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


  1. Monty
    October 19, 2016 at 10:53 am — Reply

    Good points. I’d never buy an SUV without AWD. Seems completely pointless. The nearest many get to off road is dodging the potholes at the supermarket car park (in our case that is not so funny!). One of the reasons I went for the latest Tiguan is 200mm ground clearance. I won’t be going seriously off road but there are plenty of fun trails that don’t require full on 4 x 4 but I will be more comfortable with AWD. I can go to the snow without hassling about chains also.

    • RealRaodDriver
      October 22, 2016 at 9:38 pm — Reply

      Really? A Tiguan on snow? Or any other FWD-based “AWD”? View the you tube videos of these cars on roller ramps: if the rear wheels actually engage in any real world application (unlikely and slow), you’ll be already in trouble and struggling to regain traction. The only “AWD” cars that work in low traction situations are those with at least some drive to all wheels all the time. Rule in Discovery Sport, Evoque, Forester, Cherokee, Vitara (small to medium). Rule out everything else . I’m omitting X3 and Q5, XC60 because they are otherwise too low, heavy and expensive. CX5, CRV, are merely the worst offenders but Santa Fe, Sportage, Tiguan, All Track (wish I could say Scout / Yeti but Skoda Australia won’t sell you a new AWD) and even (new) X Trail are FWD until trouble hits. And then it’s too late.

      • October 23, 2016 at 6:44 am — Reply

        Yes, really.

        I know the videos of which you speak, and some are horrendous. But, many softroaders can be made to work in sand. I have driven many of them offroad. Behold:

      • Monty
        October 23, 2016 at 8:48 am — Reply

        Yep, on snow. It has a “snow mode” setting for the AWD. I did a lot of research before committing my hard earned. No, it’s not MC but that is not what I was looking for either.

        • October 23, 2016 at 11:23 am — Reply

          The snow mode is for slippery surfaces more than deep snow in which it can be counter productive. However good it has a mode.

          • Monty
            October 24, 2016 at 8:38 am

            Thanks for pointing that out. I hope I never have to find that out for myself!

          • Monty
            November 2, 2016 at 2:10 pm

            Hello Robert,

            I’m happy with the Tiguan so far. However, the OEM tyres fitted are not available in Australia. I am not so happy about that. Is the importer obliged to supply the OEM tyre or ensure that they can be bought? Michelin don’t bring them in and VW suggested Pirelli’s instead. Seems ridicluous to me.

          • November 4, 2016 at 10:42 am

            Hi Monty, glad you’re enjoying your Tiguan. I’ve spoken with VW Australia and been assured that both Michelin and Hankook tyres were homologated for Tiguan and that Michelin locally should have an ample supply of them in the coming weeks. That said, if you need a new tyre ASAP, let me know, because VW said they had a few spares for customers. – Isaac

          • Monty
            November 4, 2016 at 1:56 pm

            That is indeed good news. I could not imagine that they would not be bringing in the right tyre but that is not the feedback I’ve been getting. Obviously I don’t have the same contacts as you!

  2. Styggavargen
    April 23, 2017 at 3:30 am — Reply

    With a heavier SUV you need 4WD/AWD, and I do not know why people don’t realize that SUV is much worse than a regular car like Volvo V70/Octavia etc. Always they told me that sitting higher is much better, but why? I miss small children or animals when I’m sitting higher up with poor visibility both in front of car, and also behind the car. You need camera when driving SUV’s. When all people buy SUV the height is not any advantage anymore, only negative since the vehicle have worse handling due to higher center of gravity. Fuel consumption is always higher in a SUV compared to a same-sized car. There are so many negative sides with a SUV, compared to a regular car. And if someone says “You sit higher and the car is safer”, I respond… “How can that be, for how long since all today buying SUV those arguments tend to fall straight down the drain.”. You not even need AWD/4WD on a regular car to ride on 99% of all roads in developed countries.

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Alex Rae

Alex Rae