Lately, the skid has accelerated. Over the past five years, as the U.S. auto market surged, domestic wagon sales fell by 16 percent, to just 77,200 in 2016. Ford Motor Co. sells that many pickups in a decent month.
So why the sudden glut of new rigs with seats in the way, way back? It turns out that the wagon data is a bit deceiving. Much of it can be attributed to a dearth of product, since the number of station wagons available to U.S. buyers dropped from 17 to just seven over the past five years.
Acura scrapped its wagon, as did Cadillac, and Saab finally ground to a full stop. Meanwhile, Audi and BMW decided to keep their high-end wagons in Europe, as U.S. orders dwindled to the point where it didn't make sense to load a ship.
"There's a fundamental demand level that doesn't fluctuate much," said IHS Markit Senior Analyst Stephanie Brinley. "It's enough for the players who are left to see some healthy take."
Here's the other thing that wasn't missed in the C-suites of Stuttgart: The small crew of drivers who still keen for a wagon are the best customers in the car business. They are more educated, more affluent, and perhaps most important, more loyal than other buyers. In a consultant's quadrant of customers charting effort vs. profit, these are the folks in the box at the top right: the keepers.
"It's a great customer for us," said Dana Headrick, product manager at Mercedes-Benz USA. "I almost liken them to the millionaire-next-door type of person."
Volkswagen's new SportWagen and Alltrack are proving particularly popular with cyclists and kayakers, according to Hendrik Muth, head of product planning at Volkswagen of America. Their roof racks are easier to access than those on an SUV, with plenty of space in back for gear.
"The buyer is slightly more male and more sports-oriented," Muth said, dispelling the station wagon-soccer mom cliche of a few decades back.
Bryce Beerman, who owns a New England company that stages trade shows for woodworkers, recently handed the keys back on a 2013 Audi Allroad after a three-year lease. "I don't typically get excited about these things, and I was excited to get that car," he said. "I'm a wagon guy, and it was the best-looking one out there."
Now he's waiting to test-drive the Volvo V-90.
The cargo space will be clutch for his family's two dogs and the gear the family hauls back and forth to a 25-foot fishing boat north of Boston. A truck, he realizes, would probably make more sense. But Beerman, 38, hates trucks. "They're not cheap, and they're not economical," he said. "Plus, I grew up being able to drive a sports car now and again, so I've always been partial to these designs."
Volvo has so much confidence in potential buyers such as Beerman that it isn't even bothering to stock its new wagons at U.S. dealerships. Customers who want one will place an order and then wait a few weeks while the machine is hammered together and shipped from Torslanda, Sweden.
Such inelastic demand is manifest in pricing. Though they are usually skittish about losing customers to rivals, when it comes to wagons, auto executives have the swagger of Texas pickup dealers. Sure there aren't that many customers, but there aren't that many wagons anymore, either, at least not in the U.S.
Consider the Mercedes E-class wagon. In North America, window stickers on the bare-bones version start at $62,300, almost 20 percent more than the starter E-class sedan. Part of the spread is because the base model wagon comes more fully stocked with such goodies as four-wheel drive. But the cars are essentially the same, which is another reason why wagons are getting the green light from product planners.