The full-size station wagon lives for 1991, despite the onslaught of minivans in this market and efforts by Saddam Hussein to make a gallon of gas dearer for us all.
For motorists who cannot manage with anything less than a spacious land yacht that seats eight in comfort, Chevrolet's 1991 Caprice wagon enters the market this fall with its first major restyling in 14 years.Like the 1991 Caprice sedan reviewed earlier, the wagon's rear-drive, full-frame chassis is carried over from 1990. But its interior is completely new, as is its windswept body, which some say makes this new Caprice look like a Mercury Sable wagon on steroids.
The Caprice wagon gives the word "big" a new meaning. At just over 18 feet long, it is among the largest station wagons now sold in America. (New wagons from Buick and Oldsmobile, Chevrolet's sister divisions at General Motors, share the same body style and dimensions as the Caprice.)
But archrival Ford will not offer a full-sized wagon after 1991, while Chrysler has been out of this market for years.
Powering the Caprice wagon is an electronically fuel-injected 5.0 liter V8 engine that delivers 170 horsepower at 4,200 rpm. Coupled to a 4-speed automatic transmission with overdrive, it too is little changed from 1990.
This drivetrain also is found in the new Caprice sedan. But because of the wagon's 4,354-pound curb weight - nearly 450 pounds more than the sedan - fuel mileage is down by 1 mpg overall, to 16 mpg city/25 mpg highway.
That parks the Caprice wagon pretty close to gas-guzzler territory. But its cruising range is still a respectable 500 miles because of its 22-gallon fuel tank, which is made of plastic.
Like the sedan, the Caprice wagon has a driver-side air bag, antilock brakes and air conditioning as standard. But these items have helped swell the Caprice wagon's base price to $17,875, from $15,705 for the 1990 version.
The model tested wore a sticker price of $20,419 after the $535 destination fee and several popular options were added: a rear window defogger ($160), upgraded interior ($223) and an $1,180 package including electric windows and door locks, AM-FM stereo cassette, speed control and adjustable steering wheel.
Also added was a $171 trailering package that lets the Caprice wagon tow up to 5,000 pounds, as well as a limited-slip differential ($100) and a pneumatic load leveling suspension ($175).
The Caprice wagon shares many interior parts with the sedan from the center pillars forward. Its third seat faces rearward and seats two adults in comfort.
The rear window flips up, while the tailgate can either be lowered or opened sideways - an excellent feature which many modern wagons lack. Cargo space with the second and third seats folded is nearly 93 cubic feet.
The Caprice wagon has a smooth, insulated ride that many big car owners will find familiar, thanks to its traditional body-on-frame construction, 116-inch wheelbase and coil spring suspension.
As expected, this wagon is no slalom champion. But it handles its massive proportions with surprising aplomb during emergency maneuvers, and the antilock brakes were found to haul it to a quick stop every time without drama.
The only on-road complaint had to do with a low-pitched wind noise above 45 mph, traced to the roof-mounted luggage rack. Chevrolet says a redesigned rack is already in production.
Otherwise, the same list of gripes with the sedan version applies to the Caprice wagon: a cheap-feeling steering wheel, gearshift lever and glovebox door, and squishy seats that lack proper back and thigh support.
On the plus side are large, easily read gauges and controls, a pull-out cup and coin holder, and wide arm rests on the doors - not to mention all that interior room and a hushed, smooth ride.
The fit and finish of the Caprice wagon evaluated was disappointing, however, especially in light of GM's recent crowing about quality improvements.
Its paint job was marred by an "orange peel" finish on several panels, and there was very uneven application in the tailgate jamb. There also were noticeably uneven gaps between the right and left side doors.
Chevrolet is convinced there is still a market for big wagons, with the Caprice wagon catering to buyers in their early 50s vs. those over 55 for the sedan.
But sales are expected to total between 20,000 and 30,000 a year - a tiny fraction of what most minivans sell for these days, and only 10 percent or 15 percent of total Caprice sales.
Like most GM vehicles, the 1991 Caprice wagon carries a three-year/50,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty.