10 awesome family cars for the price of a new Nissan Qashqai
It’s the most popular SUV-type thing in Britain. But it’s also at least £25,000. Come on, we can do better
Look, we’re fairly sure we know why you’re buying Qashqais. No one looks at the slightly raised ride height and thinks, ‘Yes, this will take me across the Gobi'. No one pores over the spec sheet and imagines setting record ETs at the strip. No one casts their eyes over its small-SUV proportions and imagines rolling up to Casino de Monte-Carlo, embarrassing oligarchs and stopping PYTs in their tracks.
This is a simple family tool, a comfortable conveyance for those who’ve reproduced at some point in their life and now need something safe and reliable to convey their progenies, their progenies’ progenies, their progenies’ progenies’ progenies and so on until you end up stealing that bit from Life of Brian.
Unfortunately, even the cheapest Qashqai costs £24,555, which does give some credence to the old dad joke of calling it the Nissan Cashcow. To car people, spending 25 grand on an automobile and getting a Qashqai in return is borderline insulting. And, as we’ve been accused of being car people, insulting and even borderline at one point in our lives or another, let’s see what we can achieve with that sort of cash.Advertisement - Page continues below
Mercedes C63 AMG estate
Come on, you knew this was coming. In what world could we combine the words ‘awesome’, ‘family’ and ‘car’ without an AMG 6.2-litre V8-powered Mercedes estate immediately springing to mind? Not a world we want to live in, that’s for sure – and that’s coming from people who live in the world we actually live in.
However, while we’ve recommended the wagon-backed C63 AMG often enough to be, if not crystal, then at least cut-glass clear on where we stand on it, we’re going to do something a little different this time and point out a flaw in our own plan. Yup, it’s actual hand-wringing indecision, writ large (or at least in a font that fits on your screen) and down to one particular part of the C63’s intoxicating recipe.
The fact is that a 6.2-litre V8 is perhaps not the most inspired choice at a time when petrol is as valuable as Mad Max: The Road Warrior, and burning it is sending us directly to a future that mirrors Mad Max: Fury Road.
When you consider that a new Qashqai offers a small engine, hybrid assistance and absolutely nothing in the way of driver entertainment, it stands to reason that its fuel use will be much kinder to your wallet and the world at large than a massive race-spec V8 that unearths your inner yob at every traffic light.
But a Qashqai is nothing more than a tool, a machine with a purpose that it does well enough until you update it with something better. The AMG 6.2 V8, on the other hand, is one of the high-water marks of the technology that’s set to put us all underwater. It is a shining example of human ingenuity, but also human whimsy.
Think for a moment about how the sound of induction, combustion and reciprocation provokes an emotional response in a species that has no biological rationale to feel much of anything about it. We invented something because we could, press-ganged it into utilitarian use, but then found ourselves as emotionally connected to it as music. This incredible and incredibly fortuitous accident is worth the cost of preserving.
Also, you do get quite a fun family car in the bargain. So there’s that.
E39 BMW 540i Touring
If you’re something of a regular around these parts, you’ll know our love for the estate car runs deep. And if you’re the kind to put two and two together, you might well imagine that our idea of 10 awesome family cars would extend beyond the estate about as much as an agoraphobic baroness.
OK, you might be on to something there. But when estates exist, overlooking them in favour of a crossover feels like deciding against scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef in favour of Grimsby.
When it comes to the E39 Touring, it feels particularly egregious – more than two decades on, it remains one of the most classically proportioned and beautifully unfussy designs ever bestowed on the estate car. And the fact we’re saying that about a BMW should probably indicate just how long ago two decades actually is. And if the idea of fuelling a massive V8 makes your hip pocket quiver (other methods of demonstrating financial worry are available), you’ll be glad to know that the E39 Touring kicks off with sensible displacements – 2.2 litres in the one above – but still in the absolutely correct straight-six layout. And these remain awesome cars. Just not the awesome ones we'd take.
