No longer. All the estates here are practical, with good running costs and generally stronger residual values than other body types in the range.
And nowadays they are pretty stylish as well, with some of them, from a purely personal opinion, better looking than their saloon or hatchback brethren.
The Toyota Avensis, Renault Laguna and Vauxhall Vectra estates could certainly make a case for being the aesthete's choice.
The newest of these three is the Vectra, which has managed to incorporate the biggest volume in its class at 1,850-litres while looking pretty good at the same time. Admittedly, it's not as if Vauxhall had to rework an existing masterpiece, because the Vectra is no Michelangelo, but the estate is a top effort.
The Laguna Sport Tourer most closely fits into the 'lifestyle' end of the estate market that Audi and BMW do so well. In terms of capacity, it isn't much bigger than the Laguna hatchback, but it looks great and is certainly the most individual of the cars here.
The Avensis looks chunky and solid, reflecting its famed reliability record, and is more handsome than the hatchback, which has a rear that appears as if it has melted after being left out in the sun too long.
It has the best quality cabin of all the cars here too, as well as having a Euro IV-compliant diesel engine which means it avoids the 3% benefit-in-kind tax surcharge and should do very well in comparison to the others.
The Ford Mondeo is also newly Euro IV-compliant and the TDCi engine has also been mated to a new six-speed manual gearbox. It is one of the more utilitarian-looking of the cars here, which is reflected in the fact it lags behind only the Vectra in load and volume terms.
The Volkswagen Passat estate is easily the oldest car of the group and it has a very similar philosophy to the Mondeo in that the estate is there for work, not for show.
As a result, the driver who wants style should look elsewhere, but the Passat has proved its worth as a fleet car over a number of years and should not be discounted.
As is always the case when we include Volkswagens in contract hire surveys, its cars are very difficult to beat when it comes to residual values – the second-hand market just can't get enough of them.
The final model in our comparison is the Mazda6 estate. It is very much in the same mould as the Laguna as it has a little more panache than the other cars and, like the saloon and hatchback versions, is better-looking than its competitors.
This is allied to a powerful engine and excellent handling that has not been compromised by the extra weight hung out the back. Factor in a low front-end price and it makes a very strong contender.
Operations director, Inchcape Fleet Solutions
'The upper-medium sector has probably seen the biggest shift towards diesel power since the benefit-in-kind taxation changes were announced. However, the sheer volume of diesels flowing into the used market will have an effect on residual values. In a number of cases, particularly on the less advanced models, the premium can no longer be justified and it is therefore critical to judge each model on its merits.'
Managing director, Zenith Vehicle Contracts
'Once again this is a competitive sector, with an increasing number of car manufacturers trying to produce the most cost-effective, efficient and stylish vehicle. This month's basket of vehicles illustrates quite clearly the diversity of models available that are definitely aimed at the company executive who wants a comfortable business car through the week and the versatility and space of an estate at weekends.'
Pricing manager, Lloyds TSB autolease
'This month's survey considers upper-medium diesel estate models. Due to the changes in company car taxation, many more drivers are opting for diesels. If you are looking for a sporty estate go for the Mazda6, if you want quality the Toyota Avensis is the one to go for and for comfort the Ford Mondeo is king. If your main concern is benefit-in-kind tax then don't choose the Mazda as it has high CO2 emissions.'
Commercial director, Alphabet
'Upper-medium diesels are expected to deliver the best of both worlds. Users want a car that is both practical and economical but nonetheless smart – although the head tends to overrule the heart on the final decision. Any of these models would look good gracing someone's driveway but, as a complete package, it has to be the Toyota Avensis that takes the honours as the new benchmark vehicle in the class.
Head of UK & international sales development, Arval PHH
'Estates naturally form a key element of the fleet market – they are the chariot of the ubiquitous sales representative. The problem is they can be boring and it's good to see manufacturers such as Renault and Toyota trying to give an option to those who want a little more style. That's the dilemma for fleet managers – solid practicality or good looks. My choice is Mondeo for practicality, Laguna for style.'
