A FAMILY estate car doesn’t have to be dull to drive, and neither does a fast estate have to be small. Here, we at Driving scratch our collective head and turn back the clock to bring car buyers five of the best fast but affordable estates for less than £10,000.
Volvo 850 T5
- Best for: Burning rubber on a budget
- Budget: £1,000
- Best buy: 850 T5 estate
Like a pensioner being fitted with dentures, Volvo’s family-friendly 850 saloon and estate car line-up got its bite back with the turbocharged T5. Here was a company that had spent the past six decades selling safety and now wanted to let its hair down and live a little.
The 2.3-litre five-cylinder engine sounded terrific, with a high-pitched warble that could pass for the sound of an Audi quattro rally car tearing along a country track, and it packed a punch, delivering 225bhp to the front wheels.
Middle-class mums and dads grumbled that the front tyres lasted as long as a pat of butter left next to an Aga
This presented one or two minor problems: middle-class mums and dads could be heard grumbling that the front tyres lasted as long as a pat of butter left next to an Aga, and if you misjudged the throttle on corners, the car’s nose could be as lively as a springer spaniel following a scent. It was a hellraiser from sensible old Sweden, and somehow drivers loved it all the more for that.
Volvo 850 T-5R and 850 R models followed from 1995, but they’re too expensive. The regular T5 is cheap as chips – £1,000 is realistic – and the estate version is as practical and understated as ever.
Cars that have had few owners and come with a complete service history are your safest bet, as there’s plenty that can go wrong with even a Volvo in 20 years.
Skoda Octavia vRS
- Best for: High-speed pursuits
- Budget: £6,000
- Best buy: Octavia 2.0T FSI vRS estate
Traffic police have a lot of time for the Skoda Octavia vRS estate. They need a fast car that can keep up with the bad guys and won’t spit them off a slippery road, hold enough equipment to fill a small police station and won’t drain the divisional budget dry. The vRS (Victor Rally Sport) version of the Octavia delivers all this and more.
There have been three versions of the go-fast Octavia. The first model, sold between 2001 and 2005, is getting on a bit now; the current, third-generation version is still fairly new and on the pricy side; whereas the second-generation model, sold from 2005 to 2013, can be picked up for about £6,000 (for a 50,000-mile 2006 car) from an approved Skoda dealer complete with a year’s warranty.
Steer clear of the flappy-paddle gearbox (DSG) as this can be costly to fix and has been known to go wrong
Underneath the spacious body of the estate model (which takes 605 litres of luggage, or 1,655 litres with the seats folded flat) is, essentially, a Golf GTI. So drivers are treated to a punchy 200bhp 2-litre turbocharged engine that means this estate car can hold its own in the fast lane. There are diesel models too, but they’re neither as quick nor as much fun to drive as the petrol. A good buying tip is to steer clear of the flappy-paddle gearbox (DSG) as this can be costly to fix and has been known to go wrong.
Subaru Impreza WRX sports wagon
- Best for: Winter sports
- Budget: £5,000
- Best buy: Impreza WRX 2.5 sports wagon
Subaru called it a sports wagon rather than an estate, and it’s an important distinction: the Impreza WRX sports wagon is for dads or mums who don’t really want the family tagging along all the time. It’s a bit cramped inside for a growing family of four, the 356-litre boot is barely bigger than a jewellery box and the engine drone will give passengers a headache even on a short run to the supermarket.
This car excels when the hammer goes down on a deserted, winding road
But this car excels when the hammer goes down on a deserted, winding road. Its 2.5-litre horizontally opposed four-cylinder turbo engine (introduced in 2005) has more torque and top-end rush than the old 2-litre cars, and the engine and exhaust note could almost bring Colin McRae back from beyond.
The balance of the chassis is a revelation compared with even that of the Skoda Octavia vRS; the Subaru feels like an athlete showing an amateur how things should be done. This is because it has a low centre of gravity and permanent four-wheel drive. Even on a wet, bumpy road, its suspension keeps the tyres in touch with the tarmac and the steering gives crystal-clear feedback to the driver.
It’s worth seeking out the 2.5-litre model, sold from 2005 to 2008. You’ll be paying around £5,000 for a 2006 or 2007 car with about 70,000 miles on the clock. Provided the car has a complete service history, it should be good for the same distance again. The rest of the family may not thank you for choosing it, but the Impreza WRX sports wagon is a hoot to drive.
BMW 330d Touring
- Best for: Avoiding fuel stations
- Budget: £10,000
- Best buy: 330d M Sport Touring
Owning a fast estate is all well and good, but the problem with travelling at speed is that the fuel bills pile up like plates at the end of a family roast dinner. Not so with the 330d Touring. It’s a compact, agile car, and beneath the svelte body lies a six-cylinder diesel engine that delivers the knockout punch of a heavyweight champion but can return as much as 45mpg.
The six-cylinder diesel engine delivers the knockout punch of a heavyweight champion but can return as much as 45mpg
For the £10,000 budget, you will get a 3-litre diesel Touring model – BMW-speak for an estate – made between late 2005 and mid-2008. The secret of its appeal, as anyone who has tried it will testify, is torque. This is an indication of how hard an engine can accelerate a car when low in its rev range, and the 330d has 369 Ib ft of torque, which is enough to whizz the car from standstill to 62mph in 6.6 seconds.
There were earlier versions of the 330d Touring, but they’re about as small and impractical as a wendy house when you’re trying to squeeze a family of four and the dog on board. The M Sport models look good and hold their value well, and the car’s front-engined, rear-wheel-drive layout makes for a lively performance. One thing to be wary of is turning off the traction control: with so much torque, this is one diesel that can easily overwhelm the rear tyres’ hold on the road.
Mercedes E 320 CDI estate
- Best for: The family and the kitchen sink
- Budget: £9,000
- Best buy: E 320 CDI Avantgarde estate
Of our five fast estates, the E-class is the best choice for those who like their bed super-king-size. The boot holds 690 litres, which is positively palatial, and there’s a neat feature for families with more than two children: a third row of seats. These are rear-facing, which may seem disconcerting but it means children sit towards the centre of the car, rather than against the tailgate (as in a seven-seat SUV or people carrier).
A neat feature for families with more than two children is the third row of seats
It’s worth noting that the model was considerably improved in 2006, with better engines, a seven-speed automatic transmission and the addition of Isofix mounting points for child seats.
The engine to pick is the 320 CDI; it almost matches the frugal 220 CDI for mpg because it’s better able to haul this big, heavy (nearly 1,900kg) estate.
The Sport version of the E 320 CDI is popular and sought after, but drivers who take a leaf out of The Princess and the Pea may find the ride lumpy. In that case, pick the Avantgarde trim, as the suspension sits lower than with the Classic and Elegance versions and the steering feels more responsive, yet the tyres have taller sidewalls than those on the Sport, making the ride more supple over the nation’s crumbling roads.