Currently reading: Top 10 best mid-size executive cars 2021
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This class of car needs to be comfortable, refined, spacious for adults, and capable of a bit of driving pleasure when the occasion takes, so which cars make our top ten?
Autocar
News
10 mins read
6 October 2021

The mid-size executive class champions premium-worthy quality, long-distance comfort and refinement and adult-occupant-appropriate space, although cars with a dash of performance and handling dynamism inevitably stand out in within it.

These cars spend a great deal of their lives out on the motorway, so refinement is key; but so is the right benefit-in-kind classification. A good plug-in hybrid powertrain is increasingly important to making the case to own & run an executive car as a fleet option, and in some mid-size execs that PHEV version is better than in others.

The office car park status conferred by a desirable premium badge is a vital part of the equation in this chart also. These, then, are our mid-sized executive favourites.

1. BMW 5 Series

BMW’s latest 5 Series is in many ways the quintessential and defining mid-sized executive saloon, having had its reputation honed and refined over the course of a developmental history that's now in its 50th year.

The car sets a high standard in the segment as far as perceived cabin quality is concerned; it makes a very comfortable long-distance tourer in pretty much any engine and trim you might choose; its best engines also offer first-rate performance and drivability, and very creditably real-world efficiency too; and its rear-driven handling poise makes for plenty of sporting appeal when you go looking for it, without compromising on ride comfort.

A range of plug-in hybrid powertrains make the car very easy to recommend to both fleet drivers and private owners. Both the 530e and 545e would qualify for a 2021 BIK tax banding of 11 per cent; and while the latter comes exclusively in saloon-bodied, four-wheel drive form, the former can be had in any driveline configuration or bodystyle you might want.

Meanwhile at the richer but more traditional end of the 5-Series engine spectrum, plenty of reward might be found for opting out of the company car scheme altogether. The current 5-Series M Performance derivative, the M550i xDrive, does a very convincing and appealingly laid-back impression of an M5 super saloon for a much more accessible price, while there's still plenty of driver appeal about a 530d - and plenty of real-world fuel economy and versatility also.

This car may not be quite as sweet-handling as a Jaguar XF but, considering where executive saloons spend most of their time, it has huge and very relevant strengths. BMW's infotainment and driver assistance technology is a notch above most rivals also, particularly for the impressive configurability of the car's active safety system.

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The distinguishing completeness of the 5 Series earns it top honours here.

Save money with new BMW 5 Series deals from What Car?

2. Mercedes-Benz E-Class

The Mercedes-Benz E-Class is the sort of executive option that prioritizes driver comfort, onboard luxury, occupant safety and all-round ease-of-use over outright driver engagement. The cabin – updated for 2020 – is a luxurious place to sit and, combined with the car's excellent active driver assistance systems, would go a long way to make long-distance commuting pleasurable.

Mercedes offers abundant choice on propulsion, with electrification now playing a leading role. The entry-level mild hybrid options offer 154bhp in petrol form and 158bhp for the diesel. At mid-level, the E300e is a full petrol-electric PHEV while the E300de is diesel-electric, with both cars being quite evenly matched for price and performance (although, predictably, the diesel delivering better real-world long-distance fuel economy). And further up the range still, buyers can choose from a couple of straight-six diesels; there's also the six-cylinder turbocharged E450 warm petrol option; and only then do you get to the rarefied and expensive levels of the mild-hybrid AMG -53 and full-fat AMG -63 performance versions.

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Whichever version you plump for, the E-Class' character is certainly more laid back and traditionally luxurious than that of an equivalent BMW 5 Series or Jaguar XF. It wouldn't be as composed when driven quickly, but might soothe away motorway miles more effectively.

Save money with new Mercedes E-Class deals from What Car?

3. Jaguar XF

Some things don't change - and some things do. Jaguar’s XF remains the best-handling car in this segment, for example, just as it has been for more than a decade, combining deft handling characteristics with a supremely comfortable ride. However, the car was made quite a lot more rationally appealing as part of a wide-ranging facelift and price realignment at the turn of 2021, and it now beats most of its premium-brand direct rivals for outright value, if not for the breadth of its model range, the spaciousness of its cabin or the fuel-efficiency of its engines.

