Independent Road Test: Volkswagen turns up the volume: The latest, biggest Golf has a healthy appetite for luggage, says Phil Lewellin

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The quaint old Morris Minor Traveller is a timber-framed reminder that estate cars used to look like Anne Hathaway's cottage on wheels. Early examples were often called shooting brakes because they carried wealthy, pheasant-hunting sportsmen across country estates.

Today, the newest version of Volkswagen's deservedly popular Golf is an affordable reminder that the estate car's most obvious advantage, extra cargo space, is no longer offset by utilitarian styling, reduced performance, poor fuel consumption, increased noise and a rib-rattling ride. While not the best-looking car in its class, the Golf estate combines a healthy appetite for luggage with a shape whose aerodynamic efficiency reduces wind noise while saving fuel.

This first Golf estate is significantly longer than the hatchback version and offers almost 40 per cent more room for just about everything. VW's engineers have modified the rear suspension to lessen the intrusion of the wheel arches into the load space and increase the fuel tank size from 12.1 to 13.2 gallons. I appreciated being able to drive the adequately brisk and reasonably economical 2.0-litre GL more than 400 miles between petrol stops.

The GL's tailgate extends nearly to the floor of the load space, eliminating the risk of damaging your spine by heaving luggage over a lip. The holdall also deserves full marks for having a flexible cover that unfurls to conceal the contents. However, if you suffer a puncture, the GL loses a few of those points for having the spare wheel buried under as much as 50.3 cu ft of luggage. It can also be marked down for not having headlight washers, despite the GL's top-model status; for not providing the driver's seat with lumbar adjustment; and for leg-room in the back being less than generous for adults.

This is a strong, well-built, fundamentally safe car whose standard equipment includes central locking, power-assisted steering and a Sony radio-cassette whose slim front panel is easily removed to foil thieves. Airbags and an anti-

lock braking system are options that lift the price by pounds 1,332. What VW has the gall to call 'comfort' seats provide adjustable lumbar and thigh support for pounds 202 more.

Estate cars are judged by their load factor. This one will also appeal by having door-bins big enough to take a road atlas.

The quiet, smooth-engined Golf GL provides an admirable blend of eagerness and refinement. Contrary to the estate car's rather staid image, the GL feels admirably composed on the sort of roads that keen drivers appreciate. In practical terms it is hard to beat; but a car's success also depends on such factors as price and styling.

The wish for a mobile kennel seems the main reason for many estate-car purchases. Potential buyers with bigger things to carry should check such details as load volume and how much weight can be supported. But the first step involves asking yourself if an estate car is essential. A versatile, five-door hatchback may meet your needs far more cheaply.

SPECIFICATIONS

VW Golf GL five-door estate, 14,249 pounds

Four-cylinder petrol engine, 1,984cc; 115bhp at 5,400rpm.

Five-speed gearbox. 0-60mph in 11.4 seconds, top speed 118mph.

Average fuel consumption 31.7mpg.

COMPARISONS

Rover 420 GSi Tourer, pounds 15,995

Stylish and practical. Looks smarter than the Golf, goes faster on less fuel, but not as spacious or agile. Price difference reflects superior equipment.

Ford Escort 1.8 Ghia, pounds 13,220

Good value and matches the Golf's appetite for luggage. Smaller engine a disadvantage when heavily laden.

Toyota Carina 2.0 GLi, pounds 14,814

Combines plenty of space with strong performance and good economy from its 131bhp engine. Built in Derbyshire.

Citroen ZX 1.9 TD Aura, pounds 12,600

With one of the world's most impressive diesel engines, the 92bhp turbocharged ZX offers almost as much performance as the VW, with much smaller fuel bills.

(Photograph omitted)

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