Looking for station wagons in America with the Audi RS 6

How popular are station wagons actually in the land of SUVs and pick-ups?

America is the spiritual father of the SUV. The pick-up is king there. But the car those two swallowed up, the traditional station wagon, still has a loyal and passionate following… If you know where to look for them.

In 1910, the 'automobile' was a brave newcomer in the transport world. If you wanted to go somewhere in Britain or America and it was even a little far away, you took the train. To transport the bourgeoisie and their luggage from their country homes to the train station, manufacturers bolted a squarer body onto the rudimentary chassis of their cars.

The British logically called these workhorses 'estate cars' – after all, estate is the English word for country house. In America they were initially called 'depot hacks', but that later changed, just as logically, to 'station wagons'. And that is how, not for the first time and not for the last time, two countries divided by the same language came up with two completely different names for the same thing. Tomeeto, tomaato. Oh, and it's trousers, not pants.

The purpose of station wagons

For most of the century that followed, the estate/station wagon dutifully did its thing. Part utensil, part family friend; it willingly transported you, your loved one, your descendants and everything they needed from A to B. Luggage compartments kept expanding and shrinking again. Doors and seats were added and removed.

But the versatile genius of the wagon, the Swiss army knife of the automotive world, never diminished. Not with us, at least. In America, where the rise of the SUV began, station wagons were under pressure from the early 1990s. At one time, every manufacturer, from AMC to Oldsmobile and Plymouth to Pontiac, made a wagon. Nowadays, even those brands have disappeared one by one.

Station wagons are dead in America

And do you know how many station wagons are being made today, in 2023, by the combined mega-power of Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Ford, Dodge and Lincoln together? Zero. Not one. The station wagon is completely dead.

If you prefer a long roof in the US, you are eccentric to say the least. Even the archetypal soccer mom has abandoned the wagon and traded it in for a Volvo XC90 or the latest Chrysler minivan. The hunger for station wagons that is so normal in Europe is considered completely backward in America.

Are there still station wagons in America?

Now at Top Gear we love car subcultures, where stiffs bravely swim against the tide of indifference. So when I heard that Audi was planning to introduce an even faster version of the RS 6 Avant in San Francisco, the plan resurfaced to invite a handful of the West Coast's most obsessive wagonistas to a place where they would feel at home. would feel. That turned out to be a back-parking lot just north of Oakland, which has the dubious honor of being the city with the most car burglaries in America. I did not know. Oops.

This idea already arose when the current RS 6 was unveiled in the fall of 2019. Audi deviated from its own rules and announced that their new biturbo monster would also be for sale in North America – the first RS 6 Avant after two decades of absence. At the time, I had volunteered to drive the first copy off the boat and have the tire placed on American soil, with a kind of 'welcome back' party surrounding it. Long story short: COVID came, the RS 6 did not.

Specifications of the Audi RS 6 Performance

Fast forward to the summer of 2023; I growl over the Golden Gate Bridge in a jet black RS 6 Performance. Better late than never. This is the replacement for the 'regular' RS 6, so of course the Performance has some extras. Larger turbos have been installed in the 4.0-liter V8 and the turbo pressure is higher, increasing power to 630 hp and reducing the sprint time from 0 to 100 by two-tenths of a second: it only takes 3.4 seconds. .

Beautiful 22-inch wheels with narrow spokes save 5 kilos of unsprung weight, which bodes well for ride comfort, and 8 kilos of insulation have been removed to encourage the V8 to make itself a little more heard in the immaculately finished cabin. Enjoy it while you can – the next RS 6 will probably be electric.

'This RS 6 has a dark side: Audi has given it some mischief'

The Performance does not pride itself on being the newest and most powerful RS 6. There are no stickers or badges anywhere to be seen. The seats still offer very little lateral support and only when you stretch your big toe at half throttle on the exit of the 101 do you hear a little more V8 roar. So if you're wondering why the Performance has to cost a whopping 8,600 euros more than a regular RS 6 – you're not the only one.

Visiting Pixar

The answer comes the next day, when we leave the city and drive on the more winding roads that lead to the hills of Napa County. This RS 6 has a dark side; Finally, Audi has let go of some caution with the active rear differential and injected some frivolity into the RS 6. It's not as crazy as the BMW M3 Touring, but it's certainly no longer King of Understeer either. Finally we have an RS 6 that can do everything.

