A brilliant combination that rarely disappoints, a great supersaloon can be just as much fun to drive as any supercar, and just as fast, too
It’s impossible not to see the appeal of a sports or supersaloon. They combine the practicality, usability and in most cases ubiquity of a family car with the engaging handling and firecracker powertrains of much more interesting machines.
This makes the high-performance saloon (or long-tail hatchback in a few cases) deeply desirable, and in many cases represents the ultimate everyday car. Within the broad bracket of a sports and supersaloon are many different forms, with everything from compact and balanced like the Jaguar XE to all-wheel-drive hot-rods that will comfortably overcome most high-end supercars at a drag strip or on track.
At the very extremity exists cars like the Jaguar XE SV Project 8 or Alfa Romeo Giulia GTAm – stripped out, caged up models that use their saloon chassis as a necessary delivery method for their extreme capability on road and track. Yet these ultimate four-doors were brief glimmers of brilliance in the car market, so here we’ll focus on saloons that are on sale right now.
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Typically the German manufacturers dominate this arena, with BMW M, AMG, Audi and Porsche all featuring some superb high-performance saloons at various levels of performance, price and capability.
Even better, despite the challenges facing traditional high-performance cars in 2023, the sports and supersaloon still has an immediate future thanks to electrification. This means that this list will likely look very different in 12 months' time as hybrid and electric powertrains lift the saloon to new heights of performance.
For now, only one EV has been included on our list, but with stalwarts like the M5, E63 AMG and RS7 going hybrid in their next iterations, plus a range of exciting new EVs from Lucid and, yes, Tesla well on the way, we’re about to undergo a massive transformation in the sports saloon space. For now though, pure IC still reigns, powering a range of superb high-performance four doors that are better now than ever.
- Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio
- BMW M3 Competition xDrive
- Mercedes-AMG E63 S
- Porsche Panamera GTS
- Jaguar XE P300
- BMW M5 Competition
- Porsche Taycan GTS
- Audi RS3
- BMW M340i
- Mercedes-AMG CLA45 S
The Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio has long been a firm evo favourite and after a light refresh in 2021 the Italian superstar has only cemented its place as a brilliant supersaloon.
The hardware that defines the Quadrifoglio remains largely unchanged, centred on a superb 90-degree twin-turbo 2.9-litre V6 that kicks out 503bhp. It’s mated to the rear wheels via an eight-speed auto that’s controlled from a pair of flamboyantly large aluminium paddles.
The body is equally exotic, with pumped bodywork that features a lightweight mix of carbonfibre and aluminium body panels only barely concealing sophisticated double wishbone suspension, multi-way adaptive dampers and those telephone-dial wheels. Oh, and did we mention it was developed by the same man that brought us the Ferrari 458 Speciale?
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On the move the Alfa’s Ferrari DNA isn’t hard to spot. The big giveaways are the wrist-flick quick steering and surprisingly supple ride. Yet it’s the car’s poise, balance and grip when really pushing on that leaves the deepest impression – this is a tremendously fast and accomplished machine that’s more engaging than anything else with four doors.
Sure, the optional carbon-ceramic brakes lack manners at low speed and the engine lacks some aural drama (although it endows the Quadrifoglio with a brutal turn of speed), but these niggles can’t detract from what is a sublime saloon.
Even better, the Alfa’s in store for yet another update later this year as it collects the same (again subtle) changes as the rest of the 2023 Giulia range. This will include a new set of LED headlights and some more updates to the infotainment as a minimum, but there might be yet more in store as we’ll soon come to find out.
If you were to tell a die-hard BMW M fan 20 years ago that the BMW M3 was now a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive saloon with a weight figure banging on the door of 1.8 tons, they might not have believed you. But as BMW M has proven time and time again, its ability to create brilliant performance cars through new generations of powertrain and chassis technology has meant the latest G80 M3 Competition xDrive is one of the finest M3s of all.
Available as both rear- and all-wheel drive, the xDrive is generally our choice as its compromise – namely a small rise in weight – is more than offset by the superb traction, grip and confidence its four driven wheels provide. If anything, the all-wheel-drive car feels even more energetic and spritely by being able to put more of its 503bhp onto the road more easily than the sometimes spikey rear-wheel-drive model. Yet the best bit is how brilliantly the torque transfer is managed between the two axles, with power being almost telepathically swapped between them with incredible finesse. This makes the M3 xDrive feel almost identical to the original, only with more traction and control.
