Currently reading: Top 10 best sport saloons 2022
Slotting beneath super saloons in the motoring hierarchy, these more affordable alternatives are still guaranteed to entertain

When you’re in the business of testing the latest and greatest new cars, you invariably devote a great deal of effort, brainpower and words defining and expressing what separates a truly great supercar, sports car or hot hatchback from one that is merely very good.

And while that’s often a captivating process, it’s important to remember one universal truth: that, for most of us, the very best kind of driver’s car is the one you can afford. It’s the one you can justify to yourself. Often it’s also the one that suits the kind of driving you’ve got in mind for it; that will best serve your practical purposes, too; and which makes you feel content and secure - and sufficiently unselfconscious - to want to own and be seen in it.

It’s that particular happy real-world compromise that the cars in this top ten chart are intended to address. The sport saloon is a time-honoured vehicle concept too little written about these days, because upper-level ‘super’ saloons are easier to write headlines about or to get mind-blowing laptimes out of.

Generally, sport saloons are less powerful than super saloons but they’re also more affordable, more usable, often more compact, less highly strung and easier to enjoy on public roads. Many are four-wheel drive, making them suited to being driven every day, all year round and almost wherever you fancy. Some are more understated – stealthy, some might say – than others. And yet the very best still count as absolutely first-class driver’s cars based on the involvement they provide and how often they can be enjoyed.

Stand by to find out which fast four-doors deliver for a smaller outlay.

1. BMW M340i xDrive

As you'd expect, it's the tarmac-shredding and sideways-smoking M3 that steals all the BMW 3 Series headlines, but the recently facelifted M340i xDrive is arguably a more rounded proposition for most. The combination of its 369bhp turbocharged straight six engine, its agile all-wheel drive handling, its roomy, well-equipped and solidly hewn interior and its BMW-brand desirability make it so complete as a sport saloon that – as the 3-Series has for so long – it deserves to be the default choice in this class.

With adaptively damped M Sport suspension as standard, the car has specially tuned suspension geometry and axle kinematics to take it above the already high dynamic standards of a regular 3-Series. Our testers report that, while it’s got a firmer and shorter-feeling ride than other Threes and feels more aggressively firm over certain sorts of surface, it remains a very livable and civilised compromise well-enough suited to the rigours of the everyday.

The car adopts a standard torque-vectoring locking rear differential, too, in order to make even better use of its rear-biased xDrive driveline; and that adds just a touch of throttle-adjustable cornering poise to the car’s handling, depending on selected driving mode. The car’s fast, smooth and sweet-revving when you want it to be, then; but can feel surefooted in bad weather, or lithe and lively if you prefer. The price has crept up to nearly £60,000, but its a pill worth swallowing when you consider that the M340i really has, and does, it all.


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Bmw m340i

2. Alfa Romeo Giulia Veloce

A multi-cylinder engine would be a bit of a miss for any sporting Alfa Romeo, when so many have come with such memorable V6s over the years. That caveat, as well as a classier-feeling cabin and more adjustable electronic stability controls, are really all that prevent this car from topping our sport saloon pile. There can certainly be no doubting that, in terms of handling balance, incisiveness and all-round driver appeal, the Giulia Veloce has what it takes to stand out.

A chassis of unequalled dynamic agility and super-direct steering makes this car feel more like a sports car, at times, than a practical five-seater. It has really wonderfully well-balanced grip levels also, and deserves a properly switchable stability control system that might allow you to explore and exploit those grip levels to maximum amusement. Sadly, the range-topping Quadrifoglio is the only Giulia on which you can fully deactivate the electronic nannies, although the Veloce does at least get a limited slip differential.

Alfa’s turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine gives the car a healthy 276bhp, and it sounds fairly pleasant and revs freely by 4-cyl turbo standards. It’s just a shame that’s not quite what the chassis is worthy of, or what rivals for the same money will provide; because in other ways this car is little short of brilliant, especially when you consider it's priced at a whisker over £46,000 and that a facelift in 2023 will bring subtly updated looks and vastly improved interior tech and finish.

