Home » These Are The New Rules Of What Makes A Car A Station Wagon

These Are The New Rules Of What Makes A Car A Station Wagon

Wagonrules
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Many, many years ago, soon after I started my career as a Professional Automotive Dipshit, I performed a colossal service to humankind: I codified the rules for what defined a station wagon. This was, to my absolute horror, a solid decade ago, and I’m realizing now that these rules need to be restated, and, I think, expanded, just a bit. The basic rules still stand; however, in our era of crossovers and SUVs, I’m realizing that the Wagon Rules need to formally accommodate them, otherwise we’re all in grave danger of tearing ourselves apart. So, let’s get some order back into the universe.

This need was alerted to me via Twitter, when I was tagged in a post discussing a recent Jalopnik article about all the wagons currently for sale in the 2023 model year:

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

The subsequent thread of twitter-fighting about what is or isn’t a wagon was my wake up call that my people need me, and that this madness must be stopped. We all need to agree on just what makes a wagon, which is why I implore you to pay attention.

First, let’s recap the original Two Rules of Wagonhood:

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Rule1

Rule 1 states that the cargo area of a wagon must be provided with side windows. The size or shape of such windows isn’t important, and the glass area of the window can be contiguous with a longer side window that extends from the rear passenger seat, if one is provided.

It should be noted here that the number of doors does not matter: two, four, or even three doors are fine. You can have two door wagons, and, of course, there’s the sporty two-door wagon variant known as the Shooting Brake:

2doorshootingbrake

A car that has no window for the cargo area is either a hatchback, or perhaps a van derived from a car, but cannot be a wagon.

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The second classic Wagonhood Rule is that the roof of a wagon must cover at least half of the cargo floor:

Rule2

This means that the roof will necessarily be a bit long, but this doesn’t affect the angle of the rear, or the type of rear door, be it tailgate, side-hinged door, hatch, or whatever. All that matters is that the roof extends over at least half of the floor space in the cargo area, even if that cargo area is small.

A good example of the roof-length rule can be seen in the Volkswagen Dasher/Passat:

Dashers

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Both versions have window area on the sides of the cargo area, but only the Dasher Wagon has a roof that extends to cover over half of the cargo floor.

In the original post, I had a few pass/fail examples:

Passfail

Okay, I think these rules still stand, and should cover most examples of wagon identification. I did realize that I needed one other rule, though:

Rule0

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Rule 0 is the Two-Box rule. Now, I don’t think this will come up much, but I realized that a number of vans could pass Rules 1 and 2, but they’re clearly not station wagons, because a Wagon Must Be A Two-Box Design. That is, a wagon needs a hood of some kind, even if it has no engine in there or is a bit stumpy or whatever.

Volkswagen tried calling the Microbus a Station Wagon in ads in the 1960s, but we all knew it really wasn’t one: it’s a van. Because a station wagon needs a hood, hence Rule 0.

Okay, now let’s get into what I’m calling the Crossover Clauses. First, know this: Crossovers and SUVs are station wagons if they meet the now Three Rules of Wagonhood. So they can be wagons, but they are a subcategory of wagons, based on the following:

Crossoverclausea

Crossover Clause A reminds us that if the proportions of a given wagon have a higher ratio of height to overall length and a comparatively high hood and beltline, they enter the subcategory of SUV or crossover. I wish I could have hard and fast ratios for this, but the wide variety of vehicle sizes and proportions make this nearly impossible. So, this is a bit subjective on paper, but pretty obvious in practice.

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Does the vehicle look tall? Is the hood high? Then it’s likely an SUV/crossover.

We can further refine this subcategorization with Crossover Clause B:

Crossoverclauseb

Clause B states that both intent and ride height do matter. If a carmaker gives a vehicle a high ride height, big wheels, 4WD or AWD and a bunch of chunky cladding and a name that suggests something like rocky crags or the animals/people that bound over them, then it’s clear the intent of the vehicle is to be a crossover or SUV.

