Used car buying guide: best £16,000 estate cars

Mercedes E250 estate car for all the family

Mercedes E250 CDI: estate car for all the family. (Picture © Mercedes)

Unlike many 4x4s or people carriers, estate cars typically drive like a regular saloon or hatchback, have sensible running costs plus a large and practical boot that is easy to load. Here James Mills, a journalist who advises readers of the The Sunday Times and on the best new and used cars to buy, names three class-leading family estate cars for a budget of £16,000. 

When it comes to living with a family car, bigger is always better. And the Mercedes E-Class estate is as large as they come. It has a whopping 695-litre luggage capacity to swallow a child’s pram, luggage for all the family and even the pet pooch. Fold down the rear seats – using convenient levers just inside the opening of the boot or on the seats themselves – and there is 1950 litres of space.

Mercedes E-Class Estate: Optional seven seats
The E-Class Estate is available with an extra pair of seats, which fold away beneath the floor of the boot when not in use. This was an optional extra, so when researching used cars, ask the seller to confirm whether they were fitted.

Mercedes E-Class Estate: Pick of the engine range
There is a wide range of petrol and diesel engines, and even a hybrid model. Choosing which is right for you will come down to the price and condition of the car as much as performance requirements. However, the widely available E250 CDI (a four-cylinder turbo diesel) strikes the best blend of performance and fuel efficiency, returning 51mpg, costing £145 to tax, and zipping from 0-62mph in 7.8seconds.

Mercedes E-Class Estate: What you get for £16,000
An E250 CDI costs less than £16,000 for a 2010 model. We found a 2010 60-reg E250 CDI Estate Avantgarde with 88,000 miles on the clock within our price range. With the lower powered but slightly more fuel efficient E220 CDI you can get a slightly younger 2011 11-reg model with 80,000 miles. Most cars will be for sale through independent dealers or private sellers, but a handful are available from Mercedes’ own used car programme.

Practical estate car with up to 85mpg

VW Golf Estate: Practical estate car with up to 85mpg. (Picture © Volkswagen)

When Jeremy Clarkson reviewed the latest Volkswagen Golf in The Sunday Times, he had this to say: ‘When it comes to cars these days, the top 10 things that matter are: economy, economy, economy, economy, economy, economy, economy, economy, economy and safety.’ As he observes, the price of fuel generally only ever goes up and the drain on drivers’ wallets never lightens. So an affordable estate car that can travel over 72 miles on a gallon of diesel is a very good thing indeed. That car is the latest Volkswagen Golf, specifically the 1.6 TDI. And it’s the bog-standard and cheaper ‘S’ trim level that delivers such efficiency, so you don’t have to pay a king’s ransom to buy a frugal family estate car.

Volkswagen Golf Estate: The car that’s good at everything
Is there anything that the latest Golf, and the spacious Estate version, isn’t good at? Happily, no. This is the best all-round car on sale today. It looks smart, not flashy. The interior feels built to last, but there’s plenty of up-to-the-minute technology on board. It drives and holds the road with surprising precision, but never gets uncomfortable on motorway runs. The 605-litre boot is practical enough too.

Volkswagen Golf Estate: Choosing the best engine
The most fuel efficient model in the range is the 1.6 TDI BlueMotion, capable of more than 85mpg. But because that version costs significantly more than a 1.6 TDI S, so most drivers choose the S instead. It will return 72.4mpg and costs just £20 a year to tax. For drivers who travel less than 12,000 miles a year, because of the price difference between petrol and diesel, the 1.4 TSI petrol model will be more affordable to run.

Volkswagen Golf Estate: What you get for £15,000
The VW Golf is one of the UK’s best selling cars, but the seventh generation version of the Golf estate only went on sale in July 2013. That means there are only nearly-new examples for sale at the moment, but the good news is these are within the £16,000 budget.

Estate car that's great to drive

BMW 3-Series Touring: Estate car that’s great to drive (Picture © BMW)

There is a simple reason why the BMW 3 Series Touring is so much fun to drive: the engine drives the rear wheels unlike the majority of modern cars which are driven by the front wheels. Better still, BMW likes to put some of the most powerful six-cylinder diesel engines in a compact car, so drivers can buy a frugal estate but not surrender driving enjoyment.

BMW 3 Series Touring: How it drives
Used car buyers after a fun estate should test drive either the 330d or 335d Touring models. Essentially the same straight-six cylinder diesel engine in two states of tune, the former has 245bhp, the latter 286bhp. This alone would be enough to make them jolly fast, but with so much pulling power as well they really are as quick and responsive as some sports cars. The 330d is probably sufficient for most drivers’ needs: it accelerates from 0-60mph in 6.3seconds and its impressive 45mpg fuel economy ensures running costs are low.

BMW 3 Series Touring: The interior
This is not the largest estate car you can buy, but it can just about accommodate most things a family will need to lug around. The boot holds 460 litres of luggage, and can be extended to 1,385 litres. Practical features abound, such as a tailgate where the rear window can be opened independently of the boot lid.

BMW 3 Series Touring: What you get for £16,000
The 330d is in good supply, whereas a 335d is relatively rare. At the time of writing, an approved BMW dealer was selling a 2009, 09-reg, 48,000-mile 330d SE automatic for £15,580, but by contrast buying from an independent dealer or private seller would secure a younger car with fewer miles. A 2010, 60-reg, 39,000-mile 330d M Sport auto was £15,990 from a specialist dealer.

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