Features

Showdown: the best car group test reviews 2021

Every month we perform a series of car group tests - these were the best ones of 2021

There were some big new car arrivals in 2021, but the only real way to find out if they went straight to the top of their classes was to challenge their credentials in a group test against the current best.

Here at Auto Express we perform a series of group tests each month - everything from city cars to supercars and SUVs to luxury cars - to find out the motors that should be top of your shopping list.

So if you're in the market for a new car, head over to our dedicated group test page. In the meantime, we've rounded up the best group tests that we performed during 2021.

Scroll down to read about the best group test we performed each month during 2021...

January

BMW's new 530e goes up against electrified saloons from Mercedes and Volvo

Plug-in hybrid power was the choice for many company car buyers in 2021, with lower tax rates and fuel costs than solely combustion-driven equivalents, while offering more flexibility than full EVs. In this battle, the brilliant BMW 530e was head and shoulders above its rivals, with the best tech, great handling and – crucially – the strongest efficiency. In a close-fought battle for second, the Volvo S90 T8 just pipped the Audi A6 50 TFSI e.

BMW 5 Series vs Audi A6 vs Volvo S60 PHEV

Toyota GR Yaris came face to face with Fiesta ST in hot hatch battle

The Toyota GR Yaris burst onto the performance car scene with plenty of hype – and the rally-derived special lived up to every bit of it. In January we pitched it against one of our favourite hot hatchbacks of the past few years, the Ford Fiesta ST, here in its most extreme Edition trim, which benefits from uprated adjustable dampers and a unique colour scheme.

Although both cars have a turbocharged three-cylinder engine, their philosophies are quite different. The Fiesta is a classic front-wheel-drive hot hatch, while the Yaris sends its drive to all four wheels. Neither model, however, fell short on thrills.

As ever, the Fiesta put a huge grin on our faces thanks to its sublimely playful chassis, sharp steering and keen engine, but in Edition trim we found it didn’t quite offer enough to justify the extra it costs over the standard ST. 

The Yaris, however, proved to be a performance bargain. It felt a little more serious than the Fiesta, but its cross-country performance was devastatingly quick. In the wet weather of this winter test, few other cars on the road could keep up.

Toyota GR Yaris vs Ford Fiesta ST

February

New BMW 128ti faced up to VW Golf GTI

Volkswagen has long cornered the hot-hatch market, blending performance with everyday usability, but our testback in February proved that BMW has muscled in to steal the Golf GTI’s crown. 

The 128ti is a cracking performance car and just pipped the GTI in almost every key area; it’s got 21bhp more, gets from 0-62mph 0.2 seconds quicker and has a slick infotainment system. Most surprisingly of all, it’s cheaper, too.

BMW 128ti vs Volkswagen Golf GTI

The Hyundai Tucson premium aspiration get put to the test against the Lexus NX

The line between mainstream and premium SUVs is now increasingly blurred, and the Hyundai Tucson is the latest challenger to take on the established high-end brands. But as we discovered when we pitted it against the previous Lexus NX, it deserves its place among that group. 

It looks the more contemporary, with the in-car tech being one of its highlights. The Tucson’s hybrid set-up was both more powerful and frugal than the NX’s petrol-electric configuration, while the pair were relaxing and refined cruisers.

Hyundai Tucson vs Lexus NX

March

Mustang name celebrates its return on a family SUV by beating Model 3 in its first test

When Tesla burst onto the electric car scene with the Model S, it looked like the American brand had caught established car makers napping. This trend continued with the Model 3, one of the first relatively affordable electric cars with a range comparable to a petrol car’s. 

That’s why it was such a big deal when the Ford Mustang Mach-E arrived, because it was a model from a big car maker that, on paper, had what it takes to fight the Model 3. Our first test of the all-electric Mustang took place in March, when we drove the entry-level Mach-E RWD Standard Range.

One point to get out of the way first was the name; clearly, the Mustang Mach-E has little to do with the V8-powered rear-wheel-drive coupé that also features Ford’s equine branding. It’s a two-tonne electric crossover, but thanks to its punchy motor, we found that performance was good enough to be worthy of the name, although its 0-62mph time of 6.9 seconds in entry-level form meant it couldn’t match the Tesla for straight-line speed. 

