Take a sensible saloon, give it a powerful engine, retune the dynamics and you're onto a winner - but which super saloons dominate our top ten?
3 May 2019

The super saloon market remains, as ever, fairly small but fiercely competitive. The German big three still have a huge presence, though perhaps not as dominating as they’ve enjoyed over the years, with changing emissions legislation having shaved away the meat of certain performance brands’ model ranges – and opened the door for others to move in.

In the last few years we’ve seen the return of Alfa Romeo to the segment. The Italian marque’s new Giulia Quadrifoglio is an epic sports saloon, and hopefully a sign of things to come – but it was deposed as our super saloon class champion by the latest BMW M5 in 2018.

As ever, power and performance figures are getting more and more impressive - with some of the cars in this list now churning out in excess of 600bhp. Is horsepower alone enough to grab the top spot, though?

1. BMW M5

For anyone whose last drive in a four-wheel drive performance car came a decade or so ago, the handling of the BMW M5 will be little short of a revelation. Even after the likes of the Ford Focus RS, Audi R8 and Nissan GT-R, the M5’s agility, balance and playfulness seems remarkable for a car which can also offer all the traction and stability you would expect of a two-tonne, four-wheel drive super saloon. The car’s outright damping authority and body control, meanwhile, are truly unequalled among its direct rivals.

So, considering the titanic leap that the car’s performance has taken, how could we deny it the ringing endorsement of a five-star score? Only because of a handful of irritating shortcomings – slightly irksome steering weight, inconsistent brake pedal feel, that fake engine noise and an occasionally restless ride – which can collude to snap you out of the immersive thrill of driving it.

However, the BMW M5 has a dynamic versatility and poise that no other rival can equal, and it went straight to the top of our super saloon rankings. If BMW M history is any guide, meanwhile (think ‘F10’ M5 ‘30 Jahre’, ‘F82’ M4 CS and others), its very best may be yet to come; although, for our money, the current M5 Competition Package only narrows the car’s appeal slightly by firming up the car’s suspension.

Our Verdict

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BMW’s legendary performance saloon takes the plunge into fast 4WD territory

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2. Mercedes-AMG C63 S

The Mercedes-AMG C63 S has had to fend off some serious competition to land a spot in the podium of our super saloons best-of list – not least from bigger brother, the E63 S.

Gone is the phenomenal naturally aspirated 6.2-litre V8 of its predecessor, but the car’s twin-turbocharged V8 is by no means short on character or power.

While the C63’s ride is firm and unisolating, its handling is super-engaging, accurate and readily, benignly adjustable, and its steering tactile and confidence-inspiring. The automatic transmission complements the engine brilliantly.

There is a noticeable amount of road noise, but the addictive nature of its V8 powertrain more than makes up for this. This is a seriously impressive, old-school piece of kit we like very much.

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3. Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio

The Giulia Quadrifoglio missed out on a class-leading berth here by the skin of its teeth. Excellent handling, a composed ride and gorgeous looks are order of the day - all key traits for any serious contender in this segment.

The car’s Ferrari-derived turbo V6 is also enthralling: not quite as potent or bombastic as the Mercedes-AMG V8 in the C63 S, but with its own distinct appeal. Handling, meanwhile, is as lithe, balanced, direct and sports-car-like as it’s possible to find in anything with four doors – and very engaging with it.

Overall, this car marks a stellar return to form for a company that had been floundering for some years. The only real shortfall - and it’s a relatively small one - is the cabin, which is a bit more low rent than those offered by Mercedes-AMG and BMW.

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6. Alpina B5 BiTurbo 4WD

Alpina has always done things in a slightly different way than the BMW M Division when it comes to creating quick BMWs, favouring a more laid back approach that gives us fast saloons with impressive comfort and refinement on road as well as first-order performance.

The new B5 BiTurbo is more of the same, but this latest generation model now boasts four-wheel drive and a 600bhp 4.4-litre V8; so while it may be set up with comfort in mind, it’s certainly no slouch. Standard spec is generous, the cabin plush and the car’s handling gives little up to a BMW M5 on road or track.

The more reserved styling makes for a nice contrast to the more aggressive designs employed by rivals, too. All round, a typically appealing package.

5. Mercedes-Benz E 63 S 4Matic+

If there was only one reason that the E 63 S deserved your attention – and there are considerably more than one, by the way - it would have to be its ballistic engine.

That 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 churns out 603bhp and a mind-bending 627lb ft of torque, for an official 0-62mph time of 3.5 seconds. In a mid-sized four-door saloon – or, indeed, estate car. Crikey indeed.

So, it’s certainly powerful, but there are a few small niggles to report of the E63 S, too. Despite switching to air springs, the car’s outright body control and ride are not quite what they used to be, the former lacking a little bit of outright damping authority and the latter feeling stiff-legged at times.

This is still a very impressive car, though - and its Drift Mode feature is a riot - but compared with the Alfa and its C 63 S sibling, the E 63 S lags just behind.

