In 1950, Volkswagen introduced the Transporter. Based on the iconic Beetle, the ‘T1’ Transporter became a revolutionary force in leisure vehicles, and by its sixth generation had sold over 12 million units worldwide – cementing its place as the best-selling van in history.
Other manufacturers saw the immense success of Transporter and moved into the ‘leisure van’ segment, including MercedesBenz, Ford and Toyota. Today, personal use equates to 10% of van sales in the UK, with the other 90% being bought by businesses. Drivers are increasingly looking for versatile vehicles which are capable of doing multiple jobs; from carrying children on the school-run, transporting mountain bikes on the weekend, to being nimble around the city centre.
So if all three of those, and more, are a necessity in your next vehicle then a van is where you might be looking, but what about the humble estate car?
Estate cars were first introduced in the United States in the early 1910’s, when coachbuilders converted traditional cars into ‘station wagons’ using wood boxes, but by the 1950’s these were replaced by manufacturers with an all-steel construction, with some popular models in the UK including the Ford Cortina, Hillman Husky and Morris 1100, which paved the way for the estate car known today. Over the last several decades, however, sales of estate cars have fallen as drivers opt for SUV’s, crossovers and vans.
As the name aptly suggests, estate cars were designed for driving between the city and estates (or country homes, as they’re now known). In theory, this meant transporting a lot of luggage, whilst providing a luxurious cabin for passengers. In modern Britain, the purpose of estate cars has gone mostly unchanged – they’re often bought by families with luggage and sports equipment, but with an Airbnb as the destination rather than a palatial second home.
Just as Volkswagen transformed the leisure van, the brand also has a large foothold in the estate segment, with the well-regarded Passat. The Passat is consistently one of the best-reviewed and best-selling cars on the market, with strong residual values and reliability. And just as other manufacturers wanted in on the Transporter action, they’ve also strived to build a worthy competitor to the Passat, with varying degrees of success.
The Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Insignia sit at a relatively similar price to the Passat, whilst the BMW 3-Series and Mercedes C-Class amplify the provenance of luxurious cabins. One of the greatest benefits to estate cars is their similarities to hatchback and saloon equivalents. From the front two seats, they’re indistinguishable and not too different to drive, but open the large liftgate boot and there’s often over 600 litres of space, with the three back seats still up.
As reported, some drivers have flocked towards SUV’s as a replacement, and models such as the Nissan Qashqai and Volkswagen Tiguan are now some of the best-selling cars in the UK, of any body type. But although the higher ride height is considered advantageous for driving and adds an edge of prestige, loading heavy items into the boot is considerably harder. Not forgetting to mention that the roof rack is almost unreachable by most.
But for some car buyers, the shape of the boot in estates and SUV’s doesn’t suit their cargo, which could be tall or bulky. That’s where vans found, and continue to find, their niche. They are designed and built specifically to carry things, and they do it really well.
In addition to the Transporter, the Mercedes V-Class and Vauxhall Vivaro are the perfect leisure van. The cabins are refined and have every bit of equipment you’d find in their car counterparts, but in the back there’s enough space for bikes, watersport kit, or additional passengers in the double-cab models.
Vans, by nature, are therefore the best way to move things from A-B and are increasingly quite enjoyable to drive. They just might not have as pleasant ride-comfort as an SUV or the fuel-efficiency of an estate.