The hippest car on the road is an old estate. According to James Ruppert
What is the hippest car on the motoring scene? Is it the latest MGF, the upcoming BMW Z3, or that beautiful new Alfa Spyder? No. The hippest, most right-on motor you can buy at the moment is an old estate car. Those elongated saloons, once the preserve of antique dealers, self-employed builders and reps with a surfeit of samples, are now the last word in trendy wheels. The smart money is shifting from overstated selfish drop-tops to understated estates with a sting and a fifth door in the tail.

Volvos have always been taken seriously as labrador luggers, but until the company entered a team of estates in the British Touring Car Championship no one thought of them as sexy sports cars. So the launch of the 150mph pounds 29,000 Volvo T5 super estate was not such a surprise. Audi also got in on the act with its equally quick pounds 32,000 S2. And there is eager anticipation among post-modern yuppies as the latest BMW Touring is launched. If you have not got pounds 20,000 plus to play with, it is still possible to join the estate-owning classes by opting for some older favourites and considering a few forgotten load movers that will not cost a fortune.

Used estate cars fall into two categories: used and abused, or under- used and overpriced. Ex-rep-mobiles can be a good buy, especially if you a brave enough to bid at auction and pay wholesale prices. Provided the service history is full, you can bet on the vehicle having racked up a large motorway mileage, which is always good exercise for engines. Most will not have been overloaded, either, but simply used by a rep with bulky samples. For models such as the Ford Sierra, its replacement the Mondeo, or Vauxhall Carlton and Peugeot 405, all with 2.0 litre engines, you cannot go wrong. However, smaller estates can get thrashed, especially if used in a courier capacity, so exercise caution when considering an ex-company Ford Escort or Vauxhall Astra.

Private estates tend to be well looked after, but can lead hard lives. If there is a tow bar, find out exactly what has been towed. A family of five, plus mobile home, going on an excursion every weekend will soon cause severe suspension, transmission and engine wear. If there is a dog involved, examine the rear carefully. Never underestimate the destructive abilities of a mutt, chewing through seat belts and trim, a trail of almost immovable dog hairs and a variety of incontinent deposits that can trigger rust. So lift the rear carpets if you dare.

Of course, a professional valet (a clean) can hide the fact that the estate may have been used as a surrogate builder's van, but look for scratches and marks around the tailgate, a threadbare carpet and trim damage. Then, if the service record looks patchy, the suspension seems bouncy, the gearbox noisy and the engine performance disappointing, you will know the estate is in a real state.

I tried to avoid those pitfalls and went in search of some obvious candidates and several less well remembered alternatives. Armed with a DIY-store bag of cement and regulation length of 4 x 2, I dropped in on Lex Rover in Maidenhead. The company had limited stocks of 1994 L registered Montego estates. This model is one of the most remarkable Rover group success stories. Whereas as the saloon was considered a dullard, the estate's capacious interior and trendy roof bars really looked the part. The diesel engine also proves to be remarkably frugal at up to 68.6mpg, so the nearly- new turbos at Lex looked decent value at pounds 6,995, especially as you cannot buy new any more. The average price for a 1989 petrol model from a private seller would be about pounds 2,000 and there are plenty in the classified ads.

Renault has also experienced a similar phenomenon with its 21 saloon, which was all but ignored by the buying public until the estate version, named Savanna, came along. The looks were transformed by the extra length and the seven-seat option has made them true family holdalls. Westland Autos in Wantage has a large selection and even the earliest 1986 example could command a pounds 3,495 asking price. Expect to pay about pounds 6,000 for a five-year-old example. Westland had a 1990 GTS which fitted that price bracket and came with a full service history.

Although you cannot mention estate without ignoring the name Volvo, almost a generic term for big estates, many experts think they are overrated. Well built, low depreciation and loads of room inside, certainly, but lots of other big estates are similar. Take the Vauxhall Carlton: running costs are much more reasonable and UK sourced parts are cheaper, too. At MCL Carlton Centre, near Radlett, there was a selection of H and J plate examples. All were well equipped CDIX models, but for sheer kitchen- sink gadget overload, a 3.0 litre model came with air-conditioning and an automatic gearbox with sport and snow modes - all for pounds 8,495.

lf you really must have a Volvo, try Carpenters, an independent specialist near Hampton Court, which always has a huge selection. And most importantly, unlike main agents it is always prepared to do a deal.

The award for estate as fashion accessory has to go to the pretentiously named BMW 3 series Touring, a model guaranteed to fail my bag of cement and 4 x 2. The cubic inch advantage over the saloon is minimal, a fact confirmed by private sellers of a 1990 49,000-mile 320i, who admitted finding it a little constricting. They wanted to trade up to BMW's grown- up 5 series Touring, but they had to sell this one first for pounds 9,750. Although a good example, I would pay closer to pounds 9,000 if buying without a warranty.

However, if I really wanted an estate, then the 1983 2.3 GL Ford Granada Estate that I viewed in Aldershot has to be a contender. At pounds 495 it was cheap, and although rust was nibbling at the white paintwork and the upholstery looked a little tired, the engine ran soundly enough. The 4 x 2 and bag of cement slipped inside without any trouble. Now what could be hipper than that?

Lex Rover, 128 Bridge Road, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 8DD (01628 33188). Westland Autos, Farringdon, Oxfordshire SN7 8QQ (01367 870666). MCL Carlton Centre, Station Road, Radlett, Hertfordshire WD7 8JX (01923 856616). Carpenters, The Green, Hampton Court, East Molesey, Surrey KT8 9BP (0181 979 5255).

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