15 fast estates that aren’t obvious or expensive

By topgear, 07 April 2021

The very best kind of car in the world is an estate. Call it what you will: station wagon, dad chariot, weekender, sportwagon or shooting brake, the fact of the matter is the second a manufacturer adds a big, open area behind the rear seats and seals the deal with a hatch, we are in like Flynn.

And so, being, Top Gear, you might imagine that we like the new Audi RS6 (above) very, very much. And we do.

But what if you’ve spent all your money on Spotify, flat whites and avocado toast, or whatever out-of-touch bankers point to whenever we say we’d like to afford things like cars, or a house?

Well, have no fear! Well, have the right amount of fear – the Doomsday clock is now measured in seconds to midnight, rather than minutes, after all – but have no fear about this: you can get some seriously amazing, supremely rare-groove estates for a sixth of the cost of a new RS6, or less.

Yes, Top Gear is here to save the day, if your day can only be saved with some moderately flimsy buying advice, centred around oddball-yet-quick estates that don’t squander your bank account in one fell swoop. Hey, it could happen.

STORY Craig Jamieson

Mitsubishi Evo IX wagon

0-95: Less than five seconds
Top speed: 240km/h or so
Best bit: It’s an EVO… wagon!
Worst bit: Um. Hm. Nope, it’s an EVO… WAGON. What could possibly be bad?

Rarity doesn’t always mean brilliance. For instance, it’s rare for cruise ships to run into icebergs, but that doesn’t make the fate of the Titanic one of mankind’s greatest achievements.

Sometimes, however, rarity and brilliance share the same parts of a Venn diagram. And so it is in the case of the Evo IX wagon. Just 2,500 of these nuggets of JDM brilliance ever left Mitsubishi’s factory.

And, by our reckoning, it’s the last time anything truly brilliant ever did. With everything the Evo IX sedan offered, the wagon added proper cargo space and 70 kilos, which actually gave it better weight distribution than the four-door. Look into your heart – you know you want one.

Audi allroad 4.2 V8

0-95: Seven seconds
Top speed: 210km/h
Best bit: Sneering at SUV drivers who chose… poorly
Worst bit: Apparently, everything breaks 

There’s a curious allure to Audi’s lifted wagons. Common sense dictates that, as they’re higher and heavier than standard, they’ll be generally worse than the regular Avant Audi started with.

But there’s such an essential rightness to them – the softer suspension soaks up crappy roads with ease, and the ever-so-slightly-higher ride height means that speed bumps and potholes don’t trouble you anywhere near as much as a regular car. But – and this is crucial – they’re still essentially cars, not SUVs, so they don’t come with the litany of performance and handling problems that it seems only Porsche can properly solve.

And if you combine the Allroad’s day in, day out prowess with the silky rumblings of Audi’s venerable 4.2-litre V8, which saw service in everything from the R8 supercar to the S8 limo? That’s knocking on the door of perfection, that is. Just keep the bank account padded to soften the blow when something goes wrong…

BMW 550i Touring (E60)

0-95: Five-ish seconds
Top speed: 250km/h
Best bit: Instant, always-on oomph
Worst bit: This generation of 5er? It’s basically a Mogwai, apparently

OK, so the E60 series was a bit spotty on the reliability front, in retrospect – particularly the M5, which seemed to have a gearbox made from chocolate and electrics made entirely from gremlins.

The better bet is to take a step down, away from the motorsport-spec histrionics and into the realm of easy wellsprings of power. No one’s going to argue with 367 horsepower and 490Nm, as delivered by a 4.8-litre BMW V8.

Oh, and in case you needed a bit of pedigree for an otherwise fairly forgotten engine, you can always pull the 4.8’s trump card: it was the same that Morgan used in its Plus 8 and Aero SuperSports.

Mercedes-Benz W202 C43 AMG Estate (1998)

0-95: six seconds, or thereabouts
Top speed: quick
Best bit: Driving if not Genesis, then certainly one of the early books
Worst bit: Knowing that better AMG engines exist

While there’s a lot of love for the C63 estate (and rightly so), it’s always good to remember where you come from. And, in the case of blisteringly fast Merc-AMG estates, things started about here.

Sure, it was far from the first Mercedes-AMG tie-up, and it wasn’t even close to the first AMG-branded estate. But it was the first AMG built from start to finish in a Mercedes factory, not taken off the line and hand-fettled by AMG.

It’s also the first time a V8 found a place in a Mercedes C-Class. And, judging by how the 4.3-litre V8 delivered – 300bhp and the same in torque – it was never going to be the last.