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97 Top 10 best sports saloons alfa romeo giulia veloce

3. Mercedes-AMG C43

The Mercedes-AMG C43 gave us our first glimpse of the high performance four-cylinder powered C-Class, which would ultimately lead to the plug-in hybrid C63 that has so far received a lukewarm welcome. Unlike its more muscular brother, the C43 does without the high voltage electricals, getting instead for the same turbocharged (the compresser is assisted by an electric motor for less lag) 2.0-litre that is here linked to a 48V mild hybrid system. The result is 402bhp and 369lb ft of torque - figures that trump the old V6-engined model.

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As you'd expect, the latest C43 lacks the aural character of its predecessor, but the four-pot is a smooth and eager performer, plus with a 0-62mph time of 4.6 seconds this isn't a slow car. It feels posed and nimble in the corners too, with direct and well-weighted steering, stong grip and good body control. Yet despite its 4MATIC all-wheel drive transmission promising a 31:69 front to rear torque split, the Merc doesn't have the same rear-driven feel as the BMW M340i, preferring instead a more neutral stance that bleeds into understeer at the limit. 

Everywhere else it's pure C-Class, which means a cosseting and beautifully finished cabin (that's a trifle overdone with tech), plus top notch cruising refinement - although the ride remains firm even in the softest adaptive damper settings. It's also hobbled by a price tag that's the thick end of £10,000 more than its BMW arch-rival.

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4. Peugeot 508 PSE

Peugeot’s sportiest-option 508 saloon (it's really a hatchback) comes in plug-in petrol electric guise only, which makes it a top option for company car users looking for some fun outside of the 9 to 5. With its combination of turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol and a pair of electric motors, the PSE (that's Peugeot Sport Engineered) delivers a healthy 355bhp, yet can travel 26 miles in EV mode and attracts a 14% BiK rating (which isn't outstanding by hybrid standards, but knocks the others here, bar the Tesla, into a cocked hat).

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More importantly for our purposes, the 508 handles with appealing directness and keenness, demonstrating a rare combination of control and compliance that used to be a French car calling card. The Peugeot dives into corners with enthusiasm and clings on hard, while you can feel the rear-mounted electric motor trying to straighten your line at the exit of corner. Yet all the time, the PSE is breathing with surface, allowing you to pick apart a twisty stretch of tarmac with a satisfying fluidity.

The hybrid powertrain also has strong in-gear performance (once the slightly clumsy transmission has decided which ratio to pick), which makes it perfect for give-and-tack back roads as well as picking off slower traffic. And when you want to relax, the hushed and smooth riding Peugeot delivers, the sense of calm enhanced by a boldly designed interior that's almost matches premium players for material richness and solidity. Vive le difference!

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5. Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4MATIC

Smaller can quite often mean better when you’re comparing one driver’s car to another. Does it mean as much, then, in the case of Mercedes’ smaller, lower-order-AMG, four-door coupe: the CLA 35? Frankly, it depends what you’re comparing it with.

The CLA is, for starters, the smaller of two Mercedes four-door coupes, and does offer much more of the elegance and style of the bigger CLS for a cut-down price than the original CLA managed. Being part of Mercedes’ compact-car model family, however, the CLA is less practical, arguably, than even an A-Class hatchback. Meanwhile, being transverse-engined, it’s only ever four-wheel drive in fairly transient and qualified terms, and can’t compete with natively rear-driven 4WD options for throttle-on handling balance.

The ‘-35’ suffixed AMG version uses a 302bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo engine which has plenty to recommend it, as does the car’s meaty, tactile steering and its measured-yet-composed ride and handling. The car’s two-pedal, twin-clutch gearbox is less slick, though, and can disappoint with its roughness as well as its unpredictability. 

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92 Top 10 best sports saloons mercedes amg cla 35

6. Audi S3 Saloon

Audi’s four-door S3 didn’t become a part of the wider S3 model family until the third-generation car arrived in 2013, but quickly seemed to make itself at home in the model range thereafter. It was therefore no surprise this swift saloon was a part of the all-new A3 line-up that debute in 2020. Once again, this model since below the growling, howling RS3 in Audi's compact performance car pecking order.

