Best executive cars 2021
Executive cars might cost a little more, but the best ones add a real touch of class to your motoring experience…
‘Executive car’ has come to be something of a catch-all phrase, covering an expansive group of luxury and prestige models. While the German brands continue to dominate, competition is ever increasing. Hyundai’s sister luxury brand Genesis has now entered the UK market and there are also plenty of mainstream manufacturers offering saloons, hatchbacks, and SUVS that lay claim to ‘executive car levels of comfort and refinement’ with some justification. Cars such as the Peugeot 508, Volkswagen Arteon, and Skoda Superb all offer most of the necessary prestige without the premium badge.
Even without dipping into the SUV and crossover class, there are more body styles available to the executive car buyer than ever. As well as the traditional saloons, there are the usual estate versions on offer and beyond that things start to get interesting. Two-door coupes like the Audi A5 Coupe, Mercedes C-Class Coupe and BMW 4 Series offer the same range of engines as their saloon counterparts, but look sharper and have similar tax and running costs. Many also come in convertible guise for open-air motoring.
Most of these cars will still be diesel powered, but hybrid drivetrains are becoming increasingly common. Plug-in hybrid models like the Mercedes E300 e and Audi A6 TFSI e can really cut your overheads, too. If you're willing to take the plunge into EV territory, the Tesla Model 3 has zero-emissions electric drive, supercar-rivalling straight-line performance, acres of space and super-low everyday running costs. The Polestar 2 is hot on its heels, too.
Best executive cars to buy
- Mercedes E-Class
- Audi A6
- Volvo S90
- Tesla Model 3
- BMW 3 Series
- BMW 5 Series
- Mercedes C-Class
- Alfa Romeo Giulia
- Jaguar XF
- Polestar 2
1. Mercedes E-Class
The current E-Class arrived in 2016, and is easily one of the best cars to come from the brand in more recent years. The E-Class possesses such a high level of technology, comfort and overall luxuriousness that it could even be enough to make you think twice about the need to step up to an S-Class.
On the outside, it's fair to say Mercedes hasn't strayed far from the standard formula - the design is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and could easily be mistaken for its larger or smaller siblings, the S-Class and C-Class. A sleek estate version, coupe and convertible are available for those wishing to stray from convention.
With all the tech on the inside, it's almost easy to forget about what's under the bonnet, but with a mid-life refresh in 2020, the E-Class now features a revised engine range with punchy diesel, petrol and plug-in hybrid units. This inclusion of more environmentally-friendly engine options means that there are some real savings to be had on Benefit-in-Kind and Vehicle Excise Duty rates. The E-Class is so impressive that it has earned the title of both Large Company Car of the Year and Premium Hybrid Car of the Year in our New Car Awards 2021.
2. Audi A6
The understated and upmarket Audi A6 continues to offer buyers an attractive blend of refinement, equipment and low (relative to the competition) running costs.
The latest model comes with refreshed exterior styling and an updated interior, including Audi's new MMI infotainment system. Following on from the standard car are the sportier S6 or the mind-bogglingly quick RS6 Avant.
The A6 feels agile on the move thanks to its extensive use of aluminium in its structure – agility is aided further still with the optional four-wheel steering. That said, the steering can't match that of the BMW 5 Series but it remains a precise and good car to drive.
Unlike previous A6s, the ride offers more comfort, but you can expect the sportier models to firm up the ride with more aggressive suspension and larger wheels. The engine line-up includes 2.0 and 3.0 TDI diesel units with a range of power outputs and a TFSI petrol. Our pick is the A6 40 TDI, fitted with the 201bhp 2.0-litre diesel.
3. Volvo S90
Big Volvos have long been top executive choices, but in recent years the company's larger cars haven't quite lived up to their reputation. Thankfully, Volvo is back on form with the S90, and it's a fantastic car which is a genuine alternative to large executive saloons.
The S90 is an imposing car, with styling lifted from the XC90 – that means distinctive 'Thor's Hammer' headlights, and a bold and upright grille. The interior has been largely taken from that car too, which is great – it's effortlessly stylish, great quality, and a wonderful place in which to sit. The comfy seats help, too.
Standard diesel and petrol engines are no longer offered for the S90 - with only the T8 Twin Engine plug-in hybrid powertrain now available. The T8 is able to travel up to 37 miles on electric power alone and, if you keep the batteries topped up, you'll see a claimed maximum fuel efficiency of 148.7mpg.
4. Tesla Model 3
Not only did the Tesla Model 3 win Best Electric Car of the Year at the Auto Express New Car Awards in 2019, it took home Car of the Year as well. In 2020, it continued its success with the Best Compact Executive Car title and the award for Best Premium Electric Car.
If you think about the industry-leading technology featured on the Model 3 and the way performance, style, and practicality are packaged in an electric car for the first time, the abundance of awards is not surprising.
As with all electric cars, range is the most queried stat. With up to 360 miles, the Model 3 should quell any range anxiety and will be enough to deal with most lifestyles. The Standard Range Plus version is our pick as it’s the cheapest, but the 180kW motor is good for 254-mile range and a 0-60mph time of 5.3 seconds. While this is enough to surprise many focused sports cars, the Performance version shoots from 0-60 in an incredible 3.1 seconds.
It’s not just acceleration and range where the Model 3 excels. The quietness of the electric motor and the relatively well-judged damping make for a refined ride, despite the Model 3’s considerable heft. The steering isn’t as accurate as a BMW 3 Series however, and it just comes up short of the German car in terms of sheer driving fun.
