Currently reading: Top 10 best sport saloons 2020
UP NEXT
Slotting beneath super saloons in the motoring hierarchy, these more affordable alternatives are still guaranteed to entertain
Autocar
News
11 mins read
24 May 2020

When you’re in the business of testing the latest and greatest new cars, you invariably devote a great deal of effort, brainpower and words defining and expressing what separates a truly great supercar, sports car or hot hatchback from one that is merely very good.

And while that’s often a captivating process, it’s important to remember one universal truth: that, for most of us, the very best kind of driver’s car is the one you can afford. It’s the one you can justify to yourself. Often it’s also the one that suits the kind of driving you’ve got in mind for it; that will best serve your practical purposes, too; and which makes you feel content and secure - and sufficiently unselfconscious - to want to own and be seen in it.

It’s that particular happy real-world compromise that the cars in this top ten chart are intended to address. The sport saloon is a time-honoured vehicle concept too little written about these days, because upper-level ‘super’ saloons are easier to write headlines about or to get mind-blowing laptimes out of.

Generally, sport saloons are less powerful than super saloons but they’re also more affordable, more usable, often more compact, less highly strung and easier to enjoy on public roads. Many are four-wheel drive, making them suited to being driven every day, all year round and almost wherever you fancy. Some are more understated – stealthy, some might say – than others. And yet the very best still count as absolutely first-class driver’s cars based on the involvement they provide and how often they can be enjoyed.

Stand by to find out which fast four-doors deliver for a smaller outlay.

1. BMW M340i xDrive

What is, for now at least, the car at the very top of the BMW 3-Series derivative tree has an unbeatable sporting hand. The combination of its 369bhp turbocharged straight six engine, its agile all-wheel drive handling, its roomy, well-equipped and solidly hewn interior, its BMW-brand desirability and its sub-£50k starting price make it so complete as a sport saloon that – as the 3-Series has for so long – it deserves to be the default choice in this class.

With adaptively damped M Sport suspension as standard, the car has specially tuned suspension geometry and axle kinematics to take it above the already high dynamic standards of a regular 3-Series. Our testers report that, while it’s got a firmer and shorter-feeling ride than other Threes and feels more aggressively firm over certain sorts of surface, it remains a very livable and civilised compromise well-enough suited to the rigours of the everyday.

The car adopts a standard torque-vectoring locking rear differential, too, in order to make even better use of its rear-biased xDrive driveline; and that adds just a touch of throttle-adjustable cornering poise to the car’s handling, depending on selected driving mode. The car’s fast, smooth and sweet-revving when you want it to be, then; but can feel surefooted in bad weather, or lithe and lively if you prefer. The M340i really has, and does, it all.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

Read our review

Car review
BMW 3 Series 320d 2019 Road Test review - hero front

In compelling 320d guise, Munich’s seventh-generation 3 Series successfully reclaims compact executive class honours

Back to top

Save money with new 3 Series deals from What Car?

2. Alfa Romeo Giulia Veloce

A multi-cylinder engine would be a bit of a miss for any sporting Alfa Romeo, when so many have come with such memorable V6s over the years. That caveat, as well as a classier-feeling cabin and more adjustable electronic stability controls, are really all that prevent this car from topping our sport saloon pile. There can certainly be no doubting that, in terms of handling balance, incisiveness and all-round driver appeal, the Giulia Veloce has what it takes to stand out.

A chassis of unequalled dynamic agility and super-direct steering makes this car feel more like a sports car, at times, than a practical five-seater. It has really wonderfully well-balanced grip levels also, and deserves a properly switchable stability control system that might allow you to explore and exploit those grip levels to maximum amusement. Sadly, the range-topping Quadrifoglio is the only Giulia on which you can fully deactivate the electronic nannies.

Alfa’s turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine gives the car a healthy 276bhp, and it sounds fairly pleasant and revs freely by 4-cyl turbo standards. It’s just a shame that’s not quite what the chassis is worthy of, or what rivals for the same money will provide; because in other ways this car is little short of brilliant.

Save money with new Giulia deals from What Car?

Back to top

3. Kia Stinger GTS

Kia’s top-of-the-range Stinger is something of a rarity amongst modern performance cars, championing old-fashioned bang-for-your-buck value as it does. As a survey of its rivals in this list will confirm, there are now very few ways to get into a rear-driven, multi-cylinder performance car with more than 350-horsepower, capable of 62mph from rest in less than 5.0sec, for only a smidgeon more than £40,000. That was the kind of proposition a Vauxhall VXR8 offered a decade so ago -  albeit with much less associated style and premium-brand quality, and a couple of additional engine cylinders.

The Stinger’s turbocharged V6 has great mid-range torque and revs tunefully; not quite with the ferocity of some performance motors, granted, but stoutly enough to make what is a pretty big saloon feel pretty brisk.The car’s chassis compromise is closer to that of a long-striding performance GT than a really poised and compact four-door, and both body control at high speeds and handling balance leave just enough to be desired that you might notice the deficiency. Having said that, a slightly laid back, good-looking, big-on-value performance car might be exactly the sort of fast four-door to suit your requirements.

Save money with new Stinger deals from What Car?

4. Jaguar XF 3.0D S

Considering how much of Jaguar’s sporting reputation has been built by big-engined, rear-driven sport saloons, it’s surprising to find how scant the choice has become for Jaguar buyers who want a smooth multi-cylinder engine and the purity of a driven rear axle in their modern fast four-door. 

Although it wasn’t always the case, the XE doesn’t offer one at all; and the XJ is now so big and so old that you might not even consider it. The only model that fits that time-honoured template is a mid-sized XF - and it’s one with a turbodiesel V6; not a car, surely, to ease the furrowed brows of brand traditionalists.

So it’s a good job that this is a particularly sweet-handling option. Really naturally paced, intuitive steering and a supple chassis delivering both poise and ride comfort in impressive measure make the XF 3.0D S the Jaguar saloon you’d pick from the current crop to save for posterity. 

Back to top

It’s not nearly as roomy as a BMW 5-Series or Mercedes E-Class and isn’t much smaller than either, but it does feel spry and engaging on the road in a way they don’t. Meanwhile that V6 diesel engine has mid-range torque to spare, and knows reasonable economy, too, when you need it.

Save money with new XF deals from What Car?

5. Volvo S60 T8 Polestar Engineered

You might have expected at least one plug-in hybrid option to rank more highly than this in a list of modern sport saloons, given the intriguing blend of performance and everyday efficiency they promise. The fact is, even the very best PHEV sport saloons have yet to be developed to a level where they might displace the most convincing traditional performance options here for slickness, richness, drivability and all-round driver appeal as well as for outright responsiveness, pace and efficiency. A BMW 330e, while very good, isn’t yet a car we’d recommend over an M340i, for example.

Helped by the fact that it is the defacto performance option in its model range however, a Volvo S60 Polestar Engineered is the most convincing driver’s car in the S60 lineup (although that isn’t saying too much). Combining a turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine with twin electric motors, this car develops a peak 400bhp on paper, and nearly 500lb ft of torque; which, in this company, is more than enough to get your attention. 

On the road, it never really feels like it’s in possession of quite that much firepower despite the four-wheel drive; it needed more than five seconds to hit 60mph from rest in our hands, although its in-gear roll-on acceleration was a lot stronger.

More impressive than Volvo’s petrol-electric powertrain, though, is the job that Polestar has done on the car’s suspension. Expensive manually adjustable dampers at each corner lend a remarkably highly developed kind of body control for a car so heavy, and both grip and handling precision are first-rate. 

If the car had a powertrain whose performance crystallised under pressure in quite the same way as the chassis, one capable of putting power exactly where it was needed precisely when you asked for it, this would be a really convincing effort. As it is, it’s certainly on the way to becoming something quite interesting.

Back to top

Save money with new S60 deals from What Car?

6. Audi S4 TDI Quattro

For Audi to decide to switch so many of its brisk but businesslike ‘S express’ sporting derivatives from petrol- to diesel power last year was a bold decision, considering the last few years that the firm has had. It’s also a key sign that some of the most thorough engineers and key decision-makers in the car industry still accept the notion that, for those who want both real-world speed and drivability from a sport saloon as well as efficiency and refinement, there is still nothing to beat a big diesel engine.