Yet it was the Ford’s agility and body control that really impressed us on the test; it proved to be very enjoyable to drive. The steering was better than the Tesla’s too, with more feedback and better weighting. Even the suspension set-up felt more sophisticated than the Model 3’s, offering good body control while also being comfortable on bumpy roads.

The chunky 75kWh battery in even this lower-spec car meant the Mustang offered a realistic range of 238 miles in everyday driving, with rapid charging allowing an 80-per cent top-up in 38 minutes.

The Tesla’s real-world range on our test was actually worse than the Ford’s, despite the official figures suggesting that the Standard Range car would offer more range. It worked out at just 170 miles from our figures, although it can charge to 

80 per cent in 34 minutes from one of the brand’s many Supercharger stations around the country, which is handy.

The Tesla’s next-level infotainment set-up, with its huge screen on the dash packed with features, clearly has a lot of appeal to customers. And comparing the two cars directly, it seemed Ford has drawn inspiration from Tesla’s exploits with the Mustang Mach-E’s similar set-up. 

The Model 3’s minimalist cabin and very quiet driving experience were other highlights, but the car couldn’t match the Ford on the road. It wasn’t as comfortable over bumps, nor was it as fun to drive – especially because the steering felt numb. The Tesla was more practical than the Ford on paper, but it was clear that the Model 3’s saloon body was a little more limiting than the SUV’s hatchback tailgate, so we felt the Mustang was the better choice as a family car.

In fact, the Ford edged ahead of the Tesla in our final decision and took the test win. We were impressed by the way it drove and its everyday usability, plus the amount of standard equipment – and most of all, the price. The Ford was a little cheaper to buy outright, but what swung the decision was a much more attractive deal on PCP finance, which is the way most buyers will choose to pay.

Tesla Model 3 vs Ford Mustang Mach-E

BMW M3 hits the track in a showdown with the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio

When BMW revealed the new M3’s nose, everyone had an opinion. We left it up to you to decide whether it was as pretty as the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, but beauty is only skin deep, so we tested the two on track and on the road, including a video on our YouTube channel.

We discovered that the M3 was better than ever, thanks to a broader spread of ability that made it not only a more accomplished road, car but also stunning on track. We loved the Giulia, too, with its wonderful engine and chassis, but the tech and build quality meant it didn’t make as much sense as a road car; this was enough for the BMW to take the win.

BMW M3 vs Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio

April

Three SUVs with sporty credentials, Cupra held its own against Porsche and Alfa Romeo

It was a tough first challenge for the new Cupra Formentor in April, as we put it up against the Porsche Macan and Alfa Romeo Stelvio in its first group test. The newcomer performed admirably, finishing second behind the impressive Porsche. 

We found that the Macan was fantastic to drive, while the Cupra wasn’t far behind and yet offered plenty of practicality. We also liked the Alfa Romeo, but it was more expensive than the others.

Cupra Formentor vs Porsche Macan vs Alfa Romeo Stelvio

Which is best? New Dacia Sandero versus used Ford Fiesta

The new Dacia Sandero impressed us in our initial drives because it was clearly better value for money than virtually anything else the new-car market could offer. Yet we realised that buyers wouldn’t only be looking for a new model, but could also consider a used one – so we set up a special new-vs-used test with the new Dacia and a second-hand Ford Fiesta that we borrowed from a dealer in Kings Lynn, Norfolk.

At £12,659, the Ford was slightly more expensive than the £12,305 Sandero, and both used 1.0-litre petrol engines, so it was to be a close competition.

The Sandero uses Renault’s latest CMF platform, so it’s a big improvement over the old car, although it’s not as advanced as the version that the new Renault Clio uses, which we found was evident in the slightly less refined driving experience. The Dacia was good on the road – offering plenty of comfort and with no squeaks or rattles from the interior. The engine was punchy but economical, and the practical interior was another highlight; it had a bigger boot than the Ford and the rear seats felt more spacious, too.

