ONCE FORGOTTEN WAGONS FIGHT BACK; STATION WAGONS: HANDLING AND RIDE CHALLENGE SUV, VAN MARKETS

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Volvo a.b. for many years has been going against the tide, importing station wagons into a U.S. market awash in minivans and sport-utility vehicles. But time and trend seem poised, albeit slowly, to favor such persistence.

Station wagons may still be a blip on the national vehicle sales charts, but their currency is strengthening. For the first six months of 1999, total station wagon registrations hit 125,279, up 9.1%, according to Polk Co. data provided to Automotive News. That follows a 9.8% decline to 249,362 wagon registrations in 1998.

HEALTHY PROFIT MARGINS

Evidence of the renewed appeal of wagons, particularly the $30,000-plus variety that carry healthy profit margins like their SUV cousins, can be seen in product planning. Several European prestige marques are about to join Volvo and others in this class range.

The parade will start with BMW's X-5 sport wagon this fall, followed by the S-Type luxury wagon from Jaguar in 2001 and a sport wagon from Porsche-Volks- wagen, a venture that is slated to provide products for both companies in 2002. Saab and Volvo plan to replenish their offerings.

Volvo's V70 Cross Country has had good success, claiming 14.3% of market behind Subaru (28.8%) and Ford Escort (14.9%). The all-wheel drive model introduced in 1997 "rejuvenated the Volvo line," says Mark LaNeve, VP-advertising, Volvo Cars of North America, Rockleigh, N.J.

Volvo's long run in the U.S. wagon market wasn't all that strategic. Prior to its purchase by Ford this spring, it was the smallest selling maker globally. Mr. LaNeve says Volvo couldn't afford to develop different models for each market like its competitors. "Every product we made had to be global," he says.

European marques are well-positioned to move into the U.S. market because wagons never went out of fashion at home, says Dennis Virag, president of Automotive Consulting Group, Ann Arbor, Mich. High gasoline prices and driving preferences are reasons Europeans never flocked to trucks. They like a "sport-car feel" that minivans and sport utilities lack, he notes.

That difference in handling and ride is the major point differentiating station-wagon buyers from those choosing minivans and sport utilities. Mr. Virag says the typical station-wagon buyer is "an affluent woman who never wants to be seen in a truck." The SUV segment of the market likes "roominess and ruggedness;" the station-wagon segment likes "roominess and sophistication," he says.

Also, it's not surprising that makers like Porsche and Jaguar are readying wagons: "The high-end vehicles are the ones that seem to be on the comeback trail," he says.

SATURN TRIES BIGGER

Saturn is betting that its new midsize L series will be able to bridge the "gap" between sophistication and ruggedness. Tom Wilkinson, manager of product communications, says the General Motors division is targeting two groups with the LW wagon -- owners of midsize import wagons and drivers who have tried minivans and sport utilities but don't like those vehicles' size and poor fuel economy.

Saturn originally projected wagons would claim 10%-12% of L class sales, but has revised that to 20%, requiring tooling changes at the Wilmington, Del., assembly plant. "We got such a strong positive response from retailers and the press when we showed the wagon, that we decided the wagon market was coming back," says Mr. Wilkinson.

Ford Motor Co.'s Taurus wagon and its twin, the Mercury Sable, account for about 10% of sales of their respective models, according to Ford spokesman Bill George. Ford markets them to families (with driving-age children) whose primary concerned is vehicle safety, he says.

He says minivan drivers might switch to a wagon, particularly as hybrid vehicles emerge. "In the automobile business, we classify vehicles as cars or trucks," Mr. George says. "Consumers don't think that way. They just want the vehicle that's going to serve their needs."

Volvo's Mr. LaNeve says wagons, sport utilities and minivans are bound to become less distinct. Volvo will incorporate more sport-utility design elements into its redesigned V70 Cross Country, due model year 2001. That means higher seating position, side cladding for off-road conditions, and interior use of canvas and storage netting.

The new V70 will still be marketed as an alternative to a sport utility, says Mr LaNeve, identifying the make as an "on-road utility vehicle for safety-conscious

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