plenty powerful 2.0 liter engine and get 40 mpg on the highway, a number that will have hybrids from just a few years ago blushing. Also, I’d say it’s quite a looker, especially for a car that starts way under $20k.
2. VW Jetta Sportwagen TDI
If you want the efficiency and luxury peak of this list, look no further than here. While a diesel-powered VW wagon might not sound particularly exciting, the devil is in the details here. The engine offers 46 mpg on the highway (into the 50’s if you believe owner’s tales on the web), but diesel torque allows passing power that other frugal cars could only dream of. That will all last for 750 miles (a.k.a. San Diego to Salt Lake City), because they’ve bothered to fit an actual gas tank rather than a juice box, as they do most cars this size. You can row your own gears, as you might have expected in a car that made it this far up the list. Inside, you’ll be riding in an Audi-quality interior, bathed in soft sunlight from the 5 foot long skylight if you so choose. Need to hall something? Fold down the back seats and enjoy 6 feet of uninterrupted cargo room, one more foot than you get in a Tacoma. Is there a downside? Well, VW’s reliability reputation and service costs aren’t the best on the list, and the popularity of TDI models mean you can’t necessarily make up for that with a good deal on a used example.
1. Ford Focus ST
You might be surprised to see a domestic on the top of the list. The truth is that the current generation Focus was born out of Europe rather than the USA, thanks to Ford’s now global product development scheme. So we start with a firm, sporty chassis under the practical hatchback shell. 252 snarling, turbocharged horses are shoehorned into the engine bay, which are reigned in exclusively by a manual transmission. This combo will get you a zero-to-sixty time of under 6 seconds, while still allowing well over 30 mpg on the highway. Inside, you sit in some of the best seats currently available in any car, for any price. You can take my word for that – I butt-tested everything at the auto show. They’re developed out of house by Recaro, who’s products you might also find in Porsches, the Nissan GT-R, and various aircraft. Heated leather seats, a moonroof, and great smartphone-enabled electronics are also on offer. If going fast is part of your personal idea of adventure, but you don’t want to compromise your car as a result of that, this is the one to get. I’m eagerly awaiting Ford-style depreciation to take hold, so I can pick up a lightly used one for four figures in a few years. Note to self: not in the color pictured above.