Opinion: Super SUV? Give me a fast estate car any day

by Andrew Frankel
25 October 2020 3 min read
Opinion: Super SUV? Give me a fast estate car any day
Photos: Audi/BMW

You may have seen the recent episode of Top Gear where the team pitched a Lamborghini Urus against an Audi RS6 estate. The conclusion was somewhat equivocal, each reviewer – in this case Chris Harris and Paddy McGuinness preferring their own choice, but to me there’s barely a decision to be made. It’s the Audi, by a mile. Because one is an overblown, overweight, ostentatious, expensive SUV, a breed of car with which I really struggle, while the other is a fast estate car, a breed I’ve loved for as long as I can remember.

Almost. I can actually recall the moment I was bitten by the fast wagon bug: it was about 1978 and for some reason I was collected from school by my mate Piers’ dad, in his first generation Reliant Scimitar GTE. I thought it one of the coolest things on wheels (and a little bit of me still does). When, some years later my mother had a 1600cc Lancia Beta Coupe, I only had eyes for the 2-litre supercharged ‘Volumex’ HPE (High Performance Estate) version parked across the street.

HRH The Princess Royal with her Middlebridge Scimitar_Hagerty
HRH The Princess Royal with her Middlebridge Scimitar

To me, properly designed and executed high performance estates lay a good claim to being one of the most types of car of all. They are of course spacious, easy to live with and take all your stuff, but what I find remarkable about the best of them is how little they compromise the driving experience on offer. And even without talking about looks, image or price, here is the crucial differentiator to the high performance SUV.

Some fast estates are actually even better to drive than their saloon equivalents because while they may weigh a little more, that weight is positioned where it’s needed, at the far end of the car from its other major mass, the powertrain. Moreover most come with self-levelling rear suspension so the way they get down a road remains remarkably unaffected by how much clobber you have in the boot.

On the less tangible but no less important subjective front, high performance estates are cool. Indeed they are far more cool than their four door stablemates. If I see a Mercedes E63 saloon rumbling past I’ll think probably be minded to think ‘executive at the wheel’ – if I think anything at all. If I see an E63 wagon, I think ‘proper person passing.’ Unlike SUVs, they say almost universally positive things about their owners.

And they look brilliant. I was recently at a car event where there were a large number of sleek coupes, sports cars, supercars and high performance SUVs all lined up in a car park. And one Audi RS6. And it was that Audi that drew my attention. I’m usually far more interested in how a car drives than how it looks, but I could barely keep my eyes off that RS6.

Which have been the best? There are so many, so I’m going to restrict my trawl only to full sized estates, even though an Alpina D3 Touring is one of favourite cars of any time. There’s a special place in my heart for the W211 Mercedes E55 from around 2003 because it came with that awesome sounding 5.5-litre supercharged V8 and a power output of 478bhp. It was so much faster than any other estate I’d driven I dissolved in fits of giggles every time I drove it.

Andrew Frankel loves the E61 BMW M5 Touring

But then it got comprehensively outgunned by the E61 BMW M5 Touring. Even today it’s tech-spec’ looks completely insane for an estate car: a naturally aspirated V10 engine producing 500bhp from 5-litres at 7750rpm. It actually wasn’t a terrifically good estate because it has a terrible robotised manual gearbox and precious little torque where it is needed, low in the rev range, but I’m not sure to this day I’ve ever enjoyed flinging a big estate down a decent road more.

Of the current crop, it’s probably that RS6 which is no longer just a straight line machine like those that have borne the badge in the past. It looks good, handles well and goes ridiculously fast. Why anyone would choose to spend half as much again on an ugly SUV that’s essentially no quicker and nothing like as fun to drive is beyond me. I guess it’s got something to do with the image of themselves they think it projects to others, right Paddy McGuinness? As for me, like Chris Harris, I’d rather just drive a fine looking, fine driving estate.

Do you agree with Andrew Frankel? Have your say on estate cars and SUVs, in our comments section, below.

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  • Jos Dejongh says:


  • Malcolm Harrower says:

    I agree entirely. Estate cars have more space with passenger seats still in place, and often also considering the full load area. They are therefore more versatile and more convenient- eg bike racks on the roof. Visually are less ‘in your face’ than some of the large 4×4 boxes on the road today, drive more like a car and with the right mechanics are fast, like a ‘Q’ car. In short, more attractive, better to drive and much more practical.

  • Rob Jones says:

    I will never buy a lumpen SUV. A sportwagon is an ideal vehicle, I’ve owned two and would buy another right now but Alfa made the Stelvio instead of the Guilia Qv Sportwagon so I still have the Guilietta cloverleaf I bought 10 years ago!

  • Vernon Wheeler says:

    I totally agree.
    I have a Golf R estate. I tested the hatchback version but was disappointed with the ‘feel’ of the drive and the interior noise quality. The estate version was much better in both respects.
    I first noticed the different handling capabilities back in the 1970’s when I was given Ford Cortinas as company cars, the estate was streets ahead of the saloon!

    • James Mills says:

      It’s a really interesting point that Andrew touches on in his piece, Vernon. Especially the amplification effect of the noise of the exhaust!