And so a big diesel engine is what the Audi S4 now comes with. Specifically it’s a turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 diesel with a 48-volt electrical architecture and an additional electrically driven turbo in the mix, producing 342bhp and 516lb ft. That’s enough to send this car to 60mph in 4.6sec thanks to a very effective launch control system which governs the car’s torque-vectoring all-paw driveline. From there the car rifles through the intermediate ratios of its 8spd auto box very quickly indeed, piling on speed without really giving you much cause to notice.

The S4 is easy to drive quickly and very assured with it, although the driving experience it creates isn’t terrifically exciting or rich. That V6 isn’t particularly memorable to listen to, and while it’s ever-composed, the car’s handling only comes alive and begins to engage you really if you commit to over-driving it; which, on the road, you’ll likely seldom if ever do.

Save money with new S4 deals from What Car?

Back to top

7. Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4Matic

Smaller can quite often mean better when you’re comparing one driver’s car to another. Does it mean as much, then, in the case of Mercedes’ smaller, lower-order-AMG, four-door coupe: the CLA 35? Frankly, it depends what you’re comparing it with.

The CLA is, for starters, the smaller of two Mercedes four-door coupes, and does offer much more of the elegance and style of the bigger CLS for a cut-down price than the original CLA managed. Being part of Mercedes’ compact-car model family, however, the CLA is less practical, arguably, than even an A-Class hatchback. Meanwhile, being transverse-engined, it’s only ever four-wheel drive in fairly transient and qualified terms, and can’t compete with natively rear-driven 4WD options for throttle-on handling balance.

The ‘-35’ suffixed AMG version uses a 302bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo engine which has plenty to recommend it, as does the car’s meaty, tactile steering and its measured-yet-composed ride and handling. The car’s two-pedal, twin-clutch gearbox is less slick, though, and can disappoint with its roughness as well as its unpredictability. 

Save money with new CLA deals from What Car?

8. Audi S3 Saloon

Audi’s four-door S3 didn’t become a part of the wider S3 model family until the third-generation car arrived in 2013, but quickly seemed to make itself at home in the model range thereafter. Nobody does fast, smart business saloons quite like Audi, after all; and this one had all the visual presence and the neat proportions of its bigger siblings, as well as quattro drive and a grown-up power output.

The current version delivers just under 300-horsepower to all four wheels from a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, but has a longer wheelbase, a lower roofline and wider axles than other S3s. Our testers have identified it as a better-handling S3 on several occasions.

Trademark Audi design appeal comes together with plenty of material cabin quality here, in a car that feels composed and secure on the road. It’s a little reserved, perhaps, delivering its speed through a luxury filter which kills some - although far from all - of the fun factor.

Back to top

Save money with new S3 deals from What Car?

9. Peugeot 508 GT

Peugeot’s sporty-option 508 saloon comes in petrol, diesel and plug-in hybrid guises. The last of those is the newest; although only being rated for 222bhp and only offering front-wheel drive, it’s not powered by the same all-corner, twin-motor powertrain as used by the Vauxhall Grandland X Hybrid4 or the DS7 E-Tense.

All 508 GTs handle with appealing directness and keenness. These are relatively compact and spry saloons designed from the outset to appeal to the driver, and they manage that fairly well.

The hybrid has strong in-gear performance (once the slightly clumsy transmission has decided which ratio to pick) although in outright terms doesn’t feel any quicker than either of the other two derivatives. You’d pick it for the benefit-in-kind tax savings; although, since it’s still a £40k car, even those might not be as lucrative as you think.

Save money with new 508 deals from What Car?

10. Vauxhall Insignia GSI

Vauxhall looked to relaunch its once-desired ‘GSi’ performance model badging on the Insignia a couple of years ago, but has thus far failed to tempt as many owners as it must have hoped for. 

In 2018 you could choose between 2.0-litre petrol and -diesel motors in the car, both getting torque vectoring four-wheel drive. Subsequently, when WLTP emissions certification loomed, Vauxhall deleted the petrol engine and concentrated on the diesel to go after fleet success. And now that new company car tax rules have made anything but a ‘PHEV’ a very hard sell as a company car, they’re phasing out the diesel and bringing back the petrol in pursuit of private buyers. And if any of this should suggest to you that the bold, new-age Vauxhall GSi has yet to be effectively defined, or to find its true audience; well, we dare say you’d be about right.

