Pinpointing the very first high-performance estate car is a lot like asking a roomful of theologians to agree on which is the one true religion: it can’t possibly result in any kind of accord (and that isn’t a joke about Hondas).
Somebody will put forward a considered and well-reasoned argument, only for it to be blasted away by a deafening chorus of dissent. There’ll be factions and splinter cells, and before too long devotees of one particular car and supporters of another will turn their backs on each other.
GIVEN THE BOOT
There have been cars with long roofs, hatchback boots and bundles of power for several decades, but true performance estate cars have been around for no more than three. Because as far back as the Thirties coach builders were dropping estate-type bodies on to Bentley and Rolls-Royce chassis, and driven along by far more powerful engines than you’d have found in a typical production car, they were by the standards of the day undeniably ‘high performance’. But they were never intended to be at all sporty to drive.
The same applies to several American station wagons from the Fifties and Sixties, cars that used thunderous V8 engines but were about as athletic in the bends as they were frugal at the fuel pump. And so it is with models such as the Subaru Legacy GT and Audi 200 Avant from the Eighties, both of which were reasonably quick and certainly both were estate cars, but in no way was either one truly a performance car.
We can write off any number of shooting-brakes from the across the decades here and now, too. That means the Reliant Scimitar is out. It might look like an estate car with its elongated roofline, but with only three doors the Scimitar does not meet our criteria. A performance estate must have the full complement of five.
ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES
The very first high performance estate car, then? That’ll be 1992’s BMW M5, in only its second generation and offered for the first time with what BMW referred to as a Touring body. Or to you and me, an estate. Before the model was put out to stud in 1995 some 891 M5 Tourings had been built, all by hand. Any M-car is by definition a performance model and there can be no doubting its speed, because with a 3.8-litre straight-six engine that developed 335bhp, it’d be considered plenty brisk enough even today.
A different car altogether is more commonly reckoned to be the originator of the breed. Given the Audi RS2 arrived in 1994 and so trailed the M5 by two full years, though, it in fact deserves no better than the silver medal. It might not have sparked an entirely new movement the way the M5 did, but the RS2 did more to further the performance estate genus than any other car in the 25 years hence.
How so? It was designed and built in collaboration with Porsche – at the time still a dedicated sports car manufacturer – and it boasted the kind of go-faster hardware no estate car ever had before, such as lowered and stiffened sports suspension, uprated Brembo brakes (complete with PORSCHE lettering on the callipers), the same wheels you’d have found on a 911 Turbo and sticky Dunlop tyres. Within the cabin there was even a pair of heavily-bolstered Recaro seats. The stumpy Audi smashed emphatically through the glass ceiling. In the post-RS2 era, no conceivable performance enhancement could be considered overkill for an estate car.
The RS2 was actually a little less powerful than the M5, its turbocharged 2.2-litre five-cylinder engine good for no more than 311bhp. With four-wheel drive, however, the RS2 was far quicker off the line than the rear-driven M5 (and quicker to 30mph even than the game-changing McLaren F1 hypercar, according to Autocar magazine’s road test data).
MERCEDES JOINS THE PARTY
Within three years Mercedes-Benz, the third corner in Germany’s upmarket triangle, had begun to play the performance estate car game. Rumbling V8 engines found their way into models like the C43, E55 and C63, and the matrimony was deemed to be so holy it’s been imitated countless times since. A performance estate car with a V8 motor? It’s odd to think there was ever a time when no such thing existed.
During the previous decade the high performance estate flirted with the V8’s bigger and more exotic brethren, the V10. First was the 2005 BMW M5 Touring, an estate car with more than 500bhp and enough racing car technology to mount a credible bid on the 24 Hours of Le Mans. These cars were so fiendishly complicated and so highly specified – and with it so potentially fragile – they’ve actually become mind-bogglingly cheap to buy used.
In 2008 Audi went even further, fitting the Lamborghini-derived V10 in the S6 with a pair of turbos, boosting power to 573bhp and creating the fearsome RS6. It was such a wanton horsepower escalation at the time (for what was still a very young category) that the likes of BMW and Mercedes-Benz must have considered giving up the performance estate thing altogether to concentrate instead on small hatchbacks.
Naturally, they did no such thing. And so we arrive at the here and now, and the arch fast estate car of 2019. It mightn’t have a V10 engine, but with a twin-turbocharged V8 that develops in excess of 600bhp, the Mercedes-AMG E63 S is the reigning performance estate champion. At least it is for now. If the timeline of the performance estate teaches us anything at all, it is surely that a leaner, fitter, more powerful estate car will be along to displace the E63 in very short order.
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