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The M3 Competition’s other handling traits are also at full strength, with super-accurate steering, superb body control and brilliant balance allowing you to lean into its chassis, pushing the M3 up to and over its limit with fantastic poise and precision.
From a practical perspective, the M3’s also perfectly useable as a daily driver, with an excellent interior in terms of both build quality and tech, with plenty of space in the vast new cabin. In fact, this leads to one of its potential drawbacks and that is that it feels like a big car, despite its quite incredible turn of speed. And if the prospect of an all-wheel-drive M3 is still too much to handle, you can, of course, switch the all-wheel-drive system off altogether – or just go out and buy the rear-wheel-drive version.
The Mercedes-AMG E63 S is still just about on sale in the UK, but even after nearly six years it still hits with an incredible bite, and not just from its brilliant 604bhp M177 V8 engine. In 2021, AMG updated the E63 alongside the rest of the E-class range, introducing the usual range of subtle styling and technology updates that one would expect. Yet much more was done under the skin than initially meets the eye because the E63 fundamentally expanded its personality to become a much more rounded supersaloon.
Significant changes to the adaptive air suspension and variable dampers have made the E63 ride more calmly in its demure settings, dramatically improving refinement at low speeds. Another big change came in the E63’s exhaust as it comes with a new particulate filter that significantly changes the V8’s voice, and not for the better. Through throttled valves and speaker enhancement, the V8 just doesn’t have the charisma of its predecessor, but then this is a problem now affecting all its key rivals.
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Turn the right switches and press the right buttons and the updated E63 S is still just as bombastic as the original, even if the engine is a little less vocal. Like many AMG products, it’s the engine that dominates the E63’s driving experience, with the twin-turbo V8 delivering huge performance. Yet the AMG is far from being a one-dimensional driving device and as you scratch beneath the surface you’ll find deep reserves of talent and ability.
As has now been mimicked across the supersaloon domain, the E63’s 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system is still something it continues to use to great effect today. Like many of its contemporaries, it features a hooligan ‘Drift Mode’, which disconnects the front axle and allows you to vaporise a set of Michelins on the rear axle in minutes. Yet it’s arguably when left to its own devices that the transmission impresses most, as the AMG manages to combine the feel and balance of a rear-driver with stupendous traction when the going gets slippery.
Equally impressive is the way the Mercedes disguises its bulk, with absolute body control, impressive grip and quick steering allowing you to hustle it beyond what a near 2-ton saloon should be capable of. And, of course, there’s something laugh-out-loud hilarious about a car as refined and spacious as the big Benz that’ll also rattle off the sprint to 60mph in well under four seconds.
Is the Porsche a high-performance four-door coupe, a supersaloon or a luxurious limousine with an outrageous turn of speed? Regardless of how you view it, there’s no denying the Panamera GTS is a deeply impressive piece of kit. Despite its size and weight it still goes and handles with the alacrity you’d expect from a car bearing the Porsche badge.
Like the BMW M5 and Mercedes-AMG E63, the Panamera is powered by a twin-turbocharged V8, but in the GTS produces a somewhat more restrained 473bhp. Happy to leave the headline power, torque and performance figures to the more expensive and complex Panamera Turbo S, the GTS instead focuses on the driving experience, which suits us just fine. Even so, the GTS is still good for 0-62mph in 3.9sec and will merrily haul the Porsche along at 186mph.
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The relatively low outputs yield another advantage, as the GTS doesn’t just appeal by the ease with which its performance is generated, but also its ability to keep your foot planted just that little bit longer so as to enjoy the V8’s performance without excessively breaking the speed limit. The Panamera’s inherent refinement and capability makes it all too easy to break into some quite substantial numbers with, remembering, of course, the reality of needing to slow down such a heavy machine.
So many modern supersaloons are not just fast, they’re a little too fast to really enjoy on the public road. But the GTS’s lesser power figure doesn’t mean it feels underpowered. And it has all the character of its rivals, and compared to the Turbo S, its relative simplicity, too.