Back to top

We’re yet to sample the facelifted version of the Insignia GSi, but found the 2018 diesel fairly precise and composed in its handling, if a little lacking in both firepower and driver entertainment value. As a lower-order value-driven sporting option, it’s not without merit being a good-sized, usable saloon. Still, it couldn’t be upwardly mobile, even on this list, unless and until becoming a driver’s car of greater ambition.

Save money with new Insignia deals from What Car?

Join the debate

Comments
12

24 May 2020
Why is the term multi cylinder being used to describe engine of more than 4 cylinders when surely a multi cylinder engine is anything from a twin air to a W16 and beyond?

25 May 2020
...which has been used for many, many years - four being so common in cars as to be unworthy of needing a count. 'Multi-cylinder' is much less tedious than writing V6, flat 6, straight 6, V8, V12, flat 12, etc every single time when referring, in general, to engines with more than four cylinders.

Hope this helps.

24 May 2020
Id have the alpha me, grate cars not unreliable like they used be. Just wished i could afford one. big money! Dont get own one of them on security guard money!!!

24 May 2020

Hilarious list.  Why you would pay nearly £50k for a 340i xDrive when a model 3 performance is on £6k more?  For that you get over another hundred horsepower, massively more performance and nearly 3 times the MPGe, with a tech-filled cabin, better reliability and better residuals.  Perhaps you do 600 miles before breakfast like most of the posters on here seem to, or maybe BMW can lease you one at an enormous discount to sugar the pill...

24 May 2020
May as well go for the modal 3, no point goin for the Jag they gone bust, asking for a billion to stop um goin under

24 May 2020

Why the M340i rather than the Tesla Model 3? Because after a 200+ mile high speed winter drive with toasty heated seats and cabi heating with great music on the BMW would put a bigger smile on your face and when you want to head home you can fill the "power cell" (petrol tank) in 3 minutes and get on your way. Or, in the Model 3 you would need an overnight stay in order to charge up enough to possibly manage to get home. So that could be it. Until electric cars actually achieve the range they claim and can be charged up in 5 minutes or less they will not replace a petrol car for longer journeys particularly in winter or just cold weather when using the performance available plus heating the cabin and getting home is impossible on one charge. 

24 May 2020

Because of course everyone goes for 200+ mile high speed winter drives, then fills up and goes home again :).  Not.  Funnily enough, the M3P will do a 200 mile winter high speed drive with heated seats on and cabin heating and great tunes and when you get home you can plug it in and it's filled up again in the morning.  For £11.25.  Plus is will put more smiles on your face because it's faster and handles better.

Believe me, I mourn the loss of petrol cars and will campaign to keep petrol supplies available so people with classics and caterhams and morgans and cobras, heck even old MX-5's can keep driving them.  But for everyday driving, their time is done.  

24 May 2020
spqr wrote:

Why the M340i rather than the Tesla Model 3? Because after a 200+ mile high speed winter drive with toasty heated seats and cabi heating with great music on the BMW would put a bigger smile on your face and when you want to head home you can fill the "power cell" (petrol tank) in 3 minutes and get on your way. Or, in the Model 3 you would need an overnight stay in order to charge up enough to possibly manage to get home. So that could be it. Until electric cars actually achieve the range they claim and can be charged up in 5 minutes or less they will not replace a petrol car for longer journeys particularly in winter or just cold weather when using the performance available plus heating the cabin and getting home is impossible on one charge. 

Until combustion-engined cars can start each morning with a full tank and conditioned cabin, refill while you're doing something else, cost two-thirds less to fuel, achieve the claimed MPG, kick in the back as instantly as a naturally aspirated supercar while being refined as a Bentley, and not literally gas anyone behind me, they will not replace an electric car for me.

(Also: an "overnight charge" to get anywhere? It's not the 20th century anymore, duder.)

24 May 2020

Thank god no Model 3 here on the list - it looks terrible 

24 May 2020

Tesla's problem here in California is terrible delays for spare parts and accident repairs.  The post sales infrastructure has by no means kept pace with the push to maximise production.  If you live in the UK, how far away is the nearest Tesla certified body repair facility?  0-60 in 3 seconds is nice but accident to fixed in 6 months isn't.  It's a problem all over the forums but the Tesla-can-do-no-wrong folks say "just email Elon".  Hah!

Pages

Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week