These days, the traditional family car is not quite as popular as it used to be. Buyers tend to favour crossovers and SUVs for their more rugged, adventurous image. But there are some sound reasons to choose a family car, especially an estate. If you want plenty of space for luggage, estate cars beat crossovers hands down.

VOLKSWAGEN PASSAT ESTATE

  • Our favourite GTE
  • Price £38,310
  • Kerbweight 1760kg
  • 85% match figure 1496kg
  • Legal towing limit 1600kg
  • Noseweight 90kg
Volkswagen Passat Estate

There’s very little that the Volkswagen Passat doesn’t do well. It has been one of the very best estate cars for many years and recent revisions have made this perennial tow car favourite even better.

Most significantly, last year’s updates saw the reintroduction of the GTE plug-in hybrid. This had been withdrawn from sale when demand outstripped supply, but now it’s back in the line-up and expected to take a quarter of all Passat sales.

We reviewed the GTE a few months ago, and were thoroughly impressed with its towing ability. The combination of a smooth 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol and a punchy electric motor give a combined output of 218mph. The powertrain easily copes with any sensibly matched caravan, and with a 1760kg kerbweight and a 1600kg towing limit, plenty of tourers fall into that category.

Hybrid power

As a rule, plug-in hybrids are at their best when they can be recharged regularly – not so easy to do when towing. However, we were extremely impressed with the GTE’s 29.5mpg while pulling a 1450kg caravan.

The GTE is at the pricey end of the Passat line-up, but there are lots of more affordable versions to choose from. Prices start at £27,620 for the 1.5-litre petrol. We’d be inclined to find the extra for the 150hp 2.0-litre diesel, which starts form £29,580.

Choose conventional power rather than hybrid and you’ll get a bigger boot – 650 litres – making the VW one of the most practical estates you can buy. There’s plenty of room for passengers, too. Most important, every Passat we’ve driven has proven a stable tow car.

BMW 3 SERIES TOURING

  • Our favourite 320d xDrive M Sport Touring
  • Price £42,085
  • Kerbweight 1790kg
  • 85% match figure 1522kg
  • Legal towing limit 1800kg
  • Noseweight 75kg
BMW 3 Series Touring

There are more affordable family estate cars than the 3 Series Touring, and many have more room for luggage. However, if we could pick up the keys to any of these six to drive home, it would be the BMW.

It’s a superb car to drive, with brilliantly balanced handling and strong performance from a range of powerful but frugal engines. The 3 Series is at its best with adaptive damping, which allows the driver to tune the suspension for greater comfort or sharper responses. A pricey upgrade, but worth considering.

Most of the range is rear-wheel drive, but the xDrive 4x4s are our favourites for towing. As well as putting their power to the road more cleanly when the surface is wet and slippery, they’re also slightly heavier than two-wheel-drive models.

Buyers have the choice of petrol, petrol-electric and diesel. Although we’re very tempted by the 330e hybrid (and would choose it for its low tax bills if we were a company car driver), the 320d xDrive Touring would be the model we’d spend our own money on.

Towing ability

When we tested the car it narrowly missed out on a five-star overall verdict, but scored the maximum five out of five for its towing ability. With 295lb ft of torque, the 320d quickly towed a 1375kg caravan up to speed, feeling secure at 60mph on motorways. The BMW proved economical as well as quick and stable, returning 32.3mpg while towing.

The 500-litre boot is similar in size to those of the Audi A4 Avant or Mercedes-Benz C-Class, but if ultimate space is your priority, the likes of Škoda and Volkswagen offer bigger estate cars for less.

ŠKODA SUPERB ESTATE

  • Our favourite 2.0 TDI 150 SE
  • Price £27,390
  • Kerbweight 1577-1780kg
  • 85% match figure 1340-1513kg
  • Legal towing limit 2000kg
  • Noseweight 90kg
Škoda Superb Estate

Choose the Škoda Superb and you’re getting a very similar car to the Volkswagen Passat. Perhaps not quite as good to drive (although there’s not a lot in it), but it is even roomier.

Compared with the Passat, the Superb has been stretched between the front and rear wheels. This gives the Škoda class-leading cabin space. It’s most noticeable in the back of the car, where a passenger of well over six feet tall can stretch out behind an equally tall river with room to spare.

Luggage space is as good as it gets, too. There’s an impressive 660 litres, rising to 1950 litres with the back seats folded down.

You have a wide choice of petrol and diesel engines, and Škoda has just introduced a plug-in hybrid, called the Superb iV. We’ve yet to drive it, but we’d expect it to be just as able as the Passat GTE, which uses the same drivetrain.

Diesel engine

We have a soft spot for the range-topping 272hp petrol. It’s comfortable when driven gently, but very rapid if given free rein. Four-wheel drive makes the most of performance in all weathers. However, the official combined figure of 32.5mpg would put us off, and there’s better value lower down the range.

One of the 2.0-litre diesels would be our pick, with 150hp or 190hp. The lower-powered model is fine for towing, and achieves 56.2mpg on the combined cycle. SE spec comes with 17-inch alloys, adaptive cruise control, front and rear parking sensors and dual-zone climate control, and costs £27,390. It’s a lot of motor for the money, and makes a stable and frugal tow car.

