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Head-to-head: the best car group tests of 2018

We’ve conducted a lot of twin and triple tests over the past year, but these are the ones that stood out

Every new car arrives with the aim of being the best in its sector, but very few actually achieve this goal. However, to find out if a new car is really worthy of being crowned the best in class we conduct group tests throughout the year. 

We test the latest models arriving on the market against their main rivals, with everything from EVs and SUVs to hot hatches and supercars going head-to-head. It’s this approach that makes our group tests so valuable, as we directly compare each new model against the current cream of the crop.

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If you’re in the market for a new car and are facing a dilemma about what to choose, our group tests will help you decide what’s best for you. 

We’ve tested a lot of cars throughout the year, but some head-to-heads stood out more than others so we’ve rounded up our favourites of 2018. Read on to find out which ones we’ve picked… 

January

Volvo victory in plug-in SUV test

Plug-in hybrids would make it big in 2018, and we kicked off the year by testing two of the most convincing electrified SUVs: the Audi Q7 e-tron and Volvo XC90 T8.

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Both had upmarket designs and high-quality cabins, but ultimately the petrol-electric Volvo beat its diesel-electric rival due to its seven-seat versatility and strong efficiency – the latter being something any good plug-in definitely needs to deliver. 

Volvo XC40 sees off Audi, BMW

The small premium SUV sector is booming, and Volvo has emerged as a leading SUV brand, so it stood to reason that when the XC40 arrived in January it would be a strong contender in an already crowded class.

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This proved to be true in our triple test, as the Volvo vanquished its German competitors from BMW and Audi  with a convincing win. Thanks to its spacious boot and cabin, it blends versatility with fresh and funky design, plenty of useful technology and driving dynamics that tread the line deftly between comfort and involvement.

Its rivals here ran it close – the X1 in particular – but due to the XC40’s affordability and attractive PCP finance deals (the purchase method used by many customers looking for a car in this class), Volvo furthered its convincing SUV push with a win.

We said at the time that the victory was cemented by the fact that the XC40 was a “fresher, smarter, higher-tech SUV”. Nearly 12 months on, that’s still the case. With looks inspired by those of the larger XC60 and XC90, infotainment shared with the same models, and a delightfully individual character compared with its more derivative rivals, the Volvo took victory by just edging the competition in virtually every way. 

Rexton takes on large SUV rivals

We put SsangYong’s all-new Rexton up against the Renault Koleos and recently facelifted Mitsubishi Outlander. The Rexton impressed with its long list of standard kit, plush cabin, strong tech and punchy diesel.

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The Koleos won, as it was better to drive than its rivals and more comfortable. But the Rexton saw off the other seven-seater on test, offering better infotainment and more kit than the Outlander, plus a huge boot. 

February

Volkswagen Polo left trailing by Ibiza and Fiesta

While 2017 was the year of the supermini, Volkswagen lagged behind its rivals by only a few months in launching its all-new Polo compact hatchback in early 2018. The model was entering a class full of recently refreshed choices, and the two we chose as test rivals proved to be its toughest competitors: the Ford Fiesta, our reigning champion, and the incredibly talented SEAT Ibiza.

In fact, the Polo is based on the same platform and used the same engine as the Ibiza in our test. And because of its loftier price tag and similar tech, plus the fact it doesn’t have a practicality advantage, the VW couldn’t topple the SEAT, which went on to win thanks to its affordability, space and long list of kit.

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The Polo couldn’t beat the Ford, either. The Fiesta had the edge with its more involving drive, greater refinement and attractive finance deals. However, the Volkswagen still acquitted itself well, with a classier cabin that reflected its higher price, plus strong efficiency. 

Clash of the hot hatch titans

Snow didn’t stop our test between Hyundai’s storming new i30 N and Honda’s Civic Type R.

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The latter took the win on account of its incredible performance, superior suspension and perfect gearshift. But the Hyundai’s lower price, strong engine and entertaining chassis meant we came away from our twin test loving both of these incredible cars. 

March

New Leaf takes affordable EV honours

We rounded up four EVs to decide which was Britain’s best affordable electric car and if it was the right time to buy one.