I put the Audi in its most comfortable setting for the scenic route through San Francisco, via the zigzagging madness that is Lombard Street – 'the crookedest road in America'. Want to imitate Lieutenant Frank Bullitt with a two-ton über wagon on the slopes immortalized in Bullitt? We just do it. Alcatraz? Seen, in the distance, but no time – we have to go to a party.

Head east over the Oakland Bay Bridge and you'll enter Emeryville. Strange place. This is the home of Pixar, the animation studio behind Toy Story, The Incredibles and Finding Nemo. The headquarters – designed by Steve Jobs – is recognizable by the enormous desk lamp that is part of their logo and is located on an insignificant street, next to an anonymous motel and a gigantic Ikea.

Around the corner is a one-story building called Fantasy Junction. Sounds like a seedy strip club, but luckily it turns out to be a car dealership with a stunning pile of exotica. In addition to countless 911s and E-types, there are racing cars from Aston Martin and Lola, a pre-war Bentley, Alfas, Corvettes and a unique Maserati Indianapolis Coupé that is for sale for 1.4 million dollars. Oh, and a Volvo.

This is what drew me to Fantasy Junction. When I was searching the web for a suitable place to entertain wagon fans, I came across a Volvo V70R next to all kinds of Italian aristocrats. It turned out to be owned by Spencer, one of the company's employees, and he was more than willing to share the parking lot with some fellow nerds.

How we found the station wagon enthusiasts

Here I have to give a quick shout out to Adam Cramer of avants.com, who I found on Instagram and who turned out to be the organizer of, among several other events for car enthusiasts, the annual Pacific Northwest Wagonfest.

He leafed through his address book of station wagon people, hoping to find four, maybe five, owners who were willing to sacrifice their Thursday afternoon to meet a complete stranger in a place where it would be nice not to have your car emptied right under your nose. There were ten. Enthusiasts? You mean fanatics.

They come early. The angry-looking RS 6 is joined by a pair of friendlier-looking Audi S4s, and two lavishly chromed two-door Americans from the late 1950s. Hey, is that the car from Ghostbusters? And there, a monster truck. Let me introduce them to you.

The people who keep station wagons alive in America

Pensionado Henry is busy displaying items dedicated to his beloved Chevy Bel Air. He regularly attends car shows. “I drive to events almost every weekend,” he says, laughing. 'I just follow the young people. They drive in front and say: “Follow us so you don't get lost.”' I'm a bit too British-polite to inquire about his age, but one of his friends later mentions that Henry was already born when his Chevy arrived in 1956. drove out of the factory.

“This car sat in my driveway from 1988 to 1998,” says Henry. He hired renowned custom and motorcycle builder Cole Foster "to get it running, but look what I got." His car is spotless in an almost clinical way. The engine room is fascinating: cleaner than many operating rooms. Henry takes me to the bisected rear to unpack the load of clippings he has amassed from sharing his veteran with a new generation of enthusiasts.

Even Tesla employees are present

It is a broad, mixed group. Khoa is an engineer at Tesla, but his real passion lies with Audi Avants. He and his wife Melissa have five. And because they couldn't decide which one to take with them, they each came with their own car: an almost standard yellow one and Khoa's purple one, which sits particularly low on the wheels. The children wait very patiently while their parents empty out.

“I was already following this car when I first got to know the scene,” Khoa explains. “It's quite famous around the country because it's a converted widebody.” Not really my thing, these kinds of cars, but it must be something about the Californian evening light (and an owner cool enough to get away with it) that will win me over. And I like the straight-talking way Khoa describes the modifications. "It's on BBS LMs, not overly big, and the turbos are from an RS 6. It's a cruiser."

His wife prefers a more subtle family car, if you ignore the mustard color. Melissa's S4 is lowered more gently and is topped by a streamlined ski case. 'It was actually for my son, but I really liked it so I kept it.' Momma knows what's best.

Another Audi

The Original Gangster among Audi's superwagons is represented by Kirk, with his RS 2 Avant. He describes himself as a light beer lover and the RS 2 as his dream car. He wanted one so badly that he bought one sight unseen and then drove it across three completely snow-covered states in one go.