Yet the Fiesta had many strong points. Our low-mileage example felt every bit as good to drive as a new one, so we said that there’s no reason to think you’re getting a lesser driving experience by going for a used car. The Fiesta’s quick steering, delightful chassis and peppy engine meant that we loved driving it – a contrast to the Dacia, which was comfy, but not very exciting. The Ford was just as comfortable, so it was a clear winner from behind the wheel.

In fact, the Ford came out on top overall because of the value for money offered with a used car. It was just as good as a new Fiesta but at a lower price, so we thought it shined brighter than the Dacia – despite the fact that the Sandero is incredibly good value for a new model and came with all the standard equipment you could ask for in such an affordable car.

Dacia Sandero vs Ford Fiesta

June

Electric superminis to the fore as the new Fiat 500 takes on MINI and Honda rivals

The new car market is rapidly evolving with the launch of many all-new electric models. But there are few more important than the affordable ones – which was why we were excited to test the new Fiat 500 against the MINI Electric and Honda e in June this year.

Electric cars are expensive to make and pricey to buy as a result, but the 500 gives hope to those with a lower budget, because it’s one of the most affordable models right now – it has a decent battery and range but at a relatively cheap price. 

Yet the competition was no pushover – the MINI Electric had been updated for 2021 with some new tech, plus there was a true rival for the Fiat 500 in terms of visual appeal in the form of the cute Honda e.

While the 500 looked similar to previous models, it was a brand-new design with a platform designed for electric power. There are two battery sizes, but we tested the 42kWh model with a 134bhp motor. It was the least powerful car in the test but had the biggest battery, and was able to travel 168 miles in the real world, a little short of the claimed 199-mile range. That’s still plenty for most buyers, and we saw an estimate of 180 miles in ‘Sherpa’ mode that limits electric functions to boost range as much as possible.

The 500 was easy to drive around town and comfortable at higher speeds, so it was a decent cruiser as well as a good city car. It proved a little impractical, because it’s a really small car – the boot is only 185 litres. That was more than the Honda could offer, but less than the MINI, while the Fiat had poor legroom and headroom as well.

The MINI’s updates had improved its tech offering, but the engaging driving experience was happily left unchanged – it was a lot of fun and the 181bhp motor provided plenty of performance. Yet it returned poor efficiency on test, with a predicted range of just 104 miles. We also found that it wasn’t very well equipped for the money, and its battery charged at the slowest rate of the three models, making it less useable.

The Honda e also suffered from poor range, because our predicted figure was just 108 miles, but since it can charge at up to 100kW, you can replenish it much faster than the MINI. Like the MINI, the Honda e is good to drive – it’s comfortable around town and has peppy performance, plus it’s quiet and smooth. It’s also quite spacious inside, and although the rear seats are too small for it to work as a family car, it’s still surprisingly practical for its size.

In the end, the new Fiat 500 took the win since it offered everything you need from a city car in a more affordable package. It’s as stylish, easy to drive and quiet as either rival, yet it’s cheaper and has better real-world range. We rated it as one of the best EVs on sale, not just in the city car class.

The Honda e edged into second due to its stylish design, high-quality feel and enjoyable driving experience, but it was too expensive to take a win. The MINI Electric was great to drive but didn’t have enough kit or range, so it came third.

Fiat 500 vs MINI Electric vs Honda e

August 

Isuzu's D-Max faces off against Britain's most popular pick-up

The new Isuzu D-Max pick-up arrived this summer, and we put it to the test against the excellent Ford Ranger.

The Ford was the eventual winner, thanks to its smoother and punchier engine, better gearbox and more comfortable ride, but the Isuzu was a worthy challenger. It was good value for money, well equipped, better off road and had an impressive warranty, but its noisy engine let it down.

Isuzu D-Max vs Ford Ranger

September

Audi e-tron GT and Porsche Taycan lock horns in EV showdown

Are there two more dramatic-looking four-door models than the Audi e-tron GT and the Porsche Taycan on sale today? 

In what was arguably the most head-turning test we conducted in 2021, these two brilliant electric vehicles faced off against one another, and picking a winner proved an incredibly difficult task. 