The BMW M5 is the evergreen entrant in this class – one that has long defined the term supersaloon. While the lead it held over rivals has eroded over the years in many ways, the latest M5 Competition remains just that little bit more pure to the brief.
It’s perhaps unsurprising to see the mechanical convergence at the top of the class, as most supersaloons now feature twin-turbocharged V8 engines, all-wheel drive and eight-speed automatic transmissions – but there’s something different to the M5’s character. Delve into its dynamic repertoire and you’ll find that despite its anodyne steering and meek soundtrack, the harder you push the better it gets.
Really study the specification and you’ll spot why – its coil-sprung suspension might lack the variability of its air-sprung rivals, but it reveals an innate connection with the road surface when you properly load the chassis into corners.
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Switch the all-wheel-drive system to its more heavily rear-biased, or indeed full rear-wheel-drive modes, and the car doesn’t lose any composure. Instead, you reveal that satisfying high-speed traction that the electronically controlled locking rear differential is able to generate.
It’s also really fast, as its generally underrated V8 engine (itself still rated at 616bhp) and lower than average weight figure fire it down the road quicker than all its main rivals. As a result of all these factors, the M5 Competition’s true talents only reveal themselves at higher levels – beyond the comfort level of most, if not all, direct rivals. The M5 is not the most instantly satisfying supersaloon – the E63 is more rambunctious, an Audi RS6 more accessible – but when pushed onto a higher plane neither can compete.
Remember the Jaguar XE? We nearly didn’t, but the compact executive saloon from Jaguar still has plenty of appeal as it remains just about the sharpest car in its class to drive. As of 2023 the most potent powertrain available is the 300 Sport’s 296bhp turbocharged 2-litre Ingenium 4 unit that, although effective reaching 62mph in 5.9sec, isn’t particularly sparkling in its performance or responsiveness. Gladly, the same can’t be said for its chassis, which is as balanced and capable as ever, with pin-sharp steering and rock-solid body control.
There’s real finesse to the way all XEs have been set up, both in rear- and all-wheel-drive forms, the latter feeling just like the systems in rival BMWs that support with added traction, rather than overwhelm the chassis with too much front-axle drive.
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Wrapping this sweet chassis is the same ageing, albeit still very attractive, body, which thanks to a major update in 2018 looks as sleek as the day it was launched. The story isn’t quite so peachy inside, as while quality and materials is good, it still uses an older version of JLR’s infotainment system, which isn’t great. It also seems to have less space inside than a modern mid-sized hatchback.
But there is an advantage to this somewhat old-fashioned sports saloon, and that’s an old fashioned price. As cars across the spectrum rise faster than almost everything around them, the Jaguar XE 300 Sport is priced from just £42,345. Being the top-specification variant, it’s also stacked with kit including leather heated and electric seats, 20-inch wheels, a high-end Meridian stereo and more. It’s worth remembering that a VW Golf R costs £500 more.
The sole EV in our list is the brilliant Porsche Taycan GTS, a supersaloon that’s not just good for an EV, but a brilliant car, full stop. Like the Panamera also in this list, honours go to the mid-range GTS, which finds the best compromise in outright performance for the sake of a more dynamically pure chassis.
The GTS was a late introduction to the range in 2021, also bringing with it a significant software upgrade that’s still slowly being rolled out across most other Taycan models, too. As well as the ability to decouple the front motor (for efficiency, rather than tail-out antics, unfortunately), it also streamlines many of the electrical processes, improving response, efficiency and feedback. It’s also worth noting that if a 0-62mph time of 3.7sec isn’t quick enough for you, there might be issues regarding your adrenalin management.
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What really makes the GTS our pick, though, is the way it drives. It, like the Panamera, does without the active anti-roll system and rear-wheel steering, instead leaving the standard air springs and adaptive dampers to manage the not inconsiderable 2295kg weight figure. Yet despite all the mass, its ability to scythe through corners with almost as much composure as a near 750kg lighter 911 is uncanny.
Even better, thanks to control weights and a front suspension set-up that owes much to Porsche’s sports cars, the Taycan GTS feels brilliant on the road, with pin-sharp steering, exceptional body control and depth of feel in the chassis making the most of its 590bhp and 627lb ft of torque. Its range isn’t even too bad, although you’ll need to know your next charging point to openly drive the GTS to its full potential, which will drain the 93.4kWh battery pack considerably faster than its 273-mile range.