The result? A resounding yes. The new Nissan Leaf won, which was no surprise given the talent of this Mk2 version of the UK’s best-selling EV. A greater range of up to 168 miles (WLTP) and faster recharge times boosted practicality, nosing it ahead of the VW e-Golf, BMW i3s and Renault Zoe.

MG’s ZS frozen out by baby SUV stars

MG’s newest model, the ZS small SUV, had some tough competition when we tested it. The SEAT Arona and Citroen C3 Aircross are the best supermini-SUVs, but with the MG priced to match them it had to offer more kit, space and comfort to take the win.

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That wasn’t to be, however, because the poor performance and refinement, lumpy ride and higher running costs meant the MG couldn’t hold a candle to those rivals.

April

Cactus hatch bruised by the best

With the C3 Aircross’s success in the small SUV sector, Citroen faced the problem that its C4 Cactus competed in the same class.

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So the brand removed some of the body cladding and repositioned the Cactus as a family hatch. But that put it up against the VW Golf and Vauxhall Astra. And while the C4 Cactus was a great small SUV, it trailed as a hatchback. The Golf and Astra proved to be much more accomplished in our test. 

May 

Alpine A110 takes on Porsche and Audi

The Alpine brand’s resurrection had been in the works for nearly a decade before we were finally able to get behind the wheel of the new A110 this year – but it was definitely worth the wait.

In our group test, the lightweight French coupé took on two firmly established German sports cars: the Porsche 718 Cayman and Audi TT RS. We loved the A110’s back-to-basics ethos, with a focus on lightness to improve handling and performance. It was a true driver’s car and a delight on British roads, and still remains among the most exciting machines we’ve driven this year.

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The Porsche won the test by offering a more complete package, but as a focused sports car the Alpine could be the better choice. It looks stunning and its engine was as exciting as the Cayman’s – although the five-cylinder Audi still sounded the best of all.

June 

New A-Class faces posh hatch rivals

Technology was the order of the day when the new Mercedes A-Class was launched. With augmented-reality satellite navigation and a twin-screen infotainment set-up wrapped up in a premium-feeling, high-quality cabin, the hatchback moved on leaps and bounds from its predecessor.

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However, when it met Volkswagen’s Golf and the Audi A3 on its test debut, it couldn’t match the Golf on value, practicality or comfort. So the VW came away with yet another victory.

The Golf remained the undisputed king of the family hatchback class thanks to its blend of attributes, but the A-Class proved a valiant effort from Mercedes and a definite improvement. Buyers looking for a more advanced approach to interior design would have definitely seen the merits over the VW.

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Compared with these two fresh-feeling models, the Audi A3 showed its age. Although the current model used much of the same technology as the Golf, it was pricier and not as convincing in its bid to take honours.

The test result was tempered by the fact that we’ll see a new A3 next year, but the VW still proved it was the boss, while the A-Class emerged as a great alternative to the older competition.

July 

Megane R.S in hot hatch battle

To shoot to the top of the hot hatch class is a tall order, but that was just what the Renault Mégane R.S. hoped to do when it hit the UK in July. Renault has serious form in this arena, yet while the Mégane R.S. had its work cut out taking on the superb Honda Civic Type R and the car that proved newcomers could make it in this sector, the Hyundai i30N, it ultimately faltered.

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The Civic’s outrageous styling split opinion, but there was no doubt that it had stronger performance, a nicer gearbox and a greater breadth of ability than the Renault. And although the Mégane’s clever damping stood out, its agility-boosting 4Control four-wheel steering proved inconsistent. The French model was still more involving than the i30N, and almost as good value, so it beat the Hyundai to take second place.

August

New Ford Fiesta ST faces hot hatch rivals

When the latest Ford Fiesta arrived last year, it instantly shot to the top of the class for handling, so we had high hopes for the ST junior hot hatchback.

We weren’t disappointed when we finally got to test the car against two new compact performance rivals: the MINI Cooper S and Volkswagen Polo GTI. This shootout, set on some twisty B-roads in the south-west of England, was a fight for class honours from the start, because it was the first time we had tested any of these models.

