Currently reading: Unsung heroes of 2023: Celebrating the most underrated new cars
The Autocar testers meet for lunch – and an argument about which cars don't get enough love

It is a truth universally known that the best thing about being ‘a car person’ is not the cars so much as the other ‘car people’: the community – and the car chat that glues it all together.

This crosses my mind as a round of excellent burgers hit the table at Caffeine & Machine’s new Bedfordshire gaff, ‘The Bowl’, yet the conversation still flows, even around mouthfuls of cheese, gherkin and patties.

Sure, the warm, gooey Christmas vibe of the annual road testers’ Christmas lunch helps, but we could have parked literally any cars outside, off the back of any brief, and we’d still be having a colourful, cheerfully argumentative discussion about them.

Not so much because of the cars, but because of the people.

Mind you, we’ll give a nod to Ricky Lane’s Mercedes-Benz B-Class before we even get started. At an initial glance, this is arguably the car that best fulfils this year’s brief, which is to champion our most underrated car of 2023.

James Disdale, Matt Prior and Richard Lane talking in front of Caffeine and Machine

After all, it turned out that even Mercedes had forgotten that it makes the B-Class, yet it was one of the most talked-about cars here.

Our seasonal showdown cars are not all so brilliantly mundane, though.

Between the eight of us – Lane and I are joined by Steve Cropley, Matt Prior, Matt Saunders, Illya Verpraet, Felix Page and James Disdale – this year’s automotive buffet runs from a pick-up truck to a hot hatch, via luxury, tech extravaganzas and a few options that you (and some of us) might argue aren’t underrated at all. 

Steve Cropley and Matt Saunders talking, sat on the tailgate of a Ford Ranger

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It’s the full Christmas gift gauntlet, from overly gaudy jewellery to an embarrassing but very practical pair of socks.

Anyway, whatever flavour of car or transport you use – underrated, overrated or otherwise – take the time this Christmas to huddle around a table and talk to your car mates. Because that’s what Christmas is really all about.

Autocar road testers gather around a round table

VP: "So Matt, why did you bring your Jaguar XF Sportbrake? What makes it underrated?"

MS: "You can hardly have a more underrated car than the Jag. It handles as well as it always has.

"It’s such good value – that XF Black Pack out there is a £40,000 car and was designed to be Mercedes E-Class-rivalling, while the same E-Class is now probably more like £60,000.

"On top of all that, the D200 engine is more refined than it used to be thanks to the mild-hybrid stuff.

Jaguar XF Sportbrake cornering – front

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"The last facelift they did really cheered up the interior, too, so they really have addressed all the weak points of that car – but it happened at the point when nobody wanted it. It’s just such a shame."

RL: "How big are the wheels on it? Is the secondary ride all right?"

Jaguar XF Sportbrake wheel detail

MS: "That one’s got 20s, and it could do with the adaptive dampers.

"I would add those, and probably smaller rims if I were speccing it. But even so, it’s so good that it makes you wonder why there aren’t more out there.

"I like it and think it’s very underrated, and that’s why I brought it and that’s why it should win. The end."

Jaguar XF Sportbrake interior

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RL: "Well, hold on, clearly it shouldn’t, because the B-Class is easily the most underrated car here.

"I’ve got the B200, which is a 1.3-litre mild hybrid. I had one earlier this year and it just calms me down.

Mercedes B200 boot badge

"It’s an outdated format, too – but wrongly so. It’s a little MPV, so you get a slightly raised seating position, great visibility, loads of space and a fantastic turning circle.

"It’s not a crossover or an SUV. It’s unpretentious but quietly decent, and there’s even a hint of luxury despite it being a very level-headed car.

"These small MPVs are a bit forgotten, even by Mercedes – the press office had to borrow one from another area of the business. It’s decent to drive, too. It has honestly charmed me."

MS: "Is it not niche, rather than underrated? How many people want a modern Nissan Prairie with a premium badge on it?"

Mercedes B200 grille close-up

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RL: "For what that car actually does, the market is probably really big. I mean, it’s doing what all the compact SUVs do, right? And probably doing it better. But people just don’t think about the MPVs any more because of the image."

