Last updateWed, 18 Oct 2017 10am

On The Road

Station wagon revival

courtesy of Audi
The Audi A7 TDI quattro features a powerful diesel engine with 438 pound-feet of torque, yet the car still manages nearly 30 mpg.

There was a time when large families bought station wagons to haul around the kids, run errands and take road trips. The popular body style – four doors on a front-end that looked like the sedans in the company’s lineup, only with an extended rear cargo area, hatch and tailgate – was the icon of suburbia.

Minivans and sport-utility vehicles essentially replaced these wagons – American consumers would have been hard put to find one in a showroom 10 years ago.

That’s changing, however. Hatchbacks have made their comeback on small, practical economy cars, and the same styling is emerging on full-sized automobiles. Especially at the luxury end, cars from Europe – where the wagon never disappeared – are coming to the U.S. market with lines much sleeker than the old wagons but still with that utilitarian fifth door in the rear.

We drove two of them in the past month – the Audi A7 TDI quattro and the Porsche Panamera 4S. Just for comparison, we also drove the E-Class from Mercedes-Benz, a company that has yet to design a full-sized, five-door hatchback. We were impressed with the all-around utility of these cars, as well as by their performance and luxury. We think they may be even a better choice for families than the larger, heavier SUVs they can replace.

Porsche Panamera

Starting from the top of both the horsepower and price range, it is almost hard to believe that the imposing Porsche Panamera could come from a company that made its reputation producing small, lithe, rear-engined sports cars. In fact, the one commonality between the Panamera and the 911 or the Cayman – the distinctive smooth humped profile – is actually perhaps the only drawback in the package. The car just looks ungainly.

But you can’t see that from the driver’s seat. Instead, you are surrounded by the harmony of the high-end interior, which looks as if designer Thomas Britt had redone a fighter-plane cockpit. Not only does the rear hatch offer a convenient way to load in luggage or cargo, but it also provides another perspective from which to admire the interior design.

Our only problem with the interior design was that the two rear passengers feel as if they’re in an airplane cockpit because the console extends down between them. It is nice, however, to have a full set of heating and air-conditioning controls and vents – as well as seat heating, cooling and position controlled from the stylish buttons on the rear console.

The impression of smooth, attractive luxury is only the curtain raiser to what this car feels like underway. Now we remember: Porsches were not admired for their attractive design when they were first introduced, but rather for their responsive handling. Even if this vehicle weighs half a ton more than a sports car, its engineers have given it all the same feeling of confident, quick handling that one might expect from a true racing machine. How much of that feeling comes from the all-wheel drive and how much from the Porsche suspension? Only its engineers would know for sure.

Fuel efficiency, at 20 mpg combined, isn’t anything to brag about. However, at this price level, it isn’t how many miles you get to the gallon that matters but rather how far you can drive before you have to fill it up again – and that’s no problem.

With the turbocharged V6 engine, denoted by the “S” on the trunk lid, cranking out 420 horsepower, the car responds to the throttle as quickly as it does to the steering wheel. It’s clear that this car was bred for the German autobahns and Nürburgring race course.

Of course, the one other factor is the price. We don’t actually know how much our test car would cost, because Porsche didn’t provide a sticker price (“If you have to ask…”), but the list price of the base Panamera 4S is just under $100,000. We guess this fully equipped model would be approximately 20 percent more.

Audi A7 TDI

The Audi A7 TDI quattro, priced a tad lower at $81,935 with all the bells and whistles, is better proof that designing a five-door hatchback doesn’t mean giving up on style. On the contrary, this car is one of those that you glance back at when you leave it, just to enjoy its looks one more time.

The inside is even better than the outside. Audi is clearly way ahead of the game in interior design and engineering. We give it five stars for its sleek appearance and high resolution of the video screen and center stack controls, as well as for its operation. Of all the cars we’ve driven, the Audi system is by far the most intuitive.

We were also pleased with the driving experience. The powerful diesel engine, new this year on the A7, puts out a brawny 438 pound-feet of torque and still manages nearly 30 mpg in combined driving. Even better, the engine is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, which contributes both to the fuel efficiency and to smooth, seamless engine operation whether under heavy acceleration or changing gears to handle a San Francisco hill.

Mercedes E-Class

But what if you’re a traditionalist and just want a straight-up station wagon? We’re pleased to say that Mercedes-Benz still makes such a vehicle, in the mid-level E-Class. The version we drove – with the 3.5-liter, V6 engine and seven-speed automatic transmission – was smooth and responsive on the road, and is rated at a credible 21 mpg in combined driving. We also like that the wagon comes standard with the Mercedes 4Matic all-wheel-drive system. This car would be ideal if we were making a cross-country trek, especially in winter conditions.

The car we test-drove – featuring the new Mercedes-Benz safety and convenience systems including the ability to drive itself in stop-and-go traffic and automatically brake to a complete stop to avert collisions – is priced at $71,305.

If we had to choose from among these three vehicles, we’d probably opt for the Audi A7 TDI. Those who love performance might instead choose the Porsche Panamera 4S, while traditionalists probably couldn’t resist the elegance and satisfaction of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.

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