Once upon a time, the ideal family car was an estate, often short on styling but big on space.

In the 1970s and 80s it was the norm for accountants or architects to drive Volvo estates, while shopkeepers would have a Ford Escort or Opel Kadett estate as their workhorse for trips to the cash and carry. Back then, car designers would just chuck a bit of a shed onto a saloon body to make the estate version of the car, and the result was seldom pretty. Over the years Ireland's car buyers have seen the estate as a niche vehicle, accounting for about 5% of a model's sales.

But now, that percentage is rising.

The humble estate still has its work cut out to succeed, because in more recent times buyers have become very image conscious. Witness the rise (and rise) of SUVs, car-based SUV crossovers (Qashqai etc), MPVs and, of course, family hatchbacks - which grow in size with every new generation.

With modular platforms and computer-aided design, car designers have it easy these days. The result is an abundance of new-generation estate cars that do more than it says on the tin. Even the name 'estate' has evolved: now most car firms use other names like Combi, Sportsbrake, Tourer, Avant or even silly ones like Sporty Wagon! In Europe, regardless of what they're called, estates are selling very well, and at times make up to 50% of a model range.

Over the last few weeks we have tested quite a few estates and have enjoyed the massive Skoda Superb Combi, a five-seater that can carry basketball players in the back with no complaints - and it has a boot the size of Ikea! The four-wheel drive version (4X4) is the icing on the cake as the standard Combi is very impressive, but the added traction and grip afforded by four-wheel drive is outstanding.

Another great machine is the Skoda Octavia Combi. Especially in diesel, 'vRS' performance form. While smaller than the Superb, it is a near-perfect family machine. Economical, practical and entertaining to drive, the Combi was a car we were reluctant to return.

Most recently, SEAT, another VW group firm, has just launched its Leon ST (Sports Tourer) here. Leon is basically a VW Golf and Leon ST is a very handsome estate version of the five-seater that is also available as a two-door SC or five-door hatchback. The far from shed-like ST costs about a grand more than the five-door equivalent, but for the extra cash you get a lot of versatility and a split floor boot that holds 587 litres, including the space-saver spare wheel! Fold the seats down and there is tonnes of space.

SEAT offers three trim grades: S, SE and the sporty FR (like Skoda's vRS) and some attractive sales incentives for orders made before the end of this January. Leon ST prices start at a very attractive €20,185 (1.2-litre, 86hp, TSI petrol - ideal for low mileage users).

We tested the band 'A2', 105hp, 1.6-litre SE diesel (€24,405) on motorway- and in city-driving and it performed well. The ride was comfortable and the chassis composed.

Leon ST's main rivals are the Skoda Octavia Combi, Renault Grand Mégane and the pricier Korean near-twins of Hyundai i30 Tourer and Kia C'eed Sportswagon.

What is clear is that modern estates offer a practical and stylish alternative form of transport to families and those with an active lifestyle.

SEAT expects to sell 200 STs this year in Ireland, accounting for 25% of Leon sales.

The SEAT Leon ST is an attractive, well-priced family car.

Michael Sheridan