Car buying tips
How to buy the best estate car
By Martin Pratt
Article 5 of 11
How to buy the best estate car
There's more to estate cars than a big boot. Use our expert guide to find an estate car that suits your needs perfectly.
Popularity of traditional saloon and estate cars may be waning in light of the burgeoning stream of crossovers and 4x4s, but the estate (or station wagon) still has a lot to offer.
Families, business users, dog owners and anyone needing extra luggage space will understand the appeal of an estate car - and with so much focus on style, 'estate' is certainly not a by-word for 'ugly'. But beware: some have gone so far they are now 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 estate cars guide to discover all the small, medium and large estates we recommend.
Find out which cars should be on your shopping shortlist on our best estate cars page.
1. Lifestyle vs loadspace
Once upon a time, estate cars were all about sheer load capacity. But times have changed and the era of more dynamic sport wagons, sport tourers 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 current 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. But it's still a surprise that you can fit more in a saloon version of the car, rather than the estate.
We measure the boot space of every car we test. Check 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. If you're after something with seven seats, have a look at our seven-seater buying tips, or head straight to our collection of seven-seat Best Buys.
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.
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 estate (515) for example. The 2007-2014 generation Ford Mondeo estate had one of the biggest boots we've measured at 530 litres, but the current (2014-) model has significantly less space at 435 litres. Other capacious contenders include estate versions of the Skoda Superb estate (475) and Hyundai i40 (470).
For ultimate carrying capacity - rear seats folded, measured up to the car's window-line - stars include the Mercedes-Benz E-class (930) and Toyota Avensis (900). Again, the Ford Mondeo estate (2007-2014) had them all trumped at 950 litres, but the current generation (2014-) has shrunk that to 810 litres.
4. Consider the 'cool' factor
Say the word 'estate' and some will immediately think of the box-shaped tank designs of old. But today's estates have moved on and, happily, are a lot more diverse.
Our favourite designs to date include the handsome Audi A6 Avant, sleek Volvo V60, swoopy Hyundai i40 Tourer, handsome Ford Mondeo Estate 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 second hand, 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 was the first hybrid in this category. Its petrol-electric drivetrain boosts fuel economy – particularly for town driving – and means free car tax.
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 Skoda Fabia estate and Mini Clubman (2015-). Second-hand options include the first generation Mini Clubman (2007-2014) and Renault Clio Sport Tourer.
We particularly like the Skoda for its roomy cabin, ease of driving and value for money, while the first generation 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 Seat Leon X-perience.
10. Consider the depreciation effect
Estate cars usually – but not always – hold their value better than saloons, but as other classes of car become more popular, may not hold their value as well as they have in past years.
Find your perfect new car with our expert impartial car reviews.