The 50 Best cars
From red-blooded racers to green runarounds, David Wilkins tests drives this year’s top motors
Friday 06 April 2012
1. Citroën DS3
The DS3 has been joined by the larger DS4 and DS5 but Citroën's Mini rival still stands out. If you want to stamp your identity on your car, the DS3 offers a vast range of options.
How much: from £12,600
2. Seat Alhambra
The Alhambra and the VW Sharan are all but identical, so choose between the VW badge and the Seat price. Either way, you'll get one of the best seven-seat people-carriers around.
How much: from £23,525
3. Porsche 911
Every time a new 911 comes along the purists wonder whether it has lost its soul, and this one is no different. It follows the same recipe as before – a rear engine – but with lots of updates.
How much: from £71,449
4. Bentley Mulsanne
A perfect blend of old-style craft skills and technology, the Mulsanne is a cut above the cheaper, better-selling Continentals. Ordinary looks, but arguably the world's best car.
How much: from £224,700
5. Smart Fortwo Cabriolet
Familiarity has made us forget what a radical and effective solution the Smart Fortwo is for crowded urban roads and parking problems. Great economy and lots of fun with the roof down.
How much: from £9,200
6. Land Rover Defender
Today's Defender can trace its roots to the original Landy of 1948. Its robust appeal is enhanced by a new engine and other tweaks. Unbeatable off the road, rather barge-like on it.
How much: from £20,995
7. Rolls-Royce Ghost
Probably the industry's most expensive entry-level model, the Ghost is impressive. Plenty of technology from parent firm BMW and British craft skills. Less vulgar than the Phantom.
How much: from £200,500
8. Peugeot 508
Peugeot used to make some of the best affordable cars but is only now emerging from a recent lean patch. The impressive 508 saloon and estate will help. No room for complacency, though.
How much: from £18,450
9. Fiat 500
The 500 is the one of the most successful small-retro cars around, combining charming looks with smart engineering. The TwinAir engine option brings it to life.
How much: from £9,960
10. Vauxhall Zafira Tourer
Don't be fooled by the humdrum badge – the Zafira Tourer is a smooth, roomy and classy people-carrier with a flexible seven-seat interior arrangement. A bit pricey though.
How much: from £21,000
11. BMW 5-Series
The 5-Series, backbone of the BMW range, is consistently excellent. The 520d EfficientDynamics provides exceptional economy and performance – a favourite as a company car.
How much: from £30,030
12. Fiat Panda
The latest Panda is superb, providing much of the space and comfort of a larger vehicle. The brilliant TwinAir engine option unlocks its potential as a great little driver's car.
How much: from £8,900
13. Volvo V60
Forget the big, boxy Volvo estates of old; the cool and curvy V60 provides a glimpse of the future. Soon to come – a diesel plug-in hybrid model, expected to be the world's first.
How much: from £23,960
14. Mercedes-Benz CLS
The first CLS pioneered the concept of a four-door coupé. This second-generation model just about lives up to the original's promise. Based on the E-Class but much pricier.
How much: from £46,860
15. Mercedes-Benz E-Class
They don't make Mercs like they used to but the E-Class comes close, providing space, comfort and quality. The E 250 CDI diesel best balances performance and economy.
How much: from £29,120
16. Kia Sportage
Nobody would have bought the old Sportage on appearances. The new one is sleek, handsome and goes as well as it looks. The Hyundai ix35, its close sister, may be worth a look too.
How much: from £17,295
17. Kia Picanto
After a boost from the last government's scrappage scheme, the first Picanto was a hit and this new model adds sophistication. Only the new Volkswagen Up can spoil its chances.
How much: from £7,545
18. BMW 6-Series
A rival for the Mercedes SL and Jaguar XK offers a diesel option that wins out for performance and economy. The four-door Gran Coupé may make life hard for Mercedes's CLS.
How much: from £59,565
BMW reinvented this classic in 2001 and hasn't looked back. New variants such as the Coupé and Roadster add to the appeal. Avoid the Countryman, the Mini that ate all the pies.
How much: from £11,870
20. Nissan Leaf
The first purpose-designed, mass-production electric car offers quiet performance and comfort. Enjoyable to drive but with limited range. Probably the best second car you can buy.
How much: from £25,990
21. Peugeot 3008 HYbrid4
Peugeot's 3008 HYbrid4 is the first diesel-electric hybrid to go on sale in the UK. That's good for performance, economy and traction – pity the looks don't match the technology.
How much: from £26,995
A much more interesting rival to the BMW 7-Series and Mercedes S-Class. The XJ's beautiful light aluminium body is great for performance and economy. Value for money.
How much: from £45,525
23. Chevrolet Volt
The Chevy Volt combines an electric drive train with a back-up petrol engine for great economy without range anxiety. Smooth, quiet and comfortable but with a space-age interior.
How much: from £29,995
24. BMW 3-Series
Ignore the same-again styling, this latest 3-Series is big news, most of it good with sharp handling and a roomier interior. The diesel 320d is a performance and economy winner.
How much: from £24,880
25. Ford C-Max/Grand C-Max
The C-Max and Grand C-Max provide a hard-to-beat combination of a roomy body and engaging ride from a Focus platform but the smaller B-Max may put them in the shade.