Our pick is the rare-groove 540i Touring, a 4.4-litre V8 waftmobile with space to rival Interstellar. Just much less complicated, obviously. BMW never made an M5 version of the E39 Touring (more’s the pity) but we have an inkling that the 540i is perhaps the better family car anyway. Highly strung, specialist M Division parts take more to maintain and cost more in the process. For more information, find an E39 M5 owner and ask them about double VANOS, gaskets and timing chain guides. Perhaps take a handkerchief.
The regular 4.4-litre V8, on the other hand, is the same basic engine as the vaunted 5.0-litre in the M5, minus one VANOS system, a dual air intake and some compression. There are a few other changes, of course, but the gist that the regular M62 is a less-stressed version of the S62. Which makes sense.
We’ve seen 540i owners proudly report 200,000 and 300,000 trouble-free miles, happily conveyed by a just-right 280bhp and a satisfying burble. And should you run into serious issues with the M62 engine, just remember that you’ve bought a car with a drivetrain built to handle V8 torque. And then remember the LS. In the M5, it’d be sacrilege. In an unassuming family wagon? Already on our wishlist.Advertisement - Page continues below
Jaguar XF Sportbrake
Being a British publication, it really was only a matter of time. See, the common affliction for British motoring press is a predilection for a little automotive jingoism. That’s why you’ll see articles that defend shortcomings, forgive errors and lionise something built out of fibreglass in a draughty shed. And if the manufacturer is a company from the good old days*, motoring hacks become complete apologists, historically (and hysterically) turning a blind eye to a Jaguar that breaks, Aston going broke and Lotus doing both.
Which brings us to the Jaguar that we’re recommending. Hm. This might take some explaining.
The good news here is that we have something of an ace up our sleeve, an inoculation against the Best of British mentality. Namely, that the person writing this article is in fact Australian. So, purely by virtue of being one step removed from England’s odd brand of automotive apologism, he can say that the Ford Capri was a laughably weak imposter of the Mustang, that the Daimler SP250 rivals deep-sea creatures for sheer hideousness and that building the NIssan Qashqai in Sunderland doesn’t make it even remotely British. He can also say that writing in the third person is perhaps his least favourite thing ever. But he digresses.
Regardless of jingoism, lionised history or indeed how much your last name is Rees-Mogg, the fact of the matter is that modern Jaguars are wonderful because of how little they are like the Jaguars of the past – ironically because Jaguar went back to what it used to do in the past. No retro-pastiche, no ‘that’s how it’s always been done’ mentality – just using modern technology and materials as well as it can to make the best cars it can. Looking backward didn’t give us the E-Type or the XJ220, after all.
Which, finally, brings us to the XF. It handles spectacularly, uses extensive aluminium for better balance and lower weight, and has a turbodiesel V6 that accomplishes the rarest of all accomplishments – being something you’d choose for its driving merits and not just its economy. The fact that Jag offers all of this in a comfy five-seat estate car – with more luggage space than a contemporary 5 Series Touring, remember – makes the XF Sportbrake a car you don’t need a British passport to recommend.
*In no way as good as you remember
Volkswagen Golf R estate
It’s obvious, right? If a hatch is good and a hot hatch is great, it’s no great stretch to realise the benefits of a hot hatch with a bigger boot.
And that’s what the Golf R Estate is, in a nutshell – a hot hatch for the person whose personal or professional circumstances require more luggage space than a hatchback can offer. It’s one of those little leg-ups that life sometimes offers, a consolation prize for those who can’t have exactly what they want that turns out to be just as much of a win. And victories like these are rare to come by.
Top Gear’s very own Mark Riccioni (well, actually Mr and Mrs Riccioni’s, but that’s neither here nor there) has used a Golf R estate to tote his extensive photographic equipment and somehow more extensive hairdo to any number of Top Gear photo shoots, getting fantastic high-speed tracking shots of some of the most potent cars in the world. Having experienced just what sort of commitment those shots often occur at, we can say without a moment’s hesitation that it’ll do just fine for anything you’re going to throw at it. And also say with a moment’s hesitation that we’re really just jealous of how thick and full his hair is.
Other options are available...
Remember how we said the Golf R estate is the hot hatch for those whose circumstances require more space than a hatchback can offer? Honestly, you really should; it was only two paragraphs ago.
