Currently reading: Top 10 best super saloons 2021
Take a sensible saloon, give it a powerful engine, retune the dynamics and you're onto a winner - but which super saloons dominate our top ten?
Autocar
News
10 mins read
18 March 2021

The super saloon market remains, as ever, fairly small but fiercely competitive. The German big three still have a huge presence, although perhaps aren't as dominant as they’ve have been over the years, with changing emissions legislation having shaved away the meat of certain performance brands’ model ranges – and opened the door for others to move in.

In the past few years, we’ve seen the return of Alfa Romeo to the segment. The Italian marque’s Giulia Quadrifoglio is an epic sports saloon and will soon be joined by even more hardcore GTA and GTAm models. It goes without saying that we’re phenomenally excited about their respective arrivals. Meanwhile, BMW’s decision to remove the standard M5 from sale in the UK has bumped it from the top spot, with the brand new, challenging-looking but brilliant-handling M3 Competition usurping it.

As ever, power and performance figures are getting more and more impressive - with some of the cars in this list now churning out in excess of 600bhp. But output alone isn’t enough to grab the top spot. Finally, sense may be returning to this segment, and cars with just-so power and proportions, and performance well-balanced against real-world usability, are coming back to the fore.

1. BMW M3 Competition

We are now onto the sixth-generation of the BMW M Division’s M3. For many it may not seem quite the attraction it used to be, with the two-door coupe body it once called its own having been pinched by the M4. Even so, few performance cars mean so much to their manufacturers as this, and few represent such a huge event when a new one comes along.

Like every current-generation 3-Series, the ‘G80’ M3 has put on just a little size and weight relative to its predecessor, but has also changed somewhat under the skin. This is the first M3 you can have with four driven wheels, and the first that has ever come with a torque-converter automatic gearbox. There’s a six-speed manual available in come markets, too; but BMW UK offers only the choice between rear-drive and all-paw configurations both with the automatic ‘box.

Meanwhile, a new twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre straight six comes in under the bonnet codenamed ‘S58B30T0’, which makes just over 500 horsepower for the car but also quite a bit more torque than the old ’S55’ 3.0-litre managed.

While the styling of this car is certain to divide opinion, the M3 Competition’s  drive is easily good enough to work as a balm for your reservations. Superbly taut, poised and precise handling, allied to a superbly balanced chassis and one of the best steering racks you’ll find in any saloon in the world, truly set this car apart. As usual in an M3, the engine is cast in a slightly supporting role, but it has great response, linearity and clout when you call for it.

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The new M3 is the super saloon class’s new benchmark. For its distinguishing blend of driver engagement, outright pace, everyday usability and performance value, nothing here is better.

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2. Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio

The Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio missed out on a class-leading berth here by the skin of its teeth. Excellent handling, a composed ride and gorgeous looks are order of the day - all key traits for any serious contender in this segment.

Its Ferrari-derived turbocharged V6 is also enthralling – not quite as potent or bombastic as the V8 in the C63 S, and not quite as flexible as the M3’s straight six, but with its own distinct appeal. Handling, meanwhile, is as lithe, balanced, direct and sports-car-like as it’s possible to find in anything with four doors – and very engaging with it.

Overall, this car marks a stellar return to form for a brand that had been floundering for some years. The only real shortfall - and it’s a relatively small one - is the interior, which is a bit lower-rent than those offered by Mercedes-AMG and BMW.

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3. Mercedes-AMG C63 S

The Mercedes-AMG C63 S has had to fend off some serious competition to land a spot in the podium of our super saloons best-of list – not least from bigger brother, the E63 S. More importantly, you’ll have to move very quickly indeed if you want to buy one, with production of the ‘W205’ C-Class on which it is based now at an end, and the C63’s AMG successor set to abandon V8 power for good.

The phenomenal naturally aspirated 6.2-litre V8 of this car’s predecessor is still much missed, but the twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre V8 that replaced it is by no means short on character or power.

While the C63’s ride is firm and unisolating, its handling is engaging, accurate and readily, benignly adjustable, while its steering tactile and confidence-inspiring. The automatic transmission complements the engine brilliantly.

There is a noticable amount of road noise, but the addictive nature of its V8 powertrain more than makes up for this. This is a seriously impressive, old-school piece of kit that we like very much; and, frankly, we’re distraught to see it go.

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4. Alpina B3

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You might wonder why, when we've already given the latest B3 the full road-test treatment and awarded it an exceptionally rare five-star verdict, this Alpina doesn't sit even further up this list.

The short answer is this: the road-test star was the Touring variant, and the B3's ever-so-slightly more laid-back character in comparison to either the AMG C63 or Giulia Quadrifoglio suit wagon duties to perfection. It means the B3 Touring is simply one of the greatest all-rounders of all time.

However, for an out-and-out super-saloon, the B3's four-wheel-drive chassis doesn't grab you quite as hard as the others, though this isn't to say it does not still grab you very hard indeed. In a first for Alpina's take on the 3-Series, the new car uses the same straight-six engine as the M3, albeit in a different state of tune. Power falls to 456bhp but torque rises to 516lb ft. And it's that torque in the first half of the rev-range, combined with M-power grunt up top, than gives the B3 its supercar-like turn of pace.

On the move, you're also treated to Alpina's comprehensive revisions to the suspension hardware and geometry, torque-split, braking system and steering of the BMW M340i xDrive on which the B3 is based. The result is one of the most sweetly resolved and intuitive performance cars on the road, and one that's easier to live with than either the AMG or Alfa.   

