Forget that SUV: Five Great Alternatives

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 19, 2014

I was minding my own business in the library when the woman in line ahead of me started talking about the new SUV she’s buying. I horned in to point out that she could get many of the same advantages—all-wheel drive, cargo capacity, a perch for her dog—in a station wagon. They use space more effectively than most SUVs, and almost always get better fuel economy. Maybe you don’t “sit up high” (the principal reason people give me for buying SUVs), but there’s an advantage to that—reduced rollover risk. I'm leaving minivans out of the equation here, because so many people have unfortunate negative reactions to them. But I'll offer an upbeat guide to the class soon!

She looked skeptical. I never win these arguments, because once people have decided on a course of action they seldom deviate from it. As a car “expert,” my role is to validate their choice.

But for her sake, here are five alternatives to an SUV, weather-resistant people haulers that also get great fuel economy and won’t cost you an arm and a leg (for the most part):

2015 Subaru Legacy. A 4-door sedan with standard AWD. (Subaru photo)2015 Subaru Legacy. All Subarus come with all-wheel drive, so you won’t need to check the options column. The fuel economy takes a jump in the new model out next year to 26 city, 36 highway in the base 2.5-liter flat four (offering 175 horsepower). And high-strength steel makes it 43 percent more rigid without adding weight. (Unfortunately, Subaru discontinued the long-serving Legacy wagon in 2007, though that body style is still offered in the more SUV-like Outback line.) Prices start at $22,490.

2015 Ford C-MAX Hybrid. A wagon in SUV disguise. (Ford photo)2015 Ford C-Max Hybrid. I just tested one of these and loved it. Yes, it does look a little like an SUV, but that’s just so would-be buyers coming from a Navigator don’t suffer withdrawal symptoms. The big payoff here is great utility, a sharp infotainment system (I have some issues with SYNC voice controls, though), and 37 highway, 42 city. The Energi plug-in hybrid version is worth considering also, but it’s costlier and the battery pack intrudes into the trunk. The base price for the Hybrid SE wagon is $24,170. No all-wheel drive.

2014 BMW 328d xDrive: Complicated name, fuel-efficient car. (BMW photo)2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sport Wagon. How does 43 mpg on the highway sound? And that’s with the xDrive AWD system! Of course, it’s a diesel, and not everybody’s happy with that. But today’s diesels are quiet, powerful and clean. And this one’s fun to drive. The package includes a 180-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged diesel four-cylinder engine mated with an eight-speed automatic transmission—and all-wheel drive, of course. Price: Arm and leg. Or $42,950.

2014 Toyota Prius V: The choice for serious cargo haulers. (Toyota photo)2014 Toyota Prius V. The standard Prius is remarkably roomy, but  I can stretch out in the rear cargo area of the stretched V (a rare treat for a 6'1" tall automotive journalist). Carrying capacity is identical or more than a compact SUV (67.3 cubic feet behind the front seats), and it also delivers 42 mpg in combined driving (44 city/40 highway). It’s no barn burner with 134 horsepower from the gas-electric powertrain, but at $27,560 you save enough over a bloated SUV to buy another car to take to the track. No all-wheel drive.

2014 VW Jetta SportWagen: Two engine choices, both fuel-efficient. (Volkswagen photo)2014 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen. Choose the standard 170-horsepower 2.5-liter four and get 26 mpg combined, or opt for the 140-horsepower TDI turbodiesel (also a four) and drive around with 42 mpg combined. The base price is $21,615, so this is the alternative if the BMW is too rich for your blood. U.S. News called the SportWagen “the Best Wagon for the Money,” but all-wheel drive isn’t available. 

I was also going to include the Acura TSX wagon (30 mpg on the highway with high-tech luxury for $31,985) but it may not survive all that much longer. Alas, Americans aren’t embracing the wagon as once they did. Mom was happy with her wood-paneled Ford Country Squire and she didn’t pine to own a Jeep.

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