It’s not hard to see the appeal of sports and super saloons. Combining the practicality, comfort and usability of a family car with the explosive performance and engaging handling of a dedicated sports machine, these models manage to tug at the heartstrings while also making a well-informed case to the head.
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Now in its sixth generation, the BMW M5 is still strutting its stuff, but it’s no longer got the sector to itself as a whole host of manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon. Yet not all sports saloons are the same, and as our countdown shows there’s a wide variety of engine layouts, transmission systems and even energy sources.
The sport saloons to buy now
1. Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio
Our hopes were high when Alfa Romeo revealed the details of its new Giulia Quadrifoglio, and for once we weren’t disappointed. After the brand’s recent run of half-baked machines, the fast Giulia flagship has proved to be just as good as it looks.
Just scanning the specifications is enough to get your mouth watering. For starters, there’s the 2.9-litre V6 that kicks our 503bhp and it’s mated to the rear wheels via an eight-speed auto that’s controlled via a pair of flamboyantly large aluminium paddles. Then there’s the fact that the stunning looking bodywork features a lightweight mix of carbon fibre and aluminium body panels, while under the skin is a sophisticated all-independent suspension system with multi-way adaptive dampers. Oh, and did we mention the Quad’ was developed by the same man that brought us the Ferrari 458 Speciale....?
On the move, the Alfa’s Ferrari DNA isn’t hard to spot, with the big giveaways being the wrist-flick quick steering and the surprisingly supple ride. Yet it’s the car’s poise, balance and grip when really pushing on that leaves the deepest impression – this is a seriously fast and accomplished machine. Sure the optional carbon ceramic brakes lack manners at low speed and engine lacks aural drama (although it’s brutally fast), but these niggles can’t detract from what is a sublime saloon. And when you‘ve finished driving, you can get out and simply look at it.
2. Mercedes-AMG E63
If you had to sum up the Mercedes-AMG E63 in one word, then ‘bombastic’ would just about cover it. Like many AMG badged products, it’s the engine that dominates the E63 driving experience, with the twin turbo V8 delivering performance and noise in equal measure. Yet the AMG is far from being a one-dimensional driving device and as you scratch beneath the surface you’ll find deep reserves of talent and ability.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the latest E63 is its 4-MATIC four-wheel drive system, which on top spec 603bhp S versions features the hooligan ‘Drift Mode’, which essentially disconnects the front axle and allows you to vaporize a set of Michelins in minutes. Yet its arguably when its left to its own devices that the transmission impresses most, as it manages to combine the feel and balance of a rear-driver with stupendous traction when the going gets slippery.
Equally impressive is the way the Mercedes disguises its bulk, with the cast iron body control, strong grip and quick steering allowing you to hustle the car with surprising abandon. Sure it can’t fool physics, but its agility is jaw dropping for a car weighing the best part of two tonnes. And of course, there’s something laugh out loud hilarious about a car as comfortable, refined and spacious as the Benz that’ll also rattle off the sprint to 60mph in well under four seconds. Oh, and you can get it in estate guise, which instantly gives and extra 10 points in the street cred ratings.
> Mercedes-AMG E63 review
3. BMW M3 Competition Pack
2017 was the year the F80 BMW M3 (and its M4 coupe sibling) finally came good. A host of detail updates plus the option of the option of the Competition Pack (a touch more power and numerous suspension tweaks) allowed the M3 to elevate its status from ‘good’ to ‘great’.
Performance has never been a problem for the M3, particularly the Competition Pack-equipped model, which boasts 444bhp from its twin turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six, but keeping all the power in check was a different matter. On smooth and dry tarmac the BMW was stupendously fast, but once it got bumpy or wet - or more terrifyingly a combination of the two - the M3’s transition between grip and slip was both quick and extremely difficult to judge. However, the lowered and stiffened springs and revised dampers of the latest car have effected a transformation. You’ll still need to exercise caution when conditions are inclement, but the M3 is far more approachable now, allowing you to revel in its sharp responses and exquisite balance.
Then there’s the searing straightine performance, which is only slightly spoiled by the ‘sound generator’ that overlays the raucous six-pot with a curiously artificial bassy backdrop. And if you needed further convincing, then there’s always the fact that you can order it with a six-speed manual, which make it very nearly the ultimate driving machine.
4. Mercedes-AMG C63 S
If you can’t stretch to the Mercedes-AMG E63 (and at the best part of £100k with choice options that’s understandable), then the C63 S is a more than capable stand in. Even in higher-powered S guise the 503bhp C-Class is around 100bhp shy of its big brother, but its lighter and more compact body means it’s very nearly as fast where it counts. More importantly, it’s twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre V8 features a soundtrack that moves from canal boat bilge pump chug at idle through to full-blooded NASCAR bellow when worked hard. Few relatively sober-suited saloons attract more attention.
