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Top Gear mag's greatest cars - practicality

A rare few manage to be useful and masterful at the same time

  1. For Top Gear magazine’s 300th issue, we celebrated the best 50 cars over 299 issues: here’s our pick of the best practical cars

    Forgive me, friends, but this isn’t going to be pleasant. Let me accompany you back to a dark and depressing age, when cars for the rest of us were either bad or boring. Often both. Montego estate: those two words sum up how grim things were for the ordinary person looking for a reasonably priced useful car back in 1993. Or how about Skoda Favorit? Its sole virtue was to be less grim than expected, so its adverts told us not to laugh at it – and because we were so cowed by the tide of mediocrity engulfing us, we complied. The British public lay supine before the car industry’s plot to foist wheeled gruel on us all.

     

    In the early years of Top Gear, our nation’s car buyers allowed the vile Daewoo Nexia and Espero (a recycled Vauxhall Cavalier) to become a proper force in the market. No, ordinary cars just weren’t very good. Good ones demanded extortionate prices. A 1993 BMW 3 Series Touring was the old, boxy, E30 kind – the one with treacherous wet-road handling, a small boot and a pricing strategy so avaricious it shunted electric windows onto the options list.

    On top of all that, the choice of cars on sale was Soviet in its narrowness. Even the big carmakers fielded ranges of just half a dozen cars. If you wanted a car that had a useful interior, there were big MPVs. But they mostly looked like packing cases. If you wanted something for hauling or off-roading, there were 4x4s, but they had truck-type chassis and were mostly a chore to drive. The Nissan Terrano II deserves to be forgotten, but it made a bit of a splash in its day.

  2. In the mid-Nineties, Toyota launched the first RAV4. It was tall like an SUV, but had car-like suspension. No one really knew what to make of it, and initially it wasn’t very useful anyway because it was a short three-door. But, looking back, it was a premonition of the hordes of crossovers to follow. Subaru was early in the game with the Forester and Honda with the CR-V. Strangely, all of these became more SUV-ish, not more car-like, with later generations.

    They were still minority-interest, though. Hatches were the default useful cars. But they were dull, mostly, or flaky. Until 1998, when Ford turned out a car that was just brilliant to drive: the first Focus. Every rival had to buck its ideas up. Even VW with the MkIV Golf, which introduced lush cabin quality to the class just as the Focus introduced dynamic brilliance. The next Focus improved its cabin; the next Golf had a better chassis.

  3. If you wanted more utility, there were always estates. As the millennium turned, BMW, Mercedes and Audi were making some belters. The E36 and E46 3 Series were wonderful cars as saloons, and the estates added both cubic feet and a mildly subversive take on stylishness. The ones with the big-six engines were a joy to drive, and then the E46 320d got the M47, a paradigm-shifting 2.0-litre diesel. It seemed like all the car you could ever need. Take a similar-sized German estate, add four-wheel drive and a high-revving V8 more-or-less lifted from a supercar, and you had the 2006 Audi RS4 Avant. All the car most of us could ever reasonably, or unreasonably, want.

    Other shapes were being thrown, though. In 1998 Renault took the Megane hatch and poured vast packaging ingenuity and versatility into a version called the Scenic. It still drove OK and to our late-Nineties eyes seemed attractive in a mildly exotic fashion. Mid-sized MPVs were suddenly all over the place. The Picasso probably saved Citroen’s bacon. Yet, before too long, they were doomed. Nissan is, as much as any manufacturer, the reason why. Its planners dug out a magnifying glass and happened upon a micro-niche. Somewhere between ordinary hatches and the nearly SUVs of the RAV4 crowd, there was room for a, well, a Qashqai. It was launched at the time of a social backlash against 4x4s: just as climate change became a live issue, big SUVs were notoriously thirsty and looked pathologically aggressive. So it seemed odd to me that Nissan was launching a car that impersonated 4x4s, and would attract a measure of that same disdain, yet couldn’t actually do the rocky-trail thing. I thought it would fail hopelessly. It was a runaway success. Nissan had caught a wave, and built a car right in a sweet spot. Crossovers have more room than hatches, albeit less than MPVs – but who wants to look like a parent everywhere they go? A crossover makes you feel you still have a life of your own. Your seat is elevated, your self-esteem with it. People just can’t get enough of crossovers. They’re taking over the world.

  4. Nissan Qashqai

    WHAT WE SAID THEN 
    The Qashqai is car-like on top, but with mildly SUV-ish arches and wheels. That makes sense in town, the environment Nissan is aiming at 

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    Other rivals have caught and passed the Nissan trailblazer, but the Qashqai still sits at the heart of the crossover boom. Not flash, but bloody useful

  5. BMW E46 Touring

    WHAT WE SAID THEN 
    What really impresses is that it’s so downright accomplished in virtually every area

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    As SUVs threaten to take over the world, there’s still something inherently cool about an estate. The E46 suffered a little dynamic penalty over the saloon, but gained so much more

  6. Audi RS4 4.2 V8

    WHAT WE SAID THEN 
    There’s something indefatigably cool about a car that’s s**t-off-a-shovel fast, but eminently practical as well 

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    You need to work the nat-asp V8 to find the good stuff at the top end. But luckily getting there, and the corners in between, are a singular joy

  7. Renault Scenic

    WHAT WE SAID THEN 
    The Scenic has a generous, pram-friendly boot while inside there are enough cubby holes to lose the kids for weeks 

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    Unlikely to gain classic status anytime soon, but the Scenic proves that really clever design always has a place. Latest Scenic still busts the mould

  8. Ford Focus Mk1

    WHAT WE SAID THEN 
    The shift is so good that it encourages you to race up and down the ’box as much as possible

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    Remains a benchmark for “how to make a handsome family car handle” and set Fords on an upward curve that’s only recently tailing off… the new Focus had better be ace

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