The XF comes with a choice of three engines: two turbocharged four-cylinder petrols, and a mild-hybrid four-cylinder diesel. There's no plug-in hybrid option, and as yet there's no sign that there will be in future. Even so, the car's lowered showroom prices might still appeal to some fleet operators, and the D200 diesel remains capable of a WLTP-affirmed 57.2mpg on the combined cycle. Four-door saloon and five-door estate bodies remain available; four-wheel drive is standard on the range-topping P300, and optional on both the P250 and D200.

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Inside the cabin, perceived quality and digital systems sophistication have both taken sizeable leaps. Jaguar's latest Pivi Pro infotainment system is a vast improvement on the XF's old setup, while the car's fixtures and fittings are much closer to matching the most upmarket cars in this class.

Save money with new Jaguar XF deals from What Car?

4. Tesla Model S

The very first mainstream electric luxury car is still among the best executive saloons of its size. It now boasts almost 400 miles of the range even on the stringent WLTP cycle, while the prospect of one per cent benefit-in-kind tax might well mean it appears as a high-end fleet option for some.

The Model S is also, to use official terminology, ludicrously quick in a straight-line and can seat as many as seven passengers: something no other car on this list can manage. What prevents it from placing higher are questionable interior fit-and-finish, ordinary and remote dynamics, and the high asking price. Even so, only a good car could remain this appealing, both on paper and in daily use, at such a ripe old age; and the arrival of the widely updated version to UK shores is imminent.

Save money with Tesla Model S deals from What Car?

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5. Volvo S90 & V90

Sliding in to round out the top half of our order are the Volvo S90 and V90. The striking design of these cars is shared with its Volvo rangemates but it remains a strong selling point so many years after we first saw these cars. Volvo's strong focus on standard safety equipment - a big tick for family-minded buyers - is likewise.

Also strengthening the Volvo’s case are a stylish, spacious and materially inviting interior and comfortable, easy-going on-road performance and handling manners; just what you want in handsome, no-nonsense family transport.

Similarly to the Mercedes E-Class, the S90 has been geared more for comfort than driving appeal, meaning it comes in behind the likes of the BMW 5 Series and Jaguar XF, which excel on both fronts. It's also lately become a pricey option; what is now the only engine option for the S90 - Volvo's near-400-horsepower plug-in hybrid T8 Recharge - means the car can't be had for less than £55,000 in the UK (although the V90 is cheaper).

Updated plug-in powertrains are expect in both cars soon, and will likely make them more compelling fleet contenders.

Save money with new Volvo S90 deals from What Car?

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6. Audi A6

Handsome-looking thing, this A6 is isn’t it? While it might bear a remarkable resemblance to the larger A8 limousine and A7 Sportback, to many of our testers here at Autocar Towers the A6 represents the most successful execution of Ingolstadt’s new-age design language.

It’s a technological wonderland too. Audi’s latest dual-screen MMI digital architecture is a particular highlight within the monochrome-cool confines of the A6’s spacious cabin, while the Virtual Cockpit digital instrument layout is as impressive as ever.

To drive it remains refined in the classic Audi sense; power comes from a range of silken-edged, mild-hybrid petrol and diesel motors which provide the A6 a respectable amount of shove even at the entry level. It rides well, too, and is impressively agile through the bends. There are now two TFSI plug-in hybrid versions with good-sized batteries, both of which offer more than 40 miles of claimed electric range (and a seven-per-cent BIK tax qualification) in the right equipment specification.

Unlike the BMW 5 Series of Jaguar XF, the A6 fails to really engage as a driver’s car. To some, its church-like isolation, refinement and tech appeal will be a massive draw; it’s not quite enough to see it rise to the top here.

Save money with new Audi A6 deals from What Car?