The meaty steering is quick and precise, and there’s bags of front end bite, allowing you to place the car with confidence. Perhaps most surprising is the traction available on the exit of a bend, the combination of wide rubber and a clever electronic differential helping to fire you explosively along the next straight. Of course, this is still an AMG, so turning of the traction control and pinning the throttle will result in some localised and very heavy fog in your rear view mirror, but such is the Merc’s balance that these lurid, showboating slides are hilarious rather than heart-rate raising.
When you don’t want to play the hooligan, then the C-Class is every bit as easy to live with as C220d. Yes the ride’s a little firmer and the thirst of fuel is quite a bit more alarming, but in all other respects its a practical, reasonably roomy and well-equipped family saloon. It just so happens to have an alter ego that makes Mr Hyde look like Mr Bean.
5. BMW M5
The car that started it all is now more than thirty years old, but it certainly hasn’t rested on its laurels. Now in its sixth generation, the latest BMW M5 has gone all out to reclaim its place at the top of the super saloon tree. This means it follows the Mercedes-AMG E63 in going four-wheel drive (with the same ability to send all the torque to the rear axle for the ultimate in accelerated tyre wear), while its predecessor’s twin turbocharged 4.4-litre V8 has been heavily tweaked to the tune of 592bhp.
As you’d expect, the BMW is rocketship fast, with the benchmark 0-62mph dispatched in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 3.4 seconds, while 190mph is easily within reach if you opt for the Driver’s Pack upgrade. So it’s a shame the V8 powerplant is afflicted with the same artificially enhanced sound generator as the smaller M3 and M4. It’s not exactly an unpleasant sound, it’s simply not authentic.
As you’d expect, the M5’s grip and composure are astounding and you’d have to be driving to end it all to breach the car’s vertigo-inducing limits on the road. Front end bite is tremendous, there’s magnetic mid-corner grip and the four-wheel drive system manages to combine traction and rear-wheel drive attitude all in one go. You can also select the BMW’s two-wheel drive function, for some true M car smokey show-boating.
Sure the BMW lacks the fine feedback that mark out the best driver’s cars, but it’s a fantastically fast and capable machine that deserves its place in the pantheon of great M5s.
> BMW M5 review
6. Lexus GS F
For those drivers just a little tired of the technological arms race the Lexus GSF will come as a refreshing tonic. There’s no turbocharging or four-wheel drive here, while adaptive dampers were only introduced as part of a 2017 facelift. Yet while it lacks the sophistication and outright performance of many rivals, the Lexus’ charms are hard to resist.
At the heart of the GS F’s appeal is its large capacity naturally aspirated V8. With 471bhp the 5.0-litre unit has a huge power deficit to models such as the BMW M5 and Mercedes E63 S, but the way it goes about delivering what it has got is properly addictive. Because there’s no wall of turbocharged torque from idle you really have to work the V8 hard to make progress, with most of the action only really taking place once the needle on the rev counter climbs past 4,500rpm. Then there’s the gloriously symphonic soundtrack which ranges from a subtly gurgling idle through to its banshee howl at 7,100rpm.
String the Lexus through a serious of corners and you’re constantly reminded that it’s a big old bus, but it never feels ponderous or wrong-footed. The steering is slower than we’ve come to expect, but its decently weighted and precise, plus it’s linked to a front axle with strong grip. And because that engine dishes out its performance in such a consistent and oh-so accurate manner you’re able to steer the Lexus through corners with the throttle as much as the steering – its possible to get into a real groove with the GS F.
7. Porsche Panamera Turbo
Is the Porsche a high performance four-seater coupe, a super saloon or a luxurious limousine with an outrageous turn of speed? Regardless of how you view it, there’s no denying the Panamera Turbo is a deeply impressive piece of kit. Despite its size and weight it still goes and handles with the alacrity you’d expect from a car bearing the Porsche badge.
Like the BMW M5 and Mercedes-AMG E63, the Panamera is powered by a twin-turbocharged V8 that squeezes out a remarkable 542bhp, which is good for 0-62mph in 3.8 seconds (3.6 if you plump for the optional launch control) and will merrily haul the Porsche along at 190mph. Yet it’s the breadth of performance that’s really dizzying, with a monumental 568lb ft of twist available at just 1,960rpm. As a result it doesn’t matter what gear you’re in or what speed you’re doing, the Panamera simply takes off in a manner that suggests the super unleaded has been swapped for dilithium crystals.
Thanks to the blend of air springs, adaptive dampers and four-wheel steering, the Panamera benefits from astonishing grip, rock solid body control and the sort of agility you’d expect from a car that’s almost half the weight. Meaty steering and powerful, progressive brakes add to the appeal, while the clever four-wheel drive system sends enough torque to the rear axle to allow you to trim your line with throttle. However, slacken off the dampers, set the driver modes to normal and the Porsche is transformed into an effortless and hushed executive express. Better still, the second-generation car even looks good.
