Heft and heritage abound in this all-American bruiser.

This car is obviously a survivor from another era, and there's something to be said for that.

Driving around in a Caprice Classic Wagon calls to mind the image of a homecoming bonfire, the pungent aroma of autumnal leaf-burning and a flock of teenagers crammed into the family wagon en route to a Friday night football game.

A simpler, more innocent America. A time when cars with lots of power and room were the standard, rather than the exception.

Of course, it helps if you're old enough to remember such a time. That's one of the reasons the market for these big General Motors wagons -- the Caprice has a cousin at Buick, the Roadmaster Estate Wagon -- is composed primarily of older buyers. No, it's not leading edge, but contemporary technology helps keep this vehicle current.

Walkaround

This would have been considered a big wagon even in the '50s and '60s, and by today's standards it's simply huge -- more than 2 feet longer than a Ford Taurus Wagon. Which is precisely why it persists. For all the popularity of minivans and sport-utility vehicles, there are still folks who prefer the look, ride and power of a traditional full-size rear-drive wagon.

It's not an enormous market, but GM has it all to itself. Ford dropped the Country Squire from its Crown Victoria lineup a few years back, and there aren't any other players.

The Caprice wagon is available in two models: the well-equipped Classic and the even-better-equipped Classic LS, which we tested.

There were vast woodgrain trim panels on the sides of our test car, an element of the good old days that frankly we could do without. That goes for the optional wire wheel covers, too.

GM research indicates that most Chevrolet big-wagon buyers prefer the woodgrain trim, but you do have a choice here -- it's a delete option.

There are no choices concerning the powertrain, but we think you'll like what's offered. Unlike the standard Caprice sedan, which is powered by a 200-hp 4.3-liter V-8, the wagon comes with a Corvette engine (Chevy's LT1 V-8) and a four-speed automatic transmission.

We aren't suggesting this makes the Caprice some sort of sport wagon. But it does provide plenty of punch for passing and stoplight getaways.

Like all members of the Caprice lineup, the wagon includes four-wheel anti-lock brakes as standard, as well as dual airbags.

An element of this car's safety appeal that's more difficult to quantify is its construction. The Caprice is a body-on-frame car -- the body and frame are separate elements, unlike a unit-body car, which combines the chassis and body as one piece.

Unit-body construction reduces weight by a lot, which is why most of today's cars use this technique. But body-on-frame gets high marks for its ability to take punishment, and it puts a lot of mass between you and whatever you might run into.

The Inside Story

The time warp gets even stronger when you climb inside. Although there's a 55/45 split between the front seats, they can easily accommodate three across, which was once the American standard.

The middle seat is a bench, again with room for three, and there's a smaller seat behind that, suitable for two -- preferably two kids.

We found the seat padding to be a little on the soft side, one element of the nostalgia trip that probably wouldn't suffer from an update.

With all the rear seats folded, the Caprice Wagon has an impressive cargo bay. It's not as versatile as a minivan -- the low ceiling does impose limits -- but it will swallow a large quantity of ordinary family gear, or enough groceries to feed a platoon.

The double-hinged rear door makes it easier to exploit the cargo space. Pop up the rear window, then swing it down and it's a loading platform. Swing it out, like a door, and it's not as much of a stretch to reach deep inside.

Although a digital speedometer and dual airbags are hardly retro touches, the concept behind the Caprice instrument panel echoes the 1950s, when all you really needed to know was how fast you were going. There are also fuel and temperature gauges, but that's about it. Uncomplicated.

However, simple doesn't mean spartan. Not here, anyway. The basic Caprice Wagon includes air conditioning, an AM/FM/cassette sound system, power locks, a tilt wheel, tinted glass, map pockets in the door panels, intermittent wipers and a rear wiper/washer.

There are extras available, of course, such as leather upholstery and sound-system upgrades. An interesting addition to the audio inventory is a new GM radio that automatically adjusts the volume to the vehicle speed.

Ride & Drive

Our Caprice Wagon was quiet at all speeds, enhancing that nicely insulated feeling that's always been a hallmark of big American sedans and wagons.

Ride quality is also thoroughly traditional. The springs and shock absorbers seem to have been chosen with one objective: absolute comfort. Even though the rest of the auto industry heads steadily toward firmer suspension, the Caprice Wagon continues to cushion its occupants from the harsher realities of the road.

The price you pay for a cushy ride, as always, is mushy handling. It didn't take much cornering speed to get the tires howling, and our rapid maneuvers were accompanied by lots of body roll.

This kind of handling may be acceptable to some, but we think the steering wouldn't be acceptable to anyone. It's over-assisted at any speed, and utterly devoid of any road feel -- no sense of where the front wheels are pointed until the car starts to head off in some new direction.

Things firm up somewhat with the B4U sport-suspension option that's designed primarily for trailer towing. The package includes a limited-slip rear axle (better traction), wider tires, more capacity in the cooling system and an engine oil cooler. We recommend this package whether you plan to do any towing or not.

If you do hook something on behind, you'll find the big V-8 more than equal to the job -- even if the job weighs up to 5000 lb.

Ah, that good old American V-8 power. Though it's much more refined and efficient than the original Chevy V-8 of 1955, the 5.7-liter V-8 still provides that same primal thrust when-ever you nudge the accelerator. And the automatic transmission makes the application of power as smooth as liquid.

Although the Caprice Wagon scales in well north of two tons, this powertrain will propel it to 60 mph in less than nine seconds. Pretty impressive.

It also does an adequate job with fuel economy, again considering all this mass. We logged almost 22 mpg in our test, which is better than most minivans and sport-utility vehicles.

Final Word

The Caprice Classic Wagon isn't likely to appeal to younger buyers, partly because of their growing love affair with trucks and partly because it sends out the wrong personal image message.

And it's not exactly inexpensive, although you can spend more on some minivans and sport utilities.

But if you're not worried about your personal trendiness index, and the power and style of a traditional American full-size wagon haven't lost their charm, your shopping will be simple. It'll require only two stops -- one to look at the Caprice Classic Wagon, one to check out the Roadmaster.

These two are not only the best of their breed, they're the only ones left.

 

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© 1995 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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