10 Best Budget Wagons for Enthusiasts
Every enthusiast loves wagons, find your unicorn for around $10,000.
As much as we don’t want to admit it (me in particular), the newest car from the ‘90s is almost old enough to enlist in the military. And that generation of cars being my absolute favorite to mod, I have to come to the realization that eventually it’s going to be difficult to find parts, and things will start breaking… more than they have already.
But as enthusiasts grow from being young and dumb kids to adults with families, we start needing larger vehicles. I settled for a hatchback when I bought my Focus ST, but what I really would have preferred is the Estate offered in Europe for that little bit of more room in the back. So that got me thinking – why do enthusiasts like wagons? What is it that makes them our Unicorns? Maybe it’s the click-clack of a manual gearbox, or the hatch that can hold sets of wheels with ease – all while our significant other is under the impression that we’re really growing up and leaving our childish car-loving tendencies in the past (boy, are they wrong).
Another thing we love is money. So the goal of this project was to find the ten best wagons made from 2000 – 2009, all while remaining under $10,000. Here’s what we’ve got:
#10 – 2004 Volkswagen Passat W8
I’ve driven two B5.5 Passat in my life, and both were simple 1.8 liter turbo cars with a proper three-pedal configuration. It was a decent ride; very German-esque and things in their place in the interior. Rather boring. But what Volkswagen did from 2001 to 2004 made a bold statement: You can have a luxury ride that sounds like an F1 car. And, boy – the W8 sounded great.
It was also fairly quick. The eight cylinder motor had a footprint that took up the same room as a standard V6 by cramming the cylinders into the block at a much more narrow 15 degree angle. It produced around 271bph and 273lb/ft of torque while still offering 25mpg on the highway, but still sold less than 40,000 units by the end of its four year run in the Passat.
#9 – 2001 Audi S4 Avant
I promise, this isn't all German cars. But another great platform we need to talk about is the B5 Audi S4.
Some claim this is the best generation of S4, as its biturbo 2.7l v6 produces a whopping 261bph and 295 lb/ft of torque. Others will disagree and cite reliability, which is a legitimate concern. Not only will you be working on this car often, but because of the cramped bay, you will be removing a lot of things to get to small places.
As for drivability, Volkswagen group is famed for their All Wheel Drive system, “Quattro”, as being one of the most refined and economical systems. The S4 uses a torsen-based, or "torque sensing", limited slip center differential. Unlike a haldex differential used in some newer Volkswagens, this differential is a near 50/50 split of front and rear power delivery. Where else can you get a car that you can push around turns, hear turbos scream, and still feel like you’re going on a road trip? Just don’t be disappointed when you arrive much sooner than anticipated.
#8 – 2004 Lexus IS 300 SportCross
Wait a second; don’t tell me that you didn’t know this existed, right? Actually, I didn’t either for the longest time. I was driving to work one morning and there was a SportCross parked in front of my neighbor’s home. I was amazed (and slightly disappointed in myself for not knowing that it was real) and have wanted one ever since.
The famous 2JZ Toyota inline-6 sits under the hood, but is a few turbos short of being the GTE variant found in the Supra. This does make the car feel a bit under-powered sporting only 215bhp and 218 lb/ft torque. And weighing around 3,500lbs, it tips the scales at nearly the same as an e90 BMW with abysmal relative power. But, this doesn’t make it any less fun. It handles the corners, gobbles up some slides, and feels like a proper car. If Lexus would have fit a manual transmission in the car from the factory, it would have been a true unicorn-mobile.
Coming in Lexus’ very own banana-yellow flavor color, Solar Yellow, the car is pretty sharp as a whole. Lexus even retained body lines and tapered off the roof. Albeit, this does kind of hamper the usability of the “wagon” aspect of the car, but it does fit more stuff and technically has a hatch. So we’ll call it a wagon.