One could argue that the RS3 Saloon is more of a riff on a hot hatchback being little more than a notchback version of the RS3 hyper hatchback, but the RS3 most certainly can rival any of the cars on this list. When it arrived on the scene in 2021, Audi Sport made huge strides in making the RS3 saloon a true performance car. It might outwardly appear to share lots of its powertrain and chassis with the previous model, but the two couldn’t be more different to drive, with the new model displaying some exceptional capability and real engagement.
This starts at the rear axle, where Audi Sport has fitted a torque-vectoring rear differential in the same manner as the latest Golf R or previous to that the third-gen Ford Focus RS. Not only does this new differential make the RS3 feel much more neutral, it also unlocks a sweet balance to the chassis. This is accentuated by the RS3’s suspension set-up, which is softer and more sophisticated, giving the body control much more fluidity and poise over rougher surfaces.
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Fitted with Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres (optional in other markets, but you can still just go out and buy a set here in the UK), the RS3 has incredible reach, allowing you to lean on the aggressive front axle and push the chassis to what feels like its absolute limit.
To go along with all this excellence is Audi’s brilliant five-cylinder engine. It might not quite have the punch or response it used to in context of its rivals, but it’s still a devastatingly effective engine at piling on the pace, and comes with a shrill five-cylinder soundtrack to go with it. In fact, the only thing we’d love to see is a snappier transmission and perhaps a bit more steering feel, but then you can’t have everything.
The RS3 is a completely different animal to the one that came before it, and it appears customers agree as it’s become so popular that Audi’s had to stop taking deposits from customers for it.
Perhaps the biggest triumph of BMW’s M Performance range is its M340i and M340d twins – two sports saloons that are truly brilliant, finding a superb balance between outright performance and efficiency and handling composure and comfort like few others. We’ll discount the diesel in this list as while it is an impressively torquey and efficient car, the M340i is itself very good on fuel and is considerably sharper to drive.
Regardless of the pump you need to park next to, the M340 still draws on that fine balance that the BMW 3-series has exploited over many of its formative years. The newest version pairs silky six-cylinder engines with a similar non-intrusive all-wheel-drive system to that fitted to the M3 xDrive further up this list, but does without its show-stopping rear-wheel-drive mode.
To make best use of its impressive powertrains, the BMW M340i has a chassis to match, at once involving and precise, but still brilliantly capable and comfortable over any stretch of road.
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In late 2022, the 3-series also picked up a big update, not only giving the exterior a slight refresh with new lights and bumpers, but also totally redesigning the interior that features BMW’s impressive (and vast) new dual-screen set-up from the i4. A completely reprofiled dash has also come with it, and despite losing some physical controls, is just about passable in the ergonomic sense on account of the vast digital real estate.
But ignoring the mundanity of digital interfaces, the BMW M340i is on this list as it might just represent the perfect modern car, balanced between comfort, dynamics, desirability and usability like few others. And if 10mpg or so is going to make a significant difference to your monthly outgoings, there’s always the diesel.
How far can we push that notion of a supersaloon? Read the specifications and you’d think that any 415bhp, all-wheel-drive saloon with a dual-clutch transmission and torque-vectoring rear differential would cut the mustard, and yet this one has a four-cylinder mounted sideways under its relatively short bonnet.
So while it may be a smaller interpretation of the iconic supersaloon, there’s no doubting its place given the impressive performance it’s capable of. It’ll reach 62mph in just 4.0sec in any weather and cover ground at an incredible pace, but it’s the fluidity and sophistication with which it does so that’s so impressive.
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Unlike its sterile predecessor, the new CLA45 is a much finer instrument. It flows with the road surface in its gentler damper modes, the steering accurate and while not full of feedback, reveals the front end’s tenacious grip levels.
Its rear end can both be loyal to the front or get involved with proceedings with either a subtle lift or a prod of its torque-vectoring differential under power. It’s a superb tool, and one that channels more than a bit of 1990s WRC homologation special about it, all wrapped up in a sleek package.