The interior is futuristically minimalist and is a refreshing approach to the clutter of having dozens of buttons, though some might call it dull. There’s plenty of space inside with plenty of headroom in both the front and rear. The big windows also help with the feeling of airiness in the cabin. When coupled together, the front and rear boots total 425 litres - 55 litres smaller than a 3 Series.
Fans of old-fashioned buttons won’t like the 15-inch infotainment screen which controls every conceivable function on the Model 3. The infotainment system itself is different to most other manufacturer’s designs and takes some getting used to, but it’s intuitive and responsive.
5. BMW 3 Series
The BMW 3 Series somewhat lost its vice-like grip on the compact executive car segment over the past few years thanks to tough competition from the Jaguar XE, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4. But The new 3 Series is a noticeable improvement over the old one, with driving dynamics taking centre stage.
If you want an engaging drive from your saloon, the 3 Series has been the default choice for decades. The new car builds on this by reducing weight by up to 55kg and increasing rigidity up to 50 per cent. Despite being larger than its predecessor, the new 3 Series is even more agile and nimble in the bends.
Ride comfort is on par with the Mercedes C-Class, thanks to newly developed damper technology. The 3 Series is exceptionally smooth at motorway speeds with little road noise entering the cabin.
There are two gearboxes, a six-speed manual (only offered in the 320d) and an eight-speed ZF automatic. The automatic is silky smooth during shifts and the manual is a big improvement over the slightly notchy change of the previous generation.
Despite a focus on making this 3 Series a better driving machine, BMW hasn't forgotten about practicality with more legroom and headroom for rear passengers. The boot stays at a competitive 480 litres.
6. BMW 5 Series
Like its predecessors, BMW's Ultimate Driving Machine philosophy remains intact, with engaging rear-wheel-drive handling and excellent performance whatever engine you choose. But the main thing that sets the latest 5 Series apart from its rivals is the sheer amount of technology on board.
It uses plenty of the cutting-edge features from the 7 Series limo, including lightweight carbon fibre reinforced plastic in its construction, and a long list of electronic driver aids, including adaptive cruise and lane keeping, and even remote-control parking from outside the vehicle.
Where the 5 Series really impresses is that it manages to be a technical showcase, yet still delivers the efficient running costs business users need. Go for the 520d, and you get emissions from 126g/km, which will keep BIK costs keen.
7. Mercedes C-Class
The levels of refinement are superb, while the C-Class remains efficient and luxurious inside. It doesn’t quite match the ride and handling of BMW’s 3 Series, but it’s still a very appealing executive saloon.
At 4,686mm long and 1,810mm wide, the new C-Class is 95mm longer and 40mm wider than before. Couple this to an 80mm increase in wheelbase, which now measures 2,840mm, and the C-Class certainly has the potential to offer more cabin space.
And that’s true in part. Up front, there’s lots of room in the comfortable seats, with plenty of head and legroom. The driving position is better aligned now, too, and visibility is good. There’s plenty of space in the doors and dash to store the usual onboard clutter, with all models including a media interface for connecting your smartphone to the car.
8. Alfa Romeo Giulia
If looking good ranks high on your list of priorities for an executive car, then the Alfa Romeo Giulia should be near the top of the pile. That said, the Giulia is no disappointment when it comes to running costs and refinement either.
UK buyers will have to be happy with an automatic as the manual isn’t on offer on our shores. The pick of the engine range is the 2.2-litre diesel with 187bhp which, most importantly, feels keener to rev than the diesels in its German rivals
The interior is a great improvement over Alfa saloons of old, with good-quality materials and slick design helping give an upmarket appeal – even if it falls just shy of the Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4. While there is only a saloon variant on offer right now, Alfa has not ruled out the possibility of an estate arriving in future.
The Giulia has a 50:50 weight distribution, thanks to aluminium in the chassis and carbon fibre driveshafts. The suspension is double-wishbone at the front and multi-link at the rear, which means drivers can have a great time in the twisties.
9. Jaguar XF
The Jaguar XF is a handsome-looking, good-to-drive executive saloon that offers something different to the German models that dominate the sector. The cabin design is smart, but the touchscreen and navigation system are a bit dated.
The XF is poised and agile when on a twisty country road, and the steering is quick and well weighted too. There’s plenty of grip, but the XF does suffer from body roll on its soft suspension – although it’s well balanced and has good feedback through the wheel. The standard eight-speed automatic gearbox is responsive and smooth.
Unfortunately, the low-speed ride is fidgety and uncomfortable, but comfort improves the faster you go, while wind and road noise are well isolated. The BMW 5 Series or Mercedes E-Class are quieter on the motorway, but the XF still cruises effortlessly.
10. Polestar 2
The Polestar 2 has fastback-styled good looks and a classy, Volvo-like feel to the interior, although it remains individual enough to stand out from the crowd.
Polestar is fortunate to be able to draw on the engineering experience and technology expertise of sister firm Volvo. The relationship has enabled the Polestar 2 to deliver a sweeter drive than its Tesla Model 3 rival - with more communicative steering and decent levels of grip.
Completing an excellent overall package, the Polestar 2 offers good range, great on-board tech and reassuring levels of safety kit.
Range anxiety shouldn’t be an issue with the Polestar 2 - it’s 78kWh battery should be good for more than 230 miles of driving, while using a 150kW rapid charger should give you 80% battery power in just 27 minutes.
Interior quality is high throughout, and the seats are comfortable enough to ensure you arrive relaxed at the end of a long journey.