15/05/2007 00:00 | By By Christopher Hubbard

Used Car Guide: estates

Used Car Guide: family estate cars (© Image © Vauxhall)

Got loads to lug, kids to cart, dogs to… distribute – but not much cash to spend? Don’t despair.

Forget 4x4s and MPVs, what you need is a good old-fashioned estate car. Estate cars represent some of the greatest second hand value, thanks to their utilitarian image and general lack of trend appeal.

But you needn’t lumber yourself with some awful box just because the extra space is important. There are excellent estates available at every price point, whatever you intend to use one for.

From humble hatchback derivatives to the kind of cars you would traditionally associate with hauling antique wardrobes around. Here is the MSN guide to getting the most for your money in the estate car sector.

£0 - £2,000

Nissan Primera (© Image © Nissan)

You have to appreciate most estates – especially at this level – are basically tools, so expect them to have been worked hard. This means bodywork is unlikely to be immaculate, and mileages are likely verging on very high. But it doesn’t mean you should regard anything that runs as a suitable purchase – tax and MOT are perfectly achievable, even for a few hundred quid. The most reliable options inevitably come from Japanese manufacturers – say the Toyota Carina E, Nissan’s Primera, or a non-turbo Subaru Legacy. But while getting you home is obviously important, a sense of style and extra load-capacity are not impossible criteria.

Used Nissan Primeras less than £2,000

Citroen Xantia estate (© Image © Citroen)

A stylish estate? No joke. ‘Touring’ versions of Audis and BMWs are plentiful, even under £2,000, while Mercedes estates have a certain austere appeal. Solid original build quality means they last well, but running costs can high. More moderately, a VW Passat is pretty swish. Just don’t expect bulletproof dependability – whatever you have always heard about Volkswagens. If you need huge space Vauxhall’s Carlton, Senator and Omega are excellent; Ford’s Scorpio is massive, too, but avoid automatics. The best French options are Peugeot’s 306 (especially as a diesel) and the Citroen Xantia (rides brilliantly, but suffers from suspension and ABS problems).

Used Citroen Xantia estates less than £2,000

Vauxhall’s Astra is an honest, hardwearing car – ideal if you are after something smaller – and Ford’s Mondeo is a great medium-sized choice. Traditionalists, however, will happily note the vast numbers of Volvos languishing at the lower end of the classifieds.

Cars to avoid

Too many tales of reliability woes rules the original Renault Laguna out of our reckoning. You can do better for the money, so don’t even go there. Same goes for most examples of the Ford Escort. Skoda’s Felicia isn’t exactly awful, but given the unsophisticated appearance, don’t expect to avoid the old jokes, either. And be careful that you are getting good value, especially before opting for an older car. For example, an immaculate early-‘80s Granada might sound like a dream at £350. But remember, even the 2.8i engine will be comparatively slow and terribly thirsty, creature comforts will be on the thin side, and crash protection poor.

Top 3 Smart Buys

Toyota Carina estate

  • We found a… 1996 Toyota Carina E 1.8 GS 5dr estate, 80,000 miles, £1,775
  • Best bits – engines are good, with decent poke and impressive mpg, usefully utilitarian shape, last well if looked after, no thrills but reliable
  • Worst bits – steering racks can fail, make sure throttle doesn’t stick, check ware matches mileage, needs regular oil changes, not cool

Used Toyota Carina estates less than £2,000

Ford Mondeo estate (© Image © Ford)

Ford Mondeo estate

  • We found a… 2000 Ford Mondeo 2.0i LX 5dr estate, 89,000 miles, £1,995
  • Best bits – simply one of the best family cars you can buy, reliability is good, running costs reasonable, plenty to pick from, great value
  • Worst bits – clutch replacement is costly, auto ‘boxes troublesome, suspension wear and alignment, electrical problems, starting to rust

Used Ford Mondeo estates less than £2,000

Volvo 240 (© Image © Volvo)

Volvo 240

  • We found a… 1993 Volvo 240 SE 5dr estate, 123,000 miles, £595
  • Best bits – the daddy. This is the estate car all other estates want to be when they grow up, square = space, last forever if cared for (most have been), one staffer here is seriously considering buying another…
  • Worst bits – much to the disappointment of the antiques trade they are a dying breed. Bodywork may be rotten, drive is from another era

Used Volvo 240s less than £2,000

£2,000 - £4,000

There is quite a marked step up at this price level – both in terms of quality and in terms of generational differences. Instead of looking at old-school Audis 80, 90 or 100, you have now the luxury of selecting from a wide choice of A4s. Instead of Ford Escorts you get the Focus – a particular bargain as estates are often worth less than the popular hatchback. The mk1 Mondeo becomes the mk2, and instead of all number naming, Volvo’s estates begin with a V designation. The smaller V40 is especially good value here, but the larger V70 is also achievable.

