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The nature of the traditional estate – aka the station wagon – is changing. This year sees the continued evolution of the luxury cargo carrier

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There have been two seismic shifts in motoring in 2015, notably the headlong rush towards a fully autonomous car as well as the unexpected success of the high hatch. The two are not connected – yet. However, both point towards an industry that is increasingly shaking itself free of accepted norms and ways of doing things.

In the evolving new world, ‘innovation’ is the buzzword. And in the scramble to be seen as the most visionary, manufacturers have thrown out a number of hard-and-fasts. One of these is the notion that to carry either large amounts of goods or many passengers, a vehicle has to look, ride and drive a certain way. Niche is now the new mainstream and segments are blurring.

So it is that the humble estate has been repackaged, rebooted and rebranded – breaking cover as a number of different, appealing new models.

What exactly it has become depends on where you look. So, for example, in the eyes of Audi it is an off-roader (the A4 Allroader) and a hard-core sportswagon (the RS 4 and S4 Avant); for BMW, a Gran Tourer (the 3 and 5 Series GT); for Volvo, a lifestyle wagon (V40, V60); and for Peugeot and Volkswagen, reinvented multi-purpose vehicles (MPV) – the Peugeot 3008 and VW Golf SV. And increasingly, it is a large SUV, such as Volvo’s much-anticipated XC90 and Infiniti’s continentally massive QX80.

This last manifestation is, of course, nothing new. Toyota with its Land Cruiser, Nissan with its Patrol, Land Rover with its Defender and Mitsubishi with its Pajero have all been offering station wagon versions of their big boys for years. What is new is the significant move upmarket, with working grunts now packaged as executive chariots.

Look closely and it’s clear the estate has never had it so good, even if it is hiding in plain sight.

Mercedes-Benz
That said, one manufacturer still offers a workman-like rear wheel-drive station wagon. Ironically it is Mercedes-Benz – purveyor of all things upmarket – that has stuck with the brick-back.

Doubly ironic too, because the car maker has successfully reinvented itself, morphing from codger to cool in a series of epic model innovations that deserve global applause. Yet among all the trendy new GLAs, GLCs and AMGs, the humble E-Class (and C-Class) estates survive.

The E-Class is certainly easy to understand. It is a gargantuan load swallower; a workhorse that, in Europe at least, is the default taxi of choice. The C-Class may seem a less obvious Mercedes-Benz SA choice, given the plethora of SUV-like crossovers peppering its showrooms. A closer look reveals the reasoning: it is a Euro-cool lifestyle wagon, and its engine choices – 1600 and 2.1l diesel – point to its positioning as the eco choice if you have to move a lot of kit around. This does indeed make sense – a large SUV will use more fuel, emit more hydrocarbons and be less fun to drive.

The car maker has reinvented itself, morphing from codger to cool in a series of epic model innovations that deserve global applause

The pick of the line-up is undoubtedly the C250 BlueTec Estate AMG Sport, with the beautifully tractable 2.1l diesel engine that puts out a walloping 500 Nm of torque – enough to pull the Trans Karoo, much less the skin off a rice pudding. It looks the business too, with its AMG wheels and flat-bottomed steering wheel.

BMW
If Mercedes-Benz’s approach to the estate is old school, then BMW’s is temerarious. Cheeky, in fact. In the spirit of the age (reinvent, reinvent, reinvent), Munich have appropriated the GT moniker and reissued it as … a station wagon. If you are going to be traditional about it, a GT should, by definition, be a two-door coupé with a boot. BMW’s GTs, the 3 Series and 5 Series, are distended versions of their lesser brethren, able to swallow huge amounts of baggage through their high, wide hatches. And certainly they do, offering unprecedented space, not only for luggage but people as well. Very few passenger cars offer as much legroom for rear passengers as these two Brunhildas.

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Another BMW creative leap is the 2 Series Active Tourer: part MPV; part mini-SUV; part hatchback; and part station wagon. It’s smaller than a conventional wagon, yet succeeds as a mover of substantial loads and with, in certain models, just a three-cylinder 1.5l engine. This power unit is one of the best on the market. It’s a technological marvel as strong as it is economical, sharing service in the Mini – owned, of course, by BMW.

