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Motoring: Never mind the price; look at the history: James Ruppert hails the return to fashion of the estate car - and tests some models on the second-hand market

IN A SANE world we would all be buying and driving estate cars. No more fraught visits to the DIY centre which once resulted in hernias and serious splinters. No more relatives left on the pavement because there simply wasn't room. No more making Bonzo travel in the boot. Yet a few years ago an estate car was regarded as nothing more than a van with windows, suitable only for a sales rep and his samples.

Originally, 'shooting brakes' were the preserve of the landed gentry, who had quality saloons coachbuilt to their load-carrying requirements. Today, estates are once again regarded as stylish and practical. They will also hold their value better than saloons and are easier to resell, provided, of course, you choose carefully.

Families, inveterate travellers and those with equipment-heavy hobbies should follow a few simple guidelines. A history is vital, as estates can lead harder lives than saloons and there must be evidence that they were serviced at the proper intervals.

Ask questions about how the vehicle has been used. If there is a towbar, what exactly did it tow? Caravan, boat, or small trailer? Caravans are often bumped over fields; perhaps some damage has been done to the underside of the car.

Obviously, appearance is the most reliable indicator of overall condition. Inside, the load area will show whether the owners have cleaned up after their pets, or treated the vehicle like a skip. Ensure that the rear seats divide and fold properly. Tailgates on older models are more prone to rust.

A test drive is very important. The engine, a minimum of two litres to haul you, family and possibly caravan around comfortably, should not be smoky, noisy or about to expire. The ride should be firm and quiet, otherwise there could be suspension problems.

Volvo is synonymous with estate cars. The Swedes are responsible for making the estate car fashionable and acceptable, especially among the labrador-owning classes. Large, well-built, reliable, with a proper flat loading bay - you can't go wrong with a Volvo.

At its main agent, Squire Furneaux in Ickenham, a 1991 J-registered 940 SE Turbo took my fancy for several reasons, particularly the mileage. It had done 83,000 in two years, which is motoring at its most intense, but there were few signs of the miles. This Volvo had clearly led its life in the motorway lane, and possibly the inside one, because there was a tow bar.

The salesman, Robin Letch, was happy to make further investigations, but a test drive proved that 80,000 miles in a straight line had left the car feeling brand new, with neither squeak nor rattle. The turbo helped to give it a useful turn of speed; as an SE, the specification included electric sunroof and windows, and the automatic gearbox made it easy to manoeuvre. The upholstery showed no signs of wear. The service history was also intact, which meant that the Lifetime Cover still applied and manufacturer defects would be covered providing the 6,000-mile services were adhered to. All this for pounds 10,995 (against pounds 18,500 new).

Rather like the Volvo, a Rover Montego is an unremarkable saloon but a quite exceptional estate car. SMC in Uxbridge knows this and has decided to specialise in these roomy and popular vehicles. The sales executive, Keith Timms, admitted that older models rusted and were not well built, but since 1988 quality has improved dramatically. One of the cheapest was a 1989 2.0 GTi at pounds 5,995, but the badge frightens insurance companies.

I looked more closely at a 1992 Countryman 2.0i. The specification included electric windows, sunroof and two extra rear-facing seats which fold flat and do not encroach on the wide, flat bay. After 13,000 miles the rear load area plastic lining was noticeably scuffed. Even though there is a long wait for new models, Mr Timms lopped pounds 500 off the price of pounds 10,995.

For a long time, those who needed a truly absurd amount of estate car, with a magic- carpet ride, bought a Citroen CX. A lovably eccentric beached whale of a thing, it was replaced in 1989 by the XM, but the estate did not arrive until 1991, so few used models are on sale. However, at Broads of Watford I found a former Citroen UK 1992 3.0 V6 Si.

This huge silver wedge-like creature had covered 24,000 miles and seemed in fine fettle. Ten inches shorter but nine inches wider than a GX, it is still cavernous enough and has the same party trick as its predecessor. Thanks to the pneumatic nature of its suspension system, the car can be raked and lowered from the cockpit with a slide control. So the sill height is negligible when loading, and once on the move the rear end will not sag. I could have played with that, and all the other controls on what amounted to a Concorde flightdeck, all day.

My only reservation was the manual gearbox: such a big car should be automatic. Otherwise, the XM compares rather well with the old CX in terms of performance and space. It also depreciates like a CX: pounds 23,000 when new, a mere pounds 13,495 at Broads.

If you are are more concerned with style than volume of luggage, then BMW's 3 Series Touring is a niche marketing triumph. Note that it is not called an estate, largely because it isn't: there is just room for a duffel bag. Neville Wood, salesman at Orfords in Ruislip, admitted that the design hindered loading, because the lights get in the way and leave a letter-box-size gap to squeeze past. Nevertheless, these are popular cars, and the 1989 325i automatic certainly proved that estates need not be dull. A highish 60,000 mileage and three-owner registration document did not persuade Orfords to drop the price much, just pounds 250 to pounds 10,760.

For those who do want to make an impression, but still need a workhorse when circumstances demand it, there is only one vehicle. The Mercedes T series is a Volvo for the upper classes. It wafts effortlessly around like a limousine, then will scoop up any load like a Pickfords pantechnicon.

Bob Mooney at J R Tagger in Watford showed me a 1991 200TE with 23,000 on the clock which was perfect. It was automatic, with ABS and sunroof, and only the red paintwork was a trifle overstated. With tax to February, Mercedes warranty and a major service before sale, Mr Mooney was firm about the pounds 19,495 price. Low depreciation and high build quality suggest that in a sane world we would all be driving Mercedes estates. What a bore]