A great example of this is the AMC siblings Concorde wagon and Eagle. The Concorde wagon was a RWD family wagon, while the Eagle had 4WD and higher ground clearance and bigger wheels, and was marketed as something to take off-road or camping or adventuring or hunting the Most Dangerous Game or whatever.

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Both cars had identical sheetmetal, bodies of the exact same dimensions. Yet AMC’s intent was clear: one’s a paved-roads family car, one’s an off-road sport utility vehicle, even if no one was calling them that at the time.

Just look at how they were advertised:

Amcads

One is sold as “affordable luxury” and one is “built tough, the American Way.” It’s clear there’s very different goals for these two similar, but not the same, cars.

Make sense? Want to try a little test? Let’s do a car that meets the general Crossover Clauses, and see what we get: Hondas HR-V, one from 1999 and one from 2022:

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Grvtest

Here’s an example where both could be considered crossovers from a proportion and intent standpoint, but only one, the 1999 one, is an actual wagon. This is very clear: the 2022 HR-V lacks a cargo side window, and the roof is too short to cover more than half of the cargo floor. Essentially, the new HR-V is a crossover-ized hatchback, not a wagon.

Let’s do another Honda example:

Hondafit

The Fit is a wagon. Even if it’s small and has a very hatchback-like rear, it meets the basic criteria, so it’s a wagon.

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I hope this helps. Now more than ever it’s important that we find ways to all get along, and the first step to that is getting some real rules in place about what makes a station wagon.

Godspeed.

 

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Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
1 year ago

Kia Soul is transitional. Rear seat up, it’s a hatchback. Put the rear seats down and it’s a wagon. My state calls it a wagon on the registration.

BolognaBurrito
BolognaBurrito
1 year ago

Man, if there was ever a post that I wanted to load up with pictures for people to pick apart.

1963-1966 Studebaker Wagonaire. Is it only a wagon when the roof is closed?

What about vehicles that are exactly the same, except panels instead of windows? For example, is a 1960-1966 Suburban considered a wagon, but the same year Panel isn’t?

What about a Canopy Express? What’s that?

RCAddiction
RCAddiction
1 year ago

Thank goodness my Bronze Fire Flex is a wagon!!!! Soooooooo very happy it doesn’t look like the amalgamation of boredom and indistinguishable sameness that every SUV/CUV seems to suffer from today.

Wagons – were THE family vehicle until Minivans came out. Wagons went away and soccer moms moved to Minivans because Wagons were no longer kewl enough for soccer moms.

Minivans – were THE family vehicle until they also, were no longer kewl enough for soccer moms and “tough-looking” CUV/SUV’s became the new hotness for soccer moms.

I wait patiently for the full circle return of wagons, shooting brakes, estates, and the like, to become IT again because they are awesome, like the 65 Plymouth Fury wagon I grew up with. The day will come, one hopes, that pickup trucks will no longer need 10′ tall hoods and absurd Kenworth-ish grilles to distinguish themselves from the flotilla of CUV/SUV’s parading down our highways carrying soccer moms pluckily typing Facebook postings about their offspring’s latest non-accomplishment.

Rysho
Rysho
1 year ago

So in this context where would the ’78 Pinto Crusing wagon be? It follows the rules of a wagon but has 2 doors and a (small) porthole window, Shooting Break or Wagon?

Gnarsinski
Gnarsinski
1 year ago

Ford calls the passenger version of its Transit Connect a Wagon. Seems to meet all the rules. Buts it’s really a van.

Cryptoenologist
Cryptoenologist
1 year ago

Torch, I am sorry to say that your cargo window rule is incorrect. It is generally true but not absolutely categorical. A good example is the Porsche Taycan Crossturismo which is clearly a wagon.

Better and simpler is just the proportion of rear overhang to vehicle length. Hatchbacks have less than wagons. Hatchbacks have a rear overhang of 0-10% of total length, and wagons have >10%. I might not be perfect on my estimation of the break point but it is close.