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5. Alpina B5 Biturbo

Alpina has always done things in a slightly different way than the M Division when it comes to creating quick BMWs, favouring a more laid back approach that gives us fast saloons with impressive comfort and refinement on road as well as first-order performance.

The B5 Biturbo is more of the same, but this latest-generation model now boasts four-wheel drive and a 600bhp 4.4-litre V8, so while it may be set up with comfort in mind, it’s certainly no slouch. Standard spec is generous, the cabin is plush and the handling gives little up to the M5 on road or track.

The more reserved styling makes for a nice contrast to the more aggressive designs employed by rivals, too. All round, it's a typically appealing package.

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6. Mercedes-Benz E63 S

If there was only one reason that the Mercedes-AMG E63 S deserved your attention – and there are considerably more than one, by the way - it would have to be its ballistic engine.

That 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 churns out 603bhp and a mind-bending 627lb ft of torque for an official 0-62mph time of 3.5sec. In a mid-sized four-door saloon or, indeed, estate car. Crikey indeed.

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So, it’s certainly powerful, but there are a few small niggles to report of the E63 S, too. Despite switching to air springs, its outright body control and ride aren't quite what they used to be, the former lacking a little bit of outright damping authority and the latter feeling stiff-legged at times.

This is still a very impressive car, though, and its Drift Mode feature is a riot; but the E63 S just lags behind its smaller, leaner rivals for all-round driver appeal.

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7. BMW M5 Competition

BMW’s decision to drop the standard M5 from sale in the UK and replace it with the decidedly more hardcore M5 Competition hasn’t been without its consequences. Although the new car might be a sharper, faster more focussed and more engaging driving tool, it’s also one that’s not quite as well-suited to life on UK roads.

A comprehensive suspension overhaul is key in this respect. Changes that include lowered and stiffened springs, increased negative wheel camber at the front axle, new front anti-roll bar mountings and ball-jointed, rigid rear suspension mountings all contribute to a heightened level of agility and incisiveness on challenging stretches of asphalt. But the byproduct is a hard-edged ride that’s prone to feeling restless and agitated on the sorts of rough surfaces that make up much of Britain’s road network.So it’s not quite the multifaceted, supremely competent all-round super saloon that it once was. But if you can live with the M5 Competition's more aggressive demeanour, it remains one of the most thrilling four-doors money can buy.

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8. Audi RS6 Avant

Okay, so the Audi RS6 Avant isn’t a saloon, but we’d be remiss to exclude Ingolstadt’s most iconic model from this list. Unsurprisingly, this new C8-generation car builds on the strengths that the RS6 has become known for over the years, majoring on power, traction and practicality. But while its predecessors were historically fairly reserved in their styling, this one, well, isn’t.

It certainly has the performance to match its overtly aggressive exterior, too. Admittedly, its 591bhp and 590lb ft might not quite be a match for the likes of the E63 S, but there’s enough firepower here to get the RS6 from 0-60mph in a staggeringly short amount of time. With our road test timing gear hooked up, we saw a fastest run of 3.28sec and a 3.3sec average.

But while the RS6’s straight-line pace is undeniably immense, its 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 isn’t quite as outlandishly characterful as the Mercedes-AMG's. And although its four-wheel steering and torque-vectoring sport differential allow it to feel far more agile and incisive in its handling than any of its predecessors, it’s still not quite a match for the best in class when it comes to driver engagement.

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But as a fast, immensely surefooted and surprisingly comfortable super wagon, there are few cars out there that appeal in quite the same way as the RS6 undoubtedly does.

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9. Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 4Matic+

Mercedes’ now world-famous in-house tuning company ushered in a new dimension to its model portfolio when it launched this, its first petrol-electric hybrid: the CLS 53.

Rather than a howling monster V8 engine, there’s a very modern turbocharged straight-six under the bonnet that, using both conventional and electric induction compressors, produces 429bhp at peak power. Torque is less easy to claim for, since the car also has an electric motor downstream of the engine that can add up to 184lb ft into the driveline to supplement the engine’s 384lb ft. Mercedes doesn’t quote a ‘total system’ torque figure, and most of the hybrid system’s assistance is done at lower revs, where it couldn’t combine with that engine torque figure anyway.

Still, this car certainly performs like a big four-door saloon-cum-coupé with plenty of torque to deploy; it’s only one-tenth slower than the old CLS 63 S from 30-70mph through the gears and has very convincing initial throttle response indeed.

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Ride and handling aren’t as hardcore as in Mercedes-AMG’s V8 models, but that’s entirely the point. This is a car with genuine near-40mpg touring ability and driving experience refined and calm enough to serve as either a bahnstormer or a well-mannered long-distance grand tourer. And it does both pretty well.

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10. Tesla Model S Performance

We couldn’t leave this one out. Slightly over-isolated controls, under-developed on-the-limit handling behaviour and an air-suspended chassis that doesn’t communicate particularly well are certainly disappointments we’ve noted on both occasions that we’ve road tested the Tesla Model S.

You might well decide that you don’t care about such things, however, when wrapping your head around the notion of a mid-sized, zero-emissions saloon with more than 600bhp and 700lb ft of torque, a battery range that gives close to 400 miles on a charge and 0-62mph performance that, Tesla claims, can be as low as 3.0sec when the battery’s fully charged and conditions are just right. We’ve never timed a Model S going quite that quickly, but then we’ve never timed the Performance model.

As part of a recent price realignment, Tesla slashed the asking price of a top-of-the-range Model S from more than £130,000 down to below £90,000, so you could argue there’s never been a better time to take the electric super saloon plunge.

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