MP: "I was about to say that – the way it looks is probably its biggest problem, no?"

RL: "I know people probably don’t like the way it looks, but I think that’s one of its strengths.

Mercedes B200 wheel close-up

"I like the way it says nothing about you yet it’s still quite a nice premium product. I don’t go around judging anyone for buying an MPV, Prior, like you in your BMW i7…"

MP: "Ah, yes, there is that. While we were hanging around earlier this morning, we talked about cars that are too flashy and cars that are overly synthesised; we’ve complained about cars that have intrusive steering assist and too many things going on; and we’ve quite rightly vilified touchscreens that are difficult to use while you drive.

"So what’s clearly overrated these days is driving. What you really need is to sit in the back of a really nice car and have somebody else drive you around.

Matt Prior relaxes by watching a video in the back of the BMW i7

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"That is clearly the future of personal transport, and the i7 does that better than anything else in the world."

VP: "So being a EuroMillions winner is the future of personal transport?"

MP: "Yes, exactly that. Oxford City Council wants 15-minute cities so nobody drives everywhere; my local council – out in the sticks – wants people to reduce car journeys by 20% by 2030.

BMW i7 rear television screen

"And modern cars are becoming unbelievably irritating. I want to set fire to two of the cars I’ve driven recently because the touchscreens are so hard to use.

"So the really underrated thing to do is sit in the back of an i7, stick Netflix on and forget about driving altogether. That’s my argument, anyway."

FP: "I brought a BMW, too – the M340i, of the facelifted variety. And I basically brought it because it’s not a BMW M3 or an Alpina B3, both of which I spent time in this year.

"Everyone had been waxing lyrical about how brilliant they are, but accelerate for two seconds and you’re breaking the law, and everyone tries to race you on the motorway.

BMW M340i boot badge

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"The M340i has 369bhp, it rides really well, it’s understated and underrated.

"It’s 75% of an M3 without the annoying 25% on top – and it’s a better product as a result."

IV: "Is it really underrated, though?"

BMW M340i front grille close-up

FP: "It’s underrated in that we spent the year talking about the M3 and the B3, which is why I want to toast the M340i as the best ‘real’ BMW 3 Series."

IV: "I do think it’s a shame that you can’t buy a non-M BMW with a six-cylinder engine any more. I would definitely say that."

BMW M340i brake caliper close-up

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RL: "Yeah, if the M340i only had a manual gearbox, cloth seats and 16in wheels, it would be an absolutely glorious thing."

FP: "Unfortunately, though, it’s 2023. We’re not sitting here in 2006."

RL: "But it’s not underrated. You’ve picked Europe’s biggest-selling executive car in its best form."

FP: "It’s no B-Class, sure, but it’s underrated in the context of being overshadowed by the M3 and even other fast execs – absolutely."

BMW M340i side mirror

JD: "Well, I brought a truly underrated executive saloon – and that’s the Alfa Romeo Giulia

"It’s so often overlooked, by us and by car buyers, but it’s just fantastic.

"It’s a rear-wheel-drive saloon with an Alfa Romeo badge on it, and of course it’s overshadowed by the Quadrifoglio, but the Giulia has a great chassis and you don’t need the really high-performance variant to enjoy it – the 2.0-litre petrol is enough. 

Jaguar XF Sportbrake following Alfa Romeo Giulia

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"It offers you more than you might expect and it looks lovely."

SC: "So why have they only sold about 10, then?"

JD: "I don’t know. Maybe it’s our fault – the motoring media in general, I mean.

"After all, the Giulia has won group tests and yet the next executive group test we’re talking about the 3 Series again.

"And let’s face it, there’s not going to be another rear-wheel-drive, piston-engined Alfa Romeo saloon after this, is there?

Alfa Romeo Giulia gear lever close-up

"Another bonus is that it’s old enough to give you buttons to press instead of just a touchscreen.

"It is, basically, the most underrated car out there."

Jaguar XF Sportbrake following Alfa Romeo Giulia

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SC: "I think you’ve got a good point with the Alfa, mate, but what about the Polestar 2?

"It’s recently revised with a bigger motor that’s moved to the back axle, but we’ve not said enough about how much better all this stuff has made the car, in my opinion.