It didn’t come down to emotive considerations such as performance or handling, because the e-tron GT and Taycan 4S are mechanically very similar. Both use the same platform and battery packs, and both use a twin-motor arrangement that pumps out roughly 500bhp for 0-62mph times of around four seconds. In terms of ride, handling and performance, both models were very closely matched, and they rank among the very best electric vehicles for keen drivers to choose from.

In the end, picking a winner came down to the simple numbers. That Porsche badge on the Taycan’s nose is as close to a guarantee of rock-solid residuals that you’ll find in the new-car market, and it translated into more tempting finance payments on a PCP deal than its competitor from Audi.

Audi e-tron vs Porsche Taycan

October

Tesla Model Y charged in with a win over the Audi Q4, but it wasn’t entirely a walkover 

A new Tesla is always big news. While the Tesla Model Y made its US debut in mid-2019, it was October 2021 by the time the first examples hit UK shores – and we took the chance to pit it against the talented Audi Q4 e-tron

It wasn’t a shock to discover that, in many ways, the Model Y delivered. After all, it shares a significant proportion of its tech with the Model 3, our 2019 Car of the Year. That means it uses the same 75kWh battery and twin motors as the 3, both of which help to return class-leading performance and efficiency figures. Indeed, its 3.8 mile per kWh figure was comfortably up on the 3.4m/kWh we managed to get out of the Audi, for a predicted real-world range of 315 miles. That’s 24 more than the Q4, despite the Tesla using a smaller battery. 

Then there’s the in-car tech; while the almost total lack of buttons creates some ergonomic flaws (for example, second-row passengers will need to ask someone in the front to turn on their heated seats), the huge touchscreen is very responsive, it looks great and it’s intuitive to use.

The Audi Q4 e-tron can’t compete with the straight-line speed of the Tesla, nor is the tech quite as slick, but it still managed to put up a very convincing fight. The packaging is brilliant inside, despite the Audi measuring 164mm shorter than the Model Y. It’s narrower too, so it felt better suited to UK roads. It also scored very highly in two areas where the Tesla disappointed: build quality and ride comfort. The latter was almost enough for the Model Y to lose this contest; we found the ride very firm by SUV standards, which was a surprise. The Audi, on the other hand, proved to be a much more relaxing car to drive, especially as it produced less road noise, too. Tesla’s fit and finish improve with each passing year, but exterior panel gaps and interior trim still can’t match the near-flawless Q4.

In the end, the Model Y prevailed thanks to one simple factor: the Tesla Supercharger network. While brands such as Audi must rely on a bewildering number of charging companies, Tesla’s proprietary top-up points are easily the best around. Many established car makers have built equally competent EVs as Tesla’s, but until the issue of charging is addressed, none will be so easy to live with.

Tesla Model Y vs Audi Q4 e-tron 

Volvo's new C40 comes up against some of the best EVs on sale

As part of Editor-in-chief Steve Fowler’s role as a judge for the Golden Steering Wheel awards, he pulled together three of the newest compact EVs to test their relative strengths and weaknesses. Cupra’s first bespoke EV, the Born, showed a subtle difference in character to its VW ID.3 sibling, with a sportier feel, while the Mercedes EQA impressed with its refinement and in-car tech. However, the Volvo C40 fell short, with some questionable cabin quality and a high price, even if it did offer strong performance.

Volvo C40 vs Cupra Born vs Mercedes EQA

November

We find out if Volkswagen's mid-life update for the Polo is effective

One of the most famous superminis received a nip and tuck in November. The changes to the Volkswagen Polo were subtle, introducing more tech inside, and tweaking the already-mature styling to align it more closely with the latest Mk8 Golf

We pitched the Polo against the SEAT Ibiza – refreshed at roughly the same time – and the Hyundai i20, but the VW fell short, with the i20 taking the win. The Hyundai proved to have better ergonomics, plus it was more fun to drive and, thanks to mild-hybrid tech, more economical, too.

Volkswagen Polo vs SEAT Ibiza vs Hyundai i20 

Check out the rest of our 2021 round-up below...

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