Britain’s most popular estate cars – what you’ll love and what to avoid

Look beyond a fashionable SUV and you'll find an estate offers all the benefits but is cheaper and better to drive. Here's what to look for

We tested the most popular models
We tested the most popular models

When it comes to large family cars, most people in the UK naturally turn to the size and perceived space of an SUV. But there are many reasons why an estate might actually make more sense.

These cars often offer more space, are more practical, come with lower running costs and are generally better to drive. They tend to be cheaper, too - particularly on the used market.

So we tested the five most popular models (based on sales figures for 2019*) plus three great alternatives to see how they stand up to the rigours of modern family life.

1. Skoda Octavia (11,162 sold last year)

Strengths:

  • Tons of internal space and the biggest boot in the class (640 litres) with an adjustable floor height.
  • Generous standard spec that has seen a load of upgrades for 2020 - including digital dashboard, 10” touchscreen and lots of smart tech functions. The interior feels as comfortable and premium as any of the big German makers for a fraction of the price.
  • Affordable and great value. Entry level 1.0-litre petrol cars start from just over £21k, while the 2.0-litre diesel starts at £24k but add another £5k to get the kind of spec you’ll be really happy with.
Skoda's have come a long way over the past 20 years. Now the inside is as good as any of its rivals
The infotainment system is easy to use and works well. You can check the status of all of the car's systems at the swipe of a finger

Weaknesses:

  • Looks. This may not bother some people, but the fact is the Skoda is let down by its kerb appeal including that horrid front grille.
  • The cruise control lever is tricky to use and easily confused with the left indicator. Why not just have a button on the steering wheel like most cars?
  • Bossy lane assist system gives firm feedback through the steering wheel.
Rather than a handle, the Skoda uses a cheap piece of rubber as a boot closer. Odd

Verdict:

It’s a shame that many people still perceive Skoda as a budget brand. Try one, you’ll be suitably impressed - as will your bank manager. The all-new Octavia comes surprisingly well-equipped as standard, is spacious, comfortable and has a number of useful real-world features - such as the roof-mounted USB port (to plug in a dash cam without any unsightly cables) and umbrella storage concealed within the driver’s door for those rainy days. The electronics are excellent quality and easy to use.

2. Ford Focus Estate (9,513 sold last year)

Strengths:

  • Cheap to buy and run. There are a number of different engines, trim and models to choose from, but a one litre ecoboost petrol starts at £22k and gives surprisingly good performance. The smaller engine isn’t underpowered, as you’d expect, offering fast acceleration and good cruising ability. It’s frugal too, delivering mid-40s mpg in the real world. Low insurance groups and easy to fix, make it an affordable long term runaround.
  • Surprisingly spacious. At 608 litres, the wide boot comfortably swallows a full baby’s buggy/pram plus luggage. It will accommodate three adults in the back with ease too. Even the cup holders are adjustable and you get a spare wheel (which is a rarity on a new car these days).
Spare wheels are a rarity in new cars these days

Weaknesses:

  • Bumpy ride and loud engine. It lacks refinement compared to its rivals, and the steering is on the heavy side.
  • Dated graphics and simple satnav. Cheap-looking plastics.
Finally Ford has brought in a flat screen display, but it has the same poor graphics as previous cars

Verdict:

Sporty looks, fun to drive, cheap to buy. It’s no wonder these cars are so popular. It’s just a shame Ford can’t be bothered to compete when it comes to the digital functions such as the satnav (which looks like it’s stuck in the 90s) or the driver’s display. Even the key hasn’t changed in 10 years.

3. Audi A4 Avant (7,004 sold last year)

Strengths:

  • Head-turning looks inside and out. The new Avant has shaken off its boring conservative demeanour and had a sporty modern makeover. The aircraft-style gear lever is particularly fun.
  • Brilliant performance. In fact, this was the best-driving estate tested. The 2.0-litre petrol was fast, responsive and handled like a dream.
  • Smart tech: From the satnav featuring 3D satellite views, to the car’s Alexa-style voice warning you when you’ve left your phone inside. The Avant has the best 360 cameras too, giving the clearest view of the kerb, while the automatic sliding parcel shelf makes life easier when opening and closing the boot.
3D displays give a touch of class

Weaknesses:

  • Space is a little tight. The long bonnet means there’s less interior room and a narrow, 495-litre boot. That’s still big enough (just) to take a couple of kid’s bikes but golf clubs will need to be packed at an angle.
  • Layout issues. The centre cup holders are placed too far forward, meaning tall drinks will get in the way of some of the controls. While, like the Skoda, the cruise function is operated by a lever next to the indicators which makes operation tricky.
  • Price and range. The A4 Avant comes in either 2.0-litre petrol or 2.0-litre diesel froms. Great for performance, but not so kind on your wallet. While the base model starts at around £32k, in reality you’ll struggle to get a decent specced version under the £40k "luxury tax" limit.
The boot is narrow but you'll still be able to fit a couple of kids bikes in the back

Verdict:

This is a top-end premium car that comes at a steep price. If you need something with lots of space, consider moving up to the A6 which boasts far more leg and boot room. If it’s all about driving pleasure, then look no further.

