Why We Love Fast Estates
'Boxes on wheels' they may be, but there's nothing like a fast estate to really get the blood pumping. Here's why...
A contradiction of sorts, a practical estate with sporting pretensions. A car that is made to be practical but also made to upset supercars over the quarter mile. Plenty of room for the kids and the dog, but also enough for a big turbo engine or something even more exotic. Estate cars may have started out as something just to lug large items around, a 'box on wheels' according to James May, but they have evolved into so much more than that. Fast estates have been stealing headlines and upsetting supercars for decades now and, if current trends are anything to go by, they are here to stay. AMG, M, RS, GTA, R and GTI, badges every enthusiastic driver worships and they have all featured at one time or another on the back of an estate car.
So why do we love these confused beasts, why do they deserve to be picked over their saloon/ hatchback siblings and can you really justify spending fix figures on a glorified German box? To understand we need to delve deeper into the appeal of this special branch of the car world and find the hidden treasures that lay inside.
There are Exceptions to Every Rule
Fast but Not so Furious
Exceptions aside (see above), the majority of estate cars, even fast ones, fly under the radar of the standard onlooker. Even the fastest estates don't look out of place at the drop off zone at Heathrow's Terminal 1. Yet they are fast, really fast. The latest crop of German super estates (those from RS and AMG for example) pack well in excess of 500bhp which, when paired with four-wheel drive, makes these cars able to do 0-62mph in a little over 3 seconds. This means that these cars can really trouble and embarrass supercars of just a few years ago, it ought to wipe the smile off that Ferrari owners face when three kids and a dog are waving at them through the rear window. Though some children's stomachs may not agree with such savage acceleration, you have been warned.
This is not to say that fast estates are necessarily boring cars. Many of them feature some seriously exotic engines under the bonnet, turbo V8's and V10's have been found under the bonnets of Mercedes and BMW wagons over the years, while Alfa Romeo's infamous Busso V6 made its way into the 156 GTA. These cars can handle too, most share their underpinnings with hot saloons (such as the case in Mercedes AMG estates) and carry little extra weight meaning they will feel right at home on your local B-roads.
If flying under the radar is your kinda thing, then a fast estate is perfect for you. A Mercedes C43 AMG, for example, will humiliate any run of the mill SUV or hatchback, but will not get scowling looks in the school car park or young Hamilton-wannabes lining up against you at every set of traffic lights.
Golf R's Vast Load Space
Practicality for the Petrolhead
Space, space and more space. Even those of us who prefer the pit-lane to the rubbish tip can appreciate a car that is not only fun to drive but practical as well. Take the Golf R for example, as pictured above. The load space of the (reasonably-sized) hatchback is 340 litres with the rear seats raised, compared to the 605 litres offered by the estate. Just think of the track day tyres, exhaust systems and unsold Jeremy Clarkson books that you could get in there...
The extra space and practicality can also, I think, make you more likely to land yourself with a performance car. Think of how much easier it will be to justify the sub-20 mpg figures when you can take the kids to school and hit B&Q on the way home. How can you're better half disagree with that?
A fast estate is all you need on your drive, it will stand up to everything you throw at it, while only costing a little more than the saloon or hatchback variant you were considering.
Really, Over an E63 AMG?
Beating Fast SUV's into Submission
Big engine, practical space and unlikely to attract the boy racer crowd, what about a fast SUV you say? Where do I start...
The cost is the first issue I run into, comparable performance SUV's and estates often share some hardware; they likely use the same engine, gearbox and drivetrain configuration, similar interior parts and even underlying platforms in some cases. This all means that the fast SUV's offer very little in the way of technology over an estate variant, save for some jacked up suspension and bigger wheels. It begs the question then, how can these SUV's be so much more expensive? Not only are they more expensive to purchase but also more expensive to run, they may have the same engines but one has a whole lot more weight to shift around compared to the other, meaning more fuel used and higher emissions, so Greenpeace will hate you as well.
