SUV or estate: which should I buy?

Car buyers can’t get enough of SUVs, but are they really more practical than traditional estates?...

29 November 2018
Nissan Qashqai hatchback (14 - present)

In the past, if you wanted more practicality than the average family car could provide, then an estate was the default choice. After all, such models offer the passenger space of the hatchback or saloon on which they’re based, along with a much larger boot.

Things changed, though, when manufacturers started producing SUVs. These merge the rugged looks of traditional 4x4s with the lower running costs and more civilised driving manners of family cars, effectively creating a halfway house between the two. But are they really the better choice?

SUV pros and cons

SUVs are incredibly popular, due to their space, style and elevated driving positions, with the original Nissan Qashqai (launched in 2007) really kicking off the trend. It’s long been a regular in the UK’s top 10 best sellers list, which explains why the majority of other car makers have launched rivals.

In addition to family SUVs such as the Qashqai and our 2018 Car of the Year the Volvo XC40, there are more compact, city-friendly models, including the Seat Arona, and larger, more luxurious vehicles, such as the Audi Q7.

The height of SUVs is a big draw for a lot of buyers, because it gives you a good view of the road ahead and also means you don’t have to stoop down to get into the car – something that’s beneficial for people with restricted mobility or for anyone with young children who need lifting into a seat.

It’s easy to assume that SUVs are four-wheel drive because of their shape, but that often isn’t the case. Few of them are designed for serious off-roading and many of them are front-wheel drive, which, on the plus side, means lower running costs.

Those that do have four-wheel drive systems tend to be pricier to buy, especially the larger and more luxurious examples, although these are very spacious.

Conversely, smaller SUVs are not the last word in practicality, and you can often find other family cars with bigger boots for less money.  

SUVs are typically more expensive than the equivalent size of hatchback, despite being little or no bigger.

Estate pros and cons

Estates have been around for as long as cars have been mass produced, and they still make excellent family transport. They are typically slightly more expensive to buy than the hatchbacks and saloons on which they’re based, but the payoff is heaps of extra space and improved versatility.

Unless you go for a really big and expensive SUV, chances are a similarly priced estate will trump it on boot space. The Skoda Superb Estate, for example, has a gigantic 660-litre capacity and is very good value. What’s more, an estate’s boot is closer to the ground than an SUV’s, making it easier to load bulky or heavy items.

It is possible to find an estate with four-wheel drive, too; many models can be specified with it. Plus, a small number of estates, such as the Audi A6 Allroad, offer an increased right height and rugged features, giving them slightly better visibility and more traction on loose, slippery surfaces – just don’t expect them to outperform a Range Rover off-road.

The downside of estates is that they lack the desirability of SUVs, having something of a dated image. As a result, they don’t usually hold their value as well.

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