The premium sector of the fleet market is so, like, the new black, darling. They're cheaper than they have ever been and more accessible to the increasingly affluent workforce.
And of all the styles of upper-medium, designer-badged cars, the 'lifestyle' estates are the vehicles to be seen in. That's because, according to trendy fashion magazines I have been reading at the dentist's, children are 'in' at the moment, thanks to the likes of Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker and Catherine Zeta Jones pioneering a fabulous new fad called 'families'.
So, to help drivers prove how committed they are to this new brood-based lifestyle craze, to carry about all the garish plastic equipment that comes with offspring, we have chosen six here that could do the job.
The newest is the Jaguar X-type. The X-type has not been the hit Jaguar was hoping for and part of the reason is that, like the S-type, it did not have the range of choice of its German competitors.
But with a diesel and an estate coming on-stream in the past few months, Jaguar finally has the product to give the Audi/BMW/Mercedes-Benz-dominated market a tilt. Will it be a winning combination?
BMW has become a company with its finger firmly on the pulse of fleet recently and its ageing but still very attractive 3-series Touring has been given a Euro IV-compliant engine to make it more tempting to drivers with one eye on BIK tax bills.
Few cars are as icily cool as the A4 Avant. Audi has perhaps done more than anybody to make estates desirable, and although the Avant has poor carrying abilities compared to the others here, it is probably the best-looking. It is also the only car here to come with four-wheel drive, although the TDI engine is not as quiet and smooth as some of the common rail units.
For drivers looking for smoothness, Honda's new diesel motor may well be the pick of the bunch: a class-leading powerplant that drives more like a petrol engine. Combine that with excellent luggage capacity and high specification, and the Tourer will be the pragmatist's choice. Looks a bit odd, though.
Talking of oddness, the Vauxhall Signum will not be to everyone's taste, but for value for money it might well be hard to beat. The absence of a fifth seat limits business, but the Elite model comes with all the specification a driver could need, while it also has Vauxhall's new 1.9 CDTi Euro IV engine which will finally consign Vauxhall's old diesel weakness to history.
Mercedes-Benz is also sporting a new engine in the revised C-class in the form of the C200 CDI which has low emissions, but is not the most powerful or most refined.
However, the C-class estate has a fantastically strong image that is often reflected in class leading residuals. The recent improvements to the interior, higher specification and better manual gearbox will make sure it retains its imperious level.
Operations director, Inchcape Fleet Solutions
'The sceptics may see this sector as a lifestyle statement but in a number of cases the diesel estate represents the pick of the range. Most of the vehicles on offer here refuse to compromise style for load capacity, one obvious exception being the Honda, which offers a distinctive looking package and is none the worse for that. The Volvo V50 will be an appealing alternative when it's launched.'
Managing director, Zenith Vehicle Contracts
'This sector has been revitalized and is really starting to warm up with the likes of Honda and Jaguar starting to show real promise, both with looks and performance. The diesel gravy train is charging further on, converting more and more drivers to its economical and tax-friendly ways. The Jaguar estate will shake this sector's well-established brands.'
Pricing manager, Lloyds TSB autolease
'The estate with the largest load space in this group is the Accord Tourer with an impressive 1,707 litres to the roof with the seats down. Jaguar has recently entered this market with their X-type estate, which should appeal to practical drivers looking for a prestige marque. To save 3% on BIK for Euro IV compliant diesels you must chose either the Accord, Signum or 3-series Touring.'
Commercial director, Alphabet
Compact executive estates have seen steady fleet sales in recent years, despite the competition from MPVs and SUVs. At this level, objective factors like cost and practicality must be given equal weight to subjective considerations such as image and dynamics. The BMW Touring's clear-cut dominance of both areas ensures that it keeps its crown as the standard-setter in this sector.
Head of UK & international sales development, Arval PHH
The estate has long been a favourite for drivers with large families or dogs, and big-car fans. The explosion of MPVs looked to threaten the status of estates with their lifestyle themes and ingenious and practical designs. There is no doubt that estates have lost out to their MPV/SUV cousins, but as an alternative to the saloon they remain a staple part of the menu of choice for the fleet driver.