In vehicles where there is both a trunk and hatch variant, a corollary of this is: if the length of the hatch version is shorter than the trunk version it is a NOT a wagon. The inverse seems to hold as well, if the length of the hatch version is greater than or equal to the sedan version then it is a wagon as long as it meets the other rules.

Fun fact; the shortest recently produced sedan I could find while searching is the 2018 Yaris at 171.7”. The hatchback is a whopping 16.2” shorter at 155.5”.

Cryptoenologist
Cryptoenologist
1 year ago

Sucks there’s no editing. I think it may actually be an OR for rule one. Cargo window OR meets the overhang proportion/length rule.

OTOH, the length rule includes traditional hearses which don’t have cargo windows but are definitely wagons.

Box Rocket
Box Rocket
1 year ago

Thank you for codifying SUVs/crossovers as wagons. My XC90 appreciates this recognition.

The Fit is NOT a wagon, though. You erroneously used the bumper section in your floor measurement. The floor doesn’t go back that far. It’s a hatchback, not a wagon.

I’ll also disagree about lumping in 2- and 3-door hatch/lift backs and shooting brakes in as wagons. 2 door wagons are only acceptable as trailers, and with a door in the front and back, usually found in such areas as the American West, notably as pioneers’ combination moving van + house. On that note, an article about the parallels to modern RVs and pioneer wagon trains might be due, similar to how Brits call towing and using an RV trailer as “caravanning” just as there are groups of “Travelers” who have groups of towed wooden wagons in caravans.

FlavouredMilk
FlavouredMilk
1 year ago
Reply to  Box Rocket

If you don’t include the bumper area, then the roof covers an even higher percentage of the cargo area? Pushing it even further into the category of wagon.

However, I agree. For the same reason that SUVs have clauses, so should hatchbacks. They’re not wagons, they’re hatches.

I think it’s a lot simpler to group wagons, and that’s a cargo orientated, long roof version of a sedan-style body, even if a sedan wasn’t necessarily offered. End of argument, 2 box, low and long, windowed cargo area. Check.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
1 year ago

How about the first-gen Mercedes A-Class? Does THAT rear window count? And there was a Chinese imitation of that design language too

https://www.fabulous.co.jp/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/benz_a_w168_03.jpg

Also, older Foresters were wagons. They were legally classified as cars rather than light trucks, met all the standards for cars, and the center of gravity was low enough to not require the SUV rollover warning of the time.

James Donvoan
James Donvoan
1 year ago

I think you need to add an additional rule – the cargo area must be at least 50% of the rear passenger area in length, or a different body style to the original body design. Honda made a wagon version of the Honda City (A Fit-based sedan) called the Honda Shuttle that would meet this requirement.

Wagons tend to be a derivative of a less practical body style like a hatchback or sedan, but I’m sure some wagon only models exist somewhere out there. It just feels wrong to call a hatchback with a small cargo area a “wagon”.

Drad
Drad
1 year ago

I think you need to add an extra rule. A wagon needs to have extended cargo room over and above its hatch backed counterpart

CSRoad
CSRoad
1 year ago

I’m still confused, in fact the mud gets deeper and more confusing the further I wade, the water murkier not clearer.

My Ford Fiesta 5-door is a station wagon by the Fit definition and a hatchback by design intent and according to the SCCA autocross referencing guy, also a SUV or crossover or some such horse hockey.

My Subaru Impreza 5-door is getting into all kinds of weirdness when you get to the designers intent thing as in different markets it is sold as both a station wagon and/or a hatchback. Jack it up put bigger tires on it, it already drives 4 wheels, does it become a crossover instead, because that’s all a Crosstrek is.

Now the 1955-57 Chevrolet Nomad, a two door hatchback, station wagon or a high capacity shooting brake for the US market.