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6. BMW M3 CS

You’ll need to move fast to get your hands on any unregistered example of the ‘F80’-generation BMW M3 saloon; the car was never made WLTP-emission compliant, and with production of the 3-Series on which it was based now long wound up, the only cars available will likely be either pre-registered or in dealer stock.

Still, if you’re going to hunt one out, make it the end-of-line special M3 CS. Engine power from the car’s twin-turbo straight six rose to 454bhp here, and torque to the same level as the memorably bonkers M4 GTS. Many of the GTS’ lightweight carbonfibre bodywork components also appeared on the car, among them a carbonfibre-reinforced polymer bonnet – while sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres wrapped around forged wheels rounded the chassis revisions off.

The ‘F80’ M3 and its sibling M4 have always had a more purposeful and precise take on the performance brief. Rather indulgently flattering or giggle-inducingly sideways, these cars create their kicks by handling with track-car accuracy and controlling body movements very closely indeed.

What results is very rewarding if you like the thrill of speed, but perhaps not as much fun as some at less than a nine-tenths effort level.

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7. Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 4Matic+

Mercedes’ now world-famous in-house tuner ushered in a new dimension to its model portfolio when it launched this, its first petrol-electric hybrid super saloon – the CLS 53.

Rather than a howling monster V8 engine, there’s a very modern turbocharged straight six under the bonnet here which, using both conventional and electric induction compressors, produces 429bhp at peak power. Torque is less easy to claim for, since the car also has an electric motor downstream of the engine, which can add up to 184lb ft into the driveline to supplement the engine’s 384. Mercedes doesn’t quote a ‘total system’ torque figure – and most of the hybrid system’s assistance is done at lower revs, where it couldn’t combine with that engine torque figure anyway.

Still, this car certainly performs like a big four-door saloon-cum-coupe with plenty of torque to deploy; it’s only a tenth-of-second slower than the old CLS 63 S from 30- to 70mph through the gears, and has very convincing initial throttle response indeed.

Ride and handling aren’t as hardcore as in Mercedes-AMG’s V8 models, but that’s entirely the point. This is a car with genuine near-40mpg touring ability and driving experience refined and calm enough to serve as either a German bahnstormer or a well-mannered long-distance GT. And it does both pretty well.

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8. Alpina B7

Much like its smaller sibling - the B5 - Alpina’s B7 is a car designed for those who want to travel incredibly quickly, but in a comfortable and relatively understated fashion.

While this is a car designed for travelling long distances at high speed on the Autobahn, it can still handle more challenging roads, with the adaptive air suspension mitigating body roll impressively.

There is one gripe, though - the steering. We didn’t like how vague it was on the straight-ahead, and the weight build up in Comfort mode doesn’t inspire a great amount of confidence. Still, as a fast, luxurious performance limo, there’s a lot to like.

9. Tesla Model S Performance

We couldn’t leave this one out. Slightly over-isolated controls, under-developed limit handling behaviour and an air-suspended chassis that doesn’t communicate particularly well are certainly disappointments we’ve noted on both occasions that we’ve road tested Tesla’s Model S.

You might well decide that you don’t care about such things, however, when wrapping your head around the notion of a mid-sized, zero-emissions four-door saloon with more than 600 horsepower and 700lb ft of torque; a battery range that’s close to 400 miles on a charge; and 0-62mph performance that, Tesla claims, can be as low as 3.0sec when the battery’s fully charged and conditions are just right. We’ve never timed a Model S going quite that quickly; but then we’ve never timed this model.

As part of a recent price realignment, Tesla slashed the asking price of a top-of-the-range Model S from more than £130,000 down to below £90,000 – so you could argue there’s never been a better time to take the all-electric super saloon plunge.

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10. Audi RS3 Saloon

Audi Sport’s range of RS-branded performance models is on a bit of a hiatus at the moment, cut down as a result of R&D budget cuts a few years ago and changing emissions law. But the RS3 four-door is one of the few models that you can still buy – and anyone who thinks the car’s diminutive size prevents it from counting as a full-bore super saloon in our eyes ought to think again.

It might be less than 4.5 metres long – but it’s longer than an ‘E36’ BMW M3 saloon. It might ‘only’ have a five-cylinder engine – but it’s got four-wheel drive and more power than a Lotus Carlton. And when Audi claims 0-62mph sprinting for it at a shade over 4.1sec, it’s being a bit conservative. We’ve timed this car at less than 4.0sec to 60mph on a perfect one-way launch control run – and that sounds like full-bore super saloon pace in our book.

The ride and handling of the car aren’t quite as impressive as its five-pot engine and gearbox, the former feeling stiff and a little over-damper, and the latter a touch inert and lacking in balance and adjustability for our tastes. Still, if you like the super-stable, easy-to-drive, rocketship-fast dynamic character that RS Audis have nurtured over the last decade, you will definitely like what you find.

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