The list: our top 50 cars
50 - Volvo V60 D4
Lucky for Volvo that we’re listing our favourite cars rather than the most technically accomplished, because on paper the V60’s case is easy to deconstruct. But as an iconoclast in a conformist world, its desire to be different is enough to sneak it on to this list.
49 - Morgan 3 Wheeler
As English, eccentric, entertaining and practical as the Ministry of Silly Walks. Morgan’s cheapest car is, for fans of the marque’s intrepid charm, also its best.
48 - Audi A3 2.0 TDI Sportback
Stifle that yawn. A school swot on wheels, were the excellent A3 not such infuriatingly good company you’d hate it. But you can’t, and neither can we.
47 - Audi TT
The Mk2 TT would have stood as much chance of making this list as Nigel Farage receiving a Christmas card from the PM. So the Mk3’s inclusion is progress.
46 - Vauxhall VXR8 GTS
About as subtle as a Mitchell Johnson inswinger and no less effective. This Aussie muscle car is fast, brutal and not troubled by bedside manner.
45 - MG 3
An MG based on a kit of Chinese parts may not sound promising, but the 3 is cheap, attractive, effective and fun. Just like an MG should be, in other words.
44 - Radical RXC
The Radical RXC is not a Le Mans car for the road, but for a five-figure sum it comes closer than you might imagine possible.
43 - Volkswagen Up 1.0 5dr
You might conceivably conclude that when a car is this well built, comfortable and quiet, anything bigger is a pointless profligacy. A fine achievement by VW.
42 - Bentley Continental GT V8 S
The V8 S feels like the car that the Continental should always have been: sophisticated and entertaining, with just a hint of brutality.
41 - Ford Mondeo 2.0 TDCi 180
The new Mondeo was released nearly three years late, yet it’s still good enough to make this list. Imagine where it would have come had it been on time…
40 - Dacia Duster 1.6 Access
Why is this here? A base Skoda Yeti has the same power and a similar-sized cabin. Yet you’ll pay over £16k for the Yeti and just £9495 for the Duster. QED.
39 - Skoda Yeti 2.0 TDI
You can have a normal family hatch that’s decent to drive or a crossover SUV that’s not, right? Wrong, actually. The facelifted Yeti defies this convention.
38 - Jaguar XF 3.0D S
Despite a platform dating back to the previous century, the XF is still entirely convincing and, with a 3.0-litre diesel motor, highly desirable, too.
37 - Suzuki Swift Sport
If the Peugeot 205 GTI has a successor, it’s not its overblown near-namesake but the Swift Sport. It’s light, it’s simple, it’s affordable and it’s an absolute hoot to drive — a traditional hot hatch alive and well in 2014.
36 - BMW M235i
There are lots of BMWs on this list but, shockingly, not one M car. This is the nearest we came to choosing one — a car £22k cheaper than an M4 and nicer to drive.
35 - Mazda 3 2.2D
This is nothing less than the best-handling standard hatchback there is, with a chassis good enough to make those of most ‘hot’ hatches look simply inept.
34 - Aston Martin V12 Vantage S
A slick-suited city gent carrying the DNA of a club-wielding caveman or, in other words, exactly what Aston’s finest should be.
33 - Skoda Superb Estate 2.0 TDI SE
The clue’s in the name. Not ‘Superb’, although it is, but ‘estate’. This one actually remembers what that word means. It is fitness for purpose personified.
32 - Nissan Qashqai 1.6 DCI
Most cars are defined by ability. But a few can be measured by how well they understand their customer. Of them all, the Qashqai does this best.
31 - Audi R8 4.2 coupé
It may be old and due for replacement, but a manual V8 R8 coupé remains perhaps the sweetest junior mid-engined supercar that you can buy, as well as the easiest to live with. It’s an act that will take some following.
30 - Citroën C4 Grand Picasso e-HDI 115
We don’t usually get excited by seven-seat MPVs, but this class leader is proof that Citroën has figured out how to combine style and substance once again.
29 - Mercedes-Benz E250 CDI Estate
The biggest estate on the market and the only one that seats seven. But it’s the ride, refinement and range that earn it a place in the top 30 of this list.
