THE INDEPENDENT ROAD TEST / SMOOTHIE FROM A GOOD FAMILY

Volvo's 850 range of estate cars accounts for half the company's list of 40 estates, leaving aside that lone wolf, the 850 T-5R, with its racetrack wheels and insane pace. And there's a pleasing logic to the 850 range.

While some makers insist that your powerful engine is matched to plush trim, or will deprive you of sybaritic pleasures if you go for the economy- class power unit, Volvo leaves the mixing and matching to its customers. There are five different engines: 2.0-litre and 2.5-litre units each with 10 or 20 valves, plus a potent turbocharged T5 motor (on which the even more muscular T5-R engine is based). Each can be matched to any one of four trim levels: S, SE, GLT and GLE.

Five engines, four trim levels: 20 variations, and number one on the price list is the 850 S 2.0 10V, yours for £17,860. The S trim deprives you of niceties such as electric windows, a sunroof, a stereo and Volvo's ingenious built-in rear child seat, but you still get the full complement of safety equipment. This includes side airbags as well as one in the steering wheel, and anti-lock brakes.

However, should you so desire, you could combine this lowliest engine with GLE trim and end up with a car that costs more than an S-trim T5. I doubt whether many people would crave either combination, but you never know. You want it, Volvo builds it.

The 10-valve 2.0-litre is the most recent engine option, joining the listings in February. Like all 850 engines, it has five cylinders, twin overhead camshafts and sends its power to the front wheels.

With one extra cylinder, the 350 engine family becomes (in four valves per cylinder form) the motive power for the larger and more traditional Volvo 960; with one cylinder lopped off, it powers the forthcoming Renault Laguna 16V, fruit of the Renault/Volvo engagement before the marriage was called off. The two companies' shareholders might be poles apart, but the engineers and production people still collaborate.

With 126bhp (around 100bhp less than the T5) to haul a substantial hunk of car, the 2.0 10V is not a lusty lugger. You will find yourself changing down to third gear on hills that other 850s tackle in fourth or fifth, and revving the engine hard in search of power. This is an engine that will work at its own pace and no faster, regardless of encouragement from the accelerator.

Fortunately, the engine spins smoothly and makes a delightful noise: a deep, gentle burble rising to a harmonic hum as the speed rises. The harmony results from the five-cylinder layout, which does tuneful things to the exhaust pulses. A quick, positive gearchange helps you make the best of the limited pulling power, too.

And, like all 850s, the 2.0 10V handles corners magnificently. This relatively large barge steers crisply and disports itself sportily, proving agile and easy in a way an owner of an old 240 estate would hardly comprehend. Keen drivers can have a really good time in an 850, which is one of the reasons why Volvo refers to it as the conquest car - its task is to lure people from BMWs and the like, while leaving the 940/960 series for the hard-core Volvo lover.

This explains why Volvo makes two different ranges of estates which, superficially, seem to do the same job. The slightly smaller 850 is less the ultimate antiques-carrier and tow-car, more the semi-sporting practical wagon for the younger at heart (hence the 850's well-publicised British Touring Car Championship racing programme, culminating in the win for the saloon version at this season's opener at Donington). It is also the better car, smoother, more fun to drive but fully furnished with Volvo squareness and no-nonsense solidity.

The 850 Estate is good news, then. Cars hardly come any family-friendlier. But I would not have one with the 2.0 10V engine, because getting it to any speed is too much like hard work. Save up an extra £620, and buy yourself a 20-valve 2.0 (143bhp, brisk) or a 2.5 10V (140bhp but slightly brisker). Why the two, given that they cost the same as each other and do much the same job? Maybe the 850 range is not so logical after all.Engine: 1984cc, five cylinders, 126bhp at 6,250rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front- wheel drive. Top speed 121mph, 0-60 in 11.7 seconds. Fuel consumption 27-32mpg

Audi A6 2.0 Estate, £19,170: Beautifully built, this Audi suffers from the Volvo's problem of leisurely performance unless worked hard. Sloping tailgate and high floor render the Audi a less useful load carrier, but sleeker styling might redress the balance. The Volvo offers better value.

BMW 518i Touring, £19,990: Here we have an even more drastic shortfall in pulling ability, although the big-bodied, small-engined BMW goes better than you might expect. The 5-series is starting to date now, but its desirability as a chunk of good-looking German engineering still holds good: you pay for the privilege.

Citron XM 2.0 SX 16V Estate, £16,740: A huge load bay and self-levelling hydropneumatic suspension make the XM an ideal load-carrier, and a recent facelift has improved the cabin and banished the suspension's tendency to upset those prone to suffer carsickness. The foot-operated parking brake remains an infuriating oddity, and the 16-valve engine is noisy as well as feeble-hearted.

Ford Scorpio 2.0 16V Executive Estate, £17,725: You might have noticed the new Scorpio's funny face leering at you from the opposite carriageway, but despite this visual strangeness the big Ford is a capable and extremely comfortable car. The estate version keeps the old model's good-looking rear end; load capacity is considerable, but the engine's pull is weak.

Vauxhall Omega Select 2.0 16V Estate, £17,750: The capacious Omega is best bet of the lot, with vigorous performance to go with its likeable looks, cavernous cabin and capable handling. This Select version has little equipment (like the Volvo), but the idea is that you "select" from a range of options to kit your Omega to your needs.

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