#7 – Volvo V70 R
Sweed speed is something that is pretty coveted in the automotive community. We all know of crazy antics of the preceding T5-R model, or the longevity and reliability of the Volvo 240 – but what makes this family estate so great?
Power! That’s what. An all-new haldex AWD setup provided the power to the ground while a 2.5l five cylinder motor spun a single turbo. The result? 296bph and 295lb/ft of near-symmetrical torque. Couple all of this to a six speed manual transmission and you have yourself the enthusiast’s dream car.
It drove with characteristics similar to that of a land-yacht – floating and comfortable, while still being able to smuggle goods across international waters due to its vast cargo capacity. The captain’s chair had giant bolsters, and the center console was full of dials and buttons that required a tour at sea to learn how to use. Maybe I’m exaggerating. But for the price, you can afford to buy this and another project while remaining under budget.
Oh, did I mention headlight wipers?
#6 – Mini Cooper Clubman JCW
Stop, I know what you’re thinking – “Minis are hatches”. Actually, Mini calls the Clubman a wagon, and they even have a derivative called the Clubvan (can you guess that it’s a van?). Minis have come a long way from their elders. I’ve driven in an older Austin Mini with zero confidence in my ability to survive a light tap to the door, and can absolutely say that the power delivery is more than desirable when comparing the two.
It’s safe to say that I do not prefer front-wheel driven vehicles when I have the option to purchase the same model in an all or rear-wheel drive configuration. The Mini is a vehicle which I am not hesitant to buy again and again just the way it is.
Its tiny 1.6 liter motor is the smallest included in this list, however produces 208bph and 192 lb/ft of torque. That's an impressive 130 horsepower per liter while still offering 37 highway mpg and three pedals. Weighing in at 2,888lbs, this also makes it one of the lightest of the list. One thing that will require getting used to is torque steer caused by the front wheel drive configuration. It pulls, and it spins. So learning to modulate the pedal under load is important in low gears.
The interior is surprisingly spacious, and assuming you don’t need a back seat, you possibilities are nearly endless for storage. If I could just get over the spaceship look in the center, I’d be set.
#5 – Subaru Legacy GT
I’m going to preface this suggestion with the disclaimer that I’ve owned a Legacy GT. I’ve owned it so much that I put two motors in the car over my two years of ownership. Why would I still list it, despite the notorious mechanical issues present with the turbo 2.5 liter Subaru motors? Because despite that, it’s a great automobile.
When comparing it side by side to a similar model-year German car, you are not getting all of the bells-and-whistles. In fact, depending on the year, you may not be able to even add an Aux port to your radio without soldering or importing the Japanese HVAC cluster.
But what you will have is a no-frills joyride of a car. The power comes on early and lasts to redline. Curvy roads are a mere snack to the car, as the AWD system simply treats the corners like its eating an entire bag of Goldfish crackers. And the sounds, oh the sounds. I am a sucker for the sound of a flat-four with unequal length headers, spotting the sound of a boxer motor miles away.
If you are willing to keep up on maintenance and possibly accept the cost of a new motor at some point during your ownership, this is the car for you.
#4 – 2000 BMW 540i Touring
The e39 is highly regarded as one of the best sedans ever built in mass numbers and sold around the globe. In fact, the M52 found in the e39 is one of the stoutest inline sixes BMW produced, finding its way into almost at least one trim on ever model car BMW produced in the ‘90s. But this isn’t your grandma’s 528i we’re talking about. Welcome the 540i Touring.
Under the hood lies BMW's M62 v8, producing 291bph and 340 ft/lb of torque, mated to the same 6-speed gearbox found in the e39 M5. The exhaust note on the e39 540i rivals the W8 Passat. Instead of singing the song of F1 revs, the 540i screams “look at me” muscle.