28 - Lotus Elise SC
After almost 20 years, the Elise is still doing stuff that other cars can’t do. No car has better steering and few at any price are better down a decent road
27 - Renault Captur 0.9 TCe
This is one of those rare cars which, you sense, is better even than its creators expected. It is cool and clever and blends form and function quite beautifully
26 - Porsche Macan Diesel
When Clark Kent decided to wear his undies outside his strides, the transformation was not much greater than when Porsche turned an Audi Q5 into the Macan
25 - Range Rover SDV8
A stately home among mock Tudor mansions and all the better for it. If Downton Abbey were set in modern times, Lord Grantham would drive one of these and be a lot less miserable as a result.
24 - Hyundai i10
The most underrated car on the market. It lacks Up kudos and Twingo novelty value, but if it’s honest, affordable, urban transport you want, look here first.
23 - Caterham 1.6 Supersport
We reckon it’s impossible to be unhappy and at the wheel of a decent Caterham at the same time. The scintillating and affordable Supersport proves it.
22 - Jaguar F-type R coupé
A huge supercharged V8 wrapped in Jaguar’s best shape for a generation and a chassis with an addiction to oversteer. Need we say more? Thought not.
21 - Lotus Exige S
‘Power is nothing without control’ is Pirelli’s tag line, but it could have been coined for this car. Brimming with feel, brilliant fun and a genuine masterpiece.
20 - Toyota GT86
How better to enter the top 20 than sideways, in a Toyota where aptitude for drifting was a specific requirement of the development programme?
19 - Ariel Atom 3.5R
Think you know fast? Unless you drive formula racing cars or a supercharged Atom, you probably don’t. An utterly bonkers, staggeringly brilliant track weapon.
18 - BMW i8
Game-changing supercars? Merc 300SL Gullwing, Lambo Miura, Ferrari F40, McLaren F1 — and BMW i8. Not the fastest, but the most significant of its era.
17 - Renault Megane RS 275 Trophy
If you don’t know why a front-drive Renault hatch with a rear beam axle is this far up this list, get to your nearest dealer. Drive one and you’ll never ask again.
16 - McLaren 650S
This may not quite be the best supercar to drive, but to live with and use every day? There’s probably none finer. Shatteringly quick, too.
15 - Rolls-Royce Phantom
It’s old, ostentatious and technically less capable the Ghost. But this is about cars we like most, and here is comfort, refinement and occasion like nothing else.
14 - BMW 320d SE
You need one car to be the ultimate all-rounder. It must entertain but not exhaust and be both quiet and comfortable. It must be fast and frugal in equal measure. It must be all things that a car should be. You get a 320d.
13 - Tesla Model S
Perhaps the only car on this list here more for what it is than what it does. It is the car that made an all-electric future finally seem palatable.
12 - Alpina D3 Biturbo
Why the D3, not its M3 cousin? In the real world, the Alpina is little slower, better balanced, tops 40mpg, has a colossal range and is available as an estate.
11 - Volkswagen Golf 2.0 TDI
When people ask us what car they should buy, we consider this, weigh up that, factor in the other and then as often as not tell them to get a Golf.
10 - Ferrari 458 Speciale
Good news for gazillionaires who missed the cut for a LaFerrari: the Speciale is an even more focused track weapon and our current Best Driver’s Car.
9 - Mini Cooper hatchback
We’re being very specific: the new Mini Cooper, with 1.5-litre triple in petrol or diesel form; no other Mini. Quality, fun and running costs unparalleled in the class.
8 - Ferrari F12 Berlinetta
The massively rapid yet oh so civilised F12 isn’t just the greatest conventional supercar you can buy; it also stands as one of Ferrari’s finest of all time.
7 - Porsche Boxster 2.7
Porsche’s best mainstream product is its cheapest. The base Boxster is a dizzying synthesis of dynamics and feel, all for the price of a mid-range Audi A5 cab.
6 - Range Rover Sport 3.0 SDV6
By basing the Sport on the new Range Rover and giving it seven seats, Land Rover’s worst car is now its best and the world’s most desirable sporting SUV.
5 - Ford Fiesta 1.0T EcoBoost 140 Zetec S Red Edition
Fifth it may be, but in one way the Fiesta’s appearance here is the most remarkable of all. It’s not because it’s the slowest or cheapest, because great cars are great cars whether they are slow and cheap or fast and expensive. Its singular achievement is to make it into the top five in the autumn of an already long life.
But this is no token sop to ‘real-world’ machinery to convince you that we do ‘feet on ground’ here just as well as ‘head in clouds’. The Fiesta is here on merit.
