ARE FAMILY cars yesterday’s news? You might be forgiven for thinking so: the rise of SUVs and crossovers has meant many traditional family vehicles have fallen from fashion as households rush to buy the latest model with a raised driving position and 4×4 styling.
But they are making a mistake. The latest crop of more traditional family cars is about as good as it has yet been. The class is one of the oldest on the market and as such its designs and features have had decades of being refined and improved. Take the BMW 5-series, for example. This is the sixth generation of the car and each version has been finessed a little more to produce what is now probably as close to the perfect family vehicle as you can get.
Then there is the Mercedes E-class estate, a workhorse that puts to shame claims by some SUVs to be genuine load-luggers. These are the family cars that have stood the test of time.
1 BMW 5-Series
For a car to really impress Jeremy Clarkson it has to be outstanding. The BMW 5-series is just such a car. Reviewing a 530d in Driving, Clarkson summed it up as an “object lesson in how to crush your competition, the Usain Bolt of motoring”.
Why is it so good — and that much better than its talented competitors? Well, there’s the way it drives: sporty yet comfortable, rewarding yet secure, it can put a smile on the driver’s face just as easily as it can soothe away the stresses and strains of a late night at the office. The estate version has more of the same with the added bonus that you can pack the weekend gear in the boot and take the family away from it all.
Clarkson says… “The 5-series engine is as discreet as the butler service in a top-class Hong Kong hotel, the interior is like the centre spread of Kevin McCloud’s head”
The six-cylinder diesel engine delivers the goods too: if you want to, a 530d can cover ground very quickly indeed, but if you prefer to take it easy, then sit back and watch the fuel economy nudge more than 50mpg. In short, there really isn’t anything the 5-series doesn’t do well. It is the consummate family car.
- Price: £30,265-£73,960
- Our pick: 530d SE Touring, £43,380
- Engine: 2993cc, 6 cylinders
- Acceleration: 0-62mph: 5.9sec
- Top speed: 155mph
- Fuel | CO2 51.4mpg | 139g/km
2 Volkswagen Golf
The VW Golf is practical, fun, fast and reasonably affordable to buy and run. It is also as close to being a classless car as there is today. Whether you buy an 84bhp 1.2 TSI or a 296bhp Golf R, each comes with a sense of quality and design integrity matched by no other similar car. Both have flawlessly arranged cabins and ergonomics that make you wonder why everyone else finds it so difficult to present controls and information in a way that is clear and elegant.
And the variety is vast, from hot hatches through the full complement of petrol and diesel engines to the BlueMotion models with their barely believable 88mpg potential and lower CO2 than most versions of the Toyota Prius. So don’t ask why someone shopping for a family hatchback should buy a Golf. The far more challenging question is: why shouldn’t they?
- Price: £16,975-£33,050
- Our pick: Golf 2.0 TDI SE, £22,905
- Engine: 1968cc, 4 cylinders
- Acceleration: 0-62mph: 8.6sec
- Top speed: 134mph
- Fuel | CO2 68.9mpg | 165g/km
3 Ford Focus
For a car manufacturer the purpose of a midlife facelift is to refresh a vehicle in such a way as to pique the interest of the buying public while spending as little money as humanly possible. Unless you’re Ford. It has instead decided to substantially re-engineer the entire Focus.
So there’s the new grille, which still makes steam emanate from the ears of Aston Martin designers, and a lower, more attractive bonnet line. Inside, there’s an entirely fresh fascia. But it’s not just cosmetic details. There are new powertrains available, including a 1.5-litre turbocharged engine in both petrol and diesel form, and suspension modifications that improve the ride, handling and steering.
It’s an impressive raft of broadly effective measures, but then again, they were needed. The Focus wasn’t as good as the old Golf, let alone the new one, and you might say that only now is it the car it should have been all along. Which is a very good family hatch, but not quite as good as it gets.
- Price: £13,995-£25,795
- Our pick: Focus 1.6 TDCI Zetec, £18,995
- Engine: 1560cc, 4 cylinders
- Acceleration: 0-62mph: 10.9sec
- Top speed: 120mph
- Fuel | CO2 67.3mpg | 109g/km
4 BMW 3-Series
You may regard the 3-series as indivisible from the lane-swapping, traffic-carving, late-braking, undertaking idiots who so often appear behind their steering wheels. Don’t. This is the best small saloon on the market, and the reason for its success is not hard to fathom: when you get into a 3-series you are in one of the world’s finest driving cars. To take just one example, the 320d SE provides near-150mph performance, a 0-62mph time of 7.5 seconds and the best handling in the class. Yet it also returns more than 60mpg and has emissions so low it is exempt from vehicle tax in its first year. We wait to see if the new Jaguar XE has what it takes to succeed where so many others have failed, but right now the 3-series remains at the top of the pile.
- Price: £23,555-£56,190
- Our pick: 320d SE, £28,775
- Engine: 1995cc, 4 cylinders
- Acceleration: 0-62mph: 7.5sec
- Top speed: 146mph
- Fuel | CO2 61.4mpg | 120g/km
5 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate
It’s amazing how the manufacturers of large estates appear to have forgotten that their cars are meant to carry stuff. Now their primary purpose appears to be to make a style statement, and Volvo is the worst offender in sacrificing boot space for street cred.
Mercedes is one of very few to remember this simple point, which is why its E-class still has the largest load space of any conventional estate in production. The car also features whisper-smooth refinement and standard self-levelling rear suspension so the ride remains superb whatever the cargo. And you even have the option of two rear-facing child seats in the boot — except in AMG-badged models — making it the only genuinely seven-seat estate on the market.
From the 174bhp E 220 to the 577bhp E 63 AMG, there isn’t a dud model among them.
- Price: £36,060-£85,900
- Our pick: E 220 BlueTec SE auto, £36,060
- Engine: 2143cc, 4 cylinders
- Acceleration: 0-62mph: 8.8sec
- Top speed: 136mph
- Fuel | CO2 60.1mpg | 124g/km
6 Audi A3
For Excellent build quality; classy interior; fuel-efficient engines
Against More expensive than the Volkswagen Golf it is based on and not as nice to drive
7 Volvo V40
For Sharp styling inside and out; good balance of handling and ride
Against Estate versions lack boot space
8 Skoda Octavia
For A genuinely capacious estate car; VW build quality; quite attractive
Against Bland interior styling; disappointing ride quality
For Brilliant handling makes it the most fun standard family hatchback on sale
Against But it’s let down by its messy interior and overly firm ride
10 Seat Leon
For Lower-spec versions good value for money
Against The cabin can feel a little low-rent
Vote for your favourite!
Top 100 Cars 2014 sections
- Introduction by Jeremy Clarkson
- Top 10 4x4s & SUVs
- Top 10 Electric Cars & Hybrids
- Top 10 Supercars
- Top 10 City Cars
- Top 10 Sports Cars & Convertibles
- Top 10 Family Cars & Estates
- Top 10 Superminis
- Top 10 Executive & Prestige
- Top 10 Hot Hatches & Coupés
- Top 10 MPVs
- Driving.co.uk exclusive: Vote for your favourite of Top 100 Cars 2014
- Driving.co.uk exclusive: Used alternatives to the winning cars
Top 100 Cars 2014: the fine print
Top 100 Cars is compiled by Andrew Frankel, Joseph Dunn, Dominic Tobin and James Mills. Prices are correct at the time of going to press; fuel-economy figures are for the combined urban and extra-urban cycle (source: Newspress); electric-car prices quoted include government grants where applicable.