Top Gear mag's greatest cars - super saloons | Top Gear
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Top Gear mag's greatest cars - super saloons

Super saloons are fantastic: the supercars built to handle family life

  • For Top Gear magazine's 300th issue, we celebrated the best 50 cars over 299 issues: here's our pick of the best super saloons

    The Lotus Carlton arrived in 1990. Top Gear magazine arrived in 1993. Therefore, the car that rewrote, publicised and defined the supersaloon class during TG’s formative years is ineligible for inclusion here. But 377bhp, what’s that these days? Just a bit more than BMW’s entry-level M car, the M2, less than Merc’s second-tier fast E, the 396bhp E43. The hottest E, the 63S, makes well over 200bhp more than the Vauxhall/Lotus effort, an increase of over 50 per cent in 25 years.


    But no one’s asked questions in Parliament about the E63S, no public action committees have demanded it be banned. One hundred and seventy-seven miles per hour? There are hot hatches capable of getting into that ballpark now. But there weren’t back then. Issue 1 of Top Gear shows the supersaloon is yet to make an impact. There’s an Audi V8 listed with 280bhp, a 240bhp Merc E500, but the only car we’d actually recognise is the BMW M5, which had 340bhp.

    But look at what happened a few scant years further on. Whether it was the Carlton that caused the chaos, or if the serried ranks of Japanese, German, Italian and assorted others arrived at the decision independently, the supersaloon was suddenly super-business.

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  • By the time Issue 100 arrived, the back pages listed everything from an Alfa Romeo 156 GTA and Honda Accord Type-R to a supercharged 3.2-litre V6 Mercedes C32 AMG and Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI. It wouldn’t be long before Rover supplied us with a 4.6-litre V8, rear-wheel-drive 75 saloon. Hot Ford Mondeos came and went, even VW had a momentary lapse and slotted a W8 engine in a Passat. I kid you not: there was a 4.0-litre, 275bhp Passat. Audi was in the process of marshalling its troops into S/RS ranks, there were V8 Jaguar S-Types, God knows how many different varieties of fast Subaru Impreza, even Volvo had a crack. It was pretty much only the French that didn’t get stuck in.

    Blame marketing. Blame the halo effect. In the early Noughties, it was sound business practice to uprate a standard family car in the hope some of its speed, kudos and swagger would rub off on the rest of the range.

    So the Carlton put its head above the parapet and every hand-wringer shot at it, while every marketer knew a good thing when he saw it and copied it. The trouble was that like everything marketing touches, it was a short-lived fling before the Next Big Idea arrived. Things moved on – it wasn’t that speed fell out of fashion, but that the saloon itself did. The family car class broke apart: crossovers, SUVs, estates, hatches, any combination of these. Where’s the saloon to even make super these days?

  • Germany is the answer, of course. And, boy, have there been some examples we could cite. Narrowing it to two was tough. The M5 V10 sounded like a diesel at start up and had a proper head-banger of a sequential gearbox, but that nat-asp V10... it felt far too exotic to spend its life in the engine bay of a 5 Series. And the 2008 C63. I clearly remember that coming out. It blew me away: the noise of the 6.2-litre V8, the muscle, the sense it could barely cope. Pretty much the opposite of the Impreza RB5. I remember this for its control, balance and easy speed. Not as nutty as an Evo, but the best Impreza of them all, I’ve always thought. That came out in 1999; 18 years later we got the Alfa Giulia, which proves that marketing has no new ideas. Doesn’t matter a jot – how happy are we to know that there’s
    still life in the most mischievous car class of them all?

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  • Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio

    Alfa Romeo has made a brilliant car. After years of modestly capable (Giulietta) or actively underwhelming (4C), Alfa has finally built a belter. The Giulia is great. Full stop. End of.

    We crowned the Giulia QV our car of the year, which tells you most of what you need to know. The fact we now have a long-termer with reliability issues tells you the rest

  • Subaru Impreza RB5

    Everything that matters to a driver, a real driver, has been worked on, from the firm ride to the feel of the handbrake. Overtaking happens in the time it takes to say “stop dithering” 

    There were more limited-edition Imprezas than there are stars in the night sky, but this is the one we remember most fondly. Because the P1 understeered and the 22B was a myth, wasn’t it?

  • Mercedes C63 (W204)

    Yes, yes. A fast, focused Merc that you can enjoy on a circuit. This is the beginning of an important awakening for the three-pointed star and we approve 

    The car that proved Merc could do chassis as well as engines. 6.2-litre V8 provides the shove, carefully honed set-up gives it just the right balance of control and hooliganism

  • BMW M5 V10

    On every objective scale, the new M5 obliterates. It takes what we previously considered supercars and belittles them, patronises them into insignificance. It’s complete in its authority 

    The most specialised M5 there’s ever been. V10 is a costly thing to run these days, but future generations will see this as the most motorsport M5 of them all

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