4. Toyota Corolla Touring Sports (6,752 sold last year)

Strengths:

  • Hybrid power means it’s quiet, smooth, has fast acceleration and returns over 60mpg in real world driving.
  • Comfortable seats and high, upright driving position offering good visibility. Feels more like an MPV than a saloon-based estate.
  • Simple controls. Logical, easy to use. Even has a manual radio tuner.
  • Some reviews claim it has a small boot - which isn’t the case. It’s officially smaller than the Focus but crucially has a large void under the floor where the spare wheel would have been, giving a precious few more litres of room.
  • Excellent reliability and five-year warranty. One of the safest cars around according to Euro NCAP crash tests.
Simple, no thrills interior but the seats are wide, large and comfortable
Eke out a bit more luggage space in the under floor compartment

Weaknesses:

  • Boring looks and a bit bland. The Corolla won’t win any beauty contests. Inside, it’s built for comfort more than pleasure, featuring a basic screen with low grade infotainment and a simple satnav display. Otherwise, it’s hard to fault.
  • Hybrids aren't everyone's cup of tea and require specialist (dealer) repairs and servicing.
Toyota offer a very basic sat nav/infotainment system with small display

Verdict:

The self-charging hybrid drivetrain means you’ll save time and effort not having to plug in, but still returns high fuel economy. Starting at just over £25k, the Corolla is more affordable than any plug-in options on the market. Plus Toyota is backed with a long warranty and great reliability record. However, if you are looking for a tourer to do serious motorway miles then a diesel may make more sense.

5. Mini Clubman (6,448 sold last year)

The Mini Clubman parked in front of the Ford Focus Estate gives a idea of the difference in size.

Strengths:

  • Quirky, fun and unique. There’s nothing else quite like it, from the door-style boot to the porthole centre display. It has bags of personality and charm.
  • Racing car credentials. The mini is nippy and a hoot to drive, particularly if you go for a high powered option. I tested the JC Works model delivering 300hp - awesome and terrifying in equal measure.
  • Not as small as you’d think! On the face of it, 360 litres of boot space sounds tiny. But we still managed to squeeze in enough stuff for a family long weekend away, including child’s buggy in the recess underneath the boot floor. There’s even enough room (just) for golf clubs and a cart. 
It's a tight squeeze, but there's enough room for a couple of suitcases, overnight bags and a buggy
Rear leg room is a limited as you'd expect

Weaknesses:

  • Marmite features: from the distracting, ever-changing coloured lights that circle and pulse around the central console, to the rocket launcher-style oversized toggle switches. The interior won’t be to everyone’s taste - but at least it’s not boring.
  • Hard, uncomfortable ride. Anything longer than an hour or two will leave your back in bits. 
Some will like the quirky interior design. But those flashy lights go off like a disco and become annoying

Verdict: 

This stretched out Mini certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and has quite a niche market: people who want the Mini looks and rally car credentials, with a slightly larger boot.

The above cars are the most popular in terms of sales, but there are some brilliant alternatives depending on your budget. Why not consider these three models:

Volvo V60 - as a premium offering versus BMW, Mercedes or Audi

Strengths:

  • Elegant looks, high class interior. Every bit as desirable as any of the German marques or Jaguar.
  • The most comfortable seats you can find.
  • Tablet style vertical touchscreen, means few buttons and less clutter.
  • Excellent safety features and reliability record. High resale values.
  • “Recharge” versions feature plug-in hybrid technology to give a 25-mile electric-only range (and a five-hour recharge time). I managed more than 140mpg over a week of driving due to lots of short journeys. In practice the range drains quickly with motorway driving.
  • Has more boot space than the three German rivals.
Premium comfort but that huge bump in the rear floor means it's only comfortable for four passengers, not five

Weaknesses:

  • Expensive. The base models start at £35k for petrol and £38k for diesel. Go up a level, with a half decent spec, you are likely to be looking in the region of £50k.
  • Huge bump in floor means it is not practical to sit three in the back, like you can in the Audi.

Mazda6 Tourer - best looking mid-market model

Strengths:

  • Classy interior featuring leather materials and chrome trims. A nice place to be.
  • Useful tech features - such as automatic locks when you shut the driver’s door.

Weaknesses:

  • Very noisy engine in low gears, particularly after ignition.
  • Poor radio reception.
  • Terrible infotainment system. The satnav is needlessly complicated and low spec, and the touchscreen won't work while in motion.
The Mazda's satnav is needlessly complicated, is low tech and often gives the wrong position (as proven here where it thinks I was driving through the Thames)

Kia Ceed Sportswagon - for hybrid model and value for money

Strengths:

  • Affordability: Entry-level models come with touchscreen and cruise control and only cost around £19k. You can pick up a one-year-old version with good spec from around £15k (although they are like gold dust).
  • Unrivalled seven-year warranty.
  • Hybrid models (from £29k) deliver a 32-mile all-electric range and take only four hours to charge. A useful charging indicator flashes on the drivers dash.
Not the most glamorous but it's hard to fault the Kia in terms of value for money

Weaknesses:

  • Lots of annoying beeps and warnings: it beeps when you turn the ignition on or off. It beeps when you reverse. It beeps when anything is remotely close to the car, or if you change lanes without indicating.
  • Front sensors do not activate automatically.
  • Hybrid version is frustratingly underpowered and slow to respond to the throttle. No USB charging port in rear either.

We couldn’t test every estate on the market - and there are some great ones we left out, such as the massive Skoda Superb, plus well-proven models from BMW and Mercedes.

We’d love to hear what estates you drive and why. Just log in to the comments section below and have your say.

*Sales figures courtesy of SMMT based on new car registrations for 2019. These do not take into account 2020 sales.

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