Every What Car? Car of the Year since 1978 - which do you remember?

Being named What Car? Car of the Year is the highest honour a car can receive – here is every winner in the 41-year history of the award.....

12 Jan 2020 20:39

In January, we'll celebrate the best cars in every market and name our overall Car of the Year for 2020 at the annual What Car? Car of the Year Awards.

What Car? Car of the Year

The list of previous winners includes models that have gone on to be huge sellers, including the Ford Fiesta, Volkswagen Golf and Nissan Qashqai.

What Car?'s influence on car buyers is second to none and built on a relationship of trust with our readers that has been earned over more than 40 years.

Ahead of the reveal of the 2020 What Car? Car of the Year - to be announced on Tuesday night - here's every winner since the award's inception in 1978. Have you owned any of them?

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1978: Renault 20 TS

Renault 20 TS front three quarters

Launched in 1975, the Renault 20 was an executive car that eventually went off sale in 1984. It stood out in the inaugural year of our awards thanks to its vast interior, peppy performance and keen pricing.

Indeed, the 2.0 TS version of this big saloon cost just £4724 when new, while the impressive list of cars it beat to the title included the Alfa Romeo Alfasud, Lancia Beta and Saab 99 Turbo.

1979: Peugeot 305

Peugeot 305 side profile

Sold as a four-door saloon, estate and van, the Peugeot 305 offered big-car luxury and practicality for a very tempting price.

In fact, as we wrote at the time, it had "an air of class unusual in 1300cc cars". Minor niggles included confusing controls and whining from the gearbox, but overall this was a very civilised family car. If you wanted more pace, a more powerful 1472 SR model was also available.

1980: Vauxhall Astra

Vauxhall Astra front three quarters

The very first Astra gave Vauxhall a significant boost in the family car market. We liked its engaging handling, which made the car almost as fun to drive as the Alfa Romeo Alfasud, although that came at the expense of a comfortable ride and slightly firm steering.

Still, there was more space inside than in the rival Volkswagen Golf, plus better rear legroom.

1981: Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen Golf GTI front three quarters

Designed to be a modern, front-wheel-drive hatchback, the first Volkswagen Golf set a precedent for quality which still exists today.

It's the hot GTI version that we named as our Car of the Year in 1981, offering "a unique blend of sporting prowess and family practicality with a very wide appeal".

1982: Mercedes 200T

Mercedes 200T

Part of Mercedes' successful W123 family, the 200T estate featured a lively 2.0-litre engine with 107bhp. It offered all of the interior luxury and quality with which the brand had become so closely associated, yet keen pricing actually meant it was cheaper to buy than executive rivals such as the Ford Granada.

"Mercedes quality is on offer at a reasonable price and in an attractive and practical format," we wrote at the time, "with the prestige thrown in for free."

1983: MG Metro

MG Metro front three quarters

Sold first by British Leyland and latterly by Rover, the Metro is an icon of British manufacturing – in fact, this was the first time that our Car of the Year accolade had come to home turf.

The MG Metro represented value for money, offering keen drivers lively performance and engaging handling, topped off by enough practicality to use it every day. It proved to be a popular choice, too, selling twice as fast as forecasts predicted.

1984: Peugeot 205 GR

Peugeot 205 GR front three quarters

A practical family hatchback, the Peugeot 205 would later spawn one of the best hot hatches of its time, the 205 GTI.

It may be the GTI models that are remembered most fondly today, but even the run-of-the-mill versions were really good to drive compared with other small hatchbacks of the era. The 205 could even achieve about 40mpg, helped by the fact it had a five-speed gearbox at a time when its big rivals, such as the second-generation Volkswagen Polo, only had four gears.

1985: Volkswagen Golf GL

Volkswagen Golf GL

The second generation of Volkswagen's family hatchback again took our top honours, this time with the GL version. We liked that more than 30mpg was achievable in everyday driving, with 40mpg recorded on the motorway.

Performance from its 1.6-litre petrol engine was "sparking", we said, although on the negative side, ventilation was poor and the view out of the back window was restricted.

1986: Saab 9000 Turbo 16

Saab 9000 Turbo 16

Saab's 9000 executive car gained a sporty turbocharged version soon after its launch, and boy was it good. As we noted at the time, "the Saab 9000's rare combination of thrilling turbo performance, quick and forgiving handling and roomy hatchback practicality put it ahead of all the other contestants to make it not just Best Director's Car, but also our overall Car of the Year for 1986".

1987: Renault 21 Savanna GTX

Renault 21 Savanna GTX front three quarters

"Take the refined, rapid and roomy Renault 21," we wrote in our 1987 Awards issue, "add a stylish estate tail with space for a third row of seats, and the result is the fast family Savanna GTX. It's the best of many worlds." Need we say more?

1988: BMW 7 Series 735i

BMW 7 Series 735i front three quarters

The Mk2 version of BMW's 7 Series luxury car had 205bhp and a top speed of 144mph, but what really caught our eye was that despite offering the kind of rear space and luxury that the rich and powerful looked for in their chauffeur-driven limousines, it was also excellent to drive, offering peppy performance and engaging handling.

As a bonus, the 735i was also almost £25,000 cheaper to buy than its larger V12-engined sibling, the 750iL.

1989: Ford Fiesta 1.1LX

Ford Fiesta 1.1LX front three quarters

1989 marks the first time that Britain's best-selling car appears on this list. The Fiesta was now available in both three- and five-door forms and came with more economical petrol engines and revised suspension that set new standards in terms of both ride and handling.

In short, Ford had ironed out the few bugs of the original model, and in doing so created a masterpiece in the small car class.

1990: Rover 214 Si

Rover 214 Si

Launched in 1989, more than half of all Rover 200 models were sold in the UK. Good thing too, because this was the car Rover had to get right.

A joint venture between Rover and Honda, the 214 offered an outstanding amount of space inside, with a luxurious interior to match. The 1.4-litre K-series engine was good to start with, but history has shown that it wasn't a reliable choice.

1991: Rover Metro 1.1L

Rover Metro 1.1L

The Metro, now made by Rover rather than British Leyland, makes its second appearance as our Car of the Year.

Rover had gone through the faults of the original Metro and eliminated them one by one, leaving a car that was smooth, fun to drive, with responsive steering, and a pleasure to drive long distances on the motorway. In its small car category, the Metro saw off competition from the Peugeot 205, Renault Clio and Citroën AX.

1992: Volkswagen Golf 1.8 GL

Volkswagen Golf 1.8 GL

It's a hat-trick for the first three generations of the Volkswagen Golf: this time it wins in mid-range GL form.

We felt that underneath its sensible, restrained image, there was great flair to this Golf. "This is the product of a confident company," we wrote. "A car that shuns glitz and glamour in favour of the deeper virtues of reliability, quality and durability."

1993: Ford Mondeo 1.8 GLX

Ford Mondeo 1.8 GLX front three quarters

The original Ford Mondeo was an instant hit, carving out a new niche for 'Mondeo Man' in the UK.

It raced to the front of the family car pack, leaving rivals such as the Nissan Primera, Peugeot 405 and Vauxhall Cavalier behind, thanks to its excellent interior quality and refinement. It also came with a standard driver’s airbag – something few rivals offered.

1994: Peugeot 306 1.6 LX

Peugeot 306 1.6 LX

Peugeot's replacement for the ageing 309 was virtually identical underneath to its sister car, the Citroën ZX.

We praised the 306 for its mile-munching ability on the motorway, plus its first-rate handling and excellent brakes. It was safer than a lot of rivals too, with side-impact door beams and optional anti-lock brakes. A class-beating insurance rating also made the 306 one of the cheapest hatchbacks to own.

1995: Volkswagen Polo 1.3 CL

Volkswagen Polo 1.3 CL

The third-generation version of Volkswagen's small hatchback had grown in size both inside and out, but it remained a perfectly practical choice in this growing market.

In fact, it nudged cars in the class above for space, practicality, refinement, comfort, safety and equipment. As we noted at the time, it was "a class leader whose supremacy seems destined to last".

1996: Peugeot 406 2.0 LX

Peugeot 406 2.0 LX

1996 was a bumper year for new cars, so that the Peugeot 406 argued the most convincing case overall makes its win even more impressive.

"The 406 is so clearly superior to everything else in its class, except in top-end performance and rear-seat space," we wrote.

1997: Renault Mégane Scénic 1.6 RT

Renault Mégane Scénic 1.6 RT

Soon renamed the Scénic, this stylish car helped to define the MPV segment. Renault created a roomy and versatile five-seat people carrier with a big boot, yet one that also occupied no more space than a conventional hatchback.

The fact that it was also good to drive, had lots of clever storage space and cost just £1400 more than the regular Mégane hatchback only sweetened the deal.

1998: Land Rover Freelander 1.8i

Land Rover Freelander 1.8i

Land Rover opened up new markets with the Freelander, earning it our top accolade. This was an SUV that was less off-road focused but still offered buyers the raised driving position and practicality with which off-roaders had become associated.

The Freelander was immensely popular, too, so much so that plenty of examples still exist on the used car market.

1999: Rover 75 1.8 Club

Rover 75 1.8 Club

Probably Rover's best-known executive car, the 75 ceased production in 2005, but not before gaining a good reputation among company car drivers for offering a credible alternative to established German rivals.

Its interior was luxurious and its seating position comfortable enough to let you while away the motorway miles while still feeling fresh at the end of the journey.

2000: Skoda Fabia 1.4 16V Comfort

Skoda Fabia 1.4 16V Comfort

The very first Skoda Fabia hatchback was a triumph, blowing the competition out of the proverbial water with its mixture of low running costs, smart and practical interior and keen pricing. It was also available in saloon and estate forms.

2001: Ford Mondeo 1.8 LX

Ford Mondeo 1.8 LX

Having achieved its status as one of the best-selling family cars in Britain, the Ford Mondeo again scooped our top honour in 2001.

This Mk2 Mondeo was a brave move for Ford, with a new focus on quality and driving enjoyment. The result was a car that, no matter what you did with it, was better than both the old Mondeo and better than its key rivals. As our Awards issue from that year notes: "We rate it more highly than many small executive models with snob-value badges and prestige-marque prices. It really is that great."

2002: Toyota Corolla 1.6 VVT-i T3 5dr

Toyota Corolla 1.6 VVT-i T3 5dr front three quarters

Despite the ninth-generation Toyota Corolla launching in Japan in 2000, it took a full two years for it to reach the UK.

When it did, we liked its improvements in drivability, practicality and rear leg room. Comfort and composure were excellent in all conditions, and it was nearly as fun to drive quickly as the rival Ford Focus.

2003: Seat Ibiza 1.2 12C 5dr

Seat Ibiza 1.2 12C 5dr side profile

Underneath, this Ibiza shared its structure with the Volkswagen Polo, another former Car of the Year.

The Ibiza underlined the progress Seat had made as a company since joining the expanding Volkswagen Group in the 1990s, and also how far small hatchbacks had come in offering buyers excellence for a low price. "Quite simply," we wrote, "never before has so much car been within the reach of so many."

2004: Volkswagen Golf 1.6 FSI S 5dr

Volkswagen Golf 1.6 FSI S 5dr side profile

This version of the Golf proved to be incredibly practical, offering a bigger boot than the previous model while also being better to drive, cheaper to run and roomier for passengers.

The 1.6-litre FSi engine could return a combined 44.1mpg, while the list of standard equipment included a CD player, electric front windows and remote central locking. "With such rounded abilities," we wrote, "no car better fills our brief of fitness for purpose."

2005: Land Rover Discovery TDV6 S auto

Land Rover Discovery TDV6 S auto front three quarters

The third-generation model of Land Rover's big-selling SUV blurred the lines between luxury and practicality.

It was, in a way, three cars in one. Firstly, it was an executive cruiser, quiet and comfortable and loaded with kit. Secondly, it was a family-friendly MPV with space for the kids, their toys and the kitchen sink. And thirdly, it was one of the most capable off-roaders around.

2006: BMW 3 Series 320d ES

BMW 3 Series 320d ES

The fifth-generation BMW 3 Series quickly established itself as a benchmark car in the executive market. This 320d version was every bit as sharp as you'd expect from a BMW, making it a good choice for keen drivers.

It was its refinement, though, that really helped to secure a win, as this was now the quietest executive car on sale. Add in space for your family and their luggage and plenty of equipment and it's easy to see why the 3 Series was our overall winner.

2007: Vauxhall Corsa 1.4 Club AC 5dr

Vauxhall Corsa 1.4 Club AC 5dr

This version of the Corsa small hatchback was also a very practical choice for families, with a good amount of room inside and a very economical range of engines.

2008: Jaguar XF 2.7D V6 Luxury

Jaguar XF Mk1 studio front

Jaguar's replacement for the S-Type was a more modern approach to the executive saloon. That meant impressive refinement and handling – which you'd expect from a Jaguar – but also small luxury touches that elevated it beyond the realms of German rivals.

The V6 diesel engine we recommended wasn't the most economical in the range, but as we noted in 2008, some things are worth paying that little bit extra for, and this was one of them.

2009: Ford Fiesta 1.25i 82 Zetec 5dr

Ford Fiesta 1.25i 82 Zetec 5dr

Our introduction to this new Fiesta tells you everything you need to know about how much we liked what was to become Britain's best-selling car: "Just occasionally, a car comes along and belts you between the eyes as soon as it turns a wheel. This year, that car is the Ford Fiesta."

It proved to be an excellent all-rounder, covering the needs of buyers so thoroughly that its domination of this market lasted right up until its death in late 2017.

2010: Peugeot 3008 1.6 THP 150 Sport

Peugeot 3008 1.6 THP 150 Sport front three quarters

Clever thinking is a trait among our Car of the Year winners, and so the 3008 was a stroke of genius by Peugeot.

Nissan might argue that it started the small SUV trend, but Peugeot took the idea, refined it and ran with it. The 3008's looks divided opinion, sure, but its interior was universally appealing, with plenty of storage space and large seats. It was comfortable to drive, too, and to be a passenger in.

2011: Audi A1 1.4 TFSI Sport

Audi A1

Combining desirability with agility, the A1 gave buyers wanting a small hatchback with a premium badge somewhere to put their cash.

The A1 had the Audi hallmarks of head-turning style and impeccable interior build quality, plus a peppy 1.4-litre petrol engine to boot. "The A1 is a car that makes you smile for any number of reasons," we wrote, "and will keep you grinning as all great cars do. That's exactly what the A1 is – a great car."

2012: Volkswagen Up 1.0 75 High Up 5dr

Volkswagen Up 1.0 75 High Up 5dr front three quarters

The Up's blend of interior quality, refinement, space and maturity set new standards in the city car class, and while this baby Volkswagen felt most at home in town, it was also not averse to munching up miles on the motorway.

In fact, more than one member of our judging panel at the time summed it up by saying that the Up was "the right car for the right time".

2013: Audi A3 Sportback 1.4 TFSI 122 SE

Audi A3 Sportback

In many ways, the A3 Sportback was just an evolution of what had come before, but that was no bad thing when what came before was already excellent.

In fact, the small improvements to refinement and interior quality in this version made it a stand-out winner, good enough in almost every respect to worry cars from the class above. Keen pricing sealed the deal on its Car of the Year win. The model has endured well - it's now our reigning Used Car of the Year too.

2014: Nissan Qashqai 1.5 dCi Acenta 2WD

Nissan Qashqai 1.5 dCi Acenta 2WD

The original Nissan Qashqai was the car that kick-started the trend for family SUVs, but this second-generation version is the one that really secured its place in history.

With striking looks, a high-quality interior and low running costs, it quickly became a common sight on UK roads and remained our favourite family SUV until the arrival of the storming Seat Ateca in 2016.

2015: Skoda Fabia 1.2 TSI 90 SE

Skoda Fabia

Although it's now getting on a bit, the Fabia remains one of the most well-rounded cars on sale, offering outstanding interior space, a range of refined yet punchy engines and an excellent price.

2016: Audi A4 3.0 TDI 218 Sport

Audi A4

The A4 set new standards in the executive saloon market, which is difficult to do with rivals from BMW and Mercedes close behind.

Its interior is better both in terms of quality and materials than any other rival, and its diesel engine offers impressive performance without sacrificing fuel economy or CO2 emissions.

2017: BMW 5 Series 520d SE

BMW 5 Series

Some were surprised to see the new BMW 5 Series entered into the luxury car category in 2017's awards, but the fact is that it's comfortable, refined and luxurious enough to challenge long-standing luxury cars that cost a lot more.

The 520d diesel engine we recommend offers the best balance of performance, price and running costs, while SE models come with all the equipment you're likely to want.

2018: Volvo XC40 D4 R-Design

Volvo XC40 D4 R-Design front three quarters

Competing in the fast-growing family SUV segment is a tough challenge, but the Volvo XC40 stood out in 2018 thanks to its mix of comfort, quality, safety and style.

It excels in all the areas that are important to buyers. Our independent tests even proved that in some cases, the XC40's diesel engines emit less NOx than plenty of petrols, while offering the low CO2 output that made diesels so popular in the first place. In short, the XC40 is a stunning achievement.

2019: Kia e-Niro

Kia e-Niro front three quarters

This year marked the first time in the history of our awards that we gave the Car of the Year trophy to an electric car.

But if ever an electric car was deserving of our top honour, the Kia e-Niro is it. With a real-world range of more than 250 miles, yet with a price tag which places it within reach of more people than ever before, the e-Niro feels like a turning point for electric cars. Add in that it's also well equipped and decent to drive, and it's easy to recommend.

2020: Find out soon

What Car? Car of the Year 2020 logo

The 43rd annual What Car? Car of the Year Awards will take place on the evening of Tuesday 14 January at an event at Grosvenor House in central London - which car will join this illustrious club? You'll find out then.

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