Whichever way you cut it, the new S3 looks more aggressive than before, sharing as it does the standard car's more angular design complete with its subtly flared wheelarches. However, under the skin it's surprisingly similar, with a development of the MQB scalable architecture and the time-honoured EA888 turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder motor that delivers a decent 306bhp and drives all four wheels through a Haldex controlled transmission. Like all cars with this engine, the S3 is a smooth and lusty performance, with plenty of low down muscle and a linear power delivery that delivers 0-62mph in 4.8 seconds.

Also unchanged is a driving experience that's a little reserved, the Audi's speed being delivered through a luxury filter which kills some - although far from all - of the fun factor. It always feels poised and planted on the road, and when the weather turns bad few can keep up, but as an involving driver's tool it trails the best, including the Mercedes-AMG CLA35. And if you don't tick the box for the optional adaptive dampers, then you can throw a firm ride into the mix too.

Elsewhere, trademark Audi design appeal comes together with plenty of material cabin quality to give the car unrivalled premium appeal, and as swift and easy-going small saloon to live with day in and out, it takes some beating.

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Audi s3 saloon

7. VW Arteon R

Like the Peugeot 508, the Arteon is actually a hatchback, but its sleek lines fool you into thinking it's a saloon and that's a good enough reason for its inclusion here. Following the demise of the Passat, this is now VW's standard-bearer in the increasinly small D-segment. Handome lines and a high quality interior help it compete with premium rivals for showroom appeal, while this version makes it onto this list because its suave exterior hides the heart of a Golf R, meaning its got the performance chops too.

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As with the Audi S3, the Arteon features the tried-and-tested EA888 2.0-litre four-pot, although here its tuned for 316bhp to deliver 0-62mph in 4.9 seconds, but as always with this motor it's the lusty mid-range and linear delivery that mark it out. It's aided by four-wheel drive traction that allows slingshot exits from slower corners, roundabouts and junctions, while the seven-speed twin-clutch auto serves-up smooth an quick shifts.

There's no escaping the fact the Arteon is a big car, but it handles with poise and precision nonetheless. The steering is slick and features a natural rate of response, while there's plenty of turn-in bite and limpet-like grip as the the car swivels nicely around your hips. There's very little adjustability and only enough feedback to give you the basics when it comes to what's going on at ground level, but the VW is still a fast and satisfying device for picking apart a favourite back road. Factor in a spacious cabin, decent ride comfort and strong refinement, and the German machine represents a fine choice for those seeking a rapid family hack that can do it all.

Volkswagen arteon r

8. Audi S4

For Audi to decide to switch so many of its brisk but businesslike ‘S express’ sporting derivatives from petrol- to diesel in 2019 was a bold decision, especially considering the fall out from dieselgate over the last few years. It’s also a key sign that some of the most thorough engineers and key decision-makers in the car industry still accept the notion that, for those who want both real-world speed and drivability from a sport saloon as well as efficiency and refinement, there is still nothing to beat a big diesel engine.

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And so a big diesel engine is what the Audi S4 now comes with. Specifically it’s a turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 diesel with a 48-volt electrical architecture and an additional electrically driven turbo in the mix, producing 336bhp and 516lb ft. That’s enough to send this car to 60mph in 4.6sec thanks to a very effective launch control system and quattro all-wheel drive transmission. From there the car rifles through the intermediate ratios of its eight-speed automatic gearbox very quickly indeed, piling on speed without really giving you much cause to notice.

The S4 is easy to drive quickly and very assured with it, although the driving experience it creates isn’t terrifically exciting or rich. That V6 isn’t particularly memorable to listen to, and while it’s ever-composed, the car’s handling only comes alive and begins to engage you really if you commit to over-driving it; which, on the road, you’ll likely seldom if ever do. That said, if you want to cover ground quickly, discreetly and surprisingly efficiently, then the S4 derserves a look.