8. Jaguar XJR575
The Jaguar XJ is a largely forgotten saloon. Among hi-tech alternatives such as the Mercedes S-Class, Audi A8 and BMW 7 Series, the big cat looks like something of an anachronism. Although it was intended to be Jag’s modern take on its previously fusty XJ formula, the current model feels just a bit too pipe and slippers, while technologically it’s more ZX Spectrum than Apple iPhone X.
Still, it’s not all bad, because the 2017 facelift saw the arrival of the every so slightly unhinged XJR575. Packing the brand’s evergreen supercharged 5.0-litre V8 that has been massaged up to 567bhp, the Jag can thunder from standstill to 60mph in 4.4 seconds, which is really rather sprightly for what is essentially a gentleman’s club on wheels. It sounds the part too, with a deep chested burble that’s more all-American dragster than English country gent.
The surprises don’t end there either, because despite its stately looked, the XJ handles with remarkable agility and engagement. A recently introduced electrically assisted steering rack delivers quick, precise and well-weighted responses, while the car’s inherent balance and traditional rear-wheel drive layout allow you to take surprising liberties – this is a limousine with loutish tendencies. Moderate the urge to bonfire the rear tyres and the XJR575 will cover ground at the sort of rate that will leave drivers of some seriously hot hatches wondering if their car has dropped and HT lead or two.
Then, when you take it easier you’re ensconced in the cosseting world of leather and luxury that Jag still does so well. Sure, the infotainment system is seemingly decades behind the opposition, but if you need entertaining, simply seek out a challenging road and squeeze the Jag’s throttle.
9. Audi RS3 Saloon
The latest Audi RS3 Saloon is smaller than our other contenders here, but you’re unlikely to be shortchanged by the performance. Recently facelifted, the new RS3 features a fairly heavily revised version of its familiar 2.5-litre in-line five-cylinder that now develops a mind-scrambling 394bhp. Equally importantly, the new powerplant ditches the old iron block in favour of a cast aluminium item, which is 40kg lighter – a saving that should help banish the old car’s nose-led handling balance.
However, before you get to a corner there’s the performance to contend with, and the RS3 is ludicrously quick. The combination of the quattro four-wheel drive, launch control and slick seven-speed gearbox meant one a streaming wet day we recorded a jaw-dropping 0-60mph time 3.7 seconds. Just take some time to take that in. It sounds pretty glorious too, although it’s hard-edged timbre has greater echoes of the R8’s V10 than the syncopated growl of the legendary Group B Quattro rally cars.
And how about the new engine’s effect on the chassis? Well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, because while the RS3 now turns in more keenly it still lacks the adjustability you crave. You can cover ground at astonishing speed and the all-wheel drive systems means you don’t need to temper your approach much when the heavens open, but there’s very little communication between the machine and meat behind the wheel. It’s crying shame, because in all other respects the handsome, beautifully finished and brutally quick Audi is a hugely desirable proposition.
10. Tesla Model S P100D
Take to the wheel of a Tesla Model S and you’ll come away with the sneaking suspicion that you’ve just driven the future. Eerily quiet and, in P100D form, stupendously quick, the Tesla is an early indicator than the impending all-electric automotive landscape might not be all that bad.
Key to the car’s impressive appeal are its twin electric motors (one for the front axle, the other for the rear to make this a four-wheel drive machine) that feed of a lithium ion batter to deliver a very healthy 603bhp. Tesla claims that with Ludicrous mode (yes, that’s a thing) engaged the P100D will launch from 0-60mph in just 2.5 seconds. The truth is that 3 seconds is closer to the mark, because achieving the fastest time requires you finding the Rizla-thin window in which the battery is in its ideal operating conditions. Still, even when its not at 100 percent, the Tesla feels stunningly quick as its peak torque figure of 713lb ft is delivered from zero revs – few cars gather speed as deceptively quickly as the whisper quiet Model S.
It’s fast then, and the claimed range of 409 miles (only a pinch of salt required here) means you can contemplate most journeys without breaking out into a flat battery-induced sweat, but is it fun. Well, there’s no denying the hit of instant and, ahem, electrifying performance never fails to amuse, but once you get off the straights the Tesla’s hardcore credentials take a hit. For starters, the steering is light and lacks feel, but it’s the weighty combination of batteries and motors that are the P100D’s real undoing. Grip is fairly strong, but start to push beyond the tyres limits and the electronic safety net starts to get pretty intrusive (you can’t switch it off, which is probably a good thing when you feel the car’s mass starting to work) and the adaptive dampers struggle to rein in the Tesla’s hefty kerbweight.
Still, as fast, quiet and spacious transport that brings with it a warm glow of eco-friendliness (if that’s your thing), then the Tesla is not without merit. With the benefit of a diet and more development to unlock the torque vectoring possibilities of the electric motors, the P100D could become a great performance car too.
Best sport saloon cars top 10
Click the links below to read our full review on each or our top 10 sport saloon models.