Audi 100 Avant (© Image © Audi)

Need the space, but also want some pace? Then a different Volvo is the answer. The image-altering 850 T5 can cost less, but you will have to spend this much to get a really good one. A practical cult hero, if the 850’s too old look for T5 badging on newer Volvos. Other sporty options include any BMW 3-Series with a big straight-six engine under the bonnet, and the Subaru Impreza. This doesn’t have the biggest boot, but compensates with massive cross-country pace, and a less in-your-face image than the saloon. Status-seekers should try Mercedes C-Class, while reliability fiends are best served by Honda’s Civic Aerodeck; Peugeot’s 406 has the looks.

Used Audi estates between £2,000 and £4,000
Used Volvo estates between £2,000 and £4,000

Encroaching though it is on MPV territory, we can’t resist mentioning the ultra-practical Citroen Berlingo. Okay, so it is basically a van, but as pure no-nonsense motoring for five and their luggage, the Berlingo is hard to beat.

Cars to avoid

The Renault Laguna. Déjà vu? Sadly not – this is the second generation Laguna we are avoiding here. It may have a five-star Euro NCAP rating, but reliability again remains woefully poor. Renault’s not the only big name you should be wary of, however. By no means take the quality of Mercedes for granted – the cars in this bracket coincide with a well-documented slump. VW and Audi both suffer niggling build issues. Fiat and Alfa Romeo suffer from poor dealer service that compounds reliability concerns. The Mazda 626, on the other hand, is just dull. But it probably won’t let you down.

Top 3 Smart Buys

BMW 3-Series Touring (© Image © BMW)

BMW 3-Series Touring

  • We found a… 1995 BMW 320i 5dr estate, 86,000 miles, £2,350
  • Best bits – premium image, increasingly affordable and good value compared to earlier E30 model, nice engines, good to drive
  • Worst bits – mileages hard to verify thanks to failing dashboard electronics, four-cylinder cars slow, many used as posh doggy wagons, equipment can be on the sparse side

Used BMW 3-Series estates between £2,000 and £4,000

Peugeot 406 estate (© Image © Peugeot)

Peugeot 406 estate

  • We found a…2001 Peugeot 406 2.0 GTX 5dr estate, 48,000 miles, £3,995
  • Best bits – stylish looks, some nice engines (but avoid the 2.1-litre diesel), ride and handle well, lots around so prepare to be picky
  • Worst bits – check everything electrical. Twice. 2.1 diesel a nightmare, listen for suspension noises, full service history vital, test air con works, brake issues, indicator stalks, sat nav causes problems

Used Peugeot 406 estates between £2,000 and £4,000

Citroen Berlingo (© Image © Citroen)

Citroen Berlingo

  • We found a… 2000 Citroen Berlingo 1.4i 3dr ‘estate’, 65,177 miles, £2,995
  • Best bits – boxy shape makes for masses of room, van basis makes for good reliability and cheap running costs, so uncool it’s nearly cool
  • Worst bits – not refined and certainly not fast, early ones only have three doors, some electrical problems, spring failures, trim quality

Used Citroen Berlingos between £2,000 and £4,000

£4,000 - £6,000

If running costs are important, you will be pleased to see decent diesels are in plentiful supply here. The Volkswagen and Audi’s famously frugal 1.9TDi is a good start – try it in VWs Golf and Passat, or the Audi A4. Peugeot derv-burners are also very efficient, with similar engines being found in Ford TDCIs. However, expect prices to be higher than equivalent petrol-engined cars, and don’t be surprised to see some rotten examples. Looking for a high value all-round package? Then Skoda could be for you. The first generation Octavia and Fabia are unexciting inside but well built and the dealers always score highly in satisfaction surveys.

Used Audi A4 estates between £4,000 and £6,000

Rover 75 Tourer (© Image © MG Rover)

Like a little luxury in your life? Then a Rover 75 isn’t a bad choice, as it is well appointed and has a comfort-biased ride quality. Its MG ZT cousin might be suitable for sportier types, too. Just watch out for broken head gaskets with either car. There’s another generation of BMW 3-Series for you to consider, but you get even better value from the bigger 5. An Audi A6 makes a stylish alternative, but if you want a Mercedes you are best sticking to the smaller C-Class – E-Class estates will still be carrying lots of miles at this price point.

Used BMW 3-Series estates between £4,000 and £6,000

The Citroen C5 is simply enormous but you might struggle to find an example worth buying. The distinctly swoopy Nissan Primera and value rich Toyota Avensis promise reliability with high levels of standard kit, while Mitsubishi’s Galant VR-4 is fast but not very frugal.

