Jumping on the Wagon: Is Subaru the New Volvo?

Safe, reliable, and on the rise, the Outback Wagon isn’t just for Portland anymore

Years ago, perhaps you’d cruise around the Westside in your wagon during your morning commute or to get the kids to and from soccer practice.  There’d be a hot mug of tea in the cup holder, KCRW would be on the radio and you’d feel ‘edgy’ during ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic’.

There would be Greenpeace and Save Mono Lake bumper stickers on the wagon’s rear hatch, which is painted gold. The wagon would be safe, it would be sound, and it would be a Volvo.  In your Volvo, you’d feel secure knowing that the boys from Gothenburg made one of the safest – and quirkiest – vehicles on the road.

The Volvo V90 Wagon and the models that came before – the 740, 850, and 940 – were all cut from the same no-nonsense Swedish cloth. No matter the model number and nomenclature, it was a Volvo and it was good. Now, 10, 15, 20 years later, the bastion of Westside mobility, the Volvo wagon, has been replaced by a new breed of safe and sound driving, the Subaru Outback. 

While Volvo experiences a decline in sales, Subaru is on its fifth consecutive year of sales records and as a brand, posted a recorded month in February 2014 with a total of 34,909 vehicles sold, up 24% over February 2013. This is quite a surprise: for years, Subaru seemed to have an audience exclusively in Oregon.

Check out Subaru’s cameo on this episode of Portlandia.

In fact, Volvo and Subaru have pulled a
Freaky Friday, each one transmogrifying into the other in their early 1990s state: Subaru, made in good ol’ Indiana, now ascendant and Volvo, now owned by Chinese manufacturing concern Geely, is on the decline.  

What’s an NPR-loving Yuppie to do?  Where will the Golden Retrievers sit on a Whole Foods Run? How will we get the Flokati rug home?

Subie’s great sales have a lot to do with the Outback Wagon, which acts as a halo car.  For about $37,000, you get the top of the range, fully kitted out 3.6R Limited Outback. The Limited is a pleasant wagon to drive and comes with a 256 horsepower six-cylinder boxster engine, leather seats, moonroof, navigation and everything else you’d hope for in an SUV alternative.

The Outback is luxurious in an L.L. Bean, rock-ribbed, sort of way, a populist statement reminiscent of New England in the 1940s, with F.D.R. fireside chats on the radio.

In the time I spent with the car, I felt a lot more easy-going. I listened to the radio on a lower volume; mostly the NPR talk stations. I wasn’t rushing to and fro, I felt safe in rush hour traffic. It was agreeable to drive. Not fun, but that’s not the point. You don’t feel like the One Percent— more like Half and Half. Comfortable, but not too comfortable. Content, but not smug.

With the all-wheel drive system and raised ride height, you can take this car anywhere, from a garden party at the Bel-Air Hotel to dinner at Cortez in Echo Park. Really, besides the Prius, there aren’t many cars that transcend socio-economic boundaries – the Outback is like a well fitting pair of jeans or love for Jay Z, it’s for everyone.  Just like the Volvo Wagon used to be.

But you may ask, what about all those sweet Volvo sports cars from the ‘60s and ‘70s like the P1800?  Well, Subaru has an answer to that Volvo conundrum with the BRZ coupe.  If you get past the boy racer looks and the almost impossible ingress and egress, you have the best 28K you could spend.

Less expensive than a Patek, the BRZ is everything you love from the Subaru brand in one little package.  Thanks to the 200 horsepower four-cylinder engine, the BRZ is fast enough, it handles the road like a waiter during lunch crunch at The Grill – without missing a beat – and is one of the few cars I’d buy in a stick.

Volvo, the ‘klot’ is in your court. With their new 2015 Volvo V60 wagon, we’ll see if the Swedes can get their mojo back.