But let’s not dwell on how many of you might be trapped in your own Memento scenario and instead focus on... well, a Focus. The ST estate, specifically.
Like the wagon-backed Golf R, the Focus ST’s recipe really is as simple as ‘put hot hatch running gear in an estate’. And, we have to say, equally successful. So successful, in fact, that the estate version of the Focus ST somehow won Top Gear’s 2012 Hot Hatch of the Year award. Well, we’re not exactly strangers to taking liberties with the ‘hatchback’ name, are we?
It’s likely slipped more memories than it’s stuck in, but Renault also had a crack at the formula with its Megane GT220, tweaking the recipe slightly by detuning the engine giving the car a softer feel altogether. It’s a bit of a bugger to find, to be honest, and pretty far adrift from the Megane RS in its intent and execution. That said, a remap will recover the 30 to 50bhp deficit to the RS (and can reportedly take the F4R engine to a nice round 300bhp), and could conceivably also include a way to turn the stability control off for RS-spec lairiness on track. Retrofitting the Brembos and limited-slip diff from the three-door RS would bring you closer still, even if the fancy steering remains an RS-only addition. So, some more work involved, for sure. But you can pretty much guarantee no one else will have one, if that’s the sort of thing that matters to you.
And in either case, you get comfortable and mostly covert estates that can knock on the door of 150mph and make a windy road something to savour, rather than soldier through. Say that about a Qashqai. Oh, did we mention you can get both for the price of a single new Qashqai?
Mercedes GLA 45 AMG
Usually, we’re loath to recommend a crossover of any stripe. But then the GLA 45 is a rather different beast – an A 45 AMG that Top Gear once took to hell and back. Genuinely. Through snow as well, which does probably warrant a mention when we’re talking about hell.
But as we’re not exactly the theological sorts, we’ll steer away from pondering the eschatological implications of hell freezing over and point instead to the fact that a little Milli Vanilli SUV, on low-profile tyres, managed to traverse a road that was every bit as hellish as the name implies, taking Top Gear magazine editor Jack Rix where no sane person would think to go. And, crucially, back again.
Now realising that we’ve called the big boss a bit doolally, we’re now going to take a moment to update our resume, put together a portfolio and possibly even mingle with the sociopaths on LinkedIn. Wish us luck.Advertisement - Page continues below
Audi RS4 Avant 4.2 V8
Have you ever made a choice that was so easy, it didn’t even feel like it deserved to be called a decision? Put aside all the things that brought you to that scenario and indeed what guided your hand in the decision-making process (thanks Chomsky) and just think about the last choice you made that was a proper no-brainer.
Now you have some idea of how we felt when we saw that a modern, 444bhp, 4.2-litre V8 RS4 Avant was available for the price of a new Qashqai. An RS4 from 2015, with more bells than Big Ben* and more whistles than a rave, with Audi’s long-lived and decidedly lovely 4.2-litre V8 and almost synonymous all-wheel-drive system. Or a base-model Qashqai. It’s like tossing up between a private jet and Easyjet.
*Yes, we know Big Ben is technically the biggest bell. But Big Ben has been a synecdoche for the clock tower for quite a while now
Volvo V60 T6 Polestar
Yes, yes. If you hear hooves, you think horses. If you think family estates, you think Volvo. Top Gear goes back to the well and brings up a pail to water the tree with low-hanging fruit.
And if you’re now thinking ‘Wait, did they just put more effort into one mixed metaphor than the actual choice of car?’, you can rest in the knowledge that this is exactly how our brains work. And yes, our family is very sick of it. Also, we put more thought into this particular wagon than you might imagine.
Because where else can you combine a turbocharged 3.0-litre straight six, all-wheel drive, plush seats and a near-architectural dashboard, all in a modern, safe and family-friendly package? A Beemer gets you the turbo straight six, and the all-wheel-drive, if you ask for it, but fails in seats and dashboard. An Audi quattro has the all-wheel-drive grip and the Architectural Digest interior but no straight six. And Merc is just being Merc – chintz inside and out, rear-drive and a V8 that drowns out any arguments about the merits of subtlety. So it's the V60 T6 or nothing.