That shouldn't be surprising, because Kirk is quite – but in a cheerful way – crazy. “The thing worked great, the ultimate quattro experience,” he grins. He drove fourteen hours from Seattle to be there, but managed to get a friend to drive the RS 2. He himself was a bit too busy driving his Quattromog.

"I love completely stupid projects, and I had a vision of a lifted Audi even before I had children," he says. 'When I kicked my wife and child, we needed something that could fit child seats, so I looked for a car with damage and a broken engine.'

A new engine and quite a bit of custom high suspension later, here's the baddest A4 in the world, complete with bull bars, winch, roof lights and scars from all the adventures. He's insane and wonderful. Only in a country without an annual MOT can such a device be your daily family car.

But also real Americans

Or something completely different, like the Chevy Malibu that really belonged to an old lady, with a different engine that puts out no less than 700 hp. Owner Andrew mutters this Ferrari-esque figure so casually that he wonders what's going on when I almost pass out from the shock.

'A little old lady drove this car and had kept neat records of where she had gone, where she had refueled and what she had paid for it. But it could use some power, so I left the old weathered paint on, but mounted everything on a new Speedtech chassis and installed an LT4 V8 and a ten-speed automatic transmission. The car just rips.'

A point he reinforces when he leaves later and roars away in his grandma's car with appropriate noise. It is the art of the sleeper, executed to perfection. The Audi RS 6 may be menacing and dark, but it is also a shame that it will never remain as under the radar as an old Malibu with which you can humiliate supercars.

Movie car as a surfing buddy

If extrovert is your thing, then you'll like Adam. Hawaiian shirt, firm handshake and a 5.8 meter long Buick, complete with surfboard. "It fits in my garage – well, just about." This Le Saber beach cruiser from 1960 is his great pride. Most emphatically, it is not the Ghostbusters Ecto-1 that people too often confuse it with – that was a Cadillac ambulance. But suppose a meter-high wave is spotted in your area: who ya gonna call?

"A gentleman in New Jersey wanted to trade it with my 1936 Dodge, and when it was delivered here, I decided to turn it into a beach car." It's a mammoth of a machine, witness to an era when American automotive design was at the cutting edge, when 'can't' didn't exist and the entire country was riding a wave of unbridled economic, political and technical post-war optimism.

Which is our favorite of these station wagons in America?

It's going to be hard to decide which car is my favorite from this mini show; this one or the pea green Pontiac Safari. His boss, Jay Ward, is the creative franchise boss of Pixar, just across the street. So I immediately ask him why this two-door with great character was not a prominent personality in Cars.

"I was working on Ratatouille when I bought this car, but Cars also has some cool hot rods, and lots of fun references to cars from the '50s." Jay bought the Safari as a rusty wreck as his family expanded and has spent three years lovingly restoring it, bidding on rare spare parts on eBay and tracking down tips from the 'wagon network', as he calls it. “Only 1,292 of these were made, which is a minuscule number for General Motors in the 1950s.”

A Corvette in disguise

The Audi RS 6 has the full attention of the gentlemen, as a representative of the modern end of the superwagon spectrum. Steven and his son arrived in a CadillacCTS-V Sport Wagon – probably the last, and fastest, American station wagon. In fact, it's a Corvette ZR1 in the guise of a blocky omnivore.

Steven says he went to the dealer to buy the sedan, but "the best salesman in the world showed me this car, and I couldn't believe such a nice car even existed." The seller was devastated, he said he would miss looking at the car every day.”

'We find each other in our mutual admiration for the humble station wagon'

And then there is Sebastian with his understated, completely standard and wonderfully inconspicuous E 55 AMG. “I take it fly fishing in the Sierras and sleep in the back,” he says. 'It has over 800 Nm and I am simply in love with this car. Every time I get in and leave, he puts a smile on my face.'

It's a far cry from the modern, tech-packed, garish-looking AMGs with hybrid this and haptic that. The wheels look almost comically thin these days. But: supercharged V8 party in the front, mega space in the back – great.

The end of our car meeting with station wagons in America

As the sun sets behind the bay and the buzz of evening commuters fades away, we sip dubious fizzy drinks and find each other in our mutual admiration for the humble station wagon, in all its forms.

One by one we shake hands and leave to spread the Good Word wherever we go. Are we in the minority, compared to the SUVs? Sure, but that's a fad, not a culture. For the real thing? I like big boots and I cannot lie.