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7. Genesis G80

Genesis is the nascent luxury car brand of Korea's ascendent Hyundai-Kia Group, and the G80 is its mid-sized executive option. Having only been launch in Europe in 2021, the car's available with a choice of four-cylinder petrol- and diesel engines for now, with an all-electric derivative just down the pipeline. There will be no plug-in hybrid, but Genesis will hope that fleet-minded motorists will simply cut out the middleman and jump straight into the G80 EV when it's launched in the UK in 2022.

Genesis's buying model is the really new thing it offers: one by which you can order a car entirely online, have it delivered to your door, collected for servicing, and then taken away at the end of it all without ever setting foot in a showroom, or dealing with an employee who earns his crust on sales commission. The G80 itself is more conventional: a roomy, refined, soft-riding, natively rear-driven saloon that's big on onboard technology and perceived quality, even if it may be a bit generic and anonymous to look at - at least, until we get used to it.

Save money with new Genesis G80 deals from What Car?

8. Skoda Superb

The Skoda Superb is big on many things: size, interior space, comfort and value for money.

In a class largely populated by upmarket rivals, the Superb undercuts the vast majority as far as value for money is concerned, although it clearly doesn’t boast the same levels of badge prestige and desirability.

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Still, buyers will be drawn to the Superb’s comfortable and refined drive, as well as its cavernous interior. Real-world fuel economy isn’t quite as good as Skoda would have you believe, but running costs should certainly be low for fleet drivers who plump for the big-on-value Superb iV plug-in hybrid, which can be had for less than £40,000.

Save money with new Skoda Superb deals from What Car?

9Volkswagen Arteon

Volkswagen's extra-desirable executive option, the Arteon, had a facelift in late 2020 and now comes with a choice of fastback saloon or shooting brake estate bodies, as well as with plug-in hybrid power if you want it. And those two changes broaden the appeal of the car considerably, because in our view the estate body adds to the car's visual appeal while the petrol-electric powertrain will strengthen the rational argument to choose one.

The eHybrid version uses the VW Group's increasingly ubiquitous combination of 1.4-litre TSI petrol engine and 113bhp electric motor, and it's front-wheel drive only: so this isn't the quickest or the most exciting PHEV on the market. It is refined and drivable, however, and a claimed WLTP electric range of up to 35- to 37 miles (depending on bodystyle) translates into about 25- in mixed real-world use.

Conventional turbocharged, four-cylinder petrol engines are on offer too, with as much as 316bhp in the case of the Arteon R; and there are also 148- and 197bhp 2.0-litre diesels.

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Longer-range, petrol-only economy is a little disappointing in the case of the PHEV. The Arteon also has limited dynamic appeal whatever the contents of the engine bay. But as a roomy, alternative modern fleet option that'll cost you less than some, it's worth considering.

Save money with new Arteon deals from What Car?

10. Lexus ES

Gone is the old Lexus GS from UK shores. In a bid to boost its sales volume on the continent and here in Britain, Lexus has replaced its old rear-driven saloon with this more sensible ES - the firm’s best-selling four-door saloon in markets other than ours.

Lexus would likely argue that the ES’s biggest draw card is the fact that it’s only available as a hybrid here in the UK, coming in the form of the ES 300h. Its based on the same TNGA GA-K architecture as the latest Toyota RAV4, meaning there’s a 2.5-litre four-pot up front, which is supplemented by an electric motor for a combined output of 215bhp.

Around town is where the Lexus is most in its element. Here its hybrid powertrain is at its smoothest, while the ability to run for brief periods on electricity alone means it achieves decent fuel economy too. 

Does it hold a candle to the likes of BMW, Jaguar or Mercedes in terms of outright desirability or dynamic appeal? Not really. While the ES is comparably comfortable and impressively solid-feeling, its cabin lacks the usability of its German rivals, and its infotainment system is borderline infuriating to operate at times. Being front-driven, the car also lacks the natural rear-drive balance of the likes of the BMW 5 Series and Jaguar XF, and its powertrain doesn't respond keenly to being worked hard.

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