Family Truckster from National Lampoon's Vacation

On a scale measuring coolness, most Americans rank station wagons somewhere between fanny packs and accidentally walking around with toilet paper stuck to their shoes.    There is even a Facebook group creatively named, “we hate stations wagons!”.

I believe my girlfriend is emblematic of Americans’ views on wagons.  She insists that wagons are “mom-mobiles”.  However, she sees millions more moms driving SUVs and crossovers.  When I ask her why she feels this way, she responds, “Because, that’s how I feel”.  When I tell her that SUVs and crossovers are just wagons in disguise, she shoots me a dirty look with a tinge of “whatever”.  She is, after all, a valley girl.

My girlfriend is not conscious of how she learned to dislike station wagons.  Learning does not have to be conscious.  It can involve changes to long-term memory and/or behavior.  In her case, both apply.  She is adamant in her repugnance toward wagons, though she does not know why, and she says she will not buy one.

One possibility is that she was classically conditioned to not like station wagons.  Classical conditioning is learning by association.  Most people are familiar with classical conditioning because of Pavlov’s dog.  Let’s substitute my girlfriend for Pavlov’s dog.

  • Station wagons do not innately elicit an emotional response from her.
  • Her mom driving a station wagon while picking her up from school in front of all the other children does cause an emotional response.
  • Pair the station wagon with the negative feelings caused by her mom picking her up from school and, presto!, station wagons cause a negative emotional response.

Pavlov's dog (kind of creepy)

Wagons have also been badly stigmatized by the leviathans of the 1970s.  Those beasts could have easily spawned the phrase, junk in the trunk.  Carrying the scarlet “W” is so bad that we would rather risk being seen as poseurs in an SUV that will go no further off road than a driveway.  Even worse, we take no issue driving crossovers that look like SUVs, but do not have their capability.  In a perverted twist of automotive logic, crossovers make more sense as cars because they don’t do what they look like they should do.

Some may be surprised that automotive enthusiasts not only defend wagons, but typically like them.  It is because they tend to think of wagons rationally, whereas consumers, such as my girlfriend, think about them emotionally.  As is often the case, emotion trumps rationality.

Photo: Taylor Rogers. BMW M5 Wagon. 0 - 60: 4.1 seconds. If your mom drives one of these, she's awesome.

Like it or not, wagons make sense.  They are often comparatively less expensive to purchase and maintain, more functional, and drive better than SUVs and crossovers.  I and others predict that wagons are going to make a comeback.  Before they do, however, Americans will need to re-learn their benefits.

Here are some suggestions to manufacturers to help make it happen:

  • What’s in a name?  A lot.  Europeans have no problem with wagons.  They may also have better taste.  Take the hint and use the European name for wagon, estate.  The word estate conjures up images of fame, glamour, and glitz – positive feelings.  In contrast, the term station wagon conjures up images of the Family Truckster in National Lampoon’s Vacation.  However, no need to trick us with terms like “sportback”.  We’re not dumb, just impressionable.
  • Styling.  Wagons can look good.  Look at the styling of the Cadillac CTS-V wagon.  It is not enough to throw a rounded rectangle aft the c-pillar, fail to sell wagon variants of existing sedan models, and then say Americans don’t like wagons.

Photo: Automotive Rhythms. Cadillac CTS-V Luxury Wagon. Meet the new generation of wagons.

  • Sex sells.  Prius’ are not particularly sexy.  Therefore, Toyota gave them out like Tic-Tacs to celebrities, which in turn helped their popularity because people paired the car with celebrity.  Do the same, or something similar, with wagons estates so that they also become sexy (or at least less dowdy).
  • Use your words.  Direct routes to persuasion (i.e., appealing to our logical selves) typically do not sell cars.  However, it may not hurt to intersperse some information in that sexy marketing campaign to point out the reasons why estates make sense.  Make sure journalists get the memo.
  • Build good ones.  Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Mercedes, Subaru, Volvo, and VW have all had some success in making wagons that appeal to Americans.  It helps to know your customers prior to putting out an estate and build it for them.

What’s your favorite estate of all time?  Click the link at the top of the post to let us know!

(Special note:  Thanks to Jon Poon for suggesting this post’s topic)



I have found inspiration, and it was looking at me through the shadowy eyes of a Lexus.

As this blog finds its voice, it appears that Lexus may have found its face.  Teaser images indicate that a unique front-end design may find itself on the new GS350 that is scheduled to be unveiled at Pebble Beach, and its DNA may eventually be shared with other models in Lexus’ lineup.

Lexus GS350 Teaser Image

I think that Lexus’ about-face is a good move for the brand, and here’s why.

Faces are important.  People can generally recognize and infer information from human faces, such as age, sex, personality traits, and emotion, within milliseconds of exposure.  This ability gives us an adaptive advantage.  For example, quickly recognizing anger in others’ faces allows us to infer that physical danger may be imminent.  Therefore, if we cannot recognize a face or discern what thoughts and feelings may lie behind it, then we lose valuable information, and perhaps much more.

Would you react to each of these people in the same way?

I believe that automobile manufacturers face (sorry!) similar risks when designing cars.  Our facial recognition system is so hyper-aware, that we also see faces in non-human objects.  Thus, if a car’s front fascia does not provide information about its attitude, purpose, or behavioral intentions, then potential consumers may suffer from a form of automotive prosopagnosia – they can recognize that the vehicle is a car, but it does not appear distinct in any way.  In contrast, who can forget the first time that they looked into the soul-piercing stare of a BMW’s “angel-eye” headlights while its nostrils flared in the rearview mirror?

Anthropomorphism at its finest.

Lexus’ new face provides information about the GS350’s intentions and, by extension, the brand.  In fact, it appears that Lexus is getting increasingly serious about its cars’ sporting prowess.  This renewed focus may also give the brand more street credibility, which is an important weapon in the constant battle with luxury-car manufacturers that have sporting images, such as BMW and Audi.  In essence, sportier and more aggressive Lexi Lexuses Lexera Lexus mean that there will be increased cohesion between the cars’ faces and their body language (another important source of visual information).   Speaking of aggressiveness, this design direction may be a particularly good way to go.  For example, findings from a recent study suggest that male and female participants “liked” cars that convey a sense of “power”.  According to the authors, power involved traits of dominance, masculinity, and anger.  While we will have to wait until the production version is unveiled to assess its visual power, the GS350 seems to be on the right track.

Does liking and brand recognition lead to increased purchases?  Psychologists and market researchers have known for years that liking and buying intentions do not necessarily equate to increased sales.  However, good designs get people into showrooms, and good cars tend to get into people’s driveways.  Therefore, if Lexus continues with a distinct design theme, the driving capabilities to back it up, and its relentless pursuit of perfection, their cars will be much more than just another pretty face.