Concord, Eagle, Beagle, names, names, times change, the jury of history is still out on all of it, it will make a good board game once it is all figured out.

toplessFC3Sman
toplessFC3Sman
1 year ago

Would the Honda fit really count as a wagon, since it seems to violate rule 0? When I think of a “two box” design, then I imagine at least some change in slope from the front windshield to the hood but for the fit you showed… Not so much. Earlier ones had a bit more slope change, but they’ve become a single box in the last generation or two, it’s just that the front of that box isn’t at a right angle with the ground. Same for many minivans now, like my Mazda 5 and at least a few generations of Honda Odyssey, they are trapezoids so fail rule 0

Erik Innocent
Erik Innocent
1 year ago

I’d argue w.r.t. the Forrester, early ones were wagons and later ones are not.

Sounds like according to these criteria:
– a Mazda 3 hatchback is a wagon
– a Model S is not a wagon
– a Panamera is not a wagon, but might be if it’s a Sport Turismo and we get a ruler

FlavouredMilk
FlavouredMilk
1 year ago
Reply to  Erik Innocent

“if it’s a Sport Turismo and we get a ruler” is exactly the kind statement I live for when it comes to the geeky car discussions that Torch instigates.

Dolsh
Dolsh
1 year ago

I feel like there should be a nipple rule.

If the “wagon” is higher than the average person’s nipple, that’s an SUV.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 year ago
Reply to  Dolsh

Yeah, but then you gotta go around measuring peoples’ nipple-height. Awkward and downright dangerous

Chris D
Chris D
11 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

And on about half of the population, that measurement changes over time.

John King
John King
1 year ago
Reply to  Dolsh

Dyane, no?

John King
John King
1 year ago
Reply to  John King

Oops — replied to wrong comment….

La Le
La Le
1 year ago

So this gem of GM half-assedness wouldn’t be considered a wagon? Because I’d absolutely call it one.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b8/71_Vega_Panel_Express-red.jpg

Parsko
Parsko
1 year ago

I still miss the orange you helped define that website with. It’s such a better color, sorry.

The 99 HR-V made me gag a little, and to me qualifies as an SUV. Too tall.

T18
T18
1 year ago

Personally I find any ruleset that would call the Fit a wagon is deeply flawed. Wagons imo need to have more rear overhang. I would even suggest apply the a% rule to the space beyond the rear axel as well, that will keep the hatchbacks our of my wagons. I also suddenly have realized that I have not seen a wagon with jumpseats in nearly 30 years… Fun times those were, just don’t get rear ended.

CTMechE
CTMechE
1 year ago
Reply to  T18

Some Mercedes wagons still have rear 3rd row jumpseats.

Regarding the Fit, I agree – and I think it’d fail the 50% cargo area coverage, too, if the illustration didn’t include the spoiler on the hatch.

The Fit *Shuttle*, however, is a proper wagon.

D0nut
D0nut
1 year ago

I can finally call our Mazda CX-9 a wagon with confidence (I’ve wanted to call it a wagon for a long time). Thank you!

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
1 year ago

OK, so what is a Nissan Pulsar NX?

With the standard rear hatch, it definitely doesn’t meet the roof requirement, and therefore not a wagon.

But if you swap the standard hatch with the optional canopy hatch, the roof covers the entire cargo area, as long as you consider the horizontal portion of the hatch as a roof.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nissan_EXA

Amberturnsignalsarebetter
Amberturnsignalsarebetter
1 year ago

With the Sportbak on it’s definitely a wagon

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/Nissan_EXA_Canopy.JPG

LTDScott
LTDScott
1 year ago

Huh, I missed the original post on the German lighting site, but I’ve always considered my ’08 Mazdaspeed 3 to be a wagon despite all documentation referring to it as a hatchback. Glad to see my opinion agrees with your rules.