The performance. As stated above, the fast SUV and hot estate variants share much of the same hardware. This means that the heavier, less aero efficient (essentially overturned wardrobes) SUV's suffer when it comes to performance and that's just in terms of straight line performance. When you factor in the raised centre of gravity and compromised geometry, you will find that the SUV's, despite modern suspension technology, will not be able to hang with the wagons through the bends and will likely be less enjoyable to drive while doing so.
The design, now this one may be divisive. I personally am not a fan of SUV styling in general, I feel like they look like bloated and raised up versions of already questionably styled hatchbacks. Combine this with the absurdly large wheels and the extreme width/ length of these vehicles and I personally find them unsightly. Estates on the other hand are generally well proportioned, offering a longer, sleeker look than saloon versions, but retaining performance styling cues like splitters and diffusers that, in my eyes at least, look entirely out of place on an SUV.
4 of the Best/ Most Iconic Fast Estates
Here, some of the best fast estates the world has ever seen, whether they define an era, offer a unique motoring experience or are just plain cool in their own right. Yes, I could have listed modern fast German wagons all day here but there has been some other machinery that is arguably more interesting and definitely more rare than any of the recent models from the big Deutsche marques.
First off the iconic Audi RS2 Avant. In my eyes the original super estate. A car that used the combined know-how of Audi and Porsche to create a five-door estate car, that could trouble the best sports and supercars of the day, around the world's best roads and tracks. No it wasn't cheap, priced at £45,705 back in 1994 (circa £90,000 adjusted for inflation), but could keep Ferrari's, Porsche's and even the McLaren F1 (albeit only to 30mph) honest. This performance in an estate shape couldn't be found elsewhere until many years later.
The RS2 was created when Audi 80 estate shells were sent over to Stuttgart for Porsche to work their magic. The cars were fitted with a 2.2 litre five-cylinder turbocharged engine, pushing out 311bhp and 302lb ft to all four wheels, via its six-speed manual gearbox. This was good enough for a 5.4 second 0-62mph time and 163mph top speed. The turbocharged torque shove was actually noted as even being too aggressive by some journalists at the time of release. The Audi was not renowned for its handling excellence however with a large amount of understeer (typical of Audi's of this era) combined with little feel through the steering.
The limited run of these vehicles combined with its iconic status and build story has meant that used prices are sky-high, with no sign of retreat. Most examples now are near factory perfect low mile/ restored examples, often reaching well over £40,000. With only 180 RHD examples (and only 2900 cars built in total), your investment is sure to be safe if that's your kind of thing.
One of the most iconic models in BMW's history, the E60 M5 is known for its 500bhp V10 and 200+mph top speed, once uncorked. Its estate brother however, labelled the M5 touring, deserved its own share of the pie. If anything, this car harnessed the power and driving abilities of the saloon while providing a massive 1,650 litres of boot space with the rear seats folded. They are also much rarer than the saloon, with only 1025 being built (and only 222 for UK market in RHD). The touring model improved on the saloon's slightly boring and awkward styling, with a longer sleeker look and aggressive rear-end.
Then there's the real reason you want one, its infamous S85 5.0-litre V10 engine. It may not be fuel efficient or particularly good for the environment, but it makes a noise channelled from the gods and with over 500bhp could move this big estate to 62 mph in just 4.8 seconds, before topping 200mph (on the autobahn obviously) with the limiter removed. The Americans were even luckier than us in the UK, receiving the option of a manual gearbox, rather than the slow and often faulty SMG automatic 'box.
Well serviced and highly cared for examples can currently be had for circa £20k, significantly more than the saloon, but I think worth it when you factor in the extra practicality and rarity. For those with a tighter budget, the V8 545i estate provided plenty of power and can be found for less than £5,000.
Fast Box on Wheels
The Volvo 850R, my favourite of all the Volvo fast estates. This Swedish box-on-wheels took on the best saloons of the time in the BTCC and captured the countries imagination in the process. It took Volvo's immensely sensible 850 model and turned it up to 11. The car was actually a result of Tom Walkinshaw Racing entering a pair of 850 wagons into the BTCC back in 1994, with the company creating the 850 T5-R the year after. Popularity with customers led to this, the 850R.