Volvo 850 T5-R / 850R

0-95: About seven seconds
Top speed: 250km/h or so
Best bit: Living out your BTCC fantasies
Worst bit: Realising that BTCC will never be as good as it was in the 1990s

“If you hear hooves,” the saying goes, “you think horses, not zebras.” And if you think estates, it’s going to be somewhere between a poofteenth and a picosecond before the primordial depths of your brain respond with ‘Volvo’.

By now, you know about the 850 Estate’s crowning glory – teaming up with Tom Walkinshaw Racing to make perhaps the coolest touring car of all time. And the good news is that, while not touring-car quick, the road-going T5-R and 850Rs aren’t exactly slouches – with about 225bhp and 325Nm going through just the front wheels, there’s no end to the tyre-scrabbling glee once the turbo spools up.

Mercedes-Benz W211 E55 AMG Estate

0-95: 4.1 seconds
Top speed: 250km/h, easy
Best bit: Seven seats AND a supercharged 5.4-litre V8? Where do we sign?
Worst bit: Ah. At the bottom of this massive repair bill

Before the runaway success of the C63 – which cemented ‘63’ as a byword for quick Mercedes, even as the engines changed size – the best-selling AMG was this, the E55.

Well, not this; most people bought sedans. But most people were, in fact, wrong. Because this is an E-Class estate, it meant you could get a full SEVEN people in your 470-odd horsepower sled and terrify/amuse all of them at once.

The presence of superchargers, in our estimation, is always better than the absence thereof. And the E55 shows why – 700Nm at the disposal of your right foot, blowing the newer (and still entirely excellent) 6.2-litre V8 into the weeds.

Mitsubishi Galant (Legnum) VR-4

0-95: 5.4 seconds
Top speed: More than 250km/h
Best bit: No one else will know how good you’ve got it
Worst bit: Finding replacement parts if you break something

OK, so it’s perhaps not the world-storming success story that Mitsubishi wanted from what it considered a top-tier product. But its obscurity is your opportunity, friendo – or are you going to tell us that you don’t want a 2.5-litre, twin-turbo V6 estate with an all-wheel-drive system done by rally meisters, Mitsubishi? Didn’t think so.

Is it pretty? No. But you get two turbos, a V6, all-wheel drive and nearly 300bhp in a car from the golden age of Japanese car manufacture that’ll likely keep pace with all but the newest hot hatches. And that’s very attractive.

Alfa Romeo 159 3.2 V6

0-95: About seven seconds
Top speed: 250km/h or so
Best bit: The looks
Worst bit: The flab – it’s more than 1,700kg

This makes the grade, like all Alfas do, by being absolutely gorgeous first and by scoring a series of own goals second.

So yes, 256bhp might seem a little on the weedy side when you’re hauling 1.7 tonnes, but remember: these things kept up with James Bond himself in an Aston DBS in Quantum of Solace.

And, if that movie taught us anything, apart from how bad Bond flicks can be sometimes, it’s that Alfas must be pretty potent to keep up with the world’s least-secret agent.

Back to reality and you’ll see that the 3.2-litre V6 is not the transcendent Busso found in the 156 and 147 GTAs, but rather shares its block with a Holden Commodore. Because of course it does. But, as always, a quick look at the 159’s form and most, if not all, is forgiven again – until it breaks down.

Chrysler 300C Hemi wagon

0-95: Seven seconds
Top speed: 250km/h
Best bit: The engine
Worst bit: Everything else

As beautiful as a bedsore, as well-made as a McDonald’s hamburger and as subtle as a sledgehammer, the 300C is far from the first fast estate we’d recommend. But the BBC has this whole thing about ‘balance’ and ‘fairness’ and ‘objectivity’, so we thought we’d find a few nice things to say about this pile of utter dross before self-administering eye drops and an antiemetic and moving on.

So… it has a 5.7-litre V8, which makes nearly as much power as you would expect from an engine this size. It also has rear-wheel drive for as much fun as the always-on stability control will allow, right up until someone from Essex mistakes you for a rival drug dealer and leaves your corpse up a lane somewhere. And you won’t even be classy enough to be found in a Range Rover. The shame.

Audi S6 Avant (2006)

0-95: 5.3 seconds
Top speed: 250km/h
Best bit: It has the same V10 as a LAMBORGHINI
Worst bit: It also has the running costs of Balmoral Castle

OK, not going to lie: this one’s pretty lust-worthy. Not because it’s especially pretty, or a particularly great handler, but because of one very important thing – will anyone else you know have a Lambo V10-powered estate to punt around in? Didn’t think so.

Yes, you could have an RS4 or RS6 Avant from about this time, if you had more to spend. But aren’t they just a bit… obvious?

