Car Advice

What to buy, an SUV or a wagon?

SUV vs wagon: which is better to buy, and why buy one over the other?

THE SUV IS a global sales success story, storming past passenger vehicles (like hatchbacks, sedans, and wagons) to become the best-selling vehicle (behind the light commercial segment) on the Australian market. Walk into just about any showroom and there’ll be a slew of different sizes of SUVs waiting to grab sales… and you’ll be lucky to see much else. In fact, Mitsubishi Australia has already confirmed it will only sell SUVs, utes and vans soon. 

So is the tremendous sales support for SUVs a result of them being better cars for families? 

There are several points about the SUV that make it both attractive and at the same time perhaps not so attractive. So let’s look at the arguments many people make as to why they might buy one over the other.

An SUV provides a commanding driving position with good visibility

Yes, the high-up position does give SUVs a commanding view, but it can also mean they’re more cumbersome to drive with any sort of enthusiasm, leaning heavily in corners. Indeed, unless your SUV is something sporty like an Audi RS Q3, it’s unlikely to match a wagon for on-road driving dynamics.

This is, of course, purely a matter of priority. But keep in mind that generally speaking the better handling an SUV is, the firmer its suspension has to be. That hurts ride quality, but most adaptive damper systems can go both ways.

Audi S4 Avant is both sporty and practical

And, not all SUVs offer greater visibility either, especially some models which often have only slightly more ground clearance than a wagon – and many are worse with their big, slabby rear ends that tend to block rear-three quarter vision.

Indeed, most of the cars tested are fitted with reversing cameras, but that’s not what we’re talking about here, rather it’s the rear three-quarter or the size of the rear windscreen itself that can restrict rear three-quarter vision in an SUV compared with a wagon. That said, reversing cameras are now almost standard on all SUVs, and cross-traffic alert systems are common.

Easy in and easy out

SUVs sit higher than a normal car and so getting in and out can be easier. For moving kids and babies around this can be especially true, though sometimes the extra height can be a chore as it requires lifting up. And things are not equal around the back, where the wagon is usually easier to load cargo inside because of the lower floor; an SUV requires hefting items up, rather than sliding them in and out.

The Skoda Octavia wagon is medium size outside, but has a usefully large boot inside

Not all SUVs offer more room

Here’s a surprise – generally an SUV is no roomier than a comparably sized car. Just because the SUV sits higher doesn’t mean it is bigger inside.

Look at the boot space in some compact SUVs and it’s woeful. The reason? Twofold – those SUVs with all-wheel drive often lose space to the drive system. It means the floor has to be higher, which negates any extra space you might get by being taller than a car.

Some other SUVs, like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, have huge boots that are both wide and tall. So on very large SUVs, the boot should be generously sized, but on smaller SUVs, they can be much smaller than expected.

Are SUVs safer than normal cars?

Many buyers cite the SUV’s perceived safety in their decision to buy one. Chief of these pluses – at least in the buyer’s mind – is that because the vehicle sits high and generally has more metal than a car, it will come off better in a collision. That is usually the case, if only because of the weight of the average SUV and not because its crumple zones or active safety systems are better than an equivalently priced wagon.

A lot of cars, regardless of their size, have a five-star ANCAP rating

Child safety is also given as a reason for buying an SUV, again mainly because of the perception the child is surrounded by lots of metal and airbags and because the SUV is up there above other road users. But cars too have plenty of metal and are well built from a safety perspective with airbags to cocoon passengers in the event of an accident. And with so many SUVs on the road these days, it’s not sitting any higher than most other cars on the road.

SUVs can go off-road

Well, up to a point. But there has been a tendency by vehicle manufacturers to cash in on the SUV body format – that rugged no-nonsense design – and yet jettison the all-wheel drive for less expensive front- or rear-wheel drive. In fact, the Ford Territory – which was an Australian success story – sold considerably more rear-wheel drive versions than the all-wheel drive variant. That then begs the question, why pay more for an SUV with extra weight and fuel consumption over and above a comparably sized – well comparably internally sized – wagon?

Volkswagen Tiguan

Partly that seems to be down to taste at the moment, which has shifted to the bolder look of the SUV. It can’t be to do with the go-anywhere ability because many of these SUVs are overwhelmingly bought in front-wheel drive, and while they are higher off the ground than a typical wagon they don’t necessarily have better grip.

Now, if you choose an all-wheel drive SUV then for sure it can go places your normal front-wheel drive SUV (unless it’s a Suzuki Vitara) or lower-slung wagon cannot even dream of, but if you’re not going to use the all-wheel drive to tackle fire trails, then it’s hardly worth having. Why have all that extra weight and consequent fuel sucking if you’re just going to be driving around town most of the time?

Have a question about wagons vs SUVs or have something to say? Comment below or join our Facebook group page

Further reading

// Too many SUVs on the road!

// What 4X4 to choose if you don’t want a 4X4

// How to choose a seven-seat SUV

Alex Rae

Alex Rae