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Head to head: best car group tests of 2017

Take a look at our month-by-month guide to the best car group tests we conducted over the course of 2017

2017 has been another stellar year for car group tests here at Auto Express, with manufacturers upping their game across the board in a bid to get ahead of their rivals.

From hot hatches to SUVs, we’ve seen plenty of cars maintain their status as the best in class, while others have leapt ahead of the competition having made major improvements to their models this year.

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Best electric cars 2017

So in an ever-changing landscape, which group tests have stuck with us when we look back on 2017? There were lots of interesting head-to-heads, with multiple close battles requiring several hours of deliberation from our road testing team.

It’s this thorough approach that makes the group tests so valuable when it comes to weighing up one car against another. And if you’re facing a dilemma choosing between more than one model - whether it be an executive saloon or a family supermini - we might be able to make your decision a little easier with some of the examples below…

Scroll down to see our favourite car group tests of 2017…

January

Polo reigns supreme in supermini showdown

Three of the hotly contested supermini class’s most popular cars did battle in January, as the revised Renault Clio hit the UK. Updated styling is complemented by lots of standard kit and new options such as LED lights and a Bose stereo in Dynamique S Nav trim. But a fresh face wasn’t enough to see off the established VW Polo and Skoda Fabia.

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The Clio’s biggest issues are cabin quality and a lack of refinement compared with more polished rivals. It also suffers from steeper depreciation, which renders it a pricier option for private and company car drivers.

A vast 330-litre boot and attractive finance deals helped secure second place for the Fabia, but VW’s evergreen Polo took the top spot, even though it was set to be replaced by an all-new car later in the year.

It may not be as roomy as the Skoda, but it’s spacious enough, and has a far classier cabin than its rivals. Add stronger performance, impressive dynamics, along with a decent level of connectivity tech, and it isn’t hard to see why the German supermini came up trumps.

GLC is coupé-SUV king

Premium SUVs are all the rage, but many are priced beyond the average buyer, which is why sleeker and more compact coupé-SUVs have entered the market. While they’re not as practical as their full-size equivalents, they do cost less, which makes this style-led 4x4 sector even more accessible.

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At the start of the year, Mercedes’ new GLC Coupé went head-to-head with the BMW X4, and came out on top courtesy of its lower price and superior running costs. The two are almost matched in other areas, not least in terms of their cramped cabins; we’d still settle for a conventional but roomier GLC or a BMW X3.

February

New 5 Series takes best executive car crown

Competition is fierce in the executive saloon sector, but our reigning champion, the Mercedes E-Class, had enjoyed a long run at the top. Latest to challenge it was the BMW 5 Series, so we put the two cars together – and threw in Jaguar’s agile XF for good measure.

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Previous versions of the 5 Series have always been great to drive, but modern competition left the outgoing model feeling rather dated. The all-new seventh-generation version has upped its game, though, with fresh styling, heaps of technology and, for the first time in right-hand-drive form, the option of the company’s xDrive four-wheel-drive system.

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The suite of updates renders it once again the sharpest driver’s car in its class, as well as the most comfortable – and it’s on par with its two rivals for practicality. It’s competitively priced, too, while strong residual values and excellent efficiency are the icing on the cake.  

Still a great saloon in its own right, the E-Class just can’t quite keep up on costs or ride quality, while the XF now feels old-fashioned. After seeing off its chief rivals, the BMW went on to bag the Best Executive Car crown at the Auto Express New Car Awards in June.

New Ignis beats Twingo

Suzuki revived the Ignis a decade after the previous version was axed. Rather than a regular supermini, this time the car is a fashionable SUV, with a chunky body, high roof and raised ride height, so it stands out among the regular small hatchback crowd as an SUV for the city.

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We pitched the Ignis against Renault’s equally quirky Twingo, which uses a rarely seen rear-engined layout and offers a range of personalisation options.

The Ignis is let down by a poor, three-star Euro NCAP crash test rating, so the optional safety pack is a must. Still, it’s practical, well equipped and great value, which was enough to show the Twingo a clean pair of heels in our twin test.

March

New Civic meets Golf and Mégane in hatch battle

One of the year’s biggest tests took place in March, when we brought together three family hatch giants. Honda’s 10th-generation Civic battled it out with the mildly revised VW Golf, while Renault’s stylish and refined Mégane completed the trio.

The newest of the three, the Civic, has more than four decades of heritage on its side. Over time, it’s morphed from a cheap and cheerful city car into a spacious hatch, and now features frugal but potent 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engines. The latest car has also upped its game with sharp handling, plenty of kit and a boot far larger than most of its rivals’.

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That wasn’t enough to topple the class best, though, as the tweaked Golf finished first. VW’s new 1.0-litre, three-cylinder TSI is refined and punchy, and it makes the evergreen hatch more relevant than ever in today’s pro-petrol climate. The Mégane came second, courtesy of its great value and comfortable ride.

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Crunch time for new Q5

SUVs were much scarcer when Audi launched the original Q5 back in 2008, but competition for the new model is both more abundant and tougher.

While the styling remains conservative, the brand added a new chassis, fresh interior and updated tech for 2017, so we brought the new version head to head with the Mercedes-Benz GLC and the still-fresh Jaguar F-Pace.

