The starter gun barely needs firing on this one. Finding an affordable fast estate on the PH classifieds is virtually a daily ritual for Matt Bird. But the latest Volkswagen Passat R-Line wagon - tested during the week with the range-topping 272hp 2.0-litre engine aboard - is too good an opportunity to turn away. Not least because its £43k starting price offers plenty of scope for another round of used-trumps-new.
We'll keep one foot on the ground though. Yes, it's absurdly brilliant to have your family wagon powered to the horizon by a V10 - but that's probably not a viable alternative to the buttoned-down Passat. Consequently we are limiting engine size this week and keeping the mileage count respectable. Brave Pill was, after all, only yesterday.
That still leaves a lot of breathing room. Bonus points, as ever, are rewarded for originality. But fulfilling the all-court fast wagon brief - which the Passat does in likeable style - is the first point of order. Have at it...
Price: Sub £50k
Mileage: Less than 15k
Driven wheels: Dealer's choice
Engine position: Front
Engine size: No more than 6 cylinders
As many of you pointed out in the comments, £43,350 is a lot of money for a Passat. A point made all the more readily by the presence in the PH classifieds of this 4,000-mile Mercedes E Class All-Terrain Edition. For just £145 more.
The Passat's interior may be crisp and clean and comfortable, but the E Class takes things to another level. Mercedes' screen-filled dash and leather-lined cabin playing host to a laundry list of bells and whistles. No doubt Sam will choose something fast, sporty and fun to drive - and likely talk about throttle adjustability as a result. But those sort of antics should be left to the bonafide super-saloons; the Passat may wear an R badge of sorts, but it certainly isn't one of those.
No, if the VW had entered your thoughts then what likely matters most is load-lugging ability, all-wheel drive capability, sufficient - rather than superfluous - power and, let's be honest, the 'right' badge on the front (or else you'd already have bought a Superb).
The Merc ticks all of those boxes and then some. With its straight-six diesel putting out 340hp and 516lb ft, it'll hit 62 in 5.4 seconds. It won't double as a track toy but, in true E-Class fashion it'll offer four adults and/or 640 litres of luggage a supremely comfortable way to hustle along with the best of them. Then, in very un-E-Class fashion, it'll also provide up to 156mm of ground clearance and all-wheel drive traction should circumstances dictate. Job jobbed. (DW)
Sometimes, though, opposites attract. Perhaps your interest in the sporty-spec Passat is a sign of a desire for something more... focussed. In that case there's this. The antithesis of a cushy, automatic Merc, the JDM Subaru Forester STI offers plenty of carrying capacity and all-wheel drive, in addition to a manual transmission and sweet Scooby warble. All for a quarter of the price.
One of the best things about the Passat R-Line is the ease at which it goes about its business. But as good as its four-cylinder petrol motor is, it doesn't bring much character to the table. The 347hp V6 diesel of the S4 TDI, on the other hand, comes with bags of the stuff, as it's one of the best-sounding oil burners on the market and has 516lb ft of torque to play with. Any speed, any gear, any amount of cargo on board, the S4 Avant gets up and goes like a proper Q-car estate.
And if you like the Germanic styling of the Passat you'll likely appreciate the digital look of the S4, too, which is definitely understated for a car with Focus RS power and the handling to go with it. The latest model is, as we found out on the launch, genuinely keen and shrugs off worn out accusations of understeer with a sport differential. It's not just fast, it's rapid point to point.
As brilliantly rounded as the Passat is, it can't quite square up to that lot. And such are the savings offered by ex-demos that this car's up for pretty much bang on the new base list price of an S4, meaning in exchange for 2,000 miles on the odometer you essentially get a free load of options. As far as entertaining load luggers that don't cost the Earth to fuel, this one's got to be the best of the current crop. (SS)
For those who trust the strength and reliability of a Volvo engine, this 30,000-mile-old V60 Polestar looks seriously tempting. It takes the S4's character and turns it up to eleven with a racey petrol V6, has handsome V60 looks and the motorsport aura of a proper Polestar-tuned model. All for £26.5k!
Well, I brought it on myself. Keeping the engine size modest and the mileage low meant that it was predominately swift, diesel-powered fish caught in the dragnet - no surprise, of course, when that's precisely what the industry has spent the last decade building. If you're inclined to think the jokers more interesting this week, you're not alone: elsewhere in the office (Wheels of Fortune having caught on) an Audi RS2 or Jaguar XFR-S Sportback were considered the more soulful solutions.
You might also argue that hitting the nail on the head with a Golf R Estate or choosing a BMW 335d xDrive wagon (cited as the world's most complete, real-world fast car not so long ago) might have offered a more obvious path to success.
But here we are, with one very new option and one from the class above. The E400d's superior status is hard to ignore; ditto its famed capaciousness. Had you been eyeing the Passat with a growing family to accommodate, it's safe to say the Mercedes works everywhere - and extremely well. That said, I'm inclined to agree with Sam: the availability of a virtually new S4, a car which is quicker, arguably more sophisticated and certainly more economical is eye-opening. If you can make your peace with the political cliff that diesel appears destined to plummet from, it's a fine alternative to the R-Line way.
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