Needing to lug more people about shouldn’t stop you from picking up an interesting bargain
Why leave the kids, the pets or even the kitchen sink at home? There are some highly dependable and desirable bargain buses on sale – and our picks prove you needn’t sacrifice pace, poise or kerb appeal when it comes to choosing your next shopping wagon.
Volvo XC90, 2002-2014
£800-£22,000: The car that launched 1000 imitations. With its clever, fold-flat seats, raised seating position and flattering looks, the Volvo XC90 was to MPVs what the asteroid was to dinosaurs. Its diesel engines aren’t the smoothest and the auto gearbox desperately needs a torque lock-up to avoid the constant downchanges, but few can argue with the way the XC90 swallows family life. Even Jeremy Clarkson loves it: he’s owned several.
One we found: 2013 Volvo XC90 2.4 D5 R-Design, 50k miles, £18,950
Volkswagen Golf Estate, 2004-2010
£1500-£8000: Beloved by everyone from school-run parents to impoverished aristos, the Golf transcends lists like these: it’s just so ubiquitous that it’s the cliché that keeps on giving. Hand-me-down Mk4 hatches were popular when my mates and I were in our youth, but those in the know hankered after a Mk5 estate. Launched in the wake of the all-conquering Ford Focus, the Mk5 was when Volkswagen realised it couldn’t just make a reliable car (remember the ad?): it had to drive well ’n’ all. This was in an era when diesel wasn’t completely vilified, so the 2.0 TDI was the engine of choice. The 1.9 diesel was a bit rougher. Most Golfs of this vintage were and remain pretty reliable, but keep an eye out for the alloy wheels because they can suffer from corrosion.
One we found: 2008 VW Golf 2.0 TDi Sportline, 76k miles, £4690
Ford Focus Estate, 1998-2004
£900-£2000: Sales have dropped like a stone recently but the original Mk1 Focus will forever occupy a special place in Autocar’s heart, mainly because it makes everyday family driving rewarding. The estate lacks the hatch’s distinctive ‘New Edge’ rear-end styling but gains a healthy 520 litres of boot space. Used ones are mostly super-high-milers, but the odd one crops up with fewer than 100k on the clock. They’re generally pretty reliable and rust-resistant, too.
One we found: 2002 Ford Focus 1.6 LX, 103k miles, £1995
Renault Avantime, 2001-2003
£3000-£6000: The world’s only three-door MPV – and likely to remain that way, given how MPV sales are going. Cutting-edge production techniques (Renault used high-pressure water jets to cut the plastic bodyshell) and genuine standout styling weren’t enough to save the Avantime. If you ever sit in one, look at the double parallel opening door hinges. The way they allow the extremely long doors to cantilever out in a tight space is a thing of beauty.
One we found: 2003 Renault Avantime 2.0, 65k miles, £5250
Volkswagen Passat W8, 2001-2004
£3500-£6000: Perhaps one of the ultimate Q-cars. Since 1978, the Passat had been a byword for suburbia, but the 2001 W8 and its 266bhp 4.0-litre eight-cylinder soon sorted that out. Car spotters take note: model-specific wheels, a tiny W8 badge and quad exhausts are the visual clues to spotting one. Extremely rare, the W8 engine only ever appeared in the Passat and even that model was only on sale for three years.
One we found: 2002 Volkswagen Passat W8 4Motion, 93k miles, £5595
Mercedes-Benz 300 TE, 1985-1995
£3500-£12-000: From when Mercs were hewn from granite. The 300 TE isn’t the most powerful family hauler on our list (180bhp and 188lb ft from its 3.0-litre straight six), but for understated cool, few come close. We had one when I was growing up, complete with rear-facing boot seats (handy for six-year-olds to blow raspberries at following traffic) and it remains the car my dad held onto for the longest – well over 120,000 miles by the time he decided to get rid of it.
One we found: 1992 Mercedes-Benz 300 TE, 183k miles, £5000
Volvo 850 T5, 1993-1997
£5000-£25,000: There’s a great video of when the Volvo 850 Estate touring car wasunveiled: the looks on rival drivers’ faces alone are enough to get it on this list. The racer has a naturally aspirated petrol 2.0-litre with a six-speed sequential ’box, but the road cars got 222bhp turbo five-cylinder engines. Check the front tyres, because even with a torque limiter on first gear, you’ll be lucky to get 10,000 miles from a set. Yellow T5-Rs with the manual gearbox are the popular ones.
One we found: 1997 Volvo 850 T5, 102k miles, £16,400
Ford LTD Country Squire, 1979-1991
£8000-£12,000: The Country Squire was sold across four decades but it’s the 1979-1991 edition we’re interested in. Why? Chevy Chase. The car and the man are indelibly linked in a melting pot of ’80s nostalgia. Pace won’t be strong. Despite a 5.0-litre V8, it could muster just 145bhp, but then given the body roll evident in the movies, that’s probably no bad thing. Americana comes to Amersham.
One we found: 1983 Ford LTD Country Squire Wagon, 54k miles, £10,000
BMW M5 Touring, 2007-2010
£25,000-£40,000: For once, BMW stuck it to Audi in the fast boot stakes. On song, and revving to 8250rpm, the 5.0-litre V10 is one of the greatest engines of the past quarter century. Reliability issues have scarred a few owners, though, so go carefully, and the engine did a pretty good impression of a diesel at idle, but for making the school run feel like a Juan Pablo Montoya out lap, the M5 brings a sense of occasion to the ordinary like few others.
One we found: 2008 BMW M5 Touring SMG, 41k miles, £36,950
Audi RS2 Avant, 1994-1995
£50,000-£80,000: No list of family haulers could be complete without a fast Audi and the first RS ever is a logical starting point. The RS2 was based on the relatively suburban Audi 80. Porsche breathed on the suspension and engine, yielding 311bhp and 302lb ft from the 2.2-litre turbo five-cylinder unit. All that power was kept in check by a Torsen-type Quattro set-up.
But the real masterstroke was the Avant bodystyle, mixing sleeper-car cool with family practicality – a recipe that Audi still dominates today. With fewer than 3000 made, the RS2 was rare even when new and is sought-after today, as prices show.
One we found: 1994 Audi RS2 Avant, 81k miles, £65,000
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