Buying a car Top 10 estate car buying tips
Despite predictions that MPVs and 4x4s would win out against more old-fashioned options, the traditional estate or station wagon remains a popular choice. Families, business users, dog owners and anyone needing extra luggage space will understand the appeal of an estate car. But beware: estates are not all super-practical. Some are more 'lifestyle' than 'loadspace'.
Our top 10 tips for buying an estate car will help you decide which model best suits your needs. Then read our Best Buy estates guide to find out all the small, medium and large estates we recommend.
Measured up to the luggage cover, Volvo V60's boot is smaller than S60 saloon
1. Lifestyle vs. loadspace
Once upon a time, estate cars were all about sheer load capacity. But times have changed, and the era of the Sports Wagon, Sport Tourer, Touring and suchlike is upon us. With these cars, style is as important as space - and sometimes more of a priority for their designers.
Some estate cars have boots that, when measured up to the luggage cover, are actually smaller than the saloons they're based on. Take the Volvo V60, for example. At 360 litres, its boot is actually smaller than the S60 saloon (375 litres). Of course, the advantage of estate cars is being able to load the boot up much higher, fold the rear seats down more effectively, and gain easier access to the boot.
We measure the boot space of every car we test. Check the 'Comfort and Practicality' section of our estate car reviews to find our tested figures, and make sure that you choose a model that suits your needs - or makes the statement you want.
2. Estate car, 4x4 or MPV?
Estate cars used to be the default choice for families and for anyone needing to carry a lot of luggage, but MPVs and 4x4s have captured the attention of many buyers.
MPVs, or people carriers, usually offer much greater seating flexibility, along with more headroom and – in some cases – the option of seven seats. However, they're more prosaic and less prestigious than a sleekly-styled, lower-slung estate.
High-riding 4x4s, SUVs and crossovers offer much of the practicality of estate cars with added off-road ability, but tend to be more expensive to buy and run. And they have the 'wrong' image for some people.
Estate cars score on the style front and they normally drive every bit as well as their saloon car counterparts – unlike those sometimes unwieldy 4x4s and MPVs.
The Ford Mondeo estate's 530-litre boot is the biggest we've measured
3. Best for boot space
There are only a handful of cars with more than 500 litres of boot space (with the rear seats up and luggage cover on): the Mercedes-Benz E-class (515) and Citroen C5 Tourer (505), for example. Other capacious contenders include estate versions of the Skoda Superb (475) and Hyundai i40 (470).
For ultimate carrying capacity - rear seats folded, measured up to the car's window-line - the stars include the Mercedes-Benz E-class (930), Citroen C5 (905) and Toyota Avensis (900), though the Ford Mondeo estate (2007-2014) had them all trumped, at 950 litres.
Hyundai i40 Tourer combines swoopy styling with a usefully big boot
4. Consider the 'cool' factor
Vauxhall may have used the 'Daddy Cool' soundtrack for its Zafira MPV adverts, but we think estate cars are the cool members of the 'family car' family.
Our favourite designs include the handsome Audi A6 Avant, sleek Volvo V60, swoopy Hyundai i40 Tourer, crisp Seat Leon ST and classy Mercedes-Benz C-class.
5. Diesel or petrol?
Better fuel efficiency and the tax benefits of lower CO2 emissions mean most estates sold in the UK are diesels. Modern diesels are smooth and have plenty of torque (pulling power), so they rarely feel like a compromise next to petrol versions; they're also the better option if you're after a towing vehicle.
However, don't discount petrol, particularly if you're buying a smaller estate or if you do not do a high mileage. The latest petrol powerplants are very efficient, and the upfront premium for a diesel engine can take years to claw back through lower fuel costs. Due to their higher depreciation (loss of value from new), petrol estates are usually cheaper to buy secondhand, too.
6. More manageable medium-sized models
There is no shortage of medium-sized estates, should you want a vehicle with a practical load-bay but not the running costs (or parking problems) that come with a full-sized large car. Strong contenders in this category include the Ford Focus estate (great to drive), Peugeot 308 SW (spacious and stylish) and Volkswagen Golf estate (well-built but pricey).
The Toyota Auris Touring Sports is the first hybrid in this category. Its petrol-electric drivetrain boosts fuel economy – particularly for town driving – and means free car tax.
Mini Clubman is one of the few supermini-sized estates and a good used choice
7. Best small estates
Should you wish to scale down even further, compact estate cars do exist, though they have really been squeezed out by small MPVs in recent times. Only a handful now remain, such as the Seat Ibiza ST and Skoda Fabia estate. Second-hand options include the Mini Clubman and Renault Clio Sport Tourer.
We particularly like the Skoda for its roomy cabin, ease of driving and value for money, while the Mini Clubman offers a fun factor alongside its practicality.
8. Boost your luggage space
If you need even more luggage space, there are some additional tricks to consider. Many estates come with roof rails, or can be ordered with them as an optional extra. Typically, you can add up to around 100kg of luggage on rails in roof-top boxes. Or you could use them to carry bulky items like bicycles, surfboards or canoes.
Many estate cars also have underfloor storage areas, particularly if you're happy to make do with a tyre repair kit rather than a proper spare wheel.
9. 4x4 estates
Here's another of those 'crossover' areas: estate cars with four-wheel drive. These offer extra traction for driving in slippery or snowy conditions, without many of the compromises of a traditional off-roader.
The estate-only Subaru Legacy, for instance, comes with 4WD as standard. Quattro versions of the Audi A4 Avant and A6 Avant also have 4WD, as do some versions of the BMW 3 Series Touring, Skoda Octavia estate, Skoda Superb estate and Vauxhall Insignia Sport Tourer.
10. Consider the depreciation effect
Estate cars usually – but not always – hold their value better than saloon or hatchback body styles in the same range. Over time, this can offset much of the extra cost of initial purchase.