You’ve heard of the elephant in the room, but a V10 estate with 14 years under its belt is more like a sword of Damocles for your wallet. It’ll fall one day, just as sure as night follows day and Williams F1 follows from the back of the grid. But the fun you’ll have before then just might make it worth it. Possibly. Maybe. Almost.

Mercedes-Benz W204 C63 AMG estate (6.2-litre)

0-95: 4.6 seconds
Top speed: 250km/h
Best bit: That glorious, sonorous engine
Worst bit: Fuel bills. Tyre bills. Speeding tickets

Ever see a car journo use the phrase “If this were my money?” It’s basically saying that, even though we know there are objectively better choices out there, our hearts are set on something else entirely.

So, you’ll know how much it means when we say that, even in this list of subjectively brilliant but probably fatally flawed choices, the C63 estate stands apart as the one we’d most likely buy with our own money.

As hilarious, rapid or otherwise brilliant as almost every car in this list is, we’d still put our sort-of-hard-earned cash down on this absolute gem of a car.

OK, yeah, it’s the most obvious car on this list by some margin. But it’s near-as-dammit one of our favourite cars of all time, so cut us slack this once.

HSV R8 Tourer

0-95: Five-ish seconds
Top speed: flamin’ quick
Best bit: 6.2 litres of V8 goodness
Worst bit: hearing British people try to put on an Australian accent

Australians don’t make cars anymore, which is actually a bit of a shame. We’re not saying there was a constant stream of automotive hits from the sunburned (and fire-ravaged, and biblically flooded) country any more than we’re saying there was a constant stream of hits from its musical artists.

But for every Jason Donovan or Jet, there was at least one Tame Impala or Nick Cave, if you take our meaning.

The HSV R8 Tourer is the epitome of, well… not so much a hit, because Holden Australia couldn’t sell enough cars or make enough money to keep the wolves from the door.

So let’s call it a deep cut from a well-known, if not entirely successful band. And with that metaphor tortured like a Guantanamo inmate, let’s get to the point: the R8 Tourer had a) the engine from a Corvette, b) the basic chassis from a Camaro and c) enough space in the back for a band’s worth of musical instruments.

Nissan Stagea Autech

0-95: Less than six seconds
Top speed: 250km/h
Best bit: Having a secret R33 GT-R
Worst bit: Answering ‘The Nissan what?’ for the umpteenth time

OK, let’s get something out of the way, straight away – the Stagea Autech is based on an R33 Skyline GT-R – engine, four-wheel-drive system and all. Sure, it’s from the forgotten-butter-at-the-back-of-the-fridge school of design, but, when you’re secretly riding on the mechanicals of the storied Skyline GT-R, haters can just keep hating.

If you need a Stagea for less coin, weirdly, the newer one is your best bet. It loses the RB series straight six, though – replaced by the familiar Nissan V6 used in everything from 350GTs to Muranos – so it might be worth pinching a few pennies… y’know, while they’re not looking.

Toyota Crown Athlete

0-95: Less than eight seconds
Top speed: 180km/h (limited, as per JDM cars of the era)
Worst bit: The satnav and all the buttons are in Japanese
Best bit: Learning Japanese!

Before you clicked into this article, you probably already had an idea of what you’d find. Audi RS? Of course. Volvo? Definitely. Merc? Natürlich. But we’re going to go out on a limb here and say that the Toyota Crown Athlete probably wasn’t on your mental list.

But, and this might just be nascent oddball JDM adoration talking, we think it should be. Mostly because under the bonnet, there’s a twin-turbocharged 1JZ under the bonnet. That’s basically a 2JZ, just displacing 2.5 litres instead of 3.0, and with parallel turbos (or, in this case, a single turbo) instead of sequential ones.

At least for the 15 and a half seconds that you leave the standard turbos in; with some fiddling (and yes, overnight parts from Japan), you can make 600 or even 700 horsepower on the stock 1JZ-GTE block, making one of the best proper street sleepers we can imagine.

Hear us out: Volvo 1800ES

0-95: ooh, a while
Top speed: Still faster than plod would prefer
Best bit: Some of Volvo’s best-ever styling, and it’s a proper shooting brake!
Worst bit: We had to use mental gymnastics to include it in this list

OK, so a 2.0-litre, naturally aspirated Volvo engine from the 1970s isn’t even speaking the same performance language as a new RS6, but who wants to always speak the same language – especially if it’s German? Have you heard a German say ‘I love you’ in their native tongue?

So why not take a break from this obsession with power and speed, slow down and actually take life in before it slips through your fingers, leaving you old, decrepit and full of regret.

OK, got a bit dark there, but our point is the same: sometimes slow is better than fast. Oh, and if that still doesn’t do it for you, there’s always the possibility of an engine swap

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