Last updateTue, 19 Sep 2017 5pm

On The Road

The new station wagons: Kia Sportage, Subaru Outback crossovers fill niche

If you're old enough to remember Woodstock and the Summer of Love, then you will also remember the big and ungainly - but roomy and practical - station wagons that anchored the not-so-sporty end of every automobile manufacturer's lineup in the 1950s and 1960s.

With a little bit of creative packing and liberal use of the roof rack, dad could pack all the suitcases of vacation clothes that mom had assembled, yet still find space for a metal cooler, a butane stove and miscellaneous camping equipment and essential toys. And once all that was loaded, there was still enough room for three kids to ride comfortably to that rented cottage on the lake for the annual vacation.

As gas prices rose in the 1970s, these behemoths built on sedan frames disappeared from the market, and it was only when sport-utility vehicles emerged that the same basic needs could be satisfied - but at a price. Although the new Godzillas of the highway had the same space as the old station wagons and put the driver back up on a reasonable level to contend with the freighters of the asphalt ocean, the SUV was even more ungainly and dangerous than the old station wagons. And it got terrible mileage.

As gas prices continued to rise and our generation aged - making climbing into these vehicles more difficult and the hard ride less tolerable - the auto industry has responded with a new solution. Crossing the configuration and elevation of the SUV body with the ride comfort and handling of the sedan chassis, the "crossover" has been created. The station wagon has been reborn.

This past month, we drove two good examples of this new breed: the Kia Sportage and the Subaru Outback XT. These two wagons are of similar size, fill similar needs and have similar fuel economy ratings, but they have vastly different price points.

The competent but hardly luxurious Kia Sportage features a 2.7-liter, 173-horsepower V-6 engine with four-speed automatic transmission and full-time four-wheel drive. Equipped with the optional sport package and standard conveniences, it's priced at $22,775 (with destination charges).

The upscale Subaru Outback XT Limited comes with a 2.5-liter turbocharged H4 engine putting out 250 horsepower. Featuring a five-speed automatic transmission, symmetrical all-wheel drive, navigation system and optional XM satellite radio, it sells for $35,619.

Both wagons offer about 25 cubic feet of luggage space behind the rear seat, bigger than nearly any sedan on the market. With the rear seat down, they boast nearly 65 cubic feet of cargo space, the equivalent of most of the typical SUVs on the market.

Although mileage is hardly in the economy category that can be achieved by most sedans today, both brands are rated at 18-19 mpg city and 23-24 mpg highway, which will certainly beat any of the full-sized SUVs.

Why the big difference in price between these two brands and models? It comes down to you get what you pay for.

We liked the Kia and thought it was good value for the money, but it doesn't make any effort to pretend to be a luxury vehicle. Instead, the practical vinyl and plastic of the interior gives a good, functional feeling appropriate to the utilitarian exterior appearance. Though the Kia is equipped with a V-6 engine, which does give a smooth and quiet ride, the Sportage is hardly what you'd call sporty. It can handle highway speeds, but you'll need to plan ahead to merge into fast traffic.

On the other hand, the leather and fancy interior trim in the Outback - which has really gone upmarket since the first-generation version was introduced - is appropriate to its mid-$30,000 price point. A navigation system was standard on the XT Limited we tested.

The Outback has a typical H4 Subaru engine (turbocharging takes it up to 250 horsepower), which gives it performance that might even be called peppy - at least relative to other crossover wagons. The handling is responsive and pleasant.

What do you sacrifice if you opt for one of these wagons or the several other comparable models on the market? Mostly, you'll give up raw power, so don't expect to tow your boat or horse trailer. The Kia is rated to tow a 2,000-pound trailer and the Subaru can handle 2,700 pounds. That isn't a lot, but it would be enough to handle a snowmobile or wave runner, or a small utility trailer for camping equipment.

On the other hand, both of these cars offer four-wheel drive and have good ground clearance, so a foray up a dirt road to a remote fishing hole or campsite isn't going to leave you stuck in the mud.

And unlike the experience with an SUV, you'll have the ride comfort, quiet transportation and easy handling of a sedan on the streets and highways. Instead of wishing the journey would be over, you'll look forward to a run up the twists of Route 1 to Mendocino or the turns of Highway 49 in the Gold Country, where the journey is certainly part of the pleasure of the trip.

There's no question that the American automobile buying public was not amused when the imposition of fleet mileage standards in the 1970s resulted in the introduction of compact sedans that gave up space and substance in pursuit of fuel economy. We missed our big old sedans and station wagons, so in response the industry offered us hulking sport-utility vehicles built on truck chassis. While we got the space and ride height we wanted, we paid the price in weight and miles per gallon.

Now, with these new crossovers filling the niche that the station wagon once occupied, the industry seems to have found the right answer. If you've got a family to haul around and want some space for luggage or the occasional Saturday morning trip to the big-box store, crossovers are an attractive answer. And we like the version of the answer offered by Subaru and Kia.

Gary and Genie Anderson, Los Altos residents for more than 20 years, are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits MC Squared, the MINI magazine, and contributes articles and columns to a variety of other automobile magazines.

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