The premier league: our top five choices for the executive class

 

From the old reliables to the competitive newcomers, we've put together a guide to the best of the premier segment for 2009, writes Paddy Comyn

BMW 3-SERIES

Price:€39,550 to €132,322

NCAP Crash Test:*****

Seats:5

Doors:3/4/5

Engines:2.0, 3.0, 4.0, 2.0d, 3.0d

Trim levels:ES, SE, M Sport

Quality and reliability:****

Whether it is the saloon, coupé, convertible or touring, the 3-Series has a Germanic solidity that matches its premium price. However more basic models are starting to be matched by cheaper family cars. Mechanically these cars are first rate and have incredibly reliable powerplants.

Performance:****

There are two 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engines, producing 143bhp (318) and 170bhp (320). There's a 3.0-litre straight six, with 218bhp (325i), and two 3.0-litre sixes with 272 (330i) and 306bhp (335i). The diesel engines are brilliant, with the lowliest 2.0-litre in the 318d coming with 143bhp and 177bhp in the 320d. The 325d uses a 3.0-litre diesel with 197bhp and the top two diesels are 3.0-litre units with 231bhp and 286bhp. The 318d with 123g/km of CO2 will be a top seller in 2009.

At the wheel:****

There have been refinements to the 3-Series and the new model benefits from these. There are discreet cosmetic changes and improvements to the iDrive system. The new A4 runs the 3-Series close but this is the best car to drive in the segment.

Space and Comfort:**

Not up there with the best of class in terms of space. While the driver and front passenger sit in comfort, rear space is limited. Some will find the ride too hard in the 3-Series on runflat tyres and with sports suspension and large alloy wheels. The driving dynamics are at the expense of out and out comfort. These cars are refined with good sound dampening.

Safety:*****

With a bodyshell 25 per cent stiffer than the old model, the latest 3-Series has achieved the full five stars for occupant protection in the Euro NCAP crash tests, plus four for child protection.

Costs and depreciation:***

The 3-Series is a huge seller and there are tons of used ones on the Irish market but prices remain strong but there is no doubt that they have taken a knock from the number of used imports flooding the market. The engines are fuel efficient, especially the new diesel ones, and the new Efficient Dynamics technology helps keep fuel bills down.

THE CONCLUSIONS

For:great to drive, superb engines.

Against:safe styling, tight rear space, Audi's A4.

Irish Times verdict:still the best car in the class but might face some competition from the Audi A4 in 2009.

Best buy:318d SE

MERCEDES-BENZ C-CLASS

Price:€38,765 to €104,670

NCAP Crash Test:*****

Seats:5

Doors:4 / 5

Engines:1.8, 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, 2.2D, 3.0D

Trim levels:Classic, Elegance, Avantgarde, Sport, AMG

Quality and reliability:***

There have been issues over reliability from Mercedes-Benz but the firm have worked hard to put things right, through extra development and stricter control of suppliers. The C-Class is well-built but some areas still feel a little low grade, including the light boot-lid and some of the interior plastic.

Performance:****

Even the lowest engine, the 1.8-litre in the C180 has a respectable 156bhp, with 136bhp in the entry-level C200 diesel. These will be the biggest sellers. Other models include the 184bhp C200, 204bhp C230, 231bhp C280 and 272bhp C350. The diesel range is topped by a 224bhp C320 CDi.

At the wheel:****

The new cabin in the C-Class is much better than previous versions and much better laid out. It is easy to get a good driving position thanks to the multi-adjustable seating and steering wheel. The steering is more direct, at the back theres a new multi-link suspension system with hydraulic subframe mountings for vibration damping, and the new adaptive shock-absorber system sharpens the handling. This makes the car a better drive without sacrificing agility for comfort.

Space and Comfort:****

The interior is more spacious with more legroom for rear passengers. Up front, the shoulder room has increased by 40mm, making a huge difference. Again, the increased driving dynamics are not at the expense of ride comfort.

Safety:*****

Comes with seven airbags as standard, including one for the drivers knees and curtains along the whole length of the side windows. Driver and front passenger gets Neck Pro head restraints that push forwards within milliseconds to support heads and reduce the risk of whiplash. There is a Brake Assist System for the ABS and the C-Class also gets ESP with acceleration skid control (ASC) as standard.

Costs and depreciation:***

Fuel economy from the more efficient engines is better than before, so it is a cheaper car to run. Prices for used Mercedes-Benz have traditionally remained strong. Again, like many cars in this class the prices have been affected by competition from used import models.

THE CONCLUSIONS

For:spacious, engines, improved dynamics.

Against:lacks sparkle, not cheap.

Irish Times verdict:A vast improvement over the last model, but unlikely to be a massive seller in 2008.

Best buy:C220 CDi Elegance

LEXUS IS RANGE

Price:€38,340 to €107,250

NCAP Crash Test:*****

Seats:5

Doors:4

Engines:2.5, 2.2D

Trim levels:S-design, Executive, Sport

Quality and reliability:*****

When Toyota set up a company making luxury cars it signalled an injection of quality into an often unreliable segment. The Lexus IS is no exception and the quality of the build and reliability of the engines has allowed the brand dominate the JD Power reliability surveys for years.

Performance:***

The 204bhp 2.5-litre V6 petrol engine is a sweet unit and will get to 100km/h in just over eight seconds. The 175bhp 2.2-litre diesel is good but is not the best out there and only comes with a manual transmission.