Most cars exist in a state of managed decline from the moment they go on sale. Facelifts, spec changes and special editions exist only to moderate the speed at which they are overtaken by younger opposition. But the Fiesta is different: it was best in its class when launched in 2008 and now, thanks to a sensational mid-life refresh and the introduction of the world’s best small engine, the 1.0-litre, three-pot Ecoboost, it seems as far ahead of the pack as ever. That you can now get a 138bhp version like this Red Edition is just the cherry on an already utterly convincing cake.
4 - Mercedes-Benz S350 CDI L
As you know, we like to drive. But for now, join me in the back. Recline your seat, extend your legs, choose your mood lighting and select the temperature of your armrest. Activate the seat heaters and the coolers, too, because then they’ll waft the warm air all around those places lesser heaters cannot reach. Summon up the massage menu (can I recommend ‘hot stone’?) and put something profoundly silly on the telly, because you’re going to need a note of incongruity in here. Danger Mouse works for me.
All you need now is a good driver. A really good driver. One who instinctively knows how many pascals of pressure will make the car glide forward as if blown by a gentle breeze and precisely how to feather the brake pedal to exorcise to the point of imperceptibility that inelegant jolt forward when all cars come to rest. Then the S-class, with its Phantom-rivalling ride and eerie refinement, will do the rest.
Indeed, it’ll take you to a state of automotive nirvana.
Or you could simply drive and enjoy it just as much for an entirely different suite of reasons. That’s the S-class USP: as long as you’ve ticked the right options boxes, it’s the only car on sale that’s equally enjoyable whichever seat you occupy.
3 - Porsche 911 GT3
It says something about the weight of expectation placed on the broad shoulders of any Porsche Motorsport product that the GT3’s third position here is probably the only placing likely to be seen as any kind of disappointment, either by you or the team of passionate, obsessive engineers who created it.
In fact, and by any other standards, it is a fabulous achievement and should be seen in the context not of the two cars that did steal ahead of it but its many and varied far more direct rivals that did not.
Yes, you can question the wisdom of fitting electric steering to a GT3 (I once worked out that the resulting fuel saving on a standard 911 equated to a free tank of fuel every 40,000 miles) and you can quibble all day long about the absence of a third pedal in the footwell, but what you can’t do is suggest with any credibility that the result is somehow diminished as a driving machine. What it might have lost in some areas it has more than gained in others.
It is, of course, the most frequently perpetuated crime among over-privileged motoring journalists existing in a parallel world where exotica arrives both free and fuelled simply to say: “If you don’t believe us, try one for yourself.” But if you could and, indeed, if you can, you’d know that the GT3 is no disappointment at all.
Its greatest strength is its least obvious. If you drive it fast, and I mean fast in the way the wise men of Weissach mean fast, it will, of course, thrill you. With an engine that really will rev to 9000rpm, it could hardly fail in that regard. But that’s not it. It feels impossibly agile, too, thanks to the wheelbase-shortening effects of its four-wheel steering, but that’s not it, either. Nor is it the deftness of the damping or a dual-clutch automatic gearbox as good as any on the market. It’s how damned cheap it is.
This might seem an odd thing to say in the context of a car with a six-digit price, at least until you look around at likely rivals. Conceptually, the closest is the Ferrari 458 Speciale, a car that is even more spectacular both to look at and to drive.
The Ferrari is quicker and yet more lucid. But we’re not talking vast margins here, margins that would dwindle to nothing if you were not a skilled driver capable of commanding such cars on the limit or, more simply, weren’t on a race track.
Yet you can buy a GT3 and have a whole other GT3 as a spare, all for the price of one Speciale. That is Porsche’s most notable achievement with this car, and why the GT3 still ranks among the greatest road cars in its history.
2 - BMW i3
You know your car as well as you know your home. Maybe better. The fundamental functions of both are so familiar that you don’t have to think about how they work; were it not dangerous to do so, you could operate either blindfold. You take them entirely for granted, as you do the water in your tap, the light in your bulbs and the shoes on your feet.
But the BMW i3 is not like this. I’ve been driving i3s on and off for more than a year and the novelty shows no sign of wearing off. Every time I get in one, it feels different, interesting and special. I could name cars costing three times as much that don’t have this going for them on first acquaintance, let alone thousands of miles down the line.