"There is a tendency for cars of that size and price to have twin motors and loads of poke, but this single-motor, long-range format is just a more logical approach.

Polestar 2 following Mercedes B200

"And there’s more restraint with the Polestar than with most: I like the fact that it’s not covered in tinsel and chintz, and I’ve been able to go into every facet of the touchscreen and configure it easily. I generally just like the car."

MS: "Maybe it’s underrated precisely because it’s understated. If it were more shouty, and more like a Mercedes EQ or whatever, it wouldn’t appeal in the same way."

VP: "I think it is underrated – it’s probably the best long-range EV in that price range and definitely better than a Tesla Model 3, barring that car's access to the Supercharger network."

Polestar 2 interior

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SC: "Yeah, and I do think there’s something of the ‘thinking person’s’ car to the Polestar.

"Like, if Saab had lived and evolved – and modernised – you’d kind of hope they might be making that Polestar 2, right? I really like that about it."

IV: "Well, Saab wouldn’t be making a farmer-spec pick-up truck.

BMW i7 passing Ford Ranger

"To be honest, I chose the Ford Ranger because I drove it earlier this year and expected it to be really crude, but it’s actually almost like driving an SUV.

"It’s a bit bouncy but pretty comfy and refined – and, yes, it’s slow, but it’s still really nice.

"The Raptor gets most of the attention, so I felt that the basic Ranger’s merits have been really overlooked.

"That one out there has even got 16in wheels, a manual gearbox and cloth seats – like Ricky’s fantasy-spec M340i."

RL: "That does tick a lot of boxes when it comes to the dream road tester spec. Is there a mainstream SUV that people would conceivably swap for that car and still be satisfied?"

Ford Ranger cornering – front

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IV: "I think many people would be pleasantly surprised. I was. And this one costs around £37,000, which is a hell of a lot of off-road utility vehicle for the money."

MP: "So, Victoria, why is the Abarth 500e underrated?"

VP: "Mostly because it’s fallen into the trap of being assessed within the context of other EVs, rather than just as a stand-alone fun hot hatch.

"The 500e really is one of the best warm hatches out there.

BMW M340i following Abarth 500e

"Don’t get me wrong – it’s expensive, I wish it went further to a charge and it’s insanely annoying that you can’t turn the noise off unless you’re parked up, but it really swivels into a corner, the steering is tactile and it has lovely body control: it’s a proper driver’s car.

"It’s also powerful enough to feel naughty, but you can use 100% of the performance on a daily basis, which is quite rare.

"It’s one of the best fun cars to have been launched in the past year, but not many people have actually said that."

RL: "You’re right, though, it’s easy to get distracted by the extrovert colour, and the noises it makes and all that, but, actually, underneath all that it is a serious driver’s car."

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BMW M340i following Abarth 500e

VP: "Exactly. And I do also love that it shows how a properly fun EV has nothing to do with 0-62mph in less than four seconds and everything to do with great steering, a great chassis and great on-road accessibility.

"The same as a piston-engined car, basically."

MP: "Okay, so these are our underrated cars. But which ones would we take home?"

Group of car keys laid out on table

SC: "I’d take the BMW i7, just because it’s very rare to get into a car that is conclusively an order higher at what it does than everything else around it. I just love the refinement."

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MS: "I’d take mine, thanks very much – I’d have the Jaguar XF. I really would."

RL: "The Alfa Romeo. No question. It’s such a sweet-handling thing."

FP: "I’d take the Ford Ranger."

IV: "But you live in Chiswick!"

FP: "No, seriously, I just want a car that you know will do anything you want it to do. The Ranger fits that brief. Will everyone get in the back? Is there room for all my stuff? All of that, really."

Illya Verpraet sat on Ford Ranger tailgate, talking to Steve Cropley and Matt Saunders

MP: "You may all laugh, but I’d take the Ranger too. It will annoy me the least."

JD: "Well, I would have said the Alfa Romeo, but actually I’d take Matt’s Jaguar, because we’ve got a dog and I need an estate. And it is class, the XF."

