The battle in the company car market is incredibly tight. Premium quality and badge image count for a lot in the exec saloon class, so the more tech that’s on offer to make life on the road easier for business users, the more that should correlate with sales.

The best executive cars to buy 2018

Audi is hoping that’s the case with its latest A6. Taking inspiration from the manufacturer’s A8 limousine flagship, this fifth-generation A6 boasts similar
tech in a more affordable package.

The BMW 5 Series follows the same recipe as Audi’s newcomer, taking much of the technology from the brand’s larger 7 Series and down-scaling this (slightly) in a more dynamic and more efficient offering. For years these German brands have dominated this class, but an alternative marque joined the ranks a few years ago.

Volvo might be on a charge with its range of SUVs, but the Swedish brand has not neglected this heartland of sales, and with the S90 saloon it offers something a little different from its Audi and BMW rivals.

Audi A6

Model:  Audi A6 40 TDI S line
Price: £42,000
Engine:  2.0-litre 4cyl turbo, 201bhp 
0-60mph:  7.3 seconds
Test Economy:   53.0mpg/11.7mpl 
CO2: 117g/km 
Annual Road Tax: £450

Audi is continuing its tech-fest approach with this new A6 saloon. In the executive saloon sector the £42,000 40 TDI S line model we’re testing is facing some incredibly tough opposition.

The new 40 TDI unit is smooth, delivers decent pull and solid, dependable performance. These cars will spend a lot of their life on the motorway, so as long as they get over the threshold of acceptable performance – which they all do – then refinement and comfort are likely to be more important considerations for owners.

The motor is smooth and doesn’t grumble when accelerating gently up through the gears like the more vocal S90 does, while the ’box is a good match.

Despite this S line car’s larger wheels and sportier suspension set-up, the quality of the ride is good. It’s best at low to medium speeds, where the A6 shrugs off bumps with a smooth suspension action ,which absorbs energy fired towards the chassis without transmitting much movement to the body.

At higher speeds on the motorway, big ridges or expansion joints upset the composure more, but otherwise the inconsistencies from the suspension are kept to a minimum and the Audi’s ride comfort is maximised as a result. 

The steering is light and quick, giving what’s quite a large car a decent degree of agility, but it’s not as involving to drive or as well balanced as the rear-wheel-drive 5 Series.

Testers’ Notes: “The S line’s matrix LED headlights are brilliant and improve safety at night. They automatically dip ‘around’ an oncoming car so as not to dazzle drivers, but still allow you to see far into the distance.”

BMW 5 Series

Model:  BMW 520d M Sport
Price: £40,775
Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo, 187bhp 
0-60mph:  7.4 seconds
Test Economy:   52.9mpg/11.6mpl 
CO2: 119g/km
Annual Road Tax: £450

The 5 Series range comprises a few core choices. This saloon comes in SE and M Sport trims, and we’re testing the latter to match the S line Audi. The 520d M Sport (our pictures show a 520i) costs £40,775.

The 5 Series weighs 115kg less than the A6, which has big benefits when it comes to acceleration and handling. With the Variable Damper Control in its softest setting, the 520d rides smoothly but with plenty of control, absorbing road imperfections with a supple edge, even on fairly large wheels and low profile tyres.

The compliance is still there in Sport, with the chassis dealing with undulations well, but the softer edge is replaced by firmer damping, with tighter body and wheel control that lets you really exploit the grip the chassis serves up, but in total security. 

It’s not dissimilar to the A6, but on the few occasions where the Audi struggles to cope at speed, the 5 Series is marginally more adept at absorbing these bumps, with a broader range of ability. 

The steering is the best here, too. None of these cars offers much in the way of feedback, but the BMW’s steering is a lovely weight and has a more faithful feel to how you wind lock on, even if there’s still little communication. Allied to its grippier chassis, the 5 Series is the more involving car. This is true even in day-to-day driving, while the comfort and ride quality edge it ahead of its rivals.

Compared with the chassis and decent refinement, the engine is the weak point. BMW’s 187bhp 2.0-litre turbodiesel is a bit gruff when revved, but with 400Nm of torque it matches its rivals, even if it’s down on power against the A6. On test the 520d sprinted from 0-60mph in 7.4 seconds, just 0.1 seconds slower than the A6, but 0.5 seconds faster than the S90. It’s not really enough to make a difference on the road, because the 5 Series’ in-gear performance is stronger than the Audi’s and well matched with the Volvo’s.

