You can read through our top 45 in this gallery. It contains the broad spectrum of cars you'd expect from Autocar, from the Seat Ateca to the Ford Focus RS, and the Ferrari 488 to the Jaguar F-Pace.
50 - SEAT ATECA: The lost soul of the Volkswagen Group is slowly finding its voice and the Ateca is Seat’s best product yet. It is not ground-breaking, nor fire-breathing, just likeable, effective and affordable. It deserves to properly shake up the SUV segment.
49 - HONDA NSX: Don’t think of it as a successor to the original: it’s not that kind of supercar. Think of it instead as a demonstration of just how far technology can bend the laws of physics. But we’d still like it to be lighter than Its 1725kg kerb weight.
48 - RADICAL R XC TURBO: We like cars that do stuff other cars can’t, and the downforce monster that is the RXC is one of the best. It’s not practical in any way, but if you don’t get fastest time of the day at every track day you attend in this car, blame yourself, not your wheels.
47 - VOLVO XC90: Volvo has always wanted to be thought of in the same breath as Audi and Mercedes-Benz, and the XC90 is its biggest step yet in that direction. A classy alternative to the mainstream. Its looks make no promise the car can’t keep.
46 - RANGE ROVER: New über-SUVs are giving the Range Rover competition that it has not known for 47 years. But its character is undimmed, its pedigree unapproached. Off road, we’d expect it to roast them all. Still a star, then, albeit in an increasingly crowded sky.
45 - ASTON MARTIN V12 VANTAGE S - Aston Martins have a long and noble history of growing old disgracefully, and the V12 Vantage S is probably its greatest senior citizen so far. And it has just been made better still with the re-introduction of a manual gearbox.
44 - BMW 330e: Perhaps the best mainstream plug-in hybrid. A seamless confection of real-world performance and economy blended with proper BMW handling and traditional 3 Series attributes. In other words, there’s little not to like.
43 - NISSAN MICRA: If this were a list of the cars that have improved most upon their predecessors, it would probably win. It’s as credible and likeable as the old Micra was off the pace and unpleasant. Price is the only reason it’s not even further up than this.
42 - JAGUAR XF: It isn’t as broadly capable as a new BMW 5 Series or Mercedes-Benz E-Class, but we’ll always have a soft spot for a big saloon that’s improbably good to drive. The XF perpetuates Jaguar’s reputation in this and many other areas.
41 - MERCEDES-AMG C63 S ESTATE: This is the unpinned hand grenade of the performance car world: conveniently sized, easy to throw about and packing a bigger punch than its rivals. Fuel tank capacity aside (it holds just 66 litres), it’s even quite practical.
40 - MINI COOPER: While Mini still struggles to even out the talents of its other products, this core offering is as tempting now as ever. Immense panache comes within an affordable, attractive and well-built package with terrific brand desirability.
39 - ABARTH 124 SPIDER: Fiat’s standard 124 seemed to have blown its chance to stand on the shoulders of the Mazda MX-5, on which it’s based. But the quicker, sharper and more agile Abarth-fettled version is the triumph we’d hoped the standard car would be.
38 - FORD FOCUS RS: For all its clever technology, the Focus RS is at heart an old-school fast Ford. Who cares that it is somewhat rough at the edges when you’re going this fast and having this much fun? Good on the road and even better on a track.
37 - VOLKSWAGEN UP: The Up, and its Seat and Skoda clones,remains our favourite town car. It’s still the only one to provide big-car quality in a small-car package and therefore have a credible role beyond the city limits. Not young any more, but still the best.
36 - CATERHAM 620S: Nothing succeeds like excess. The 620S is a 620R racing car sanitised just enough to make it a viable street machine, but without touching its essential, and essentially insane, character. It can be endlessly rewarding in the right hands.
35 - SKODA SUPERB ESTATE: Which manufacturer makes the largest estate on sale? It’s not Mercedes any more and it’s certainly not Volvo. We love cars that know what they’re for, and the Superb wagon is that car. It is the greatest load-hauler of all the cars on sale today
34 - TESLA MODEL X: Its mad rear doors may make it look like some post-apocalyptic insect, but the Model X is an exceptionally spacious and enjoyable family car. It’s not without its flaws, particularly in its ride quality, but we salute those who dare to be different.