The 850R came with a turbocharged 2.3-litre five cylinder engine, sending 250bhp to the front wheels alone via the manual gearbox and limited-slip differential. This car was a serious performance machine for the day then, also being fitted with self-levelling sports suspension and a whole lot of interior niceties. The technology was class leading too; with anti-lock braking, traction control, cruise control and even heated electric memory seats.
The exterior was kept subtle with 17" wheels and a slightly more aggressive body kit, ensuring it kept its sleeper status. The interior meanwhile received leather and alcantara. These cars are not common, with most used examples on sale being autos, wait it out for a manual and you will likely pay in excess of £10,000.
Evo Plus a Little Extra
Evo IX with a bigger boot, say no more. This rare site is a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution estate and I cannot think of a more practical way to get the ultimate in four-wheel drive road-rally car experience. Sharing its underpinnings, four-wheel drive system and turbocharged engine with its saloon brother, this car offers all the famous driving thrills you would expect from an Evo with some extra practicality to boot.
The turbocharged engine in question is the venerable 2.0-litre 4G63, producing, according to Mitsubishi, 276bhp (though this is often questioned as standard cars often made more than 300bhp on the dyno). This made for seriously impressive performance, 0-62mph in circa 5 secs and in top speed in excess of 140mph. This is just the start; these engines have huge power potential from simple remaps and bolt-on modifications. The car also has the renowned Evo handling thanks to the same locking differentials and suspension underpinnings.
The interior is all Evo (meaning typically Japanese), with the same excellent seats and steering wheel but with little else to mention in terms of luxury. The exterior is the same from the B-pillar forwards, with a Volvo-esque rear end attached to the back. I personally think that the extended rear seems almost like an afterthought, but does give the car a different and unique look, one that you don't see very often if ever.
As the car was never officially imported into the UK, there are not many about to choose from. Those that have landed here are generally in very good condition, specially selected by the importers to suit the fussy tastes of UK customers. Prices though are generally not much higher than the more common saloon variant; though watch out for automatic versions as well as any that have been extensively modified. Some people's engineering skills are incredibly questionable.
Honourable Bargain Choice
With the exception of the Volvo (though prices are rising), the above are generally very expensive, rare versions of the fast estate genre. Though the car below is also quite a rare beast, I wanted to make a suggestion of a cheaper, more reliable and arguably sensible alternative to guarantee your entry into the fast wagon club. I also couldn't complete an article with mention of a Subaru (I may have a small obsession).
Couldn't Talk About Estates Without a Subaru
The Legacy GTB, another car that was never officially imported to the UK and that is a serious shame, as I think it fits in here rather well. Standard Legacy models are relatively common, even 20 years since this model was sold on UK shores (showing impressive longevity). We are also big fans of the smaller hatchback and saloon Imprezas, I therefore think we would have jumped at the chance of buying an official Subaru-sold Legacy turbo.
While they may be in the lower price bracket now, the GTB Legacy is anything but basic. The car comes with a twin-turbo variant of the infamous EJ20 boxer engine, giving the car over 280bhp. This power combined with the sequential turbo's torque capabilities and relatively lightweight body (1400kg, not heavy for an estate by any measure) meant the car would crack 62mph in under 7 seconds. The cars also had a great sound and more power could be found easily. The handling was not regarded as being particularly good but was not awful either; the car could hustle along a B-road when required.
Due to the complexity of the car and the relatively early sequential turbo technology, there can be reliability issues. Many owners replace the standard twins with a single turbo setup for this reason. However, with proper servicing and maintenance these cars are generally bulletproof, upholding the famous Japanese reliability. I personally find a fondness for these cars due to their rarity and sleeper nature as well as their practicality and performance. Sometimes it's the ones you don't expect anything of that can make the biggest impact. Kind of sums up fast estates overall, they may blend in at the supermarket car park, but you know what it can do and that's really all that matters.
So that's my take on fast estates, do you love them too? Maybe you have a fast estate or yearn for one like I do, let me know down in the comments...