Pappa P
Pappa P
1 year ago
Reply to  LTDScott

Apparently you’re wrong. I tried to buy a Mazda 3 wagon around that time and was told by the savvy salesperson that no such vehicle exists. He told me the hatchback version is a “sport.”
So that’s what you have there. Not a wagon or hatchback, but a “sport.”

LTDScott
LTDScott
1 year ago
Reply to  Pappa P

There may have been some additional confusion there in that Sport was an option package, but according to the factory ’08 brochure the Sport package was only available on sedans. Or, dumb salesperson was dumb.

The brochure doesn’t mention hatchback or wagon anywhere, and instead refers to them as a 5 door. What a cop out!

https://www.auto-brochures.com/makes/Mazda/3/Mazda_US%203_2008-2.pdf

PL71 Enthusiast
PL71 Enthusiast
1 year ago
Reply to  LTDScott

Hmm. I looked at some pictures. I’ve always thought it was a hatchback but based off of the “same rear overhang as the sedan version if a sedan version exists” rule that is not here but should be, it is a wagon. However, I think this is a gray area because the rear overhang on the sedan is really short, and that rear bumper juts out insanely far.

Dave Horchak
Dave Horchak
1 year ago

A couple of arguments cannot post pictures so
1. Hearse is a wagon. No Side windows on the cargo area.
2. The old sedan delivery wagon. Basically like a van there is a passenger and a commercial variety. Windows for passengers, solid walls for cargo as windows break.

Dave Moulton
Dave Moulton
1 year ago

A hatchback Chevy Sonic is titled as a station wagon in Michigan.

Dave Horchak
Dave Horchak
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave Moulton

This is too important to leave in hands of government for God’s sake.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave Moulton

This is why Michigan is a terrible place.

Nic Periton
Nic Periton
1 year ago

As one who has an estate, the distinction between “estate car” and”station wagon” has become clear over the years.
An Estate Car is one that will function within the privacy of ones estate, far from the prying eyes of any vehicle inspector or police person (whether the real Police or the taste police). A Station Wagon is a vehicle that will get you, your guests (and maybe the staff) to and from the station without immediate risk of breakdown, arrest or ridicule. A Shooting Brake is an indulgence, a two door, capacious and flamboyant means of impressing both ones fellow estate owners and the hoi polloi with ones automotive good taste when, er, shooting stuff (Pheasants and grice mainly, for deer one has to have a special hat and some sort of off road machine).
May I suggest that the Unimog is the answer to all of these problems.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
1 year ago

Now do personenwagens!!!!

Mercedes Streeter
Mercedes Streeter
1 year ago

AHEM!

Take a look at this:
https://images-stag.jazelc.com/uploads/theautopian-m2en/SmartsAreWagons-scaled.jpg

Rule 1: Cargo Area Must Have Windows – CHECK! First-gen Smarts have a third set of side windows, mine are just tinted.

Rule 2: Roof Must Cover 50% Of Cargo Floor – CHECK! How about 100%?

Rule 0: Vehicle Must Be A Two-Box Design – CHECK! …I think? I mean, it’s technically two-box, right?

Conclusion: SMARTS ARE WAGONS! 😀

Scootershapedmotorcycle
Scootershapedmotorcycle
1 year ago

Not sure about the 2-box thing. I’ve always thought of these as munchkin vans!

I have the same problem with the Fit (which we own), which is so wedge like that it’s really a one-trapezoid, and not a 2-box vehicle.

If only Torch could add more corollaries.

Steven Chabot
Steven Chabot
1 year ago

Egg ≠ two box

Dave Horchak
Dave Horchak
1 year ago

Rule 4 vehicle must be a grown up vehicle.

Mercedes Streeter
Mercedes Streeter
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave Horchak

Hey, I get the other half when I pay it off. lol

Rafael
Rafael
1 year ago

We are playing with forces Humanity doesn’t fully understand!

Chris D
Chris D
11 months ago

A corollary could be that the roof height can not exceed , say, 70% of the length, because then you have a ball, not a wagon.

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