Despite the revisions, the Q5 could not top the dynamically superior Jag or the smarter Mercedes, so it came third. It’s still desirable, with a classy cabin, but it’s just too sober in such company. A below-par ride lets it down, too.

April

Disco storms to victory

When the new Land Rover Discovery met up with fellow seven-seat premium SUVs from Audi and Volvo, it was one of 2017’s most important road tests. A critical model for the British manufacturer, the Discovery had a great deal to live up to – it follows four previous generations, all of which struck a fantastic balance between comfort, practicality and off-road ability.

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The latest, fifth-generation model still has those attributes in spades, but it’s now arguably a cut-price Range Rover in terms of its levels of equipment, refinement and luxury, and boasts even more practicality. The styling divides opinion and rivals are more powerful, but it’s incredibly spacious – and the brand’s latest Ingenium four-cylinder diesel engine brings running costs down to levels usually associated with smaller off-roaders.

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Stiff competition came in the form of our 2015 Car of the Year, the Volvo XC90, along with the sporty Audi Q7. Still a great SUV, the Swede came second thanks to its comparatively good value and its roomy, hi-tech cabin, while the Q7’s more cramped interior relegated it to third place in this company.

There was more success in store for the Discovery a few months later, too...

Panamera edges Model S

We brought together the fastest diesel and fastest EV in the world in April. Porsche’s Panamera 4S proves diesel still makes sense – its 416bhp and 850Nm of torque deliver blistering performance but lower costs than a petrol car.

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Tesla’s Model S shows you can go green without sacrificing power, though, because its all-electric drivetrain develops a colossal 603bhp and 967Nm. The P100D has the edge on outright performance and benefits from zero tailpipe emissions, but it fell short of the Porsche on ride, refinement and agility – crucial elements in this luxury-led class.

May

Prius, Golf and Optima in plug-in battle

The Toyota Prius is a byword for eco-friendly motoring, and the latest model got even greener with the arrival of the ultra-economical plug-in hybrid variant, promising double the electric range of the conventional Prius’s and bespoke styling.

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We pitched it against the Volkswagen Golf GTE, which mixes EV credentials with hot hatch pace, along with the Kia Optima PHEV – the comfortable and refined option with a claimed 33-mile electric range. Toyota may have a sterling reputation for alternative fuel technology, but the lack of a fifth seat and the tiny boot are big compromises over the standard hybrid, and didn’t help it to take the lead of the trio we tested.

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The Prius came second to the Golf GTE, which is as great to drive and almost as practical as the conventional hatchback. The Kia lagged behind in most areas.

up! holds off revamped Picanto

As the wraps came off the up! GTI, the standard version of Volkswagen’s city car went head to head with the latest Kia Picanto in May.

The Picanto had started life as a cheap and cheerful hatchback in 2004, but it has since matured into a much smarter small car, and this re-engineered model brought fresh competition to the market. Sister brand Hyundai also provides a challenge to the Kia in this sector, with its i10.

The Picanto is smooth, easy to drive and more polished than ever, which was enough to give the up! a run for its money. However, the VW is still an outstanding city car, having set the benchmark in this class since its launch 2012, and maintained its lead. It may be a bit more expensive, but the superior level of equipment and grown-up feel give the up! the edge.

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While the Picanto couldn’t match the VW in terms of kit or driver appeal, it’s a fine small car and a big leap forward for Kia. By contrast, the i10 feels dated.

June

Peugeot 3008 pips SEAT Ateca in petrol SUV shoot-out

Petrol has made a comeback in the sales charts – so much so that even SUVs running on unleaded are becoming more popular. The SEAT Ateca and Peugeot 3008 are two of the most accomplished mid-sized models on the market, so we tested them both in low-capacity petrol guise – the former with the VW Group’s 1.0-litre TSI engine and the latter with PSA’s 1.2-litre PureTech unit.

It was a close-run thing, but the 3008’s hi-tech cabin, comfortable ride and, crucially, its superior on-test fuel economy saw it pip the Ateca to the post. Although the SEAT was our former mid-sized family champion, following its victory here the 3008 went on to win the Best Mid-Size SUV title at our New Car Awards the same month.

July

Ford’s brilliant new Fiesta reclaims supermini crown

It isn’t every day that the UK’s best-selling car gets a makeover, but it’s big news when it does. Ford has sold more Fiestas than any other car in Britain for the past seven years, so the all-new model was hugely important for our market when it went on sale.

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Despite its place at the top of the sales charts, the supermini has some stiff competition. SEAT introduced a new Ibiza earlier this year, which raised the game enormously compared with the outgoing model – so much so that we named it Best Supermini at our New Car Awards in June. Fellow VW Group contender, the Skoda Fabia, was freshened up with a new 1.0-litre TSI petrol engine, too.

This was an incredibly close test, but the Fiesta’s refinement, comfort, in-car tech and, above all, its performance and driving dynamics, saw it take first place. The Ibiza is still a spectacular supermini, though, with heaps of space – it has the largest boot of the three at a healthy 355 litres – and plenty of standard equipment. The Skoda is still a capable small car and benefits from its new engine, but feels dated in other areas next to the fresher competition.