Vital statistics: how our models compare
Average rental rates
Audi A4 Avant £458
BMW 320d Touring £465
Mercedes-Benz C-class estate £472
Honda Accord Tourer £474
Jaguar X-type estate £476
Vauxhall Signum £483
Average maintenance costs (3years/60,000 miles)
BMW 320d Touring £1,304
Vauxhall Signum £1,687
Honda Accord Tourer £1,862
Audi A4 Avant £2,106
Mercedes-Benz C-class estate £2,245
Jaguar X-type estate £2,379
RV forecasts (3years/60,000 miles)
Mercedes C-class estate £9,258/39%
BMW 320d Touring £8,861/37%
Jaguar X-type estate £8,766/37%
Audi A4 Avant £8,496/36%
Honda Accord Tourer £7,426/32%
Vauxhall Signum £6,446/27%
CO2 emissions (g/km/tax band)
Honda Accord Tourer 153/16%
BMW 320d Touring 158/17%
Jaguar X-type estate 154/19%
Vauxhall Signum 165/19%
Mercedes-Benz C-class estate 167/22%
Audi A4 Avant 170/23%
Jaguar X-type estate 48.7
Honda Accord Tourer 48.7
BMW 320d Touring 47.9
Vauxhall Signum 46.3
Audi A4 Avant 44.8
Mercedes-Benz C-class estate 44.8
Jaguar X-type 2.0d SE estate
Cope: Jaguar has at last launched itself into a new market, catering for practical spacious motoring arrived at a new group of drivers. The diesel X-type model range is becoming popular.
Pout: Although the idea of a Jaguar estate conjures up a 'pipe and slippers' image there are some nice touches to this model, although from the back it looks pretty anonymous. Strong residuals in the early honeymoon period may make this attractive and the badge/diesel/ estate combination should ensure early success.
Schooling: The question is: will buyers see the addition of an estate as rounding-out rather than diluting the marque's intrinsic appeal? BIK and servicing costs are not the lowest.
McMahon: This is Jaguar's first entry into the estate market. It is a great-looking car and will offer the high quality that Jaguar always abides by. Though maintenance costs are high, rentals remain competitive due to strong residuals.
Brown: The diesel SE is very stylish, following the premium trend of not sacrificing looks for load capacity. The diesel engine is smooth and quiet and this model will no doubt increase Jaguar's market penetration.
Average monthly rental £476
P11D price £23,892
Average net price £19,566
Average maintenance £2,379
Average RV £8,766/37%
Arval PHH £487.40
Lloyds TSB autolease £443.00
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £999/£1,816
2004 VED bill: £135
Honda Accord 2.2 CDTi Exec Tourer
Brown: The styling of the Tourer divides opinion but it is the only true load carrier here. Spec levels are high and it offers novel features such as the electric tailgate. Engine is superb.
Schooling: The Honda wins on BIK and has a widely-praised new diesel motor. A good estate but, with an RV that's only average and a high-ish SMR bill, not the best cost option for fleets.
McMahon: Excellent load space means the Accord Tourer is the biggest estate in this group. The Tourer has the most competitive rentals caused by lower list price and maintenance costs. Leather as standard.
Pout: An alternative to the volume offerings and established German rivals. Performance is sound, although the extra weight has an impact. The exterior presents that slightly hungry and aggressive look which adds to the appeal. Rentals place it alongside the A4 and 3-series but I would find it difficult to choose.
Cope: Honda has taken the looks of their new Accord and built on these strengths with the introduction of a great diesel engine. The quality of build and specification enables this car to compete strongly within this basket of vehicles.
Average monthly rental: £474
P11D price: £23,140
Average net price £19,005
Average maintenance £1,862
Average RV £7,426/32%
Arval PHH £455.74
Lloyds TSB autolease £426.00
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £815/£1,481
2004 VED bill: £135
Audi A4 Avant 1.9 TDI 130 Quattro SE
Pout: A top performer: stylish and much improved handling. The A4 suffers with boot space but it's a sacrifice worth making in return for comfort, safety provision and a great line-up of standard equipment. Competitive lease rentals make a persuasive case for the A4.
McMahon: The A4 Avant is more of a lifestyle wagon than an estate. It is superb-looking and standard of safety equipment is excellent. High maintenance costs mean rentals are the second highest in this group.
Cope: Audi have always been strong in this sector, especially with this engine. Although space in the Avant is not much more than you would get in the saloon, it is hard to chastise it on this aspect alone – the rest of it is so good.