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All three proved brilliant buys, combining sports-car thrills with the practicality of an everyday supermini, and all at relatively affordable prices. However, it was the Fiesta ST that came out on top, because it delivered strong performance from its new 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo engine to match its sublime chassis balance. The MINI impressed with its rowdy engine note, involving steering and playful set-up, while the Polo GTI’s straight-line speed and surprising refinement meant it was a more relaxed choice.

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This proved to be among the most exciting tests of the year, with the Ford cementing its place as one of the best-value and most entertaining new cars on sale. 

Volvo V60 loads up against Audi

Volvo is known for its estates, so when the new mid-size V60 went head to head with the Audi A4 Avant, it was one of the year’s most anticipated tests.

The Volvo cost more, but its level of tech, more spacious interior and better efficiency gave it the edge over its German rival. While the A4 put up a strong fight and is still a great wagon, the Volvo’s relatively comfortable ride and impressive standard infotainment system helped it seal the deal as our best mid-size executive estate car.

September

Ford Focus faces rivals in family hatch fight

The Focus was one of 2018’s most important new cars. The original Ford arguably invented the modern family hatch, with its practical body and fun handling. It had a wide appeal and sold very well. Yet before the Mk4 model arrived, the Focus was stagnating; it was still fun to drive but wasn’t very competitive next to rivals such as the VW Golf and Vauxhall Astra. That’s now all changed, with the new car bringing more tech and practicality, greater refinement and sharper dynamics.

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We declared it the class’s best driver’s car, with a punchy and quiet 1.0-litre petrol engine, while its cabin space beat that of the superb Astra on test. But the Focus wasn’t able to match the mighty Golf this time, because the German car proved more economical, more practical and cheaper to run, with a better thought-out and higher-quality cabin.

It was a close result, however; if you value driver appeal over the Golf’s extra versatility, the Ford is the car to go for. We look forward to trying more versions of the Focus with different engines in 2019. 

New Audi A6 faces its exec rivals

The recipe for Audi’s fifth-generation A6 was simple: install tech from the range-topping A8 limo in a downscaled, more affordable and more efficient package.

It was a success, but the new exec saloon still couldn’t beat BMW’s more affordable and capable 5 Series in our test. The Audi’s high-quality cabin, advanced infotainment and slightly larger boot ran it close, though, and it edged out Volvo’s S90 in the process. 

October 

New Audi Q8 faces posh SUV rivals

Nearly every car maker is clamouring to build a high-end SUV these days. UK buyers love these luxurious status symbols.

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On test, the new Audi Q8 stood out due to its bold looks. The 50 TDI also proved its refinement, comfort and space. Yet the new Porsche Cayenne E Hybrid was the best to drive, the most comfortable and the cheapest to run, while the Range Rover’s torque and plush cabin impressed, too. 

November 

Kona Electric’s SUV power struggle

This year’s influx of alternative-fuelled cars prompted us to look at the various forms of tech and what you can expect from each.

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In our test, Hyundai’s Kona Electric proved that EVs are viable, with a usable range from even the smaller battery. Mitsubishi’s updated Outlander PHEV highlighted how plug-ins can cut costs without sacrificing flexibility, while the Toyota C-HR Hybrid impressed with its strong fuel economy. 

Kia Ceed puts on a strong showing

It was all change for the new Ceed – not least with the name, as Kia had dropped the apostrophe to help with web searches.

The big test came from the VW Golf, our favourite hatch, and the Ceed put up a great fight. Ultimately, the Kia couldn’t quite match the Volkswagen, but it was a valiant effort; its comfort impressed particularly. Hyundai’s new i30 N Line didn’t manage as strong a showing, and trailed both rivals.

Which was your favourite Auto Express group test of 2018? And did you agree with the verdict? Let us know your thoughts below…

Review of the Year 2018

• Review of the Year 2018: index• The BIG car new highlights of 2018• The big car quiz of the year 2018• Head-to-head: the best car group tests of 2018 • A year in pictures: our best car photos of 2018• Why our cars are stars: best long-term tests of 2018• Inside the world of cars: best motoring features of 2018• Best car videos 2018: watch our video highlights• Motorsport review 2018: from Formula 1 to Formula E• Amazing moments: our years in cars 2018

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