Big things with little cars

Wagon Wednesday: Family Car Shopping, circa 1996

Picture this: it’s 1996 and you are a reasonably successful young professional looking to start a family. Nowadays you’d probably just reach for the nearest CUV and call it a day, but things were different back then. You had these three European estates to choose from: the BMW E36 wagon, the outgoing Volvo 850 wagon, and the brand-new Mercedes-Benz W210 wagon, from smallest to largest. What to choose?


By 1996, the E36 wagon is two years old and thus still a pretty fresh face. Following the Yuppie BMW craze of the ‘80s and the E30, the E36 has matured slightly but preserves most of the sporting intention of its predecessor; there’s no doubt about it—this is certainly the driver’s choice with its taut chassis and FR layout. It’s also the smallest choice, though, trading off those wonderful dynamics with a relatively tight rear seat and boot. Is it enough for you and your burgeoning family?

On the other hand, 1996 is the last model year for the venerable Volvo 850 wagon. There’s the new P80 V70 just around the corner, so deals are to be had on the old FWD brick; there’s no question that the Bimmer is the better driver, but the Volvo was a force to be reckoned with in its day, shrugging off the dowdiness of its RWD forebears to bring a more hot-hatch aesthetic to the family estate with BTCC and the T-5R. With some money on the hood and gusto underneath it, perhaps this is the sweet spot between the two Teutons.


Finally there is the mighty W210 wagon—new for 1997! It’s big, it’s brash, it’s bold, and quite expensive. With that budget, the best you could hope for would probably be a paltry, ~100 hp diesel under that massive bonnet, but at least you’d have plenty of room for the family! Also, it’s a Benz wagon so it’s got to be reliable, right? Right? Sure, it’s the dowdiest of the three with the BMW’s Yuppie persona and the Volvo’s playful professionalism proving considerably and marginally more youthful, respectively. You’ve got a family, though, so that shouldn’t matter.


Well, what say you of these options? From a modern perspective, though they certainly aren’t completely comparable, there’s no doubt they probably saw a fair bit of cross-shopping from families weighing their options between old and new, small and large, nimble and comfortable. The BMW had the market cornered on driving fun; Volvo, on safety; and Mercedes, on reliability. As the brands have mellowed out over the past few decades, Volvo has held the closest to their ideal though everyone has become a fair bit more competitive with each other. What hasn’t changed, though, is how families still shop with some margin of randomness in an attempt to find what’s right for them; the difference now is X5, XC90, or GLE?


Side Note: These models are all 1:72 (labelled) Hongwell/Cararama models though they somewhat exceed that and likely run around 1:69-1:70. They are from before Hongwell decided to pursue a much higher quality standard and accurate scaling and that is readily apparent with the flashing that appears in certain areas and the quite questionable detailing consistency. The fronts are quite polished and well-executed; the rears, not so much with the Merc sporting huge thumb-prints as taillights and the Volvo’s signature rear hatch being modeled as a football goalpost. Still, they are fun little models to have and certainly spark the question I asked a few years back: what’s the distinction between a toy and a display piece? With these, that line is infinitely blurred!

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