Jaguar XF R-Dynamic badge close-up

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IV: "I’d have the BMW M340i. I’m sure the touchscreen would annoy me in some ways, but I’ll learn to live with that in exchange for the engine and handling."

VP: "If BMW could make an i7 estate, I’d take it. It’s a really extraordinary thing as it is, that car.

"But I, too, need and love a wagon in my life, so I’d take the BMW M340i but in Touring form, please. I don’t think it’s in any way underrated, but it’s the car I’d take home."

MS: "So, which one is the most underrated? "

MP: "Good question. I’d actually say that it’s yours. From a dynamic perspective, it absolutely is the most underrated car on sale."

SC: "Seconded. To be honest, I wish I’d thought of it before the Polestar."

Jaguar XF Sportbrake boot badge close-up

JD: "Yup, I’d agree. If the XF Sportbrake was priced the same as the 5 Series Touring then it would still be a contender, but the fact that it costs the same as the smaller 3 Series or a tinselly Skoda Superb makes its lack of sales success almost criminal."

FP: "In the context of today’s car prices, it is ridiculous that you can take home a properly excellent Jaguar XF Sportbrake for £40k. We’ll miss it when it’s gone."

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What's on Autocar's Christmas list?

AC Schnitzer ACS2 Sport, Richard Lane

AC Schnitzer ACS2 Sport front cornering

If you want your BMW 2 Series to have any feeling of agility and adjustability, it has to be the M2. Except it doesn’t.

AC Schnitzer’s take on the M240i is pretty divine. The spring and damper package is beautifully judged, resulting in a car that feels 200kg lighter than standard yet which doesn’t crash and has a ton of composure.

A bit of a revelation.

Porsche Taycan GTS Sport Turismo, Matt Saunders

Porsche Taycan GTS Sport Turismo cornering

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I think the Saunders family is ready for an EV (by which I mean, the UK public charging infrastructure seems just about up to snuff) – and this is the one I’d have above all others.

The GTS has the bigger performance battery, twin motors, plenty of power and range and eye-popping rapid-charging speed.

I borrowed one for an afternoon earlier this year and really fell for it.

Caterham Seven 170R, Matt Prior

Caterham Seven 170R powersliding

I spotted a story in Autocar Japan a while back, featuring a Caterham Seven in a lovely basic spec: the 660cc 170R, with no paint and all the lightweight options.

If you forego the carbonfibre – but do specify a windscreen and a heater – you can get a cracking-looking and practical (relatively speaking) Seven for under £35,500.

Still not sure you can buy much more fun at any price.

Rolls-Royce Spectre, Felix Page

Rolls-Royce Spectre parked on London side street

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The absolute antithesis of the sort of car towards which I tend to lean, and not one I think is especially à la mode, culturally or politically, but who’s to deny the raw appeal of an electric Rolls?

It’s bigger than my flat (and quieter, plusher and far better equipped), cracks 300 miles-plus between charges and rides like a Citroën DS.

It’s hard to imagine it ever looking outdated.

Alpina B3 Touring, James Disdale

Alpina B3 estate cornering

Fast estates are cool. And those that are in effect hand-built and come with an air of Q-car stealthiness are even cooler, which is why I’m asking Santa for an Alpina B3 Touring.

I love the way its 488bhp straight six melds silky smoothness and sledgehammer pace, while the chassis is a perfect blend of precision and plushness.

And our Labrador can come along for the ride.

Honda E, Steve Cropley

Honda E cornering

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Okay, I know they’re not replacing this baby EV and its short range is a serious limiter to many.

But compact cars, especially compact EVs, are what interest me. For most of the local motoring I do, the Honda’s 90-to-110-mile range is enough.

The dynamics are great, it looks great and the interior is like nothing else.

Deals are out there, so I hear. So no need to spend big, Santa. I’ll be happy with the baby Honda.

Lotus Emira V6, Illya Verpraet

Lotus Emira V6 – front tracking

For various boring logistical reasons, I still haven’t tried Lotus’s last traditional sports car, which is a shame, because I suspect we’d get along quite well.

I like how it looks and sounds, it has a manual gearbox and from what I’ve heard it drives pretty well.