MAZDA 6 TOURER

  • Our favourite 2.2 Skyactiv-D SE-L Lux Nav+
  • Price £29,125
  • Kerbweight 1692kg
  • 85% match figure 1438kg
  • Legal towing limit 1600kg
  • Noseweight 75kg
Mazda 6 Tourer

If you’re looking for a mainstream estate car with a sense of style, look no further than the Mazda 6 Tourer. This is a handsome machine.

It’s not short of substance, either. The 6 is one of the sharpest family estates from the driver’s seat, with taut suspension that stays just the right side of being too firm. Alert and precise steering adds to the pleasurable driving experience.

When you’d rather potter than press on, the 6 is comfortable and quiet – Mazda has recently added more sound-deadening to address the criticism that the car was too noisy at speed.

We would think twice before choosing the range-topping petrol. Although it has 194hp, it needs to be revved hard, and doesn’t rest very easily on the ears.

Sporty handling

The less expensive petrols also need plenty of revs before they really wake up, so we’d choose one of the diesels. The 184hp 2.2-litre delivers the performance to match the Mazda’s sporty handling, but the more affordable 150hp 2.2 is brisk enough and can certainly handle a well-matched caravan. It’s economical, too, returning 55.4mpg on the combined cycle.

As a tow car, the 6 Tourer is stable in still air and remains controlled when the wind picks up. But it’s not quite as secure as a VW Passat in a crosswind.

It’s not as roomy as the Passat or Skoda Superb, either. There’s less space in the back, although adults can still travel in reasonable comfort. Boot space is short of that offered by the most practical estates, with a relatively modest 522 litres with the rear seats upright. But as a stylish alternative, it gets our vote.

FORD MONDEO ESTATE

  • Our favourite 2.0 EcoBlue 150PS Titanium Edition
  • Price £26,400
  • Kerbweight 1728kg
  • 85% match figure 1469kg
  • Legal towing limit 1650kg
  • Noseweight 90kg
Ford Mondeo Estate

Although not as popular as it was some 20 years ago, today’s Mondeo is a capable vehicle with respectable towing credentials.

There are a number of diesels to choose from, as well as a hybrid. We haven’t driven the petrol-electric model, but the battery pack eats into the boot space. It’s a self-charging hybrid rather than a plug-in, so its fuel economy figures aren’t all that impressive. We’d be more inclined to have a diesel and a bigger boot.

Until quite recently, the Mondeo was available with an Eco Boost petrol engine. Using turbocharging for power and efficiency, it was better suited to towing than most petrol cars.

However, the only petrol Ford now offers is the petrol-electric hybrid. It seems surprising, given the widespread move away from diesel, but unless you choose the hybrid you will have to have a diesel.

Good economy

That’s no hardship when the engines perform well and deliver very good economy. The latest EcoBlue diesels are clean and efficient. There’s a choice of six-speed manual and eight-speed auto transmission, and while most Mondeos are front-wheel drive, there are also four-wheel-drive models.

The 190hp engine has more top-end punch than the 150hp version, but we’d be inclined to choose the lower-powered version. It has enough pulling power for towing (258lb ft), and it’s cheaper to buy.

As a tow car, the Mondeo is stable and secure on country roads or motorways. However, it’s a shame the interior isn’t a little more upmarket, and it can’t match the VW Passat or Škoda Superb for boot space.

VOLVO V60

  • Our favourite D4 R-Design Auto
  • Price £40,145
  • Kerbweight 1752kg
  • 85% match figure 1489kg
  • Legal towing limit 2000kg
  • Noseweight 100kg
Volvo V60

Completing our selection of six favourite family estate cars is the Volvo V60. For decades, Volvo has been renowned for its practical estate cars, and it has put that knowledge and experience to good use with the V60. It’s a good-looking car, too, although style hasn’t compromised practicality too much.

With a 529-litre capacity, the V60 might not have as much boot space as a Škoda Superb, but it has the edge over other upmarket estates such as the BMW 3 Series Touring and Audi A4 Avant. The boot floor is low to the ground and there’s no lip to lift items over, so loading up is easy.

Inside, the V60 is all that you’d expect of a modern Volvo: beautifully made, with an uncluttered interior design. However, that does mean you have to rely on the touchscreen a lot. Call us old-fashioned, but in our book a few more buttons would make life easier.

Company car

There’s a choice of plug-in hybrid, petrol and diesel models. The plug-in hybrid should be the one to choose if you are a company car driver (and so will enjoy modest tax bills because of its low emissions).

Both the 150hp D3 and the 190hp D4 diesels are well suited to towing, especially the more powerful D4. The Cross Country version has four-wheel drive to help tow away from a damp pitch, or to cope with bad weather on the road.

On balance, we’d probably choose the D4 engine, and would decide between the front-wheel-drive and Cross Country model depending on our budget and whether we tour in summer or all year. Either way, the V60 makes a stable, stylish and practical tow car.

More for your money

While estate cars may be out of favour compared with SUVs, that can be a good thing if you are looking for a secondhand bargain. As a rule, resale values aren’t as bullish as SUVs’, which means you get more for your money on the used car market. To illustrate the point, here are a few cars from the classified ads.

We found a 17-plate Volkswagen Passat Estate 2.0 TDI 150PS SE Business DSG with 47,000 miles, priced at £12,799 on sale at a big car supermarket. For £11,800 you could pick up a 17-plate Mazda 6 Tourer 2.2D 150PS SE-L Nav Auto with 37,000 miles. Or how about a 65,000-mil 66-plate Ford Mondeo Estate 2.0 TDCi 150 Zetec for just £9799?

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