How much: from £17,445
26. Range Rover Evoque
All the style of a full-size Range Rover in a low-carbon package. Super-agile on-road behaviour for a 4x4, but it can handle the rough stuff. Rather expensive.
How much: from £27,955
27. Alfa Romeo Giulietta
Modern Alfas find it hard to live up to their glorious history but this is one of the better efforts. Practical and affordable if you want to taste the glamorous side of Italy's car industry.
How much: from £17,755
28. Renault Fluence ZE
The conservatively styled Fluence is the perfect electric car for technophobes put off by radical designs. Battery-only.
How much: from £17,495 plus monthly battery lease payment from £76 per month.
29. Skoda Superb
The Skoda story is running out of steam as the Koreans set the pace among emerging brands but this manages to fight off a strong challenge from the Hyundai i40 and Kia Optima.
How much: from £17,675
30. Lamborghini Gallardo
Another famous brand revitalised by German money, in this case from Volkswagen via Audi. The Gallardo is the most practical and affordable (a relative term!) Italian super-car .
How much: from £157,668
31. Seat Mii
This is Seat's slightly prettier version of the brilliant new Volkswagen Up, which sets new standards for quality among budget cars. The Mii gets the nod as it will be a bit cheaper.
How much: from £7,845
32. Jaguar XF
A facelift, optional smaller diesel engines and an estate version boost the XF's case against German rivals. Smooth and handsome, one of the most desirable cars for the money.
How much: from £29,950
33. Hyundai Veloster
An asymmetric coupé design with one door on one side, two on the other, it shows Korea can do style as well as value. A turbo version should give it the go to match its sporty looks.
How much: from £17,995
34. Ford Focus
The Focus was already an excellent car but the new 1.0-litre EcoBoost petrol engine option is a sensation, promising near-diesel levels of torque and economy but the zip of a petrol.
How much: from £13,995
35. Audi Q3
A less showy alternative to the Range Rover Evoque, the Q3 offers understated looks and superb quality. You can't go wrong with an Audi. Don't expect to see many in the rough.
How much: from £24,560
36. Audi R8
Different to your average Audi and all the better. Sharp looks, a mid-engined layout and a lot of power are the main ingredients. Makes its main rival, the Porsche 911, look cheap, though.
How much: from £86,935
37. Volkswagen Golf
The Golf is everywhere. GTI apart, it's not exciting but it has seen off many imitators. Well designed and made, it lends its parts to several other VWs that are Golfs under the skin.
How much: from £15,865
38. Toyota Prius
When it comes to hybrids, the Prius is certainly the original and was the best. Toyota hopes to fight off Peugeot and Volvo with a plug-in model and a people-carrier, the Prius+.
How much: from £21,560
39. Land Rover Discovery
Probably the most complete off-road vehicle and a good on-road performer, offering superb comfort for long journeys. Steady improvements have made a good car better still.
How much: from £37,995
40. Nissan GT-R
A quick, uncompromising track car for the road, the rear-wheel drive GT-R is a lot of fun if you want to press on. Rock-hard ride and tacky trim could make long-term ownership wearing.
How much: from £74,450
41. Audi A6
Great paintwork, tight shut-lines and the world's best dashboard plastics. If you like obsessive attention to detail and you don't want a BMW or a Mercedes, the A6 is for you.
How much: from £30,145
42. Porsche Panemera
Unpromising looks conceal a superb car. A relative bargain compared with other prestige saloons such as the Aston Martin Rapide and the Bentley Continental – but not Jaguar's XJ.
How much: from £59,746
43. Chevrolet Orlando
The first Korean Chevrolet to match mainstream European and Japanese models. Roomy and capable and with tasteful fittings. One of Chevy's best cars yet and good value too.
How much: from £16,410
44. Kia Rio
The new Rio is a huge leap forward but still offers good value. The 1.1-litre diesel delivers 88.3mpg and emissions of 85g/km of CO2 in tests, if you do without air conditioning.
How much: from £9,495
45. Mercedes-Benz M-Class
The all-new third-generation M-Class is a big advance. Can be good on the rough stuff as well but much of the off-road equipment that's standard on a Discovery costs extra here.
How much: from £45,375
46. Aston Martin Rapide
Turning the DB9 into a four-door saloon has produced a stunner. Not as roomy as the cheaper Porsche Panamera but for patriotic buyers production is shifting to Aston's UK base.
How much: from £149,995
47. Volkswagen Polo
A solid effort that combines the VW virtues of quality and reliability in a complete small package. Good as it is, though, the Polo is in danger of being upstaged by the smaller Up.
How much: from £9,585
48. Subaru WRX STI
A reminder of Subaru's glorious rallying past, it doesn't exert the same pull over boy racers as Imprezas but still impresses with its unique boxer engine and all-wheel drive.
How much: from £32,995
49. Hyundai i30
The second-generation version of the car that put Hyundai on the map in Europe, it keeps up the good work. Its close sister under the skin, the new Kia cee'd, will be worth a look too.
How much: from £14,495
Mitsubishi's bug-eyed battery car is a hoot – and a superb urban runabout, although it has only limited range. The i-MiEV is also sold by Citroë* as the C-Zero and Peugeot as the iOn.
How much: from £23,990
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