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 slots to fill. 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. That left us with two important questions to answer: in which order do you put the top five, and what is the absolute best car on sale today?
50 - Mazda 3
49 - Vauxhall Astra
A giant leap for the current-generation Vauxhall Astra, whose driving experience at last fulfils the promise of its appearance. World-class spec, connectivity and value complete a highly attractive package.
Its all-round, all-weather, do-anything-anywhere ability makes the Audi Allroad with a big diesel engine a true polymath. Splendid to look at and easy to live with. It’d be 20 places higher if it were better to drive.
47 - Morgan 3 Wheeler
As focused as a heat-seeking missile and almost as wild a ride, the Morgan 3 Wheeler offers the look, sound and feel of a truly vintage driving experience. For pure fun at sane speeds, it gets no better than this.
46 - Zenos E10 R
Ariels, Caterhams, Lotuses and Morgans probably have a shade more desirability, but they can offer nothing to conclusively beat the Zenos’s handling balance and purity, nor its huge performance value.
In spite of its carbonfibre construction and aerodynamically optimised bodywork, the Lamborghini Aventador SV remains an old-school supercar at heart. For the money, it is still unmatched for pure automotive theatre.
44 - Land Rover Discovery
The Land Rover Discovery is so old that it should have been pensioned off long ago, but if you need to tow, go off road and carry hordes of children, it’s still the best school bus out there. Slow and thirsty but immensely able and utterly charming.
The best mid-sized seven-seat MPV on sale. Its futuristic appearance is more than matched by a space-age interior brimming with innovative, useful ideas. Just the kind of car we want a Citroën to be.
Shows how far you can go with conventional engineering. Far less technically interesting than a Renault Twingo or a Smart, the Up is just a better car to use inside and, in particular, outside the city limits.
Our favourite Aston of modern times offers a very simple but utterly pure and endlessly rewarding time behind the wheel. Blood, thunder and beautiful balance all wrapped up in a spellbinding shape.
No longer just a blunt instrument, the RS6 retains class-busting pace, but is poised and rewarding in the corners, too. If only all high-performance Audis were so good.
On paper, such an entirely unremarkable car that you’d be forgiven for wondering what on earth it is doing here. So go drive one and wonder no more. Simple, yes, but indulgent and rewarding, too.
38 - BAC Mono
After a switch from Cosworth to Mountune as engine supplier, the 305bhp BAC Mono’s power-to-weight ratio has crept even further into the stratosphere. We’re still waiting to drive the updated version, which is alleged to have been faster up the hill than any other production car at the Goodwood Festival of Speed last year. Experience of its predecessor suggests that no other lightweight sports car feels quite so special. Still no forced induction here, by the way – although there is a £125,000 price.
If you want to get the most out of your fast front-driver on summer track days as well as on the road, you’ll want one of these. It’s available in stripped-out 275 Cup-S spec and fully loaded 275 Nav trim. Cup-S is the one to go for with performance value in mind. Limited-slip differential, check. Cup chassis, check. Sub-£24k price, check. Teeth-chattering ride? Not here.
Still Autocar’s top-rated family hatchback, whether it’s emitting exactly what it says on the tin or not. Thoughtfully designed and packaged, and mature and rounded to drive, with a stronger engine line-up than any rival and excellent safety and infotainment systems. So it’s Europe’s biggest-selling new car for lots and lots of very good reasons.
35 - Bentley Bentayga
Crewe spreads its famous wings and weighs in with the world’s first super-luxury SUV – complete with 600bhp W12 engine and £160k price. It does lavishness, performance, refinement, tidy on-road handling and 4x4 capability – and does them all rather well. Also odds-on to be Bentley’s first-ever diesel-engined model, at which point add ‘relatively economical’ to the list.
34 - Lotus Elise
Less money and less weight were the motivating factors in the latest update for Lotus’s evergreen Elise, bringing the cheaper Sport back in under £30,000. This car is still in possession of one of the sweetest and purest driving experiences available at any price. Perfectly tuned for UK country roads, it’s sparsely equipped, more usable than most lightweight rivals and impossible not to get a kick out of.
33 - Porsche Macan
Not just a boil-washed Porsche Cayenne but actually an altogether better-handling and more remarkable car. Sure, it isn’t hugely practical by SUV standards, but it’s nothing short of amazing to drive hard – provided you get the optional specification right. The diesel variant is a bit ordinary, but the full-house Turbo model is a revelation.
32 - Mini Cooper
After a couple of Dr Who-style lifecycle morphs, the ‘new’ Mini has turned into a genuinely usable and (fairly) grown-up car, with (quite) decent-sized back seats and boot, (mostly) sensible fittings and a (reasonably) compliant ride. Brilliantly revvy Cooper engine and zesty handling need no qualifications, though.
31 - Ford Fiesta ST
It’s so good to drive and has been established in the market for so long that it allows no debate whatsoever after submitting its credentials as the best sub-£20,000 driver’s car on the planet. Very few hot hatchbacks are more fun than this. Just wait until the summer, when Ford's ST200 version will offer even more grunt and chassis poise.
Brings a 500-horsepower, twin-turbocharged V8 to the M3’s class like Tony Montana’s grenade launcher from Scarface. Huge power and torque, huge roll-on speed and lots of connected feel from deliciously firm suspension and dialled-in steering. Twice as exciting as most German performance contenders – with room for the Labradors in this particular case.
Toyota’s recent price cut has only inspired even warmer feelings for its outstanding rear-driven sports car. It could be quicker, granted – but it sounds great, looks great and has enormously entertaining, throttle-adjustable handling. And now you can get one on 16in wheels, for less than the price of a Ford Focus ST. Get it done.
28 - BMW M235i
Compact, priced temptingly and good old-fashioned rear-drive fun to drive, the M235i feels more like a modern M3 than the current M4 ever has. It gives you lots of power and BMW-brand desirability for the sort of cash you could easily spend on a front-drive hot hatch. Both manual and automatic versions work well.
27 - Alpina D3 Biturbo
Alpina teases 345bhp from BMW’s straight six diesel engine and puts rounded good manners on the 3 Series’s already excellent chassis. Fast, frugal, comfortable, usable, balanced, entertaining and supremely desirable to those who know their onions. It’s also available as a Touring, just in case Mr CakeAnd-Eat-It should want even more for his money.
There’s a perfectly habitable, perfectly splendid GT car aft of the Ferrari F12’s bonnet – but you won’t notice it much, so titanic is the performance caterwauling from its V12. The experience is quite unlike anything else and goes a long way to justifying the prodigious amount of money required to attain it.
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. 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