Used Citroen C5 estates between £4,000 and £6,000
Used Toyota Avensis’ between £4,000 and £6,000

Cars to avoid

Alongside the Peugeot 406, ‘SW’ versions of the 206 and 307 are also available. Lacking the larger car’s deft prettiness, it is less easy to forgive the flaky build and quality problems that too regularly haunt second hand versions of these. Choose with care. The Fiat Stilo should be avoided at all costs – name a problem, it suffers from it. Ford’s Fusion is often classified as an estate, but aside from offering slightly more room than the Fiesta it is based on there is really not much point to it. Saabs are a tricky pick; huge mileages (albeit mostly on the motorway) and hefty bills are common.

Top 3 Smart Buys

Skoda Octavia estate (© Image © Skoda)

Skoda Octavia estate

  • We found a… 2001 Skoda Octavia 1.8T Elegance 5dr estate, 39,950 miles, £4,990
  • Best bits – Volkswagen engineering at a bargain price makes the Octavia excellent value, well put together, loved by owners and press
  • Worst bits – timing belts, ignition coils, power loss on diesels (relatively easy fix), water pumps, not the sharpest to drive, image

Used Skoda Octavia estates between £4,000 and £6,000

Mercedes C-Class estate (© Image © Mercedes)

Mercedes C250 estate

  • We found a… 1999 Mercedes-Benz C250 TD Elegance 5dr estate, 69,000 miles, £5,995
  • Best bits – prestige comes no higher, very comfortable, excellent diesel engines (especially the 250), buy as late as possible as improvements continued throughout lifetime
  • Worst bits – not as well built as it should have been so expect to see some problematic examples, not as good to drive as a BMW, watch out for non-UK cars, and unbelievably, rust. Inevitably costly to run

Used Mercedes C250 estates between £4,000 and £6,000

MG ZT-T estate

  • We found a… 2001 MG ZT-T 2.5 190 5dr estate, 75,000 miles, £5,295
  • Best bits – sporty looks work well (try the Rover 75 if you prefer something more subtle), quite rapid for the money, 0-62 in 7.8secs
  • Worst bits – avoid the 1.8 or you will find yourself regularly changing head gaskets, faulty fuel readings, parts supply a possible issue

Used MG ZT-T estates between £4,000 and £6,000

£6,000 - £8,000

Proving that reliable needn’t necessarily mean bland there are a pair of Japanese estates in this sector well worth your attention. The Mazda 6 may not look much but as a driving experience it is surprising involving and refined, especially compared to earlier generation Japanese offerings. The Honda Accord also drives very well, but it is the imposing styling, practical design, and toy-fest equipment spec that really make it stand out. Great engines, too. Speaking of engines, a Vauxhall Vectra SRi is an inexpensive way to go quickly in a straight line. Pre-facelift current versions are a bargain – and also have masses of loading space.

Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagon (© Image © Alfa Romeo)

The Mercedes E-Class is finally becoming vaguely affordable here. But you will still be looking at cars nearing 100,000 miles, and as with all Mercedes of this era, be very thorough when examining the specification of individual cars – imports and even some strange domestic variations lurk throughout the classifieds. The Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagon retains much of the saloon’s Italian charm, so we can completely understand the emotional appeal. This money doesn’t guarantee cost-free motoring, but at least it gives you a better chance. Another design-led choice is the Chrysler PT Cruiser – not an estate as such, but with a similar look and pretty spacious.

Used Mercedes E-Class’ between £6,000 and £8,000
Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagons between £6,000 and £8,000

For something smaller, Toyota’s Yaris Verso is a funny-looking contraption, but it adds considerable additional boot area to an excellent supermini. Two-year-old Vauxhall Astras give you the best value nearly new number plate.

Used Toyota Yaris Verso estates between £6,000 and £8,000

Cars to avoid

We like the Subaru Legacy. It is good looking, sure-footed, and generally well screwed together – if you don’t mind the odd scratchy plastic in the cabin. It is also potentially very fast, with turbocharged engines providing serious performance. Unfortunately – and this is something you should watch for with the Impreza, too – these engines are also getting a bit of a reputation for not lasting terribly well. You might be better opting for something slightly less exciting instead. Also, avoid the Chevrolet Lacetti unless you really just want a tool. And even then there are far better choices.

