Loaded with style

John Simister drives the Vauxhall Vectra Estate

Lifestyle estate. A slick term to describe an estate car in which form has smothered function, hinting at an affluently active lifestyle with no nasty notions of trade and utility. An Audi A4 Avant or a BMW 3-series Touring is a reasonable load-carrier under its high-society gloss, of course, but ultimate cargo capacity topped the design priority list of neither car.

Yet an estate car was, originally, exactly that: a car to cart the gentry around their country estates, hunting, shooting and fishing gear stowed astern. So the fact that Vauxhall's new Vectra Estate is a capacious cargo-carrier really shouldn't count against it in polite society, given that it still manages to look quite enticing, with its rising waistline and crisp detailing.

It's also quite a pleasing drive because, like all new Vectras, it has stiffer suspension, with better disciplining of unwanted body movements, than that found in the first Vectras a year-and-a-half ago. You still won't find the fluid cornering and road-smoothing suppleness felt in a Peugeot 406, or even in the recently revamped Ford Mondeo, but the steering has shed some stodge and the suspension soaks up bumps without the previous rubbery wallow.

Another comfort-enhancer is that you can, at last, adjust the Vectra's steering wheel for height, as you can in nearly all its rivals. Combined with firm but well-shaped seats and Vauxhall's usual logical dashboard design, it makes the Vectra a comfortable mode of travel. A quiet one, too; the resonances and rattles once typical of an estate car are well silenced here.

How quick a mode depends on the engine you choose. The newest is a direct- injection, 16-valve turbo diesel of 2.0 litres which is very economical, surprisingly quiet and higher tech than any rival diesel to date. The lustiest is a 2.5-litre V6, but the most popular will probably be the 2.0-litre, 136bhp, 16-valve petrol unit that propels so many area sales managers in so many varying Vauxhalls. It's a smooth, economical and punchy unit, with the low-speed pulling power to cope with the high payload potential made possible by this estate car's lengthy load bay.

You get a fine quota of goodies, too: roof rails, a net to keep the cargo or your dog where they belong (behind the rear seat), anti-lock brakes across the range, and a Trafficmaster traffic jam avoidance system on the posher versions. Many models have air conditioning, too, and all are built in Britain (even left-hand drive versions with Opel badges, for European buyers). What you can't have in this car, though, is an extra pair of child seats in the back.

The new Vectra is not a great estate, although it is a well-built, practical and competitively priced one. But you shouldn't feel fed up if your company fleet manager decrees that a Vectra estate is what you must drive. It's not quite a BMW or an Audi - it lacks their steely certainty and the kudos of their badges - but it's a gesture in the right direction.

Specification

Price: pounds 17,375 (2.0 GLS). Engine: 1998cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 136bhp at 5,600rpm; five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed 128mph, 0-60 in 10.0sec. Fuel consumption: 29-34mpg

Rivals

Citroen Xantia 2.0 SX Estate, pounds 16,750: Supple hydropneumatic suspension combines comfort with load-lugging ability

Ford Mondeo 2.0 GLX Estate, pounds 16,425: Revamp brings new looks and a quieter cabin, but ride is still choppy

Peugeot 406 2.0 GLX Estate, about pounds 16,500: Due here in February; space, comfort and driver appeal are worth waiting for.

Renault Laguna 2.0 RT Estate, pounds 15,285: Intriguing rear styling and a low price, but engine lacks rivals' power

Volvo V40 2.0 SE, pounds 17,065: Sleekest looks and least load space tilt the V40 lifestylewards, but it does the job and looks terrific.

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