► Which estate car is the best to buy?
► Here's our top 10
► Something for all needs and all budgets
In the UK they’re known as estate cars, but they’ve plenty of other names worldwide. In the US, they’d be station wagons – in Germany, Kombinationskraftwagen (or ‘Kombi’) for short, which we like because it sums up these very useful cars perfectly.
Estate cars have an unrivalled combination of abilities. They’re the multi-taskers of motordom – a Swiss-army knife for family life.
Further buying advice from CAR:
What makes estate cars so good? Well, for those of us who enjoy driving, they’re a resolute middle-finger to the inexorable rise of the SUV. Basic physics favour the lower, leaner estate over the faux-sporty SUV, and reduced fuel costs and a more socially-acceptable image are added bonuses.
An SUV doesn’t offer any more utility than a good estate – the latest crop of 2WD examples aren’t even any better off-road, either. Unless you’ve a fetish for a raised ride height, an estate simply makes more sense.
Here’s our pick of the top 10 estate cars currently on sale. If you can’t find a car that fits your needs here, you probably need more than one vehicle…
- BMW 3-series Touring
- Skoda Superb Estate
- Audi A6 Avant
- BMW 5-series Touring
- Volvo V90
- Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate
- Jaguar XF Sportbrake
- Skoda Octavia Estate
- Peugeot 508 SW
- Volkswagen Passat Estate
Firstly, think about how much space you require. That swoopy shooting brake might look the part, but a low roof and tapering tailgate will limit space for passengers and luggage. When it comes to carrying stuff, boxier is better. Boot capacity is quoted in litres and the figures here are measured up to the parcel shelf with the rear seats in place. Most manufacturers also publish a maximum figure, for loading to the roof with seats folded flat.
The next decision concerns fuel type. For a supermini-sized estate, a petrol engine is usually most cost-effective, but don’t dismiss diesel for C-segment (Focus/Golf) cars and above. Apart from the fuel economy advantage, the extra torque of a diesel helps when hauling heavy loads. Electric motors aren’t short on torque either, of course, and the number of hybrid estate cars is growing. However, many hybrids – let alone fully electric cars – aren’t well suited to towing.
If you’re still erring towards an SUV, consider that many estates are available with four-wheel drive. Further blurring the boundaries, some manufacturers offer dedicated ‘off-road’ models that combine rugged styling and added ground clearance. Examples include the Audi A4 and A6 Allroad, Mercedes-Benz E-Class All-Terrain and Volvo V90 Cross Country. You may have to resort to an SUV or MPV if you have a large family, though; seven-seat estate cars are few and far-between.
Best estate cars 2021
Buyers know what they’re getting with a 3-series Touring. It has a combination of superb utility and top-notch driver appeal that its rivals can’t quite seem to crack – there’s something for everybody to appreciate. The latest G21 version does the Touring name proud.
The engine lineup stretches from lowly 318d to M340i, with a hybrid model thrown in for good measure. xDrive is available for those who simply must have four driven wheels, but regardless there’s a 500-litre boot with clever touches like an opening rear window and unique pop-up grip rails.
While the cabin’s a bit of a tech-fest, the controls that really matter – steering, gearshift, brakes – all feel reassuringly analogue. We’ve come away besotted from every model we’ve driven, but the 261bhp 330d is a real sweet spot.
Our full BMW 3-series Touring review
People who liken cars to white goods clearly haven’t felt the satisfaction of an upmarket fridge. Yes, all it does is keep things cold – but it does it really well. There’s a sense of quality, a premium edge, and maybe one or two features you never knew you wanted.
So it is with the Skoda Superb Estate. While previous generations were strictly in the Indesit category, the latest model’s more of a Miele. Of course, it’s still staggeringly good at carrying people and their luggage (only the Audi A8 has more rear legroom in the VW Group stable) with a gigantic 660-litre boot.
It’s also genuinely a handsome beast, and the quality-feeling interior is stuffed to the gills with what Skoda calls ‘Simply Clever’ features.
Skoda Superb Estate long-term review: the eight-month verdict
Audi’s transformation from mid-market also-ran to premium powerhaus is on fine display in the latest A6 Avant.
You can have this posh estate in a variety of formats including the faux-SUV Allroad and the blunderbuss RS6, but for daily use you can’t go far wrong with the entry-level 2.0-litre 40 TDI. It’s one of the most refined four-cylinder diesels available, and flattered by a smooth seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.
The touchscreen-tastic interior won’t suit all tastes, but it’s more intuitive than you might expect – and it’s well-built and loaded with driver-assistance tech. Throw in a competitive 565-litre boot and bags of rear space and this is a really versatile machine.
Audi A6 review
Seriously, why buy an X5 SUV when the fat-bottomed 5-series Touring does almost everything better? Handsome by current BMW standards (even in the grille) and mighty practical, with a 570-litre boot and two-piece tailgate.