Again, the catch is going to be maintenance. Plagued with its lengthy repairs (and costly if you’re buying parts from the dealership), including frequent cooling system problems. Frankly, you’ll be finding yourself constantly worried about every bad idle or misfire and how much it will hurt your pocket (watch and wallet). But is it really that much more satisfying than tossing around a big boat that stays planted on the road while you thrash about?
#3 – 2008 Saab 9-3 SportCombi Aero
Born from Jets, but now the subject of purchasing consideration is the 2008 Saab 9-3 SportsCombi. What does Saab do best? Weird stuff like the Turbo Sensonic clutchless manual transmission and mounting the engine with the accessory belt facing the firewall. Why pick this car as an enthusiast’s wagon?
First and foremost is the styling. Another weird Saab thing, right? But you’ll notice that the car seems oddly modern, despite being over eight years old at this point. Saab made it a point to make the car interesting and draw attention towards areas other than the cargo space. Meaning, “don’t call it a wagon”. Lexus took the same approach when designing their SportCross; steeply arch the hatch and draw attention to the other lines of the car. It was one of the most drastic styling changes when shown at Saab Festival in Sweden.
This is also one of the most highly regarded cars on this list when talking reliability. The 2.8L found in the Aero even found itself listed in the Ward’s 10 Best Engines. Producing 255bhp and 258 lb/ft of torque, the 3,700lb monster is quick enough to be respectable. Saab, being the weird company that everyone loves, even opted for a 6 speed manual transmission.
The interior is fairly vanilla looking. Most surfaces are flat; the cluster is boring; Saab’s giant “T” shaped airbag steering wheel stares at you, judging your decision to not buy a Saab earlier in your life. It’s largest downfall, in my opinion, is the weak interior that just makes the car feel more boring than it really is.
Good luck finding this configuration, as it will likely be the most difficult of the lot. Nothing good comes easy.
#2 – 2008 Chevrolet HHR SS
I told you it wasn’t all German cars on the list. There are some Swedish and domestic cars too!
I remember looking at the HHR when it was first introduced and feeling that it was a very retro take on the modern panel van. I was also 15 and thought that my 1995 Eagle Talon TSi was the best car in the world. I would later find out just how wrong I was.
In 2008, GM decided to throw their LNF motor (AKA: the "SIDI") into the HHR SS. My first time riding in a car with the SIDI motor was the following year, in 2009. A friend who worked at a Saturn dealer was given a brand new Sky Redline to take to graduation. That was a fun car. And with the motor being in the HHR SS, all 260bhp and 260lb/ft of torque were available from the 2.0l power train. All of that coupled a 5-speed manual transmission in a 3300lb platform result in a 6.2 second 0-60.
The interior is proper to a mid-2000’s car. Round vents as well as modern-esque radio and HVAC controls pepper the center. The seat’s bolsters are fairly tight around the mid section, but don’t do much to keep your butt in place. Enough to be sporty without sacrificing the integrity of the wagon.
#1 – 2008 BMW 535xi
What happens when you take the e39 and mold it into with a bit more curves? BMW decided to keep the traditional interior styling of the e39, though slightly more “bubbly”. Though some prefer tradition, the owners who I have spoken with all have the same longing of a more modern feel out of the interior.
But that shouldn’t be off-putting. What it lacks for in character, it makes up for in pure fun. The introduction of the N54 brought forward the nickname of “the new 2JZ”, referring to the twin turbo inline-6 setup of the power plant. What kind of power, you ask? The N54 touts 300bph and 300lb/ft of torque out of the motor, and due to the small turbo size, power is nearly instantaneous.
The weight is a bit more than one would expect at slightly over 4,000lbs when fully loaded with xDrive. The car still handles like a dream while in a straight line and merging on the highway, but even with the sophisticated AWD, the 535xi falls short in the corners. Nevertheless, it provides easy thrills on the highway or while ripping up the street.
Who know why we love wagons so much. Maybe it's the versatility, or maybe it's the kid inside of us trying to stay young. No matter what it is that drives you, enjoy your wagons!