Vital statistics: how our models compare
Average monthly rental rates
Volkswagen Passat £358
Toyota Avensis £361
Ford Mondeo £365
Renault Laguna £377
Vauxhall Vectra £378
Average maintenance costs (3years/60,000 miles)
Ford Mondeo £1,513
Vauxhall Vectra £1,541
Volkswagen Passat £1,601
Toyota Avensis £1,613
Renault Laguna £1,871
RV forecasts (3years/60,000 miles)
Volkswagen Passat £5,314/29%
Toyota Avensis £5,136/29%
Renault Laguna £4,703/26%
Vauxhall Vectra £4,593/26%
Ford Mondeo £4,447/25%
CO2 Emissions (g/km/tax band)
Toyota Avensis 158/15%
Ford Mondeo 163/15%
Renault Laguna 152/18%
Vauxhall Vectra 159/18%
Volkswagen Passat 162/19%
Renault Laguna 50.4
Vauxhall Vectra 47.9
Toyota Avensis 47.1
Volkswagen Passat 47.1
Ford Mondeo 45.6
Ford Mondeo 2.0 TDCi 130 LX estate
Cope: 'Ford has improved the specification on the already popular Mondeo along with a more refined engine which is now Euro IV- compliant. It also delivers with load space.'
Brown: 'The second generation Mondeo is a great all-rounder and has always been a far better car than its mass-market badge suggests. The common rail engines are very effective and the Euro IV version offers a slightly lower benefit-in-kind tax bill.'
Pout: 'The Mondeo has always offered that big space feel. It retains all the benefits of the marque, including great handling, but it keeps getting better – this model being much quieter than its predecessors. A driver's car with good road handling and the TDCi engine pulls well.'
Schooling: 'A subtle makeover and the Euro IV engine have brought the Mondeo up to the frontline from the fleet driver's point of view. Depreciation is really the only bugbear from the fleet buyer's perspective.'
McMahon: 'The Ford Mondeo offers a smooth ride and good handling. The seating position is comfortable and the dash neat. However, this is the only vehicle not to offer alloy wheels as standard.'
Average monthly rental £365
P11D price £17,790
Average net price £13,646
Average maintenance £1,513
Average RV £4,447/25%
Arval PHH £373.34
Lloyds TSB autolease £346.86
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £587/£1,067
2003 VED bill: £135
Mazda6 2.0 TS 136 estate
Pout: 'This is a handsome model retaining the essential practicality that estate drivers expect. The diesel gives strong and smooth delivery but is a bit harsh when put under pressure. The boot is excellent and the rear seats fold flat with one touch. Good for the committed estate driver who wants a bit more performance.'
McMahon: 'The Mazda6 is the sportiest looking and will appeal to a younger market. It benefits from low maintenance budgets, which keeps the rental competitive, but suffers from being in the highest company car tax band here.'
Schooling: 'The low starting price delivers very competitive wholelife costs. Switched-on drivers may balk at their tax bill, which is more than a third higher than on its Euro IV rivals.'
Cope: 'Possibly the most contemporary and trendy looking of the group, the 6 has a great engine. However, its looks might cause it to go out of fashion quicker than the rest.'
Brown: 'The Mazda6 is leagues ahead of the old 626 in both ride quality and driver appeal. The estate does not disappoint and, like the saloon and hatchback versions, sports a distinctive look.'
Average monthly rental £352
P11D price £16,920
Average net price £13,413
Average maintenance £1,534
Average RV £4,884/29%
Arval PHH £356.13
Lloyds TSB autolease £351.87
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £819/£1,489
2003 VED bill £155
Renault Laguna 1.9 dCi 120 Dynamique Sport Tourer
Brown: 'Still one or two issues with quality but the Laguna is well-equipped and a popular choice, particularly in diesel form. Renault always scores highly in the Euro NCAP crash tests, which is a big attraction for retail buyers.'
Cope: 'Beautifully styled and with a high specification level as standard. If style and looks are top of the agenda then this is the choice. However, loadspace is not massive.'
McMahon: 'The Laguna is a good-looking estate but it won't appeal to everyone. It offers low CO2 emissions and excellent fuel economy but has the highest maintenance budget in this group of vehicles.'
Schooling: 'More than the others in this group, the stylish and well-equipped Laguna makes its pitch to a purchaser's spirit rather than their spreadsheet package. The maths are middle-of-the-road but who says an estate shouldn't show a bit of flair?'