This is where it counts, helping flexibility and therefore how relaxing these models are to drive. And with the eight-speed auto gearbox handling changes smoothly and rattling through the ratios quickly without any jerks when using the gearshift paddles in manual mode , the 520d is the more comfortable, refined car, as well as the most involving.

Testers’ Notes: “It doesn’t take long to realise the 520d is the most involving to drive, but there’s not much in it for comfort. The BMW isn’t as refined as the Audi, but the gearbox is faster and smoother to respond.”

Volvo S90

Model:  Volvo S90 D4 R-Design
Price: £38,760
Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo, 187bhp 
0-60mph:  7.9 seconds
Test Economy:  48.0mpg/10.6mpl 
CO2:  121g/km
Annual Road Tax: £140

The Volvo S90 heralded a new dawn for the Swedish firm, but does the S90 still have what it takes to make Volvo a key player in this competitive sector? We test the well-priced £38,760 S90 D4 R-Design version to find out.

The S90’s 2.0-litre turbodiesel D4 engine is punchy enough and the Swedish car’s acceleration on test was acceptable, even if it was a little slower than its rivals from 0-60mph, taking 7.9 seconds.

At least it matched the BMW’s in-gear flexibility, with both cars edging ahead of the Audi, partly due to the fact the A6’s seven-speed gearbox has one ratio fewer to cover a similar speed range. The Audi was noticeably more sluggish in the taller gears, despite its power advantage. Yet the A6 is more refined than the S90. The Volvo’s motor is noisier, especially when revved harder. The shifts are as smooth as the BMW’s when cruising, but not as snappy on full throttle.

In R-Design trim, with its sportier chassis settings, the S90 is more tightly controlled and doesn’t feel quite as supple as either of its competitors. There’s at least as much grip as in the A6, but the steering is lighter. In fact, it feels pointier, more agile and more adjustable than its front-wheel-drive rival, even if it can’t match the BMW’s dynamic ability. 

The suspension controls body movement well, but struggles a little more with mid-corner bumps when the Volvo is loaded up. The driver modes
have less of an effect on how the car steers and handles compared with its rivals, too.

But it’s still a lovely place to cover long distances, because the cabin is comfortable, and on a motorway the dampers serve up enough composure for only big jolts and expansion joints at higher speeds to upset comfort. Even then it’s controlled relatively well, just lacking that final degree of finesse compared with the BMW on its adaptive set-up.

Testers’ Notes: “The formula this trio follows is similar, but the Volvo’s execution means it has a decidedly different feel from its more reserved rivals. If individuality is important to you, the S90 is certainly worth a look.”

Verdict

First place: BMW 5 Series

The 5 Series retains its title thanks its blend of abilities. It’s refined, on adaptive dampers has the broadest range of comfort and agility, the engine is punchy, the gearbox is nicer than the A6’s, plus the cabin and infotainment are first class. The BMW lacks a little boot space, but it’s more than big enough, while there’s so little in it when it comes to running costs that this won’t be an issue.

Second place: Audi A6

Thanks to its tech, superior quality cabin and plenty of practicality, the A6 is a great buy. It’s efficient, too, which will be a boon for business users. But the BMW’s infotainment system is just as good and the cabin is just as roomy, while the A6 doesn’t ride quite as sweetly and isn’t as much fun to drive as the 5 Series. Plus the Audi is costlier to buy outright and on finance.

Third place: Volvo S90

The S90 offers something subtly different to its rivals. It’s not as fast, nor as refined, but it feels sharper to drive than the Audi, and rides nicely, too. It is 65 litres down on the A6 for boot space, which is a drawback, and  the infotainment isn’t as responsive or as sharp as its rivals’. It’s not as efficient, but has price on its side, which will be a big draw for many.

Rivals

Jaguar XF

Jaguar XF Long-Term Test - teaser

Model: Jaguar XF 20d auto R-Sport Price: £38,695
Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl, 178bhp

The XF rivals the BMW for driving enjoyment, but the quality isn’t as high and it’s not as roomy or as refined as any in this test. It’s cheaper, but the XF feels old against these newer, more advanced cars.

Mercedes E-Class

Mercedes E-Class - Best executive cars

Model: Mercedes E 220d AMG Line
Price: £40,060
Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl, 191bhp

A punchy engine, a 540-litre boot, roomy cabin and good infotainment combine to offer an appealing alternative to the trio we tested. There’s some decent semi-autonomous technology, too.