  • Rick Archbell says:

    After the ur-Quattro, my heart was stolen when the first RS4 (2000/01), in estate form only, became the logical replacement. With its Cosworth tuned bi-turbo 2.6 V6, performance was electrifying, even when loaded. Always thought Audi estate designs were the smartest.

  • Jim Valentine says:

    Had Schnitzer BMW 5 estates, diesel and petrol since 2011. They look like no other car, take the family on holiday, commute to work, tow a rally car out to test on the lake in Sweden, dump runs, small flat removals, 0-60 in about four seconds and they’re even good in corners. What’s not to like?

    • James Mills says:

      Very much approve of your choice, Jim. I can remember being impressed by a Schnitzer BMW 318ti Compact, many, many years ago, and thinking to myself, “How good must the other models be…?”

  • Hugh Dowding says:

    Totally agree and the RS 6 is one of the coolest real cars on the planet. I have enjoyed both estates & SUV’s and love the estate cars.
    The only exception might be towing – but no-one needs an Urus to tow, the best car is then a Discovery LR4.
    Where we live the roads are full of RR Sports SVR, G Wagens, BMW M X5 and not one of them has ever seen a muddy field
    Maybe the best real world fast car is the new Alpina 3 Series Touring

  • Pierre Noir says:

    No doubt about it, estates win hands-down.

    The only thing I’d add to this ‘debate’ (everything else has been thoroughly addressed in the article and by other commenters) is that 99% of Britain’s roads were not built with SUV’s in mind.

    For example, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve witnessed SUV drivers too scared to take on what would otherwise be navigable spaces in any normal-sized car, slowing to a crawl and backing up traffic. And the poor kerbs!

    In fact, if it were up to me, I’d ban the blasted things from public roads! Bah, humbug! 😛

  • Reid says:

    Citroën C5 3.0 litre V6 estate. Right noddy car that goes like a bomb. Holds a lot too. Self-leveling susp brilliant for heavy loads and towing big trailer. Our second one is from 2005 and we’ll keep it for ever, if we can.

  • Martin says:

    Interesting debate – back in the day, a friend had a new Scimitar GTE (hugely comfortable), I persuaded my disinterested father to buy a 2.0 Lancia HPE (wow) and I have had several Audi estates which are great understated load luggers. After 4 Evoques I put my foot down and bought a 280 Stelvio and what fun, albeit a bit bouncy! It’s not the Quadrifoglio which btw sounds fantastic but to my mind the best looking 4 x 4 x far. And will I see another this week? – unlikely. Whilst I would go for the RS6 above the Lambo (which is ugly) without hesitation, one saving grace for the SUV is that it makes for a more relaxed drive being higher up and anticipating more easily what’s going on around you.

  • Adrian E says:

    15 years agoI popped a superchipchip into my oh so environmentally unfriendly E39 BMW 530 diesel touring and could out handle most things as well as tow my replica D type Jag to hillclimbs and yet still achieve a better mpg than my ’06 Mini One. After 10 years and 185k miles I sold it and still haven’t had as much fun out accelerating most things from roundabout for fast A and B roads even in my M3 BMW E46. Fast estates are the best for balance and practicality, especially on the motorways.

  • Anthony Saunders says:

    Even the name of Sport Utility Vehicle is an oxymoron! How can driving a large, fast whale be fun compared to a sleek, roadhugging estate. I guess it is fashionable, though. Also, you cannot clean the roof of a large SUV without using a ladder!!

  • Michael Palmer says:

    There is a point to these cars for a person like myself. Who is disabled (MD). I actually love my Urus as I cannot get in and out of a normal road car. (Too low to the ground). Getting out of the Urus with the suspension raised to it’s maximum is a breeze for me. I do not want some 4WD drive that I can take up to the top of Mount Everest. This is the closest thing you will ever get to a sports car in an SUV so here I am and others like me. The Pista Sider…. I just look at it now… it’s bloody shame !!

  • Paul Lond says:

    If you live in a city then of course you will have no need for an SUV or crossover. But every weekend millions of people head out to the countryside for rural pursuits such as angling or birdwatching. The extra ground clearance of an SUV is a real advantage, allowing the car to go down rutted farm tracks and through small floods. Even tarmac roads get covered in all sorts of debris which can damage the underside of conventional cars so yes, crossovers and SUVs do have real advantages. As for performance there is no practical need for any car to do 155+ mph when the speed limit is 70.

  • John Puttick says:

    I’ve always been a lover of estate cars ever since my first one, an Austin A55 Farina. They are just so practical, and drive like a car, not a van. My current car is a 1993 Mercedes W124 E280 Estate, which I’ve owned for over 15 years; not blisteringly quick, but with enough performance to show a clean pair of heels if necessary. With the seven seat option and self-levelling suspension, it is pretty much perfect.

  • Grizzly says:

    I am somewhat auto that no mention has been made of the ‘ baby’ racing truck, the Volvo T5 and it’s offspring.
    I owned an 850GLT, it’s a fair sized estate with enough room for double bed mattress, low enough for elderly dogs to jump/climb into. Very comfortable and quite quick as standard.
    Superb road manners that makes you feel safe, capable of cruising all day at 100 Mph and equally at home just popping to the local shops!

  • Grizzly says:

    Damned Kindle!
    First line of my comment re. Volvo estate car should read;
    I am somewhat surprised that no mention…

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