Pout: 'This is more a sport tourer than a traditional estate. Gets the vote for looking good but it's not as practical as it might be. Basically it lacks the load space due to the styling.'
Average monthly rental £377
P11D price £17,915
Average net price £13,866
Average maintenance £1,871
Average RV £4,703/26%
Arval PHH £395.16
Lloyds TSB autolease £376.52
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £709/£1,290
2003 VED bill: £135
Toyota Avensis 2.0 D-4D T3-S estate
McMahon: 'Toyota has moved away from its dull image with the new Avensis and has placed more emphasis on quality. The Avensis in T3-S trim offers satellite navigation as standard.'
Brown: 'There are mixed opinions on the look of the Avensis but the quality and refinement are second to none and it offers one of the quietest diesel engines around. The Avensis is a great proposition as a used car, which bodes well for its residual value in three years' time.'
Pout: 'More a tourer than an estate, this actually looks better than the saloon or hatch versions. Maybe this will suit the reluctant estate driver who needs it for the kids. It has a quiet and refined diesel.'
Cope: 'The Toyota does everything that it says on the tin. It is a solid contender in the fleet market. However, it may be perceived as rather bland when compared to others in its class.'
Schooling: 'The new Avensis ticks all the boxes for an estate: space, comfort, performance and low running costs. The added benefit-in-kind tax advantage from Euro IV- compliance makes it hard to beat here.'
Average monthly rental £361
P11D price £17,540
Average net price £13,829
Average maintenance £1,613
Average RV £5,136/29%
Arval PHH £356.10
Lloyds TSB autolease £366.45
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £579/£1,052
2003 VED bill: £135
Vauxhall Vectra 2.0 DTi SXi estate
Schooling: 'The Vectra estate has a lot going for it, especially with its massive load area and versatile stowage. However, neither company car tax nor residual values are a strong point in a class where these criteria really count.'
Cope: 'Certainly one of the biggest in its class – the Vectra is huge with a massive load space. It is let down by an unexciting drive and poor engine.'
Brown: 'The second generation Vectra is quiet and refined but not as much fun to drive as the Mondeo. Build quality is good and the estate is huge. If you are looking for load space then this is the car.'
Pout: 'It may be a new kid on the block but there's no doubting that the Vauxhall entrant will grab a large slice of the market – the badge assures it of that. Where loadspace is the prime objective you won't go wrong with this option. So for pure workhorse qualities this is a winner, but there are no prizes for individual style.'
McMahon: 'The Vectra offers a comfortable drive and is well built. It benefits from the lowest CO2 emissions as well as low maintenance budgets. However, overall it is more expensive to run than the Mondeo.'
Average monthly rental £378
P11D price £17,685
Average net price £14,126
Average maintenance £1,541
Average RV £4,593/26%
Arval PHH £386.61
Lloyds TSB autolease £378.68
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £700/£1,273
2003 VED bill: £135
Volkswagen Passat 1.9 TDI 130 SE estate
McMahon: 'An excellent diesel engine means the Passat is the quickest by far from 0-60mph. Strong residual values coupled with reasonable maintenance budgets mean rentals are also good.'
Cope: 'Still viewed as the premium brand in this sector, the Passat is a solid contender with a superb engine. Its replacement is due next year and it is more expensive than its rivals.'
Pout: 'This is a car of compromise – it falls in between the cracks of style and substance – or if you like it's in the middle ground between practicality and style. The engine performance is fine, though a bit noisy. For load space it's OK, but not as roomy as its peers.'
Schooling: 'The rentals bear out the Passat's reputation for delivering 'A4 quality at Mondeo prices'. Its dynamics are not the most involving in the world but that's hardly a major fault in an estate.'
Brown: 'At one time the Passat was the benchmark for space, build quality and diesel technology. The opposition has now caught up in a number of areas but the diesel engines are still competitive and the quality ambience remains.'
Average monthly rental £358
P11D price £18,205
Average net price £14,113
Average maintenance £1,601
Average RV £5,314/29%
Arval PHH £383.14
Lloyds TSB autolease £319.98
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £761/£1,384
2003 VED bill: £135