Figures

BMW 520d M Sport Audi A6 40 TDI S line Volvo S90 D4 R-Design
On the road price/total as tested £40,775/£40,775 £42,000/£45,655 £38,760/£45,210
Residual value (after 3yrs/36,000 miles) £18,777/46.1% £19,601/46.7% £18,551/47.9%
Depreciation £21,998 £22,399 £20,209
Annual tax liability std/higher rate £2,269/£4,538 £2,337/£4,675 £2,233/£4,466
Annual fuel cost (12k/20k miles) £1,381/£2,301 £1,378/£2,297 £1,522/£2,536
Insurance group/quote/VED 31/£519/£450 38/£452/£450 30/£538/£140
Cost of 1st/2nd/3rd service £399 (3yrs) N/A £325/£515/£325
Length/wheelbase 4,936/2,975mm 4,939/2,924mm 4,963/2,941mm
Height/width 1,479/1,868mm 1,457/1,866mm 1,443/1,895mm
Engine 4cyl in-line/1,995cc 4cyl in-line/1,968cc 4cyl in-line/1,969cc
Peak power/revs  187/4,000 bhp/rpm 201/3,750 bhp/rpm 187/4,250 bhp/rpm
Peak torque/revs  400/1,750 Nm/rpm 400/1,750 Nm/rpm 400/1,750 Nm/rpm
Transmission  8-spd auto/rwd 7-spd DSG/fwd 8-spd auto/fwd
Fuel tank capacity/spare wheel 66 litres/£245 63 litres/repair kit 55 litres/space saver
Boot capacity  530 litres 565 litres 500 litres
Kerbweight/payload/towing weight 1,530/685/2,000kg 1,645/610/2,000kg 1,697/573/1,800kg
Turning circle 12.1 metres 12.1 metres  11.8 metres
Basic warranty (miles)/recovery 3yrs (60,000)/3yrs 3yrs (60,000)/3 yrs 3yrs (60,000)/3yrs
Driver Power manufacturer/dealer pos. 21st/19th 18th/22nd 13th/9th
NCAP: Adult/child/ped./assist/stars 91/85/81/59/5 93/85/81/76/5 95/80/76/93/5
0-60/30-70mph 7.4/7.4 secs 7.3/6.6 secs 7.9/7.6 secs
30-50mph in 3rd/4th 3.0/3.4 secs 2.8/4.0 secs 3.3/4.1 secs
50-70mph in 5th/6th/7th/8th 5.0/6.3/8.3/15.6 secs 6.0/11.5 secs/N/A/N/A  5.1/6.2/8.2/11.2secs
Top speed/rpm at 70mph  146mph/1,600rpm 152mph/1,400rpm 140mph/1,400rpm
Braking 70-0/60-0/30-0mph  68/52/63/69dB 72/45/60/70dB 46.0/33.9/8.7m
Noise outside/idle/30/70mph 45.5/32.2/8.2m 46.1/33.9/8.6m 76/44/62/72dB
Auto Express econ. (mpg/mpl)/range 52.9/11.6/768 miles 53.0/11.7/734 miles 48.0/10.6/581 miles
Govt urban/extra-urban/combined  56.4/67.2/62.7mpg 56.5/67.3/62.8mpg 52.3/67.3/61.4mpg
Govt urban/extra-urban/combined  12.4/14.8/13.8mpl 12.4/14.8/13.8mpl 11.5/14.8/13.5mpl
Actual/claimed CO2/tax bracket 143/119g/km/28% 143/117g/km/28% 158/121g/km/29%
Airbags/Isofix/park sensors/camera Six/yes/yes/£375 Eight/yes/yes/yes Seven/yes/yes/£400
Auto box/lane keep/blind spot/AEB Yes/£2,250/£2,250/y Y/£1,950*/£1,375*/y Yes/£500*/£500*/y
Climate ctrl/cruise/leather/heat seats Yes/yes/yes/yes Yes/yes/half/yes Yes/adaptive/yes/yes
Met paint/LEDs/keyless/pwr tailgate £685/yes/£695/£430 £685/y/£1,895*/no £700/yes/£575/yes
Nav/dig dash/DAB/connected services Yes/yes/yes/yes Y/£1,495*/£1,895*/y Yes/yes/yes/yes
Wireless charge/CarPlay/Android Auto £475/£235/no £1,495*/yes/yes No/£300*/£300*

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