All of our contenders gain points for style, but class is permanent – and BMW is the big winner with updates to its timeless 3 Series
This is one of the most fiercely contested categories in the New Car Championship, with the executive market having been dominated by German brands for the past 30 years. Here, we rate the best compact and full-sized executive models together – and there wasn’t much to separate the front-runners.
Price range: £25,860-£37,025
Ever since the 3 Series first appeared in 1975, it has led the compact executive pack – and the latest version has only widened the gap to the rest of the field. Even after six years on sale, the old model was still a contender for glory, yet this new version is faster, leaner and more luxurious than ever. Dynamic looks are inspired by the bigger 5 Series, but extensive use of aluminium means it’s been slimmed down and now weighs nearly 40kg less than the outgoing car. The wheelbase has also been extended by 50mm to free up more space inside for rear passengers. Practicality was never a strong suit of the 3 Series, but its 480-litre boot is on a par with rivals from Audi and Mercedes.
Yet the reason the 3 Series takes gold has nothing to do with improved fit and finish, or its increased practicality – the driving experience is what stands out. The taut rear-drive chassis is more engaging than ever, while precise steering and excellent body control give the driver plenty of confidence to exploit the wide range of punchy engines.
The range-topping four-cylinder turbo boasts a remarkable set of stats, and 0-60mph takes only 5.9 seconds. At the other end of the scale is the 320d EfficientDynamics, with a tax-friendly CO2 output of 109g/km and claimed economy of 65mpg. The promise of four-wheel-drive and hybrid models means the 3 Series could enjoy a long spell as champion.
Price range: £30,145-£41,640
The A6 is edged into second place by BMW’s stunning new 3 Series, but this is the first full-sized exec to cross the finish line. It was a close-fought contest, and many buyers will be tempted by the Audi’s understated charm. Very few cars are as beautifully engineered inside, and the generous standard kit list includes sat-nav, Bluetooth and leather seats. It can match the BMW’s straight-line speed, too, because the range boasts the option of four-wheel-drive traction and some potent six-cylinder engines. The highlight is a new twin-turbo diesel that produces a mighty 650Nm of torque.
Where it comes unstuck is on winding roads. Despite a grippy chassis and impressive composure, the A6 lacks the fun factor that makes the new 3 Series such a worthy winner. Sportier S line models look great on big wheels and lowered suspension. But if comfort is a high priority, you’d be better off opting for the smoother SE trim.
Price range: £30,030-£55,890
For years, the 5 Series was the default choice for executives worldwide. So why has it slipped? At first, it’s hard to see why, as the current model is the most polished and complete version yet. It offered unprecedented luxury and refinement when it was introduced two years ago, and even challenged the class above. But the competition has come back stronger than ever.
The 5 Series still provides a real masterclass in dynamics, switching effortlessly from a serene cruiser into a responsive performance car. But to get the benefit, you need to specify BMW’s full range of optional electronic chassis aids, and this hikes the price considerably.
The standard set-up can be unforgiving on British roads, but this is still the most involving big executive saloon to drive.
Price range: £25,540-£41,840
It’s a surprise entry in this category, but the five-door Sportback has become more popular than the coupé and cabrio versions of the A5 since its launch in 2009. Blending the imposing looks of the coupe with a more practical hatchback design has proven a winning formula for Audi. On top of that, a raft of updates was recently brought in to keep it in contention. An extra seat in the rear means the Sportback is finally a genuine five-seater. Plus, all of the engines in the range have cleaned up their act. Classy interior updates – borrowed from the A6, with Audi’s trademark quality – make it better than ever.
Price range: £30,950-£65,350
The lone British challenger came tantalisingly close to making the podium, but fell just short. A recent styling revamp has given the XF a new lease of life – as has the introduction of an efficient 2.2-litre diesel engine that finally allows it to compete as a company car. It’s refined and engaging to drive, but long-standing weaknesses prevent the Jag finishing any higher. Limited rear space, a firm ride and higher running costs than rivals mean that, despite its charisma, the XF is still a compromise.
Sadly, the comfortable and intriguing Citroen C6 earns the wooden spoon in this class, solely on the crippling cost of depreciation. The unlucky few who have bought one new stand to lose more than two-thirds of their car’s value after three years. Despite its strong points, figures like this mean the Citroen’s rarity on British roads is no great surprise.
In this review
- 1IntroductionWe name the best new cars of 2012, with 72 contenders for Gold, Silver and Bronze
- 2Best city carsThis is one of the most hotly contested classes out there, and the fierce competition has produced some extremely capable cars...
- 3Best superminisPracticality, affordability, efficiency, style and fun – these best-selling cars have to offer it all. So which ones do the best job?
- 4Best small family carsHard-fought class has a vast range of new hopefuls – but an all-time classic takes gold
- 5Best large family carsLots of space, low running costs and a dash of style are needed to win this category
- 6Best estate carsBig is beautiful for estate buyers – but big has to be clever, too, in a category where all-round practicality is essential
- 7Best executives - currently readingAll of our contenders gain points for style, but class is permanent – and BMW is the big winner with updates to its timeless 3 Series
- 8Best crossoversThey’re the gymnasts of the car market – flexible, muscular and versatile. That’s why this is one of the hardest gold medals to win
- 9Best compact SUVsGenuine mud-plugging ability meets comfort, refinement and efficiency in this fast-growing and increasingly competitive class
- 10Best large SUVsThese big cars make a big impression – but which off-road star is the class of our Championship field?
- 11Best roadstersFeel the wind in your hair and wear a smile on your face with these great-handling, stylish and quick drop-top sports cars
- 12Best MPVsExcellent carrying ability alone isn’t enough for the latest people movers. The best buys do it in style
- 13Best hot hatchesOn your marks, get set, go... These small cars all have pace, but it will take something special to outsprint VW’s reigning champ