August

New Volvo XC60 comes out on top against premium SUV rivals

Volvo’s talent for building top-class SUVs is well established. The current XC90 was our Car of the Year in 2015, while the original model achieved the same feat 12 years earlier.

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The smaller XC60 was hotly anticipated before it went on sale earlier this year, because it promised scaled-down XC90 characteristics and the previous generation was one of the Swedish firm’s biggest-selling cars. To test it, we pitted it against two of its key rivals, the Mercedes GLC and Audi Q5.

Buyers in this market are looking for comfort, convenience and hi-tech features, all of which the Volvo delivers in heaps. Factor in its stylish exterior, strong performance and excellent build quality, and it isn’t hard to see why it was a clear winner in our group test, as it simply offers more than the competition.

That’s not to say the Mercedes and Audi aren’t strong contenders, though. The GLC is refined and quick, while the Q5 is exceedingly well built and hardly short on in-car tech, but neither is quite up to the standards of the swish new Swede. The result wasn’t surprising, as it reinforced the Volvo’s status as our favourite premium SUV.

September

Petrol execs go head-to-head

Diesel cars have always been popular in the compact executive class, but bad press has seen sales fall. So, for this test, we put 2.0-litre turbo petrol versions of the Jaguar XE and new Alfa Romeo Giulia up against the Audi A4 2.0 TFSI.  

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The A4 was something of a benchmark, but its higher costs and dull drive meant it was eclipsed by the feistier Giulia, while the accomplished XE came out on top.

October

Peugeot 5008 ahead of rival SUVs

Following the same principles it applied to the fantastic 3008, Peugeot transformed its 5008 from a boxy MPV into a smart, hi-tech SUV, this time with seven seats.

In our test against the Skoda Kodiaq and the new Nissan X-Trail, the Nissan felt outdated, so it finished third. And, while the Skoda certainly put up a good fight, the Peugeot’s equipment, comfort and affordability secured it first place.

Skoda still big in the city

The Skoda Citigo has long been a favourite of ours, and we named it Car of the Year when it launched back in 2012. A revised model arrived this year with a new infotainment system, but the same great approach to budget motoring.

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We pitted it against the new Kia Picanto and Renault Twingo. The Skoda has low running costs, fun handling and improved infotainment in its favour, but the fact that it’s the cheapest of the three cars sealed the deal, and ultimately secured it first place. The Picanto was our runner-up, proving it’s still an excellent city car that’s refined, versatile and well ahead of the more expensive Renault.

November

Skoda Karoq beats Peugeot 3008

The Peugeot 3008 has had to fight to remain our best mid-size SUV since it won the title in June. And, before the year was out, it had another battle – against the Skoda Karoq.

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This time, the Skoda knocked it off top spot, because for less money (with a petrol engine and an automatic gearbox, as tested), the Karoq provides more performance, strong refinement and efficiency, sharp handling, as well as lots of kit and more than enough practicality.

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The 3008 is still a great SUV, but in this form, it’s a little less accomplished, even if it’s a more individual choice due to its forward-thinking design. The huge boot means this doesn’t come at the expense of practicality, either.

1,500cc stars for our 1,500th issue

To mark Auto Express notching up a landmark 1,500 issues, we assembled six of the best current 1,500cc cars, highlighting how varied the modern car market is.

With everything from a plug-in hybrid sports car through to chic convertibles and dependable transport, the spectrum of tech on offer from these models is quite incredible.

Each car was there on merit as one of the best 1.5s on sale. We had clever powertrains in the plug-in hybrid BMW i8 and the VW Golf, with its cylinder deactivation system, along with sporty soft-top models and frugal, but fairly advanced, family-friendly offerings.

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It was a fitting way for us to celebrate the magazine’s milestone, but it wasn’t the only way that we marked the occasion. We also highlighted the best ways you could upgrade your car for £1,500 – everything from engine remaps to warranties and paint treatments – and scoured the classifieds to bring you the best used bargains on offer for the same price with an in-depth buying guide.

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Small SUVs fight it out

Small SUVs were the flavour of the month in November, and we gathered together three of the newest to battle for the title of our best small SUV.

In the end, the Citroen C3 Aircross emerged victorious. Its attractive price and finance deals don’t come at the expense of kit, while the Citroen’s more impressive practicality and comfort help it score over the SEAT Arona. The Spanish car is the sportiest choice and a capable small SUV. However, the Kia Stonic doesn’t feel different enough to its Rio supermini sibling, whereas its rivals differentiate themselves better from their hatchback cousins.

What was your favourite group test of 2017? And did you agree with our verdict? Let us know in the comments area…

Review of the year 2017

• Review of the year 2017: index• Best new cars 2017: the road tests of the year• The BIG car news highlights of 2017• Big car quiz of the year 2017• Head to head: best car group tests of 2017• The long haul: Our greatest long-term test fleet cars of 2017• Inside the world of cars: the best motoring features of 2017• Best car videos 2017• Amazing moments: our year in cars 2017• Motorsport review of the year: from F1 to WRC and BTCC

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