The i3 doesn’t look like any other car, not just because BMW thought that it had better confer some funky post-modern style upon it to appeal to the bright, young and environmentally unimpeachable citizens at whom it is aimed, but also because it really isn’t like any other car. It doesn’t feel like one and it doesn’t drive like one, either.
Remarkably, then, it still manages to feel and drive like a BMW, or how you’d like a BMW to feel and drive. It’s taut, precise, at times comically responsive and, yes, fun. Fun in a way that no all-electric family car has ever been fun. Not even a Tesla Model S.
Visions of the future that leap the fence and land in the present are often fatally flawed. But although the i3 misses perfection by a reassuringly wide margin, it’s sufficiently honed that when our all-electric future becomes our all-electric present, it will be seen to have played the Boeing 707 to the Nissan Leaf’s spectacularly brave de Havilland Comet.
This is the electric family car that you’d buy for reasons other that it being electric. You’d buy it for its oddball shape, or its fascinating and gorgeous interior. You’d buy it because it’s fun to drive, too. And then, yes, there’s the refinement, the negligible running costs, the immense torque and, if you buy the Range Extender version (which you should), the reassurance that you will never run out of joules.
If it has a problem, it is that it is really is too good; it’s a suburban commuter car that you’d like to drive to the south of France. But you can’t, not unless you fancy stopping every 60-70 miles to fill its tiny fuel tank once the batteries have run dry. With a tank containing, say, 25 litres instead of a mere nine, it could have won this contest outright.
1 - Volkswagen Golf R
It’s a Golf. How could we? It’s like having the world’s greatest haute couturiers at your feet and asking if anyone has seen the Boden catalogue. But you can see our thinking. We like good cars and we like quick cars. The Golf is good and the R is quick; QED, we have our winner.
Actually, it’s not like that at all. For the purposes of this exercise, it would be really quite handy if you could somehow forget that it was a Golf at all. If you do not, you’ll think that it’s another fast and fluent Golf, in the finest traditions of all those fast and fluent Golfs since the original GTI let the world believe that VW invented the hot hatchback almost 40 years ago.
Worse, you might believe that it’s like the previous Golf R, only a bit quicker, and then you’ll be struggling to see how it even made it into the top 50, let alone won the whole contest outright.
Think of it, then, as another car, a breed apart, and take our word that whatever it may look like, whatever it may be based upon, this is a whole new level of hot hatchery. And because hot hatches are what people who need a practical car but love to drive actually go out and buy, that makes it quite an important car, too.
It is no exaggeration to say that when you dial up Race mode and fire it at a tricky road, it doesn’t feel like any kind of Golf at all.
Indeed, and in the same way as Nascar racers have superficially familiar road car bodies draped over race car muscle and bone, so this R feels almost like a silhouette Golf. It offers not just raw speed but also far more valuable gifts such as grip, composure and feel.
How do we know how good this car is? Because the tougher the test you set it, the better it feels; that’s the test that cannot be ducked. There are lots of cars that might feel good when hunkered down in a quick, smooth, constant-radius curve. But what about one that’s narrow, treacherous and teeming with crafty changes to camber and surface? A decent British B-road, in other words. That’s a challenge of a different magnitude and one that the Golf R tackles with indecent relish.
Of course, being merely capable in such conditions is only half the battle. It is the most important quality, because without the confidence that’s a natural byproduct of such excellence, you never want to drive it like that in the first place.
But then comes the other stuff: the throttle response that you’d simply not ascribe to a small, four-cylinder engine through which a great deal of turbo boost is being blown. You’d expect it to sound as interesting as a digital radio in a tunnel. In fact, it sounds fabulous.
Then there’s the balance. This car has four-wheel drive, so you expect it to understeer, but it doesn’t. It just steers, jabbing into the apex with its quick, accurate steering, swivelling its hips into neutrality or better if you lift off the throttle. It’s not just capable; it’s massively, implausibly involving, too.
Sooner or later the road will end, you’ll take a deep breath, press a couple of buttons and the car will go back to being an everyday, common-or-garden, quiet, comfortable, well built and spacious Volkswagen Golf.
Doubtless there have been other hatchbacks as incisive as this and some, perhaps, as easy to live with. But these talents have never been combined in the same car until now.
This may just look like a Golf in running gear with a sharper set of spikes, but it’s not: it’s a landmark in real-world performance car design. And in its very best form – with three doors and a manual gearbox, just like the one you see here – it’s yours for less than £30,000.
What's your top car on our list? Let us know in the comments section below.
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