And if you’re going to get a quick Volvo, you’re not really going to go past one that’s faster, more powerful and much more blue – especially when it’s been fettled by a company that’s A) called Polestar, and B) contextualises point A by referring to a team that got its start racing Volvo touring cars. Not that other thing you were thinking. Minds out of the gutter, now.Advertisement - Page continues below
Porsche Cayenne V8 Turbo
Good grief, we’ve recommended an actual SUV. But this isn’t the first sign that we’ve finally capitulated to the onslaught of the ridiculous things, nor is it some kind of Borg-like takeover of our consciousness.
What we are is able to recognise that if you absolutely must buy an SUV (not everyone can argue against them quite as vehemently, vociferously or indeed vulgarly as we can), the best option is to buy one that at least lives up to the ‘sport’ part of the name. This is Porsche, after all, a company filled with the kind of people who’d try to make a fountain pen sporty. So when the corporate dictum came out that Porsche had to build an SUV, the clever clogs made a car that could maintain Porsche pace across any surface, helpfully fitting it with a gigantic turbocharged V8 and bona fide four-wheel drive to make doubly sure that the pace was more in line with the 959 than the 914.
Porsche’s engineers also habitually... well, over-engineer their cars (we imagine as much because they want to as to maintain Porsche’s reputation), so a quick spot of overlanding after the school run shouldn’t be anything to worry about. It has the ride height and dimensions that your significant other has worn you down to accept, yet it reserves that little spark of the divine that turns your capitulation into a quiet victory. Just don’t be smug about it.
Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagon
It’s not particularly pretty, it won’t be easy to track down, and should you manage to buy one, you’ll have an Alfa from Fiat’s ‘Let’s make everything cheaply’ era. But not even these fairly serious impediments can hold back the underlying brilliance of the 156 GTA Sportwagon.
Given a front-drive platform and about €16.50 by parent company Fiat, Alfa was nevertheless going to make damn sure its cars were still Alfas. So its sports saloon (and estate) had double-wishbone suspension, massive Brembo brakes, super-quick steering, a lavish, hand-stitched leather interior and a little engine you may have heard of called the Busso V6.
It’s an engine that rivals David Gilmour in both sound and the emotion created from that sound. It’s also at its most potent in the front-drive GTAs – 3.2 litres, 250bhp and literal gearbox-snapping torque. So, in the unlikely event that it’s not already been done, do go ahead and fit a limited-slip diff first.
And then make sure not to leave your 156 wet, unless you’re a fan of rust. Or in direct summer sun, unless you’re a fan of faded paint and sticky interior plastics. Also, if you have the optional Bose stereo, mind out that it doesn’t drain your battery. Finally, remember that the 156 (and 147) GTA’s idea of consumables extends beyond oils and filters – ball joints, suspension arms, sway bars, bushes...
By now, you might have a picture in your mind of a car that’s perhaps not the reliable old steed your family requires. And that’s before we mention that the double-wishbone suspension robs rear cargo space.
Also, there’s no such thing as a cheap Alfa – there’s just a choice between one that drains your bank account quickly and one that bleeds you slowly. We bought a 147 GTA for a quite reasonable price... and then spent the purchase price again fixing it. So even though the 156 GTA Sportwagon isn’t Qashqai money up front, it will be eventually. But our old GTA was, without a shadow of a doubt, an absolutely awesome car once it was sorted out (OK fine, no Alfa is ever completely sorted out), and adding space for the family could only make that even more so.
It’ll take more from you than any other car on this list to keep it in fine fettle, but if you do, it’ll give you something that none of them can: pure, unabashed pride. And we don’t mean being proud of yourself for owning a nice car, but proud of the car itself. The pride we felt of our little Alfie when he absolutely dismissed a hairpin, or got a knowing nod from an Aston Vantage V8 driver, or just started in the morning was our first taste of the rarest of emotions: selfless pride. And besides, kids consistently cost money and you chose to have them, didn’t you?