33 - JAGUAR F-PACE: Something of an irony that speaks volumes for the current popularity of SUVs is that Jaguar’s runaway best-seller is a kind of car that it has never made before. Even so, it’s brilliantly realised and Jaguar’s most competitive product in years.
32 - FORD MUSTANG: A true American muscle car hero, but conceived with the benefit of hindsight. It has the look, performance and oversteer you crave, and just enough of the boring bits to make sense in the real world, too. Just make sure you choose the V8…
31 - FERRARI F12: Maranello’s flagship superhero has been overshadowed of late by its overachieving little brother, the 488 GTB. But a normally aspirated V12 rarely sounded better or went harder than this. Will the F12’s successor, the electrically steered 812 Superfast, be so easy to love?
30 - ALFA ROMEO GIULIA: At last, an Alfa Romeo that delivers in full on the promise of its brand and looks, and therefore for which no apology nor excuse need be made. It’s the first Alfa Romeo in decades to offer credible opposition to the established German premium brands.
29 - LAND ROVER DISCOVERY: We don’t deny that the Discovery 5 is visually a less distinct Land Rover inside and out, but in all of the ways that can be measured, it is a simply transformed replacement for a car that was already our long-established favourite in its class.
28 - BMW 320d: Without frills or fuss, the 320d remains the world’s most desirable compact saloon for those who enjoy the simple pleasure of driving, but need a car that’s easy to live with on a day-to-day basis. Complete in almost every area and deficient in none.
27 - ROLLS-ROYCE WRAITH: True, this could have been a Dawn, a Ghost or, were it still made, even a Phantom, because BMW has not made a duff Rolls-Royce yet. But we went for the Wraith for its raffish good looks and unlikely appetite for the open road.
26 - TOYOTA GT86/SUBARU BRZ: Subtle enhancements of late have made the twins somewhat easier to live with without diminishing the implausible addiction to oversteer. Still the most everyday fun that £27k can buy.
25 - BMW i3: BMW is struggling to sell the i3, which is bad news for itself but great for those who recognise a world-leading, ground-breaking car when they see one. If it fits your life, haggle hard and bag yourself a bargain. We can’t see how you’d regret it.
24 - VOLKSWAGEN GOLF: The latest facelift isn’t a transformation, but then it didn’t need to be. The Golf was the most desirable family hatch beforehand and remains so today. The best car in its class by a distance. The GTI variant is a genuine marvel.
23 - ARIEL ATOM: Motoring laid bare, so stripped back that it makes a Caterham look like a Bentley. But this four-wheeled skeleton is one of the most ingenious, best-built driving machines there has been. Once driven, forever addicted.
22 - LOTUS ELISE: Over 20 years on and the Elise is getting lighter again, which means that it’s getting better and coming closer to the vision Lotus founder Colin Chapman had for all of his cars. The new Sprint remains as mesmerising as ever.
21 - MERCEDES-AMG GT R: Quick enough to hold the record ’Ring time for a front-engine, rear-drive car, but its brutal pace obscures the more important truth that the GT R is also the easiest Mercedes-AMG GT to drive. And we believe there’s an even hotter one to come.
20 - FORD FIESTA 1.0 ECOBOOST: The Fiesta is still our favourite small car and its turbocharged triple is still our favourite sub-1.0-litre engine, so it’s no surprise to see this return to our Top 50. One continues to wonder what kind of car is likely to beat it.
19 - BMW M2: It is the M2 rather than its bigger brothers that best evokes the spirit of the M badge. Relentlessly entertaining yet eminently practical, the M2 is one of those cars that is greater by far than the sum of its rather modest parts.
18 - PORSCHE MACAN: So good that it’s hard to believe its underpinnings are based on the previous-generation Audi Q5. The fact that the next one will be based on VW’s new lightweight architecture will already have rivals quaking in their boots.
