The rules are that blind prejudice rules. We wanted to name the top 50 cars on sale today, ranked in order of excellence, regardless of which class they sit in and how much they cost. Doing so is not an exact science. So we relied on our experience and our expertise, and we argued about it.
When several staff and contributors named their top 50 cars, we all agreed on 37 of them, leaving only 13 contentious. As for the top five, we concurred on at least three, with no more than eight in the reckoning overall. In the end, no one felt any car here had been hard done by. Which left just two things in doubt: in which order do you put the top five and what is the absolute best car on sale today? Below we run down cars 25 to six.
25 - Rolls-Royce Phantom
Big but not brash, bold but not boastful, the Phantom is modern British luxury writ large. It has been around long enough now to be considered part of the scenery – and that’s a good thing. Forget that BMW writes all the cheques and assembles the platform; the Phantom could not be built like it is anywhere else in the world.
24 - BMW 320d
The benchmark for the Jaguar XE and the standard by which most buyers still measure the segment. The 320d’s virtues – performance, handling, economy, build quality – have become the target for every volume manufacturer, and the current iteration upholds the driving machine tradition.
23 - Jaguar XE
That the XE, Jaguar’s endlessly previewed compact exec, turned out to be good was not a shock. Gaydon, after all, is in a rich vein of form. However, the fact that it is better to drive than the BMW 320d shows just how extraordinary the firm’s progress has been in the past decade.
22 - Tesla Model S
By rights, the Tesla ought not to even exist. The chances of an independent firm leading the charge in luxury electric cars was faint 10 years ago. Now, the Model S is the world’s bestselling plug-in electric vehicle. The fact that it outsold the Mercedes-Benz S-Class in America last year ought to tell you just how good it really is.
21 - BMW i3
The first EV, beyond a Tesla, that seemed designed and built for people who actually enjoy driving. That much made it a proper BMW but didn’t prevent the firm from furiously innovating around it, making the final product new and different and desirable in almost perfect measure.
20 - Skoda Superb Estate
Previously, the Superb wagon might have earned our respect based on its weapons-grade practicality alone. Now, Skoda has built a richly rewarding and convenient modern estate car around the vast load space – one that matches the quality and value for money of anything made by its Volkswagen parent company.
19 - Ariel Atom
Our affection for the Nomad in no way dilutes our appreciation of Ariel’s ‘other’ car. There is a Radical and a Caterham still to come in this list, but if we were heading to a circuit just for fun – to savour the raw experience of driving without scaring ourselves silly – it’d be the Atom on our trailer.
18 - Porsche Boxster
Boy, we will be sad to see this go. Originally the car that saved Porsche, and latterly just the best convertible sports car – arguably ever. Any version is worth having, but it’s worth mentioning that the manual-hooded, 911-engined Spyder is possibly the finest example of the breed.
17 - Mazda 2
Replacing a car based on the brilliant Ford Fiesta ought to have been problematic for Mazda. Instead, it applied the lessons it learnt with Ford magnificently and, without any cost sharing, built the second-best small car you can buy.
16 - Range Rover
The cheaper, better-to-drive Sport does tend to make its full-sized sibling look like less of a bargain. But the Range Rover isn’t about saving money or time. It’s about feeling like you could conquer the planet from an armchair-quality seat while submerged in the hush of a gentleman’s club. A singular item.
15 - Caterham Seven 620S
Street version of Caterham’s supercharged Seven is a belter. Friendlier suspension and five-speed manual ’box are key. Tricky on track, but out on the road the prodigious power-to-weight ratio gives it muscle-car charisma. Shame it comes with a muscle-car price, too.
14 - Volvo XC90
Runner-up in the 2016 Car of the Year competition, the XC90 embodies Volvo’s return to form. It has an exceptional interior, with brilliant seats. If it were less wide and rode better, it’d score even higher here.
13 - Jaguar XF
Class-leading dynamics used to be the exclusive and consistent preserve of the BMW 5 Series. Not any more. No other car in its class – or in many other classes, for that matter – rides, handles and steers with as much confidence as the latest Jaguar XF.
12 - BMW i8
Because of its composite construction and intelligent plug-in hybrid powertrain, the i8 is still far and away the most interesting car on sale today. But there’s rather more to it than that. It’s also a terrific grand tourer and as involving to drive as it is to look at and sit in.
11 - Porsche Cayman GTS
In the days and years that’ll come, when we drive turbocharged engines every day of our lives, there will be remembered a high point in time of fervently revving, naturally aspirated engines. The Cayman GTS has one, and it is mated to a chassis of impeccable quality.
10 - Radical RXC Turbo
How does a hugely expensive aero-dominated pseudo-race car from Peterborough make it into the top 10? A few laps on circuit in it is all you need to find out. A few miles feeling hilariously out of place on the road confirms everything you had ever hoped.
9 - Ariel Nomad
It exposes you to the elements and it costs a lot for what is, ultimately, a beautifully built sandrail buggy. But its purpose is to put a smile on your face. Little else, at any price, at any time, has achieved that as comprehensively as the Nomad.
Every time a new luxury car is launched, you can pretty much guarantee a few things about it: it won’t be as hushed, refined, exquisitely appointed and, well, downright luxurious as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It is now, as always, the benchmark by which others are judged.
7 - Ferrari 488 GTB
If you are going to trust anyone to make a turbocharged sports car engine, it might as well be Ferrari. It sits in a chassis that we’ve heard a dynamics engineer describe as “exactly how I’d set it up”, which all serves to make the 488 the superior supercar.
There are more glamorous cars on this list. More entertaining, more economical and more impressive in a great many ways. But the Fiesta is remarkable in that it does so much with so little. And for so little.
Do you agree?
We’ve named our favourite car on sale; now it’s your turn. Visit autocar.co.uk/top50 to vote for your favourite car from the 50 listed here. The winner will be announced at the relaunched Autocar Awards at Silverstone on 24 May.
Read the rest:
Andrew Frankel, Matt Prior, Matt Saunders and Nic Cackett