I have a confession to make. It concerns an unhealthy preoccupation with a slightly unlikely type of vehicle – the performance estate. I just think there's something deeply, deeply cool about them. Ignoring images of smoky old Volvos en-route to the car boot sales, they actually make a lot of sense. Anyone who's ever tried squeezing a mountain bike frame into a sportscar or balancing a kayak on the roof of a diminutive hatchback will confirm these things are not easy. Given an estate car, all these problems are solved. Fit it with a LamborghiniV10 and bingo - you can scare yourself on the way to the mountains as much as you can riding down them.
It's a concept that goes back a long way, with bespoke 'shooting brakes' first appearing in the twenties. Since then, Reliant, Aston Martin, Rolls Royce, Bentley… even Ferrari, have got in on the act. The uber-estate is going from strength to strength, as mainstream manufacturers start producing wagons that will give most supercars a run for their money. Here we look at five of the best.
MG ZT-T 260, 2003-2005
"Aww. How nice… Granddad's here." Atleast, you'd be forgiven for thinking that as the MG ZT-T 260 is, at first glance, very similar to the Rover 75 on which it's based. Except what Peter Steven's subtly beefed-up design lacks in drama, it makes up for with discrete good looks and the small matter of a 4.6 litre V8.
With a modest 260hp to play with, it's never going to beat the fastest super-estates at Top Trumps, but that's missing the point. Road testers raved about the ZT-T 260's flattering, rear wheel drive dynamics and the collapse of MG Rover has led to them becoming more affordable than ever before. With good examples commanding around £12,000, no other nearly-new car offers their impressive combination of V8 grunt and immense practicality for so little.
Verdict: Great handling, awesome value for money. Dare to be different.
Alpina C2 2.7 Touring, 1988-1989
Alpina used to manufacture typewriters, before a stock market windfall allowed the owner's son to branch out into motorsport. After enjoying considerable success tuning BMWs for competition use they struck a deal with the Bavarian manufacturer to produce modified road cars under the company name. A decade later, the C2 was released based on the E30 BMW 325i. The engine was bored out to 2.7 litres and fitted with Alpina's own cylinder head along with new camshafts, ECU, pistons and exhaust. Meanwhile, revised suspension and a gloriously eighties body kit completed the transformation. Ultimately, this is about as close as you can get to an E30 M3 estate, plus it has the added bonus of a gloriously smooth straight six engine in place of the four cylinder screamer.
Only 159 C2's were ever built and only around 30 of those were the Touring spec. The good new is that a reasonable number of them made their way to the UK and the prices remain reasonably sensible. (One example came up for sale last year and I desperately wanted to buy it, but a lack of funds or indeed space intervened.)
Verdict: Compact, retro and so damn cool.
Ferrari 456 Estate Car Venice, 1997
For some, a brand new Ferrari isn't quite enough – Prince Jefri of Brunei was just such a man. When considering what car to add to his staggering 1,700-strong collection (yes, you did read that correctly) he approached Italian coachbuilders Pininfarina to build a 456 estate. Having already produced several bespoke Ferrari conversions for him, the car was simply business as usual for the Turin-based firm and they happily obliged.
Whilst not technically a production car, Pinifarina did make full manufacturing tooling that allowed them to stamp out as many 456 estates as were required and seven examples were eventually produced. They shared the original car's 5.4 litre, 442hp V12, but the body was all new from the A-pillar back. Twenty centimetres were added to the wheelbase in order to accommodate an extra pair of doors and this also improved rear legroom. The conversion resulted in a glorious nod to the coachbuilt GTs of old and a car that simply oozes desirability. So, what about the price? Well, if you have to ask…
Verdict: Possibly the most practical way to express a huge excess of wealth.
Audi RS6 Avant – 2002-present
The AudiRS6 Avant is something of an icon. The previous generation car (first produced in 2002) set the benchmark for bonkers-power in a production estate and the new car ups the ante a little - well, actually rather a lot - with a 572hp, twin turbocharged, Lamborghini V10. In most respects it is in fact a very useable car, with four wheel drive and Audi's 'dynamic ride control' as standard, plus the options of carbon-ceramic composite disc brakes and three stage adaptive damping to keep you on the road.
Nought-to-sixty comes up in 4.5 seconds and obligatory German speed limiter cuts in at 155mph. Audi's claims that the car will do 175mph de-restricted, sound somewhat conservative (although more than adequate) and driven with a little more self-restraint the RS6 posts a comparatively respectable 20mpg. At a not-inconsiderable £77,625 it is, however, nearly ten thousand pounds more expensive than our next contender and some would argue that is a problem.
Verdict: Sure-footed four wheel drive, combined with Lamborghini power makes this one of the most sensible ways to go insanely fast.
BMW M5 Touring, 2007-present
The E61 Touring is the first M5 estate to be available in right hand drive and also the first produced in any numbers. Whilst a small batch of E34 M5 Tourings were produced these only for the domestic market. Like the Audi it features a big V10, but once off the line, the BMW is even quicker. One hundred miles an hour comes up in under ten seconds and with the 155mph limiter removed, the car is said to top two hundred miles an hour.
The M5 is slightly sharper than the RS6 in all respects. A high revving naturally aspirated engine takes the place of the RS6's twin turbo unit, the transmission features a faintly baffling seven forward gears and only the rear wheels are driven; there's no Quattro safety net here. With the rear seats folded its 1,650 litre loading area only just falls short of the RS6 and the whole package is somewhat more driver-focused. For those who prefer their super-estates hardcore, this has to be the ultimate offering from a mainstream manufacturer.
Verdict: Huge performance, mainstream dealer support and pure rear wheel drive.
Images courtesy of Headlineauto.co.uk