Why Do Car Geeks Love Wagons?

The slavering over BMW’s Concept Touring Coupe, and other longroofs, may confound the casual driver. For gearheads, wagons are worth obsessing over.

October 16, 2023 6:55 am
A scrapbook with photos of a station wagon or shooting brake, specifically the BMW Concept Touring Coupe
Among car folks, wagons elicit a fervor on par with teen heartthrobs and Taylor Swift.

The upper crust of the automotive cognoscenti are gathered for a garden party-style unveiling on the edge of Lake Como. Underneath an elegantly draped sheet sits a tantalizing piece of automotive machinery, but is it a vintage-styled roadster? An electric hypercar? A luxury SUV that won’t offend the heritage of its marque? 

The model that eventually dropped cover at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este would absolutely baffle non-car people: the BMW Concept Touring Coupe, a one-off reimagining that transforms the already niche Z4 into an even more niche hunchbacked mini-wagon, or as they’d say across the pond, a shooting brake. 

Your everyday driver might not comprehend why the concept is special, but car folks freaked out. After I shared snapshots on Instagram Stories from the event this summer, my inbox jammed up with drool emojis and breathless gotta-have-it messages. The frenzy begs the question: what is it with wagons, and why do they make gearheads lose their collective minds?

BMW Concept Touring Coupe reveal at the 2023 Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este
“Hey, no drooling on the concept!”
Basem Wasef

Haters Gonna Hate…SUVs

The first thing to know about diehard car people is that we get unnaturally attached to rigid ideals. Maxims repeated like gospel within our inner circles can include, but are not limited to: hybrids are bad, turbochargers [as opposed to naturally aspirated engines] are cheating, all cars should be manuals, and one of my personal favorites, wagons rule. 

While it may sound like an immutable rule, the latter statement became popular more out of a reaction to the bloating of passenger cars into SUVs than from a simple appreciation for longroof vehicles. Trucks like the Jeep Cherokee, Ford Explorer and Isuzu Trooper may have helped the modern SUV trend reach critical mass in the ‘90s, but it wasn’t until the genre started threatening the very idea of a conventional car that traditionalists began screaming bloody murder. The SUV trend was unstoppable, with automakers like Ford famously killing every conventional passenger car in their lineup except for the iconic Mustang. Adding insult to injury, the Blue Oval appropriated the Mustang name and applied it to the Mustang Mach-E, a new model that doubly offended enthusiasts with its battery-electric SUV configuration.

Inside the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, the Greatest Car Show You’ve Never Heard Of
Every year, motoring royalty — and their multi-million-dollar masterpieces — convene on the manicured shores of Lake Como

The more carmakers embraced the sport utility vehicle, the greater the enmity among the hardliners. Consider Porsche’s 2002 entry into the genre with the Cayenne, and later, the Macan compact crossover. Considering that the Stuttgart brand’s fans are among the most dedicated on the planet, it’s no wonder they balked at the idea of a sports car on stilts. Only later would the irony be apparent; Porsche’s most extreme track-focused two-seaters are now funded by the company’s SUVs, which outsell the sports cars by more than two to one.

With every ultra-luxury and performance brand’s slip into SUV-dom came more pearl-clutching from fanatics. By the time Bentley, Maserati, Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin revealed their own sport-utes between 2015 and 2020, fanboys were more aghast than ever. The last straw came in 2022, when Ferrari and Lotus — two of the most undiluted performance brands — revealed family haulers of their own. The romantic motoring was finally dead, and with it the loss of everything car lovers love about cars, or so the storyline goes.

A studio shot of the BMW Concept Touring Coupe
Here’s a test: Do you see a car? Or do you see the love of your life?

A Modest Proposal

Wagons appeal to the SUV-averse because they offer a viable solution to the soul-sapping proposition of high-riding, whale-like sport-utes that disrespect the simple pleasures of spirited, devil-may-care motoring. By extending a sedan’s relatively low roofline and thus expanding its cargo capacity, a wagon’s center of gravity remains sporty, thereby enabling zippier handling and sleeker lines. As the share of new SUV and truck sales have swollen to 80% of the U.S. market, up from just over 50% in 2011, the numbers have flip-flopped with sedans and wagons which hogged around 80% of light-duty vehicle sales in 1975. 

