Want performance and a big boot? Take your pick from these three fast estates, then. But where’s the sweet spot: £26k, £35k or £50k?
Nearly 45 years on, the benefits of marrying power and better handling to the practicality and inexpensiveness of Giorgetto Giugiaro’s timeless folded-paper design seem as obvious as combining deep-fried chips with battered fish. Yet Volkswagen took some convincing. What eventually turned the car from cottage industry to industry changer was not just its snowballing popularity, but also the fact that the value-added desirability, spun into the car’s structure like thread in the tartan upholstery, could be used to liberally fatten the family hatchback’s slim profit margin. Cracking that formula was the GTI’s lasting lesson – one that the market has applied ruthlessly and rigorously everywhere ever since.
Which lands us somewhat messily at the idea of the modern fast wagon, the illegitimate offspring of the hot hatch, the super-saloon and the humble estate car – and, in many ways, the logical end point of Löwenberg’s pragmatic thought process. The two-box estate car in its cooking format ought to be about as compelling as a van with windows, but apply a svelte, swooping rear three-quarter and sprinkle the same half-century-old pixie dust on the chassis and engine bay, and it becomes something else entirely.
Alas, there is no Golf GTI wagon to fill the thematic gap. It doesn’t exist because (a) VW is precious about where it puts arguably its most famous nameplate and (b) there are a number of similar products available elsewhere in the VW Group. Possibly the most similar (or at least the car that shares the same engine as the base Golf GTI), is the new Skoda Octavia vRS. Its defining characteristics? A just-updated 227bhp, a wheelbase longer than a Brexit negotiator’s to-do list and a £26,385 starting price – £1500 cheaper than VW will sell you a three-door GTI.
Of course, with a bigger budget, you could have a Golf R Estate for £35,300 – the 306bhp all-wheeldrive range-topper that needs no further introduction. But for around £1k cheaper and only 10bhp less, Seat will now do you the Golf R’s drivetrain in a Leon Cupra ST. The kicker here is that the Spanish tourer is sleeker than its sibling and comes equipped as standard with the 19in wheels and Dynamic Chassis Control you’d end up paying almost £2k more for in the Golf R.
Rounding out the four-pot variety box is the black sheep of the flock: the latest Volvo V60 Polestar. Again, the car requires an additional leap in budget: £45k would have been about right for our sliding scale and the model’s premium-end market position but sadly someone at Volvo has taken leave of their senses and slapped a £49,665 price tag on the 362bhp Polestar, so even with a turbocharger, a supercharger and trick chassis strapped on, it has it all to do in this company.
At near enough half the cost, the Octavia’s stall is set out impressively. Ostensibly, it is new for 2017. Or its headlights are, at any rate. And the infotainment. Both qualify as very mild facelift blusher although neither should be completely dismissed; the headlights because they make the car marginally uglier, the infotainment because it makes the car marginally better. Elsewhere, it is as sensible as a librarian’s brogues, and quite possibly as exciting. Of the three, it’s the frumpiest to look at. But otherwise, it practically dares you to find fault with its vast internal acreage or uncannily accurate ergonomics or 610 litres of boot space.
In many ways, switching into the Leon serves only to underline the Skoda’s strengths. You’d hardly think the three fingers of extra wheelbase length on the same MQB platform would make a difference, yet unquestionably the Cupra feels like a smaller sibling – one endowed with much the same underlying bone structure, but fractionally deficient in the nuts and bolts functionality that makes the Octavia seem so practical. That said, because the Seat’s kit list is so comprehensive, there’s no mistaking its high-grade ambience: the Alcantara trim is standard, as is the variable boot floor, which provides a level seats-down space. You’ll pay extra for both Alcantara and the variable floor in the Skoda.
It’s indicative of the Leon’s overall quality, though, that the step up into the V60‘s price range is about as negligible as a dropped kerb. By and large, that’s because the Volvo’s interior is now six years old, and feels it. The infotainment screen, sunk so far back into the dashboard that it appears to be scurrying backwards from your aversion, is too small and too awkward to navigate via the tiny controls on the dash. Only the exceptionally comfortable seats now reflect the Volvo’s nominally superior status – that and the way the trim quality extends harmoniously into the boot. If only you could get more in it: alas, the V60’s practicality is famously handicapped by a lack of depth and a modest opening. Even the noticeably smaller Leon eclipses its 430-litre seats-up capacity.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t want for presence. In black, with huge 20in wheels, it looks forebodingly squat and purposeful and not a little Q-carish. Foreknowledge of the adjustable Ohlins and Haldex all-wheel drive system doesn’t hurt, nor does the idea that there’s a forced-induction tag team working to spirit all that output from a measly 2.0 litres. Its heavy-set charisma is replicated in the control weights. The Polestar’s steering is electrically powered now, but the map is very much the tuner’s own, and at low speeds, it’s reluctant to reduce the burden placed on the wrists by those 245-section tyres. Combine that with the slightly onerous size of the wheel and gearing that makes it a quarter of a turn slower than its …read more