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Small wagons for value and cargo

Whether it¡¯s called a kombi, avant, variant, sportwagon, touring, estate or Wagon Queen Family Truckster, the station wagon has been a time-honoured fixture on North American roads for a century, Air Conditioner Bearing.

Sure, minivans and sport-utility vehicles have largely supplanted the wagon as the modern-day family conveyance, but there are still die-hard adherents to the wagon format if you look hard enough.

A station wagon can give you the low-slung driving experience of a sedan and better fuel economy than any SUV, and often while carrying more gear. Some models even offer all-wheel drive should your commute take you north of the Stayner snowline.

Not to be confused with hatchbacks like the Mazda Protege5 ¡ª hey, you can sleep in a wagon in a pinch ¡ª here are five dependable, second-hand wagons that come recommended for less than $10,000.

2004-07 Ford Focus

With its avant-garde styling and premium materials, the Focus aspired to be more than just a player in the econobox segment. Bred in Europe, it was a ball to drive, thanks to its stout platform and sophisticated suspension geometry.

Early examples (2000-02) were troublesome vehicles with a number of mechanical bugs. Recommended are the 2004 to 2007 wagons, which featured Mazda¡¯s new 2.3 L four-cylinder engine, good for 151 hp, alongside Ford¡¯s base engine, the DOHC 2.0 L Zetec four that made 136 hp. Drivers did note, however, that neither engine was particularly frugal with fuel.

The cargo bay was especially tall and roomy for a compact wagon. Still, owners uncovered a faux pas: the rear-seat backrest was split, but the bottom cushion was not, meaning that collapsing just one side of the seat left the cargo floor less than flat. Odd.

The most common problem involved faulty ignition switches that refused to release the key. Owners also reported frequent brake service, malfunctioning air conditioners, and short-lived alternators, window regulators and automatic transmissions (in small numbers). If you can find one with the 2.3 L Mazda engine, grab it.

2003-07 Pontiac Vibe

The active-lifestyle Vibe came with a standard roof rack to which expensive sporting goods could be attached and displayed, and occasionally used. Because it was a Toyota with Pontiac cladding, the California-built Vibe was powered by Toyota¡¯s fuel-efficient DOHC 1.8 L four-cylinder that put out 130 hp. The frenetic GT model used the Celica GT-S engine, good for 180 hp, but just 130 lb.-ft. of torque.

The cargo hold wasn¡¯t particularly spacious, but it was finished in hard plastic rather than carpeting to accommodate wet and mucky cargo. The glass on the liftgate was hinged, allowing it to open separately.

Owners of GT models did complain about short-lived clutches, suggesting the friction material wasn¡¯t up to snuff. Other, less common gripes pointed to loose weather stripping, leaky sunroofs, poor wheel alignment and that old chestnut: errant dashboard rattles. Owners also discovered the paint seemed to scratch and chip easily.

Yes, Pontiac has gone to the great scrapyard in the sky, but it¡¯s good news for used-car buyers looking for a bargain: orphaned cars left without a dealer network depreciate quicker. GM pledges to keep servicing this little Pontiac ¡ª or you can visit a Toyota dealer.

2006 Chevrolet HHR

Inspired by the 1949 Chevrolet Suburban and Chevy panel trucks that were everywhere in the 1950s, HHR stood for Heritage High Roof. It made use of the updated platform that underpinned the Cobalt compact, which meant the HHR spun its front wheels exclusively.

Thanks to its upright profile, the HHR made for a roomy five-door wagon. The rear, split seat back folded flat to form a commodious cargo area, and the front passenger seat could lie down to accommodate even longer stuff. All HHRs came with air conditioning and a host of power accessories standard.

The base engine was a 143 hp 2.2 L four, while a larger 2.4 L four making 172 hp was available in the LT model. Either engine could be mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. Owners did note the retro styling ¡ª penned by the same designer who did Chrysler¡¯s PT Cruiser ¡ª was responsible for some obscured views, especially out back.

In terms of reliability, the Mexican-built HHR has been as good as the Cobalt, perhaps better. Reported problems revolve around warped brake rotors, water leaks, short-lived wheel bearings, faulty wipers and some electrical faults.

2003-05 Subaru Legacy

Like Volvo, Subaru appears to know how to craft a good wagon. The Japanese automaker has come far as a technological leader ¡ª partly because it stuck with its horizontally opposed (¡°boxer¡±) motor, prized for its low centre of gravity, inherent second-order balance and longitudinal orientation.

Like all Subarus since 1997, the mid-size Legacy wagon offered symmetrical all-wheel drive as standard equipment. The popular Outback wagon, which made up two-thirds of sales, became a separate model line in 2000. Beyond some exterior plastic cladding and a slighter taller ride height, the two models were really twins separated at birth.

All models retained a standard 2.5 L four-cylinder boxer motor. Significantly, engineers switched from dual-overhead cams to a single cam (still operating 16 valves), while horsepower remained unchanged at 165. Optional was a 3.0 L six-cylinder boxer, good for 212 hp, intended for drivers looking for more scat.

Long praised for their sterling reliability, there¡¯s evidence that the 2.5 L Legacy and Outback models of this vintage may exhibit two expensive problems: gasket leaks in the 2.5-litre boxer engine and automatic transmission failures, or ¡ª just so the manual-transmission drivers don¡¯t feel left out ¡ª clutch ¡°chatter¡± and short-lived clutches in general. The six-cylinder engine is more trouble-free, but is a gasoholic.

2001-03 Volvo V70

Keen to move away from Volvo¡¯s iconic but slab-sided profile, the front-drive V70 wagon benefited from fresh styling for 2001 that included a deeply contoured hood and character lines. Emulating Subaru¡¯s successful Outback, the all-wheel-drive XC model got a unique front fascia, lower-body plastic cladding and interior details, along with slightly higher ground clearance.

As per Volvo¡¯s safety mantra, all models received front head/chest side-impact airbags, curtain window airbags and the WHIPS system, which moved the front seat rearward in a rear-end collision to mitigate whiplash injury.

The base model used a 2.4 L DOHC inline five-cylinder engine making 168 hp. The others graduated to a turbocharged five-cylinder engine, in 2.3 L and 2.4 L displacements, rated at 242 hp in the T5 and 197 hp in the XC and other models. For 2003, a displacement increase to 2.5 litres boosted power to 208 hp, while the smaller turbo T5 gained five additional horses.

Despite Volvo¡¯s penchant for longevity, there¡¯s a number of problem areas used buyers should be aware of: failed radiators and air conditioners, weak front-end suspension components, numerous electrical problems and sunroof rattles. More disturbing are the faulty transmissions that are dear to replace. Always test drive with care.