Best cars in What Car? history: how they've evolved

For the past two weeks, we've been looking back at the best cars in our 47-year history, but what are their modern-day equivalents like?...

Peugeot 205 and 208

What’s the greatest car What Car? has ever tested? It’s an argument that we often have in the office, so we recently decided to try and settle it by having our writers make the case for 10 outstanding models and then opening it up to readers to vote.

You can find out more about the cars in contention and how you can help pick the winner here. But it's also fascinating to look at how these innovative vehicles have continued to develop over the years. So, below we do exactly that, starting with the oldest on our list:

Mercedes W123 Estate

On sale 1975-1985

Mercedes-Benz W123 Estate

While our 1982 Car of the Year, the Mercedes W123 (above), obviously went off sale long ago, it's modern-day equivalent, the E-Class Estate (below), is one of the most practical and luxurious wagons currently on sale. We particularly like it in frugal 220d diesel form, but whichever version you go for comfort and refinement impress.

Mercedes E-Class Estate front tracking

Peugeot 205

On sale 1983-1998

Peugeot 205 GR

Most of the small Peugeots that followed the iconic 205 were pretty disappointing, but the brand is back on form with the latest 208, which stands out for its ride comfort, interior quality and hushed cruising manners. There's even a fully electric version, called the e-208, which is currently our favourite small electric car.

Peugeot 208 front - blue 69-plate carRenault Espace 11

The original Espace may have been a game-changer, but big MPVs don't enjoy the popularity they once did, so the closest thing in Renault's modern UK range is the smaller Grand Scenic. This still seats seven and comes well equipped, although plenty of rivals are more practical and better to drive.

2016 Renault Grand Scenic 1.6 dCi 160 reviewFord Mondeo Mk1 front tracking

Today's Mondeo sticks closely to the template of the original, combining an enjoyable driving experience with good practicality and a long list of standard equipment. It's just a shame it looks rather cheap inside, not only next to prestige-badged alternatives, but also the Skoda Superb and Volkswagen Passat.

Ford Mondeo hatchback frontE39 BMW M5 front

Like the earlier E39, today's 5 Series dominates its class, thanks to its intuitive and beautifully made interior, and near-perfect balance between ride comfort and agility. In 520d diesel form it's also a very fuel-efficient choice, while the 530e plug-in hybrid makes a lot of sense as a company car.

BMW 5 SeriesVolkswagen Golf Mk5 front cornering

Volkswagen recently launched an eighth-generation Golf, which sacrifices some of the simplicity of its predecessors' interiors for a more high-tech look. However, it retains the cosseting ride, tidy handling and hushed cruising manners that made the Mk5 such a favourite of both What Car? and UK car buyers.

Volkswagen Golf 2019 front left tracking LHDLand Rover Discovery 3 front tracking - silver 04-plate car

With each generation, the Discovery has moved farther upmarket, with today's car feeling every inch the luxury SUV. Yet it's still at home off road, thanks to class-leading ground clearance, a 900mm wading depth (also best in class) and a multitude of clever electronics.

Land Rover Discovery cornering front three quartersBMW 3 Series (E90) front tracking

The E90 3 Series won nine What Car? awards during its life, and while the latest car still has some way to go before it matches that, it already has three to its name. Strengths include hugely entertaining handling, strong and frugal engines, and the best infotainment system around.

BMW 3 Series 320d frontAudi A3 Sportback front - black

The interior of the latest A3 reinforces just how amazingly classy its predecessor was, because the new car doesn't feel as plush. However, it's still smartly designed, as well as quiet, comfortable and well equipped, so remains more than deserving of its premium billing.

2020 Audi A3 frontNissan Qashqai

The original Qashqai may have kicked off the family SUV trend, but the second-generation car – launched in 2014 – moved things on to such a degree that we named it Car of the Year. Practical, good to drive and temptingly priced, it was facelifted in 2017 and has only recently started to feel its age.

Nissan Qashqai
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