17 - BMW 5 SERIES: We thought Mercedes-Benz had set the bar impossibly high with the new E-Class, but BMW has responded by producing the best new 5 Series since the E34 generation almost 30 years ago. An astonishingly complete product.
16 - PORSCHE 718 CAYMAN: How much higher could the new Cayman have gone were it not held back by such an unlovable four-cylinder motor? Way into the top 10, for sure. It’s saved by the best chassis ever to feature on a car in this category
15 - MERCEDES-BENZ E-CLASS ESTATE: It’s no longer the most spacious wagon on sale (see the Skoda Superb at number 35), but its boot is still huge, offering practicality to combine with extant ride and refinement to create unquestionably the most desirable estate on sale.
14 - FORD FIESTA ST: It seems hard to remember a time when the ST wasn’t far and away the best affordable hot hatch – and still no one looks close to getting near it. The forthcoming three-cylinder version should be lighter and more fun still.
13 - BMW i8: A carbonfibre-hulled revolution in sports car design, powered by a three-cylinder Mini engine and an electric motor. It’s as suave to drive as it is to regard, and if this really is the future for such cars, we are looking forward to it immensely.
12 - MERCEDES-BENZ S-CLASS: Although the S-Class is starting to feel its age, not even a much improved all-new BMW 7 Series came close to dislodging it from the top of the luxury car tree. It will be interesting to see if Audi’s new A8 can fare any better
11 - PORSCHE PANAMERA DIESEL S: A diesel car that will hit 100mph from rest in less than 10sec? We’d not have believed it had we not done it ourselves. Porsche’s first true luxury car is a tech-laden masterpiece in GT form
10 - BENTLEY BENTAYGA: Get past the looks and the name and you’ll find the best-engineered SUV we have seen to date. Superb on or off road and thoroughly deserving of the winged badge on its nose. The triple-charged diesel version is simply magnificent.
9 - RANGE ROVER SPORT: For its combination of looks, versatility, genuine off-road ability and driving dynamics, the Sport remains our favourite SUV. Considering that it does the job of at least three normal cars, it’s not even that pricey
8 - MAZDA MX-5: A top five finalist last year and still our top small sports car because it remains so faithful to the traditional values of lightness, balance and driver interaction that were once the watchwords of all such cars.
7 - ARIEL NOMAD: A car like no other, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the result is an experience like no other. All-terrain ability adds a dimension of driving pleasure that’s unavailable in any other car, regardless of the price.
6 - FERRARI 488: The finest product currently available from the greatest supercar manufacturer of them all, the 488 missed the top five shootout by the smallest of margins. Impossibly fast yet impeccably behaved, it fulfils the promise of its looks to the letter.
Assembling the ‘best’ cars on sale, then.
This, on a website where opinion is not in short supply, is obviously as far from a breeze as you’d think it would be.
It works like this: an Autocar writer distributes a list of what he is absolutely sure are the best 50 cars on sale; the 50 cars that must be on the list. It is approximately 68 cars long.
He asks for feedback, and it is widely given, and so the ‘best 50 cars on sale’ list gains another 10 cars and then loses a few through immediate howled derision. And so begins a short series of exchanges and revisions until we have something we mostly agree on, based on our extensive testing experience, objective measurement and analysis, and, naturally, blind prejudice – because sometimes only the latter will do.
But then a curious thing happens, from around 15th position up to the top. From that point, there is less argument, more consensus. And when placings for the top 10 are being decided, and when we’re choosing which five cars to take away on extended test so we can decide their order – and by definition, determine the very best car on sale today – there is increasingly less and less division. Because car people know, and understand, that subtle mix of objective and subjective measurements that make a car not just good, but great.
You can read through our top 45 in the gallery above. It contains the broad spectrum of cars you'd expect from Autocar, from the Seat Ateca to the Ford Focus RS, and the Ferrari 488 to the Jaguar F-Pace.
Words by Nic Cackett, Andrew Frankel, Matt Prior and Matt Saunders