Brown: The A4 has an air of quality and good taste. The engine is not quiet but performance and economy are very competitive. This model has the added kudos of the quattro badge but is better value in front-wheel drive form.
Schooling: Space is a key criteria in estates but the A4 has the second least-generous interior as well as the highest CO2 emissions. Even so, its solid, understated qualities will not disappoint loyal followers of the badge.
Average monthly rental £458
P11D price £23,620
Average net price £18,989
Average maintenance £2,106
Average RV £8,496/36%
Arval PHH £438.41
Lloyds TSB autolease £462.00
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £1,195/£2,173
2004 VED bill: £155
Vauxhall Signum 1.9 CDTi 16v Elite
Cope: Even with the new diesel engine, the Signum sits uncomfortably. Its looks seem to be growing on the market but it is still hampered by poor internal space and a shaky image.
Schooling: As a choice on a single-badge list, the Signum offers estate drivers a very acceptable option, albeit with only two rear seats. Unfortunately, it loses too much value over three years to compete in this company.
Brown: Credit must go to Vauxhall for breaking the mould, but it needs to be further differentiated from the Vectra. The new 1.9-litre engine is Euro IV-compliant and there is a large load area when the seats are folded.
McMahon: A good option for the tax-conscious with its engine avoiding the 3% diesel supplement. Leather comes as standard but the Signum still has the highest rental caused by low residuals.
Pout: Choosing from model ranges used to be a relatively simple process, but now we have niches within niches and so it is that we have the Signum. This will be welcomed among those fleets with a sole or dual GM policy. The problem is that drivers even now remain snobby about the badge.
Average monthly rental £483
P11D price £23,442
Average net price £18,985
Average maintenance £1,687
Average RV £6,446/27%
Arval PHH £447.11
Lloyds TSB autolease £473.00
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £980/£1,782
2004 VED bill £135
BMW 320d SE Touring
Brown: The best package in the range and the new Euro IV engine makes the case even more convincing for the user chooser. Performance, handling and economy are all strong, so it is not hard to see why it is so successful.
McMahon: The BMW 3-series Touring has low maintenance costs due to BMW's free servicing offer. The BMW holds the road well and is the fastest in this group.
Cope: The BMW badge is always favoured in the executive car park, but there are stronger models available and this perception is changing. The 320d has a great engine and will continue to be desired.
Pout: A practical alternative to the saloon, with substantially the same performance qualities, albeit slightly noisier. It's not the best for load carrying but a good compromise for BMW fans who need to have the extra capacity and flexibility that an estate version brings.
Schooling: The Touring ticks all the boxes, practically and emotionally. Drivers can enjoy its unmatched dynamics and style, while fixed price servicing and rock solid residuals underpin the impressively low ownership costs.
Average monthly rental £465
P11D price £24,252
Average net price £20,237
Average maintenance £1,304
Average RV £8,861/37%
Arval PHH £449.13
Lloyds TSB autolease £450.00
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £907/£1,649
2004 VED bill: £135
Mercedes-Benz C200 CDI Classic SE Estate
Pout: A great combination of comfort, good specification and excellent sporty road handling, along with the now standard expectation of effortless and quiet motorway driving. For reliability, it can't be faulted and the ever-strong residual values pull the operating costs into line.
Cope: The C-class estate combines elegant styling and practical motoring. As expected, Mercedes-Benz has produced a solid, economical and reliable car. Once again, in the executive car park it has a lofted position.
Schooling: Mercedes-Benz's balanced package scores satisfactory marks across most of the spectrum of fleet and estate-specific criteria but gives ground on BIK and dynamic appeal.
Brown: Smoother and more laid-back than the 3-series, it comes with the undeniable appeal of the Mercedes-Benz badge. The current range should be simplified at the forthcoming facelift, as the number of derivatives can be confusing.
McMahon: The C-class estate isn't the most spacious – it is more of a lifestyle wagon than some of the larger estates. It is also one of the slowest. However, it does have the competitive edge on rental with excellent residuals.
Average monthly rental £472
P11D price £23,982
Average net price £19,851
Average maintenance £2,245
Average RV £9,258/39%
Arval PHH £462.04
Lloyds TSB autolease £449.00
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £1,161/£2,110
2004 VED bill: £155