Remember Clark Griswold’s Family Truckster? What was once emblematic of the all-American road-trip machine quickly became relegated to irrelevance. As practical wagons like the Volkswagen Passat and Jaguar XF Sportbrake went the way of the dinosaur, new car shoppers repeated the sentiment that the only way to see past the elevated vehicles around them was to be in an elevated vehicle themselves. The if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em mentality led to a domino effect of discontinuations, leaving just a few outliers like the Audi RS 6, Subaru Crosstrek and Mercedes-Benz E-Class Wason on the table for shooting brake fans. 

Now that their numbers are diminished, wagons generally tend to fall into one of two very specific themes: the rugged (Subaru’s dog-friendly Crosstrek, the upcoming Mercedes-Benz E-Class All-Terrain Wagon), and the quick (Audi’s fire-breathing RS 6 Avant, the nearly 500-horsepower Volvo V60 Recharge).

BMW Concept Touring Coupe, a one-off wagon/shooting brake concept vehicle
There are no official plans to produce the BMW Touring Coupe, but there are buyers ready to jump at the chance.

Which Brings Us Back to Europe

Embattled American longroof enthusiasts often idolize the European market, which embraces the genre; it’s a place where hot-rod wagons like the BMW M3 Touring and Mercedes-AMG CLA Shooting Brake — forbidden fruit in the States — are thriving. Perhaps BMW created the Concept Touring Coupe because Europeans still “get” wagons, while Americans merely pine for them. Adding to that element of desire are high-end features like baseball-stitched leather seats and fitted luggage by Modena-based Schedoni. In addition to the internal corporate clearance required to build the one-off, the commissioned show car involved coordination with Superstile, the Turin-based firm, for its fast-track concept car construction.

BMW’s wagon concept features delicately nuanced contouring and a sexily pinched tumblehome, and feels right at home with the best of the company’s design language by incorporating their signature Hofmeister Kink while paying homage to beloved ancestors like the Z3 Coupe. (For a little inside baseball, that latter model was affectionately nicknamed “Clown Shoe” for its wonky proportions.) Considering wagons constituted less than 1% of BMW’s U.S. market share before the genre was abandoned Stateside, the new Concept Touring Coupe was clearly aimed at markets other than ours. But that doesn’t mean a vocal minority of American BMW loyalists haven’t spoken up. 

“BMW fans have certainly taken notice, heaping praise on the concept and practically begging BMW to build a production version,” says Ed Kim, president and chief analyst at AutoPacific. “Delivering such a concept can help BMW’s traditional fans know that the brand hasn’t abandoned them.” 

As unlikely as it seems that a quirky concept that debuted to a small crowd would see production, stranger things have happened. Consider the 2015 unveiling of the fantastical 3.0 CSL Hommage concept, a reimagining of BMW’s legendary homologated race cars. Thanks to the warm reception at Villa d’Este, the model recently entered a limited production run of 50 units, graced with a staggering €750,000 sticker price. 

“While it probably wouldn’t be a big revenue generator for BMW, a production version could theoretically be a low investment undertaking that could make a very effective halo vehicle,” Kim says. “The Z4’s platform has already been engineered to accept a hardtop coupe body because of its platform-mate, the Toyota Supra, so in theory, the Concept Touring Coupe could be productionized without too much difficulty. While the mainstream shopper likely won’t take much notice, it could serve as a powerful statement that in this changing automotive environment, BMW is still connected to its roots.” 

According to BMW design boss Adrian van Hooydonk, if a production version of the Concept Touring Coupe actually became reality, there are people waiting in line to buy.

“One person already sent me a WhatsApp message last week saying ‘Whatever it is, I’ll take it,’” van Hooydonk told InsideHook the morning after the unveiling. “At least two or three people have said they want it,” he added, a headcount that has likely only grown since the event in May.

Whether or not this diminutive wagon sees production, the fact that major manufacturers are building enthusiast-appeasing concepts delivers a clear message to those on the automotive fringes: Carmakers are not only listening, some are actually daring to do something about it.

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