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?...
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:
On sale 1975-1985
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.
On sale 1983-1998
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.
On sale 1984-1991
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.
On sale 1993-1996
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.
On sale 1995-2004
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.
On sale 2003-2009
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.
On sale 2005-2009
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.
On sale 2004-2012
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.
On sale 2012-2020
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.
On sale 2014-present
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.
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