Top 3 Smart Buys

Mazda 6 estate (© Image © Mazda)

Mazda 6 estate

  • We found a… 2003 Mazda 6 2.0 S 5dr estate, 37,500 miles, £6,850
  • Best bits – well built, good to drive, not bad looking, offers excellent reliability, high levels of standard kit, decent inside. Worth considering
  • Worst bits – clutch and brake wear seems to be a little on the high side (especially diesels), noisy petrol engines, firm ride, uncool image

Used Mazda 6 estates between £6,000 and £8,000

Honda Accord Tourer (© Image © Honda)

Honda Accord Tourer

  • We found a… 2003 Honda Accord 2.0 V-TEC Executive 5dr estate, 61,000 miles, £7,950
  • Best bits – Honda build meets interesting design, stacked with toys like electric boot opening, great engines (though diesel expensive)
  • Worst bits – 2.4-litre thirsty, visibility not the best, diesels using lots of oil and blowing the occasional turbo, auto software issues, make sure the toys all work (including tailgate), other minor niggles

Used Honda Accord estates between £6,000 and £8,000

Vauxhall Vectra estate (© Image © Vauxhall)

Vauxhall Vectra estate

  • We found a… 2004 Vauxhall Vectra 2.2i Direct SRi 5dr estate, 41,817 miles, £7,495
  • Best bits – huge load area’s sensible shape makes the Vectra a very practical estate car, generally dependable, comfortable, fast engines
  • Worst bits – not the most exciting option, interior ages quickly, early problems with diesels, timing chains, heavy depreciation, looks

Used Vauxhall Vectra estates between £6,000 and £8,000


Audi S6 Avant (© Image © Audi)

Since it is obvious to say the best examples of the above also fall into the £8,000 plus category, we will instead dedicate this section to going fast and looking good. An estate plainly needn’t be boring. Audi, for example, has made a mint out of doing fast versions of its ‘Avants’ since the early ‘90s. Here you can choose anything from the Porsche-engineered and reputation-making RS2 all the way up to the current V10-engined S6. Given the cash (and lots of it…), the most recent RS4 would be our choice, with the previous-generation RS6+ a close second. Monstrous performance, four-wheel-drive grip and Audi quality.

Mercedes AMG estate (© Image © Mercedes)

Mercedes’ AMG estates do without the all-wheel traction, but can be even more devastating in the dry. Until the introduction of the just-released M5, BMW never sold M versions of its estates in this country (though you might be able to get an older M5 as a left-hand drive import). Pick a turbodiesel instead, though, and you will not only be wallowing in torque but get spectacular fuel economy as a bonus. More modestly, VXR Vauxhall Vectras and ST220 Ford Mondeos are great value for money. And, though rare, ST170 versions of the Focus estate also exist. Lexus’ IS Sport Cross isn’t the most practical, but prestige reliability should be second to none.

Mercedes AMG estates more than £8,000
Ford Mondeo ST220 estates more than £8,000

For style it is hard to beat the Chrysler 300C, which marries Mercedes’ mechanicals to American looks and meaty engines. The Volvo V50 is a very funky compact estate, too, while the CDTi version of the Accord homes Honda’s awarding winning turbodiesel.

Cars to avoid

Some general estate buying pointers. These cars are bought as workhorses more than lifestyle icons, so examine accordingly. Tow hooks might denote over-strained transmissions and engine components. Check all the corners for parking damage, and the boot sill and trimmings for loading scrapes. Watch out for doggy damage and signs of unruly children – torn or chewed seats and trim, sweets stuck in unlikely places, carpets that will never be clean again. Specification is also very important. Whatever you are using your estate for, air con is an essential, a decent entertainment system will keep passengers quiet, and alloys a must. Full service history should not even be in question.

Top 3 Smart Buys

Lexus IS Sport Cross (© Image © Lexus)

Lexus IS Sport Cross

  • We found a… 2002 Lexus IS 3.0 Sport Cross 5dr estate, 39,000 miles, £11,994
  • Best bits – very well built, completely loaded with kit, smooth 3.0-litre straight-six, exceptional dealer service, longevity should be awesome
  • Worst bits – slightly awkward looking, doesn’t drive as well as the competition, auto only (in the UK), parts expensive when needed

Used Lexus IS estates more than £8,000

Chrysler 300C Touring (© Image © Chrysler)

Chrysler 300C Touring

  • We found a… 2006 Chrysler 300C 5.7 V8 Hemi Startech 5dr estate, 5,954 miles, £28,995
  • Best bits – American muscle-car styling, big, different, equipment, interior ambience, powerful petrols, V6 diesel for the more restrained
  • Worst bits – whatever you pick, the fuel economy’s rubbish, driving position not brilliant, nor is handling the sharpest, but just look at it, like some kind of steroidal hearse…

Used Chrysler 300C estates more than £8,000

Audi RS4 Avant (© Image © Audi)

Audi RS4 Avant

  • We found a… 2006 Audi RS4 Avant Quattro 5dr estate, 12,500 miles, £48,000
  • Best bits – stonking engine (as now found in the R8 supercar), loads of grip, improved handling, build quality. The estate we’d most like to own.
  • Worst bits – still very new so costs a fortune, fuel economy makes an AMG Merc look good. Not the biggest boot if we’re honest, either

Used Audi RS4 Avant Quattro estates from £8,000
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