Mini has its own interpretation of the wagon, an even bigger stretch. The Countryman picks up where the now-discontinued Clubman left off and does service as the Mini with genuine space, as well as dirt-road pretensions. It is, happily, still a Mini. In other words, fun to drive and dynamically appealing, if not exactly the George Clooney of the motoring world.

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Land Rover
Most definitely a contender for Clooney status, however, is the new Land Rover Discovery Sport – the replacement for the Freelander. It plays with elements of both SUV and station wagon, being an executive load carrier and very capable off-roader. Proving even more popular than its sister, the Evoque, it is actually closer to its big brother, the Discovery – at least when it comes to load lugging. Discovery Sport also offers seven seats, the rear two being foldable to provide good old-fashioned station wagon space, much like the original Range Rover, its ancestor.

In the meantime, Range Rover has moved upmarket, and would be somewhat unlikely to heft around straw bales and grandfather clocks as it once did. In flagship Si4 HSE Luxury guise, the 2l petrol Discovery Sport gets all the trimmings, including the maker’s new infotainment interface and the nine-speed automatic gearbox. The interior, though demonstrably elegant, is more robust than the Evoque, hinting at its role as usable wagon as much as lifestyle chariot.

Volvo
Big news at Volvo is the long-awaited arrival of the flagship XC90, completing the SUV/station wagon-esque line-up of XC60, 70 and 90. The launch makes Volvo the undisputed wagon king on the market, with only the S60 playing the role of ordinary sedan. For the rest, Volvo’s line-up spans the range of large and mid-sized crossovers that are as undeniably pretty as they are practical. The XC90 is particularly interesting, being the first in Volvo’s new generation of cars to sport the new 2l engine that will do service across the entire range. An engine this size in a monster weighing nearly two tons seems like a recipe for disaster, but the turbocharger and supercharger see to it that it is not found wanting.

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Inside it is exquisitely finished; a real challenger to the Infiniti QX80, Range Rover and new Audi Q7 it will go head to head with. In our test, the car’s greatest attributes were its silent operation and the class-leading 1 400W Bowers & Wilkins sound system, with no fewer than 19 speakers.

Audi
The Volvo XC90 will have to be very good if it is to compete with Audi’s new Q7, which, perhaps not coincidentally, has adopted the same station wagon-like rear-end treatment. Gone is the Triassic hump of the previous generation. In its place is a simpler, wagon-like squareness.

The seven-seat interior is nothing short of a masterstroke, a new benchmark for the industry, with a bulletproof feel to it, à la Porsche. The four-wheel steering and the virtual cockpit instrument binnacle will also attract admirers. Alongside it, Audi’s other wagons seem like racing cars – the RS 4 V8 and V6 sister, S4 Avant, the very pinnacle of Audi’s engineering prowess.

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Gone is the Triassic hump of the previous generation. In its place is a simpler, wagon-like squareness

Both are magnificent to drive – the lighter 3l V6 S4 Avant perhaps the most fun, being as it is lighter and more manoeuvrable.

At the other end of the AG spectrum is Volkswagen’s newly introduced SV, a rival to the BMW 2-Series Active Tourer. It is significantly cheaper than the 2-Series but is dynamically on par – and certainly a match in the load-lugging stakes.

Infiniti
It is perhaps fitting to sign off a report on load carriers with what must be the most audacious entry into the SA car market in years. Infiniti’s leviathan 5.6l V8 QX80, which ultimately replaces the Nissan Patrol, is the largest passenger car available for sale in the land. It stands at a colossal 5.5m long and 2m high. The interior is just as astonishing – three rows of lounge-style, padded seats and banks of electronic gadgetry, including a raft of off-road aids, ensure that it is the ultimate in luxurious go-anywhere motoring.

By Peter Frost
Images: Land Rover, Audi, Volvo, BMW, Mini