This test is about more than just a big boot and small costs. It’s about cleverness. Little touches that – on a rainy winter evening, with a wailing child and two handfuls of shopping – will make the daily grind a bit less stressful.
Honda’s new Civic Tourer could be just the thing. It has a bigger boot than its rivals in this test, while the rear seats fold upward so you can carry tall loads instead of rear passengers. It also has the most powerful engine of the bunch, although it is the most expensive car here.
Cheaper they may be after Target Price discounts, but on the face of it the new Seat Leon ST and Volkswagen Golf Estate seem not to have the Honda’s ingenuity. Do they make up for this in other areas?
What are they like inside?
The Civic’s load space isn’t just the biggest here at 627 litres with the rear seats up (or 1668 with them folded), but the biggest in the class.
It includes a huge underfloor compartment, while the boot’s luggage cover can be stowed in a slot beneath the floor; something that all these cars offer, although it takes quite a bit of faffing. Even the rear seat bases can be folded up to allow for a deep, through-loading area.
Despite having a smaller, 605-litre, capacity (1620 litres with the seats folded), the Golf’s load bay is actually longer than the Civic’s, and while there’s less underfloor space, the split boot floor can be adjusted easily. There’s a there’s a space-saver tyre beneath it. too.
The load cover in the Golf is clever. Press the handle once and it retracts half way, giving easy access without forcing you to stretch to pull it back again. Meanwhile, both the Leon and Golf have levers in the boot that drop the rear seats, leaving a smooth, slightly sloped load bay.
Otherwise, the Seat’s boot is a touch outclassed. The floor area is as big as the Golf’s, but it serves up ‘only’ 587 litres of space because of the raked rear screen. More frustrating in daily use is the Seat’s boot floor, which is a cumbersome solid panel.
The Golf has the smartest cabin, with a standard touch-screen and classy materials. As a bonus, the Golf offers the best all-round visibility.
The Leon matches the Golf in offering a fine driving position, complete with lumbar adjustment, However, over-the-shoulder vision is more restricted than it is in the Golf.
There are bigger problems in the Civic. Its digital speedo is positioned above the steering wheel, forcing some drivers to sit higher than they ideally would. What’s more, the infotainment screen’s menus are convoluted.
True, visibility is better than in the Leon, but the Civic’s tapering window line and narrow rear window make it tricky to judge distances in tight spots.
What are they like to drive?
Higher-spec Civic Tourers get adaptive rear dampers as standard. However, even S-spec cars – which aren’t available with these – combine a comfortable ride with good composure.
Unfortunately, the Civic’s steering is less successful, because it’s quick to respond and light around the straight-ahead position; this makes the car feel a little nervous on the motorway and means you sometimes have to correct your steering inputs at higher speeds.
By comparison, the Leon and Golf both feel sharper and more precise, so they inspire greater confidence in corners. The Golf does suffer from a touch more body roll than the Leon, but the up side is a more settled and comfortable ride. The Seat’s firmer set-up can cause it to fidget over town roads and thump over bigger bumps.
The Civic is the fastest car here, and it’s easy to keep its engine in its sweet spot, thanks to a six-speed gearbox; the Leon and Golf both have five-speeders with wider spaced ratios that force you to be more careful with your gear selections.
Even so, the Leon and Golf don’t rev too high on the motorway, and all these 1.6 diesel engines pull willingly and without any pronounced surge when the turbo kicks in.
Where the Civic really lags behind its rivals is on refinement. The engine clatter is intrusive under acceleration, and there’s a noticeable drone even at a steady cruise. Both the Leon and the Golf have smooth-revving engines that settle down to a gentle background hum once you’re up to speed, although you do have to put up with more road noise in the Leon.
What will they cost me?
Economy won’t be an issue in any of these cars, thanks to impressive claimed figures of 74.3mpg for the Leon and Civic, and 72.4mpg for the Golf.
However, you’ll have to pay the full £21,375 list price if you buy the Honda, whereas its rivals can be found for less than £20k.
Overall, because it will hold its value best and cost least to insure, the Golf costs £14,659 to run over a typical three-year ownership period – only £103 more than the Leon. By contrast, the Civic will set you back around £15,700.
It’s a closer call for company car drivers, although the Leon is once again cheapest. A higher-rate taxpayer will pay around £3800 for it over three years in company car tax, compared with nearly £4100 for the Civic and around £4450 for the Golf.
All of these cars get alloy wheels, Bluetooth and a multifunction steering wheel, but the Civic swaps the air-con in its rivals for climate control. However, it’s not available with parking sensors; these cost £435 on the Leon and £455 on the Golf. Both the Seat and VW come with a 60,000-mile, three-year warranty, while the Civic gets a 90k-mile, three-year warranty.
These are all fine cars that combine space with a relaxing drive. However, the Golf delivers the best blend of value, functionality and ease of use.
Not only does it have the most logical and well-finished dash, it is also the most refined car here, and offers the most satisfying compromise between precise handling and well-rounded ride comfort. If that weren’t enough, it also has a cavernous boot with loads of simple, useful touches that should help minimise the aggravations of family motoring.
Even so, the Leon and Civic are both great choices. If you plan to keep your car for the duration, and resale values aren’t a priority, the Leon ST will be much cheaper to purchase, nearly as practical and a little sharper to drive, if noisier and a touch firmer. Many will consider the less dowdy styling more than enough to justify the slightly compromised load bay, too.
The Honda, on the other hand, is exceptional if space is your absolute priority. It is quite an achievement to fit so much storage into a fairly compact car, even more so given how accessible and well thought-out that space is. Between the ‘magic’ seats and the huge underfloor storage, you can actually cram more stuff into a Civic Tourer than you can into an Audi A6 Avant or BMW 5 Series Touring. On top of that, it promises great reliability and a relaxing driving experience. Unfortunately, it’s too compromised in terms of price, refinement and behind-the-wheel ergonomics.
Volkswagen Golf Estate 1.6 TDI SE
For Ideal ride and handling balance; cavernous boot; lots of kit; strong resale values
Against Rivals are more efficient; load bay is slightly sloped
Verdict Everything you could ask for in an affordable small estate
Seat Leon ST 1.6 TDI SE
For Sharp handling; cheapest over three years
Against Not as practical as some rivals; firm ride
Verdict The most fun, but the boot could be bigger
Honda Civic Tourer 1.6 i-DTEC S
For Exceptional space and practicality; performance
Against High list price; poor refinement, cabin ergonomics
Verdict Great boot, but too compromised elsewhere
Honda Civic Tourer 1.6 I-DTEC S
Seat Leon ST 1.6 TDI SE
Volkswagen Golf Estate 1.6 TDI SE