93 Top 10 best sports saloons audi s4 tdi

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9. Jaguar XF P300 R-Dynamic

Considering how much of Jaguar’s sporting reputation has been built by big-engined, rear-driven sport saloons, it’s surprising to find how scant the choice has become for Jaguar buyers who want a smooth multi-cylinder engine and the purity of a driven rear axle in their modern fast four-door. In fact, it's become impossible, because neither the XE or the XF offer such a combination anymore, which is as depressing to write as it no doubt is to read.

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Today, those looking for a quick and capable big cat saloon are limited to a 296bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre that's mated to an all-wheel drive system that's driven through an eight-speed automatic. If you want rear-drive only, then power drops to 247bhp, which is just a little weak-kneed in the sports saloon club. Both the XE and XF are available in the higher powered spec, but our preference is for the latter, which offers much of the same driving experience but with a roomier and more upmarket interior.

Happily, the XF is a particularly sweet-handling option. Naturally paced, intuitive steering and a supple chassis deliver both poise and ride comfort in impressive measure to make this P300 the Jaguar saloon you’d pick from the current crop. And while purists might miss rear-wheel drive, the rear-biased all-wheel drive set-up gives a similar feel on the road but without the risk of an unexpected sideways whoopsie. Obviously, the weakest link is that engine, which is fairly characterless and, with a 0-62mpg time of 7.1 seconds, should be considered brisk rather than quick.

It’s not nearly as roomy as a BMW 5-Series or Mercedes E-Class and isn’t much smaller than either, but it does feel spry and engaging on the road in a way they don’t. Plus, with Jaguar having slashed prices, is £47,000 window sticker makes it something of a bargain in this company.

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Jaguar xf p300

10. Tesla Model 3 RWD

This might be Tesla's entry-level model, but with around 240bhp to play with, rear-wheel drive and sleek saloon body it certainly fits the bill for this line-up, especially as the range-topping Performace version is closer to super saloons in terms of outright urge. The American EV is certainly brisk enough for inclusion, its rear-mounted motor delivering smooth and instant torque that allows it to feel quicker in real world situations than its 5.8 second 0-62mph time would suggest. 

It handles neatly enough, with precise steering combining with the low-slung battery pack to create a sense of agility as the Model 3 corners fast and flat front entry to exit of a bend. There isn't much in the way of feedback and the car can get ragged when pushed to its limit, especially when the over sensitive electronic safety system intervene, but dial your commitment back a touch and the Tesla covers the ground in a fast and flowing manner.

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Elsewhere, you'll either love or loathe the minimalist interior layout with its widescreen infotainment screen, but it's roomy, comfortable and refined, while quality appears to be improving. And while the claimed range of 240 miles isn't much to write home about, you do benefit from the brand's extensive Supercharger network for fast and easy battery top-ups.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

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Paddy Asphalt 24 May 2020

What will this list look like in 5 years?

My previous 3 cars have all been straight-six 3 and 4-series BMWs, so it's no surprise that one has topped this list; they are superb.

But as the previous poster suggests, how long can people justify spending £50k (before options) on cars that are less efficient, less advanced and less quick than an EV at the same price-point? 

I now own an EV and I won't go back. I'm really excited about BMWs first venture into the EV market in this segment. Until then my Model 3 gives me a huge smile every day.

275not599 24 May 2020

Tesla's problem here in

Tesla's problem here in California is terrible delays for spare parts and accident repairs.  The post sales infrastructure has by no means kept pace with the push to maximise production.  If you live in the UK, how far away is the nearest Tesla certified body repair facility?  0-60 in 3 seconds is nice but accident to fixed in 6 months isn't.  It's a problem all over the forums but the Tesla-can-do-no-wrong folks say "just email Elon".  Hah!

sbagnall 24 May 2020

Thought these teslas were to

Thought these teslas were to clever to crash?!?!!?!????
Govno 2 24 May 2020

Thank god no Model 3 here on

Thank god no Model 3 here on the list - it looks terrible