At the wheel:****

A predictably well-thought cabin layout, with standard everything. This is a more entertaining car to drive than before but the manual gearbox and some intrusive electronic aids can spoil the fun. If refined cruising is your thing you won't be disappointed by this very quiet car.

Space and comfort:****

Rear space is tight and the ride can feel unsettled at times. Granted this is a similar story with many of its rivals. The refinement on offer goes a long way to making up for these shortcomings.

Safety:*****

Loaded with safety equipment. You would have to do something very silly to get an IS out of shape and if you do there are several features to keep you safe. A Pre-Crash Safety system is available as an option, but it costs a fortune.

Costs and depreciation: ****

 Does well in terms of depreciation as numbers are still relatively low and the solid gold reputation for quality means it has a respected reputation.

Diesel model has good fuel economy figures so makes the best option if you are running it on your own cash.

THE CONCLUSIONS

For:refinement, build quality, value for money (at reduced price).

Against:manual gearbox, rear space.

Irish Times verdict:not an obvious choice, but it will retain its value, is well-equipped and loaded with safety features.

Best buy:IS 220d Executive

SAAB 9-3

Price:€34,570 to €66,770

NCAP Crash Test:*****

Seats:5

Doors:4/5

Engines:1.8, 2.0, 2.8

Trim levels:Linear, Linear Sport, Vector Sport, Aero

Quality and reliability:***

Externally the 9-3 feels solidly built and while the inside is made of strong stuff, the quality is patchy in places. Saabs have traditionally been durable and capable of huge mileage and there is no evidence the current model will be any different.

Performance:****

There are a wide range of engines. The BioPower versions are subject to VRT rebate and the 1.8t and 2.0t versions can produce 175bhp and 200bhp respectively. These are quick and quiet cars. The base 120bhp 1.8i engine feels timid; then there are the two 2.0-litre petrol engines with 150bhp and 210bhp. At the top of the range is a 255bhp 2.8-litre turbo V6. The 1.9-litre diesel is available with 120bhp, 150bhp and 180bhp in the TTiD engine.

At the wheel:****

Saab seems to have sorted out the old problem having too much power going through the front wheels. The current 9-3 feels more composed and the power delivery is much smoother. This is one of the better designed cabins in its class.

Space and comfort:****

Space is average for the class. Saabs have the best front seats you can find in a car anywhere, making them superb for anyone spending a lot of time in a car.

Safety:*****

Scored the full five stars in the Euro NCAP safety tests and as with most cars from the land of Sweden the safety kit has been very well thought-out. Standard equipment includes active head restraints (claimed to reduce neck injuries in rear-end impacts); front, side and full-length roof-mounted airbags; and seatbelt pre-tensioners. You also get the full range of braking aids, including cornering brake control and ABS and ESP is standard on almost the entire range apart from very basic models.

Costs and depreciation:***

Saab has done well with the 9-3, but depreciation is an issue in this car and the uncertainty over the future of the Saab brand gives cause for concern as to how values will hold up. Speculation aside these cars drop values a little faster than some of their German cousins.

THE CONCLUSIONS

For:handsome, well equipped, high on safety

Against:residual values, too much choice

Irish Times verdict:a good value rival to the German brands if lacking their prestige.

Best buy:1.9 TiD 150bhp Linear

AUDI A4

Price:€35,440 to €82,600

NCAP Crash Test:*****

Seats:5

Doors:4/5

Engines:1.8, 2.0, 3.2, 2.0D, 2.7D, 3.0D

Trim Levels:SE, Sport

Quality and Reliability: *****

 Like all Audi products of late, the A4 feels well put together. The interior in particular feels very high grade at all levels. Reliability has seldom been an issue either: the engines are used widely across several brands and ranges with few grumbles.

Performance:****

The petrol engine consists of 120bhp and 160bhp 1.8-litre TFSI; 180bhp and 211bhp 2.0-litre TFSI; and 265bhp 3.2-litre petrol engines; as well as three diesel engines - a 143bhp 2.0-litre, 190bhp 2.7-litre and 240bhp 3.0-litre. The majority of the sales in Ireland will come from the smaller two engines.

At the wheel:****

The A4 sits on the longest wheelbase in the class and comes with a new suspension system and improved steering. It is a major improvement on the previous version and feels incredibly refined. Before, with the A4, the steering felt vague but this has changed and the A4 is more involved to drive than before.

Space and Comfort:****

The A4 is now a huge car, feeling like the A6 of a few years ago. It is 12cm longer than the old model and rear passengers benefit the most from this growth. Boot space is excellent at more than 480 litres.

Safety:****

The new A4 scored a high result in a 2008 Euro NCAP safety test, particularly well when it came to side impact and child occupancy. Standard safety kit includes ESP, Electronic Brake Distribution as well as multiple airbags.

Costs and depreciation:****

Buying any new car in 2009 is going to have to be a considered purchase and in terms of residual values the A4 is one of the better cars at holding its value. The diesel models have reasonably low CO2 emissions, with the 120bhp 2.0-litre TDi returning 134g/km making it a Band B car.

THE CONCLUSIONS

For:vast in terms of size and badge kudos.

Against:still not as fun to drive as some 3-Series models.

Irish Times verdict:An excellent car, with even greater versatility than before.

Best buy:2.0-litre TDi 143bhp