It might not be as pure as Lotuses of old or as accomplished as a Cayman, but I find Porsches a bit strait-laced anyway.

Porsche 911 T, Vicky Parrott

Porsche 911 Carrera T cornering

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I rarely think a Porsche 911 would be my dream car (too polished, too fast, too big).

Then I drive it and know I’d have to have one – and the 911 T did this more than most 911s.

Its balance of rear-wheel drive, manual ’box and the right amount of power for road use is spot on.

A purist’s take on an otherwise comfortable, non-anti-social, more modestly priced 911. Perfection.

What about 2023's most overrated cars?

Hyundai Ioniq 6, Matt Saunders

Hyundai Ioniq 6 front cornering

You can, with very little searching, unearth four-and-a-half- and even five-star road test verdicts on the Hyundai Ioniq 6.

I can only assume they were generated by testers under 5ft 10in because, while I liked plenty about it, this car’s shortage of front-row head room was unforgivable for me.

I simply couldn’t live with one, and I’m not exactly a beanpole.

Volvo EX30, Matt Prior

Volvo EX30 front cornering

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It takes a lot to get me angry but Volvo’s EX30 succeeded.

In the Genesis G70 I drove after the Volvo, I did a blindfolded test: adjusted the temperature, demister, lights, foglights, door mirrors, heated seat and steering wheel, lane assist and auto wiper without looking, which means I could do so without taking my eyes off the road.

In the EX30 all are on a touchscreen, and not even the home screen. It’s not good enough.

MG 4 XPower, Felix Page

MG 4 XPower front tracking

Anyone who has ever seen a scrap at Wetherspoons will tell you brawn beats brains every time.

Not so in the case of MG’s super-hatch, where ludicrous power reserves are unsupported by clever torque management software, track-honed suspension or sticky rubber.

The result is a £36k family hatch that can outpace a BMW M3 but which feels as controllable as a new puppy and is about as engaging as taking the bus.

Porsche 911 GT3 RS, James Disdale

Porsche 911 GT3 RS powersliding

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Okay, before you spit your coffee out, I do think the GT3 RS is a sublime slice of driving heaven: in almost every regard it nudges perfection.

Yet I don’t understand why it tries to be so clever-clever with the numerous differential, throttle, suspension, traction and aero settings.

It can make an otherwise pure driving experience needlessly overwrought. Less is more, Porsche.

Honda Civic Type R, Illya Verpraet

Honda Civic Type R sliding

I first drove a previous-gen Honda Civic Type R last year and didn’t get it. Maybe I needed more time in it.

I then drove the new one on a group test this year and still didn’t get it. Maybe it was the cold weather.

I then tried another in perfect weather and yet another at ‘Handling Day’. Yet I still find it too big, too serious and too expensive for a hot hatch.

The manual ’box is pretty unsatisfying, too.

Nissan Ariya, Steve Cropley

Nissan Ariya – front quarter tracking

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I’d been looking forward to trying this on the grounds that Nissan has had the benefit of plenty of EV practice with the Leaf.

It looked good and it was roomy, even if the bulk seemed excessive for suburbs where it will live.

But the big disappointment was the ride – the one dynamic property that’s with you every mile you drive.

Even now, I can’t understand why Nissan, which does most things well, can’t get a grip on it.

BMW M3 Touring, Vicky Parrott

BMW M3 Touring cornering

I love a fast wagon as much as the next person, but the fervour over the M3 is Touring a bit OTT.

It’s a festival of technical wizardry and barely restrained power squeezed into the ultimate family car.

Yet it’s just too much: too much power and too much in-yer-face attitude.

Even with restrained use, the dog would be throwing up in the boot and the kids would be in tears.

Lotus Emira i4, Richard Lane

Lotus Emira four-cylinder powersliding

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Part of me hates myself for giving the four-pot Emira a less than glowing review.

It’s a junior supercar that can act as an effective GT. 

But Lotus is like Porsche and BMW M: one holds the product to a very high standard.

The hot-roddy nature of the AMG- hearted Emira is out of kilter with what small-capacity Lotuses are about.

Others loved it, but I didn’t. 

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Andrew1 25 December 2023
XF looool