The interior’s a bit bleaker than the equivalent A6 or E-Class, but it’s intuitive and there’s no shortage of tech. Highlights include remote-control parking and semi-autonomous driving at up to 130mph – perfect for warp-speed autobahn commutes.
The 520d diesel is still the default choice, serving up a more-than-adequate 187bhp, 0-62mph in 7.8 seconds and 54.7mpg. We’d stretch to the far more potent 530d, though – it feels much more muscular and isn’t notably less efficient. Whichever you go for, expect lucid steering and confident body control.
BMW 5-series review
Forget the antique-dealer cliches, Volvo’s bread and butter is SUVs rather than set-square estates these days. Yet there’s still room in the range for a wagon – and in the V90’s case, it’s a rather good thing.
This is a Volvo estate with the edges chamfered off. A close relative of the flagship XC90, it uses that car’s engines, safety systems and Scandi-cool interior, giving it a compelling USP next to the Teutonic competition. The presence of a well-sorted hybrid variant is also great news.
Don’t go expecting the galactic-class boots of days gone by, but the V90’s luggage space is square and practical at 560-litres – tight enough to scuff your Louis XIV dresser.
Volvo V90 review
Nothing says old money quite like an E-Class Estate with a Labrador in the boot. A truly classy car, it’s also a superb family holdall, with a monstrous 640-litre boot. Its hermetically-sealed, ambient-lit interior is a haven from the outside world, while twin widescreen infotainment displays dominate the dash.
Unless you opt for one of the bonkers AMG models (which we highly recommend, incidentally) the E is resolutely unsporty – it cossets before it communicates. We’d probably stick to the 191bhp E 220 d diesel, which is hushed, butter-smooth and capable of a real-world 50mpg.
The hybrid offerings make a lot of sense, though, particularly the E 300 de which pairs a diesel engine for long journeys with a battery pack for shorter trips.
Mercedes-Benz E-Class review
A recent facelift has done the Jaguar XF a world of good. It’s kept what we like – those gorgeous, Ian Callum-penned lines, a composed ride and engaging handling, and a useful 565-litre boot – while fixing a lot of the things we didn’t.
So the dreadful old dashboard’s gone, replaced with a new infotainment system and better-quality materials throughout. The price, too, has seen a drop, to the point where an entry-level XF competes more with the BMW 3-series than the 5-series with which it’s more aligned on size.
Don’t bother with the petrols – while they’re smooth and quick, they’re also thirsty – and opt for one of the diesels, and you’ll have a car that fits Jag’s old motto of ‘grace, pace and space’ pretty darn well.
Jaguar XF review
The new Octavia isn’t quite as reassuringly no-nonsense as its predecessor – there’s one too many touchscreen controls for our liking. It’s still hugely practical, comfortable and cheap to run, though.
As always, the Octavia’s main selling point is that it offers the size, space and practicality of a D-segment car like a Mondeo or Insignia for the price of a Focus or Astra. With its 640-litre boot, it’s one of the most capacious cars on this list.
Even the lowliest petrol and diesel variants are decent to drive – efficient and refined – and for the penny pinchers there’s also a plug-in hybrid variant that promises rock-bottom running costs.
Skoda Octavia Estate review
The 508 SW – like most recent Peugeots – is an undeniable looker. Long, low, sleek, sharp-edged and genuinely alluring, it’s a world away from its dumpy predecessor. The SW here majors more on style than practicality, and it’s got the smallest boot in this list at a comparatively measly 512 litres.
The unique dashboard won’t be to everybody’s tastes either, with its diddy steering wheel and high-set dials.
Punchy engines, ranging from an efficient 129bhp diesel up to a 221bhp plug-in hybrid, all provide decent performance, while the chassis is pliant and comfortable. A massive uptick in Peugeot quality of late means the cabin feels every bit as good as its German competitors, but at a usefully lower price.
Peugeot 508 SW review
In the UK market, the Passat Estate outsells its booted sibling two to one – which should give you some indication of just how good a load-lugger it is. Effortlessly straddling the line between premium rivals and more workaday options, it’s an ideal car for anyone who thinks an SUV is just too… gauche.
If you need a little off-road nous there’s an Alltrack model with four-wheel drive, but most people will be happy with one of the diesel engines paired to the smooth seven-speed auto. There’s also a very good plug-in hybrid in the form of the Passat GTE.
The massive, 650-litre boot is perfect for everything from shopping to flat-pack furniture, and there’s a good amount of high-tech kit, too – standard LEDs all round, a really intuitive infotainment system and VW’s semi-autonomous ‘Travel Assist’ that’ll work at speeds up to 130mph.
Further buying advice from CAR: