The best cars in the history of What Car?

For the past couple of weeks, we've been asking readers to name the best car launched since What Car? magazine first went on sale in 1973. Now it's time to reveal the winner.....

With so many new car launches on ice, we recently decided to look back at some of the greatest cars in the history of What Car?

Greatest cars in our history

We made the case for 10 outstanding models, and then asked readers to vote for the best of the lot. There's obviously no right or wrong answer to a question like this. So we worked to get together a shortlist of 10 cars, with models chosen from throughout our nearly five decades of helping Britain choose its next car.

First up, the shortlist, with commentary from the team member who's championing the car in question. And then, at the end, of the gallery, we announce the winner. Let’s take a look:

1970s: Mercedes-Benz W123

Mercedes W123 saloon

On sale 1976-1986 | Number sold – 2.7 million (worldwide)

The W123 is the equivalent of today’s E-Class but, because the E-Class name didn't exist back then, W123 is the common name – derived from the internal Mercedes model code – for the generation of this Ford Granada-rival that was sold between 1976 and 1986. To get really geeky about it, we named the estate version What Car? Car of the Year in 1982, and technically that was called the S123. We’re not anoraks, though, so let’s stick to W123 as a catchall term for what was offered as a saloon, an estate, a coupé and even a limousine.

Here’s a car that positively radiates Mercedes’ old-school ethos of absolute engineering integrity. Indeed, the W123 is considered by many as ‘over engineered’ and, as a firm favourite of the German taxi trade, examples would rack up 600,000 miles with only minor work to keep them in good fettle.

But the W123’s reputation went beyond a workaday taxi. Here in the UK, as well as all around the world, this was a highly sought-after car. Its classless, understated elegance (especially the coupé version) and benchmark quality meant that W123 owners of the day included the great and the good, including John Lennon, Franz Beckenbauer and Kevin Keegan. Even the dear old Queen Mum kept one in her fleet.

1970s: Mercedes-Benz W123

Mercedes W123 dash

And it was tough. It isn’t Land Rovers that feed the automotive appetite of Africa, though, but W123s. Today, they are still stolen to order from the leafy streets of Hampstead and shipped out to the Mother Continent. Indeed, in some parts of North Africa, half the cars on the road are W123s.

So come on, think about it. A car that was good enough not only for royalty and a former Beatle, but is still loved by much of a continent. How can the W123 not be the winner? JOHN HOWELL

1980s: Peugeot 205

Peugeot 205 rear

On sale 1983-1998 | Number sold 5.3 million (worldwide)

The current regime at Peugeot must be sick to death of talk of the 205. Every car the French brand has launched since – good, bad or mad – has immediately been compared to this achingly pretty 80s classic. And I’m as guilty as anyone.

But anyone fed up with continual comparisons to the 205 would do well to remember that Peugeot’s very existence today owes no small debt to this fabulous little hatchback. And if that isn’t a good enough reason to vote it the greatest car of the past half a century, I’m not sure what is.

When the 205 first arrived in Britain in late 1983 – at a time when Peugeot had major financial worries – it made other small hatches of the time seem positively antiquated. And we’re talking about the modest ‘everyday’ versions of the 205 at this stage, like the 1.4 GR that picked up our overall Car of the Year award in 1984.

1980s: Peugeot 205

Peugeot 205 GTi

And then the GTi hot hatch arrived in 1984 (pictured). First came the 1.6 GTi, which won our Sporting Car of the Year award in 1985 and 1986 and beat rivals like the Fiat Uno Turbo, Golf GTI and Renault 5 GT Turbo along the way. Then in 1987 a new and more powerful 1.9 GTi snapped up the award and ultimately became the poster child for the 205 range to this very day.

Both GTi versions were utterly joyful to drive, with the sort of direct steering that channelled the surface of the road to your fingertips like no modern car could hope, perhaps with the exception of ‘toys’ like the Lotus Elise.

1980s: Peugeot 205

Peugeot 205 GTI interior

Admittedly, with fairly fat tyres and no power steering, the payoff was a serious upper-body workout whenever you attempted to park your GTi but, hey, you'd pay good money for that down at your local gym these days. Even lesser versions of the 205, especially the mildly sporty XS and GT models, were great fun.

While the company’s current line-up is unquestionably the best for decades, still nothing has quite hit the heady heights of the 205. It is, I reckon, the greatest car we’ve ever tested. WILL NIGHTINGALE

1980s: Renault Espace

Renault Espace 08

For a car to be considered the best, it should go beyond being merely good or even clever. It needs to be an absolute gamechanger that revolutionises not just the class it competes in, but cars as a whole. Sure, the Espace is no longer on sale in the UK, but you can see its influence in many of the best family cars on sale today, whether they’re MPVs, SUVs or even hatchbacks.

The Espace was designed from the very outset to carry seven adults in comfort while delivering a car-like driving experience. Originally conceived in the 1970s by Chrysler, the idea was developed by French firm Matra for the long-defunct Simca brand before that was sold to Renault.

This rather convoluted development process could have ended in disaster, but it resulted in a car packed full of features that were almost unheard of. Each of the seven passengers got their own full-sized chair, with the five rear seats able to fold flat into a table or be removed from the car entirely. There was even enough room for adults to travel in the rearmost seats.

1980s: Renault Espace

Renault Espace 03

Although the boot wasn’t huge with all seven seats in use, the Espace had plenty of cargo space in five-seat mode and was positively van-like with all five rear seats removed. Because it had a flat floor behind the rear seats, sliding in long, heavy loads was also a piece of cake. What makes all of these features all the more impressive is that the Espace was shorter than the average family saloon at the time, so even parking it wasn’t much of an issue.

So it all falls apart in the bends, right? Not at all. We commented on the Espace’s “strong roadholding and surprisingly agile handling” when we compared it to its closest rivals of the day, which included a regular estate car (an Austin Montego) in 1985. Although it was a little firmer than some rivals, it was more than comfortable enough.

Although the SUV has most definitely replaced the MPV as the de rigueur family chariot, the things we celebrated so much in the Espace are still copied to this day. Whether it’s the ability to accommodate seven people like the Peugeot 5008, remove the rear seats for more boot space as seen in the Skoda Karoq, or an uncanny ability to handle bends despite being quite tall, like so many modern SUVs and MPVs can, the Espace did it first. ALAN TAYLOR-JONES

1990s: Ford Mondeo Mk1

Ford Mondeo Mk1 1993 front tracking

On sale 1993-1996 | Number sold 434,400

It’s a rather cruel world that has come to see the Mondeo as the very embodiment of the typical, unremarkable family car, and it seems to be only an enlightened few that give credit for just how significant the first version truly was. After 11 years of the Ford Sierra, a car whose revolutionary looks masked an underlying porridge of dated, unremarkable components from the very beginning, the first Mondeo did things the other way around when it arrived in 1992.

This time there was nothing remotely confrontational about the looks, but its underpinnings were quite unlike anything Ford had produced before. The shift to front-wheel drive was perhaps inevitable, but the way the Mondeo was developed is indelibly inked in the history books as one of the greatest automotive turnarounds of all time, coming only shortly after the dismal Escort Mk5.

1990s: Ford Mondeo Mk1

Ford Mondeo 1993 RHD dashboard

At the car's media launch in 1993, Ford demonstrated that it really cared how the Mondeo rewarded its driver by wheeling out its engineers and designers, including development guru Richard Parry-Jones. He got very much involved in demonstrating the finer points of the Mondeo’s excellent dynamics. With such massive leaps forwards in driver appeal and safety, it must have come as some comfort to established Ford followers that certain values hadn’t changed. Posh versions sported an interior plush enough to force pricier brands to have something of a rethink when it came to what customers should expect for their money.

Deservedly, it sold by the bucketload but paradoxically this hurt it as it became ubiquitous. The phrase “Mondeo man” came to mean the legions of people that key political parties aimed to attract. Real, grounded people with goals, hopes and aspirations. In fact, by failing to properly capitalise on that latter quality, the Mondeo arguably accelerated the rise of such premium models as the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series, which massively outsell the Mondeo today.

Despite its brilliance, for many the Mondeo served as a mere stepping stone on the journey to driving something with a bit more cachet, and many buyers now choose to leap over that step altogether. Their loss. CHRIS HAINING

1990s: BMW 5 Series (E39)

E39 BMW 5 Series nose

On sale 1995-2004 | Number sold 113,207 (UK)

The fourth-generation BMW 5 Series never won our overall Car of the Year title. That’s right, the greatest car in What Car? history (at least IMHO) never received our most coveted award. That’s not to say we got it wrong back in 1996 when we instead gave the trophy to the brilliant Peugeot 406; it was, without question, a thoroughly deserving winner. But perhaps What Car? road testers of the period didn’t realise quite how dominant a force BMW’s new 5 Series was going to become, with the E39 going on to rack up an unprecedented seven What Car? category wins between 1996 and 2003.

What made the E39 5 Series so great? Well, if we look back to our first group test with the then new 5-Series in March 1996, it’s clear to see that BMW pretty much nailed the executive car formula right from the off. Not only was it more “captivating to drive” than the Saab 9000 and Mercedes E-Class thanks to its “enticing chassis”, but it was also the quickest car of the group, the most comfortable and featured the highest quality interior. It’s little wonder we ended our review with a prophetic quote: “We’ll be surprised if anything betters it for some time – unless it’s the imminent 2.8-litre 528i”.

1990s: BMW 5 Series (E39)

E39 BMW M5 dashboard

Indeed, buyers were spoilt for choice when it came to engines, with BMW offering a wonderful line-up of punchy straight-six and V8 petrols, plus a range of innovative diesels. The 530d in particular was something of a watershed moment for diesel executive saloons: we noted in 1999 that it was the first diesel to “lift matters onto a different plain” by coming “so eerily close to behaving like its petrol equivalent”.

And then there was the high performance M5 (M5 interior pictured). With a 394bhp 4.9-litre V8 up front, it was tyre-shreddingly potent, yet accessible, or as we put it at the time: “It’s a real Jekyll and Hyde car; an executive express one minute, as nimble and chuckable as a hot hatch the next”.

Not only did the E39’s compelling spread of talents net it an unprecedented number of consecutive Executive Car of the Year category wins back in the late '90s and early 2000s, but it still has the ability to surprise us. I can totally see why we gave it a lifetime achievement award just before it went off sale, and believe it’s done more than enough to be recognised as the best car in the history of What Car? I just hope you agree. NEIL WINN

2000s: Volkswagen Golf Mk5

Volkswagen Golf Mk5 front cornering

On sale 2003-2009 | Number sold 3.27 million (worldwide)

When the first Golf (below) arrived in 1974, the family hatchback class was in its infancy. Indeed, it was the Golf's huge popularity from the word go that inspired many others to enter the sector and which turned it into the colossal one it is today; even last year, three of the top five selling models in the UK were family hatchbacks, with the Golf the most popular of the bunch.

However, while this means you could argue a case for both the original and most recent variants to be named the best, personally I think the Mk5, produced between 2003 and 2009, represents peak Golf.

The fact that its interior set new standards for quality, ease of use and practicality was perhaps to be expected, given the progress its predecessors had made in these areas. But the Mk5 also represented a quantum leap forward in terms of the way it drove, thanks to its combination of a stiff, wide-bodied platform and all-round independent suspension.

2000s: Volkswagen Golf Mk5

Volkswagen Golf Mk5 dashboard

Even the Ford Focus, which had long set the standard for driving manners in this class, was made to feel a little ordinary, with our first group test of the cars pointing out that the Golf suffered "less body lean" and offered "sports car levels of grip".

That Volkswagen was able to achieve these things while retaining a composed and comfortable ride made the Mk5 Golf all the more of an achievement. And when we pitted the 1.6 FSI petrol version against five of its best rivals, we discovered that the Golf was the quietest cruiser of the lot, too. It was a unanimous winner of our Car of the Year award for 2004.

The following year saw the introduction of the high performance GTI model (above), and this was every bit as impressive, taking our Hot Hatch of the Year award. Perhaps the ultimate proof of the Mk5 Golf’s greatness, though, can be found in the way it stood the test of time. Even at the end of its life it was winning group tests, leading us to declare: "Volkswagen appears to have discovered the recipe for the perfect family hatchback." STEVE HUNTINGFORD

2000s: Land Rover Discovery 3

Land Rover Discovery 3 front tracking - silver 04-plate car

On sale 2005-2009 | Number sold 55,369 (in Europe)

The original Disco was loved from its 1989 launch for its excellent practicality and go-anywhere abilities, assets which meant it was just as at home at the heights of Zermatt as it was the wilds of Chelsea – and everywhere in between. But while it may have had all the charm of your favourite waxed jacket, by 2004 even its most ardent admirer would have to admit that, despite an extensive mid-life facelift, it was beginning to look and feel distinctly long in the tooth.

Enter its replacement, the Discovery 3 – a classy and impressively capable off-roader of such style and immense practicality that it not only scooped up our Large 4x4 gong at the 2005 What Car? Awards, it carried off the overall Car of the Year prize, too.

That victory wasn’t a surprising one; it was a quantum leap forward compared with its predecessor in all the important areas, and it displayed an incredible breadth of abilities. It was bigger, more practical, more powerful and much cheaper than the contemporary Range Rover. It instantly went to the top of the big off-roader class, being indomitable over the rough stuff and yet smooth and relaxing on Tarmac.

2000s: Land Rover Discovery 3

Land Rover Discovery 3 – Rewind Wednesday

Okay, so it was bulkier than the original Discovery, but it at least became a genuine seven-seater in the process. It was much more upmarket to sit in, too, the interior design being particularly well thought out with some really classy yet remarkably hard-wearing materials.

Then there was the great all-round visibility, even for passengers sitting on the third row who, thanks to that stepped roofline, sat higher than those in front of them. That cleverly designed rear end meant supreme versatility, too, with fold-flat seats in both the second and third rows allowing you to open up a load-bay big enough to land a light aircraft.

For me, this large and functional do-it-all vehicle is unique in being the first to genuinely offer the feel and the trimmings of a luxury car combined with the go-anywhere abilities of a truly formidable off-roader. As such, it was thoroughly deserving of our Car of the Year Award, and I think equally worthy of being the best car in our long history of superlative winners. MARK PEARSON

2000s: BMW 3 Series (E90)

BMW 3 Series (E90) front tracking

On sale 2004-2012 | Number sold 1,878,733 (worldwide)

The fifth incarnation of BMW’s small executive saloon was bigger than the previous E46 3 Series, but it wasn’t any heavier and that meant it was just as much of a joy to drive. Near-perfect 50:50 weight distribution gave it superb natural balance, and the combination of rear-wheel drive and direct, communicative steering endowed it with ballerina-like poise.

The reason I believe the E90 3 Series is the greatest car in What Car? history, though, is that it moved the game on significantly in terms of its green credentials and refinement, yet remained the best saloon for keen drivers. And it’s the humble 2.0-litre diesel-engined 320d that achieved this (remember diesels were fine back then), not a straight-six-powered leviathan from the top of the model range.

That it was crowned both Executive Car of the Year and overall COTY winner in 2006 demonstrates its superiority over models in other car classes. When it came time for handing out the prizes, we cited how the quietness of the 320d made it the preferred choice for any journey. “An empty road, a city at rush hour, a long haul on the motorway – we’d take the BMW every time.”  

2000s: BMW 3 Series (E90)

E90 dash

So why was the E90 head and shoulders above rivals? Because it set new standards for refinement and driving pleasure, and it’s not often that a car excels in both of these areas. It retained BMW’s all-important driver appeal; with 184bhp on tap, the 320d could sprint to 60mph in 8.7sec, and its combination of resolute grip, informative steering and stunning body control ensured it would remain surefooted – and immense fun – when hustled along a twisty B-road.

There were other advantages, too. With CO2 emissions of below 120g/km and average fuel economy of 49.6mpg, the 320d was affordable to run for private and company car drivers alike. It was pretty practical, too, with plenty of space up front and more rear leg room than its predecessor, the E46.

It was our executive car of the year eight times, beating larger models in some years, and it is the model that helped BMW lead the way in the executive class. CLAIRE EVANS

2010s: Audi A3 Mk3

Audi A3 Sportback - 62-plate car

On sale 2013-2020 | Number sold 175,380 (UK)

I’m willing to bet that in years to come this particular Mk3 version will represent peak mass-market automotive engineering. To explain and appreciate the greatness of the third-generation Audi A3, we need to start at the end of its life rather than the beginning.

Upon the arrival of a glamorous new Mercedes A-Class in 2018, we decided to pit the newcomer against two premium-badged rivals that were soon to be replaced: the BMW 1 Series and the Audi A3 Sportback. An easy win for the new Mercedes, right? Well, while the 1 Series was indeed blown out of the water by the A-Class, the A3 actually emerged as the winner. An astonishing achievement given that it was launched some six years earlier and the updates since had been small.

Outstanding on the road and practical inside, it was nonetheless the quality of the third-generation A3's interior that really stood out. For outright build quality, you could have pitted it against any car on the road, including super luxury models from Bentley, and the A3 would hold its own, I promise you.

2010s: Audi A3 Mk3

Audi A3 interior

And it was an ergonomic dream, too. Manufacturers now seem to be in a race to make their infotainment systems look as fancy as possible in a showroom rather than focusing on usability. Back then, Audi gave you a super-intuitive rotary controller interface, physical shortcut buttons, and a screen which the dashboard could swallow when you didn’t need it. Simple.

A lot was riding on the car when it was launched back in 2012 – first in three-door form and then swiftly followed by a five-door Sportback. And it was the latter that scooped our top gong at the 2013 What Car? Awards. So, while the third-generation A3 may have looked like a subtle evolution of what had gone before, it was actually a vastly superior car, in every way, to its predecessor.

And if that isn’t reason enough to get you impressed, the regular hatchback version spawned other hugely successful variants. There was a drop-trop, a saloon, hot S3 and RS3 models and even the plug-in hybrid A3 E-tron. Between them all, the A3 badge collected seven What Car? awards in as many years.

While other contenders in our greatest cars list can point to having a strong influence on the cars that followed them, the previous A3 was the finished article, with an interior finer to our eyes than that of the A3 Mk4 that will arrive on our roads this year. Quite something. DOUG REVOLTA

2010s: Nissan Qashqai

Nissan Qashqai 1.5 dCi Acenta 2WD

On sale 2014-present | Number sold 349,994 (UK)

The Qashqai is the book of Genesis in the bible of SUVs – it’s the model which started the trend for jacked-up family cars, which, despite having the appearance of rough-and-tumble off-roaders, don’t have the high running costs traditionally associated with them.

The first Qashqai, sold from 2007 to 2013, was good. This second-generation model (pictured), though, was great – in fact, we liked it so much that we named it our Car of the Year for 2014. The Qashqai’s 1.5-litre diesel engine is well suited to big trips, and especially to the steep inclines that you regularly find in the Lake District when I tested the current model. On the motorway trip up from London it was smooth and economical, and now in Wordsworth’s back garden it’s delivering the kind of low-end grunt that's extremely useful for scrabbling along single-track roads.

Combine that with light steering, which makes parking around town a doddle, plus a ride that’s comfortable over most surfaces, and hopefully you’re starting to get an idea of why I love this car. It’s practical, it’s good to drive and it’s reasonably priced too. In fact, it’s the car that’s come closest to being all things to all people that I’ve ever come across.

2010s: Nissan Qashqai

Nissan Qashqai interior

Nissan put a simply staggering amount of testing into the Qashqai, too, to make sure it was a car that could perform anywhere in the world. Weights were placed onto the car’s panoramic sunroof to see if it could withstand the force of a fully grown brown bear without breaking, while Mariah Carey’s greatest hits were used to stress test the stereo and see if any sound quality was lost during the highest notes.

I salute the Nissan Qashqai, then. Not just for being a great car, but for opening up a whole new market for buyers, and for doing it without losing quality or by charging a mammoth price. There’s a good reason why, walking along my street the other day, I counted six Qashqais in the space of five minutes. One family even had two. In some cases, that kind of popularity isn’t earned, but in the case of the Qashqai, I’d say the public has backed exactly the right horse. DARREN MOSS

And the winners is...

Peugeot 205

We polled our readers online, and a clear winner emerged: The Peugeot 205. It received nearly half the votes in total, beating the Mercedes-Benz W123 and Renault Espace into second and third place respectively. Well done Peugeot!

PS: Wondering why there was no Ford Model T or Jaguar E-Type on the shortlist? To be eligible, a car had to have been launched since November 1973. That’s when the very first issue of What Car? magazine appeared on the shelves of your local corner shop.

We also focused on mainstream cars that genuinely moved things on and made a difference for real car buyers, rather than hypercars that sold in tiny numbers (so that's why there’s no Ferrari F40 or McLaren F1, for example).

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