High performance saloon cars are among some of the most usable and enjoyable classics to own today. Here are ten of the greatest
Fast four-door saloons have been with us for a few decades now; their practicality and everyday usability allied with serious horsepower is a winning mix, and most manufacturers offer a thundering super saloon in their range – ready to channel the hidden racing driver lurking beneath the surface in every family man. After all, there is something especially satisfying about leaving sports cars dwindling in your rearview mirror.
Despite their popularity, it wasn’t until the 1980s that we started seeing the rise of the usable and practical super saloons that we know today. Our list covers the best of these early trailblazers. Some have now become valuable collectors pieces while others are conspicuously undervalued.
BMW M5 E28
Now in its fifth generation, the BMW M5 has long built itself an enviable reputation for offering supercar-rivalling performance in a four door body shell. It all started back in 1985 with the E28 version; an impressive 311bhp from its 3.5-litre in-line six motor (shared with the M1 supercar) made it the fastest production saloon at the time. A contemporary Ferrari 328 made do with just 270bhp, and with over 7000 cars made was far more common than the rare M5, of which only 2191 were produced. Well balanced and practical, the M5 ushered in a new era of super saloons.
Audi 200 quattro 20v
Hot off the back of the Quattro’s rally successes, Audi was quick to put its hottest warbling five-cylinder 20v turbo engine – and associated four wheel transmission – into their top of the range 200 saloon and Avant. What resulted was a 220bhp all-weather super saloon, which laid the groundwork for the powerful RS monsters we have today. While its other German competitors may have had the power advantage, the benefits of four wheel drive grip made it the car of choice for year-round performance. Underrated and ultra-rare, don’t hesitate to open your wallet if you find one for sale.
Mercedes was no stranger to putting big engines into its cars, with monsters like the 6.9L 450SEL setting the template. It could be argued however that it was the 1990 500E that first combined both handling and speed to set it out as a true super saloon. Unlike BMW, Mercedes chose a torquey big capacity 322bhp 5.0-litre V8, allied to an automatic transmission to power the 500E. This gave it serious in-gear grunt while retaining that laid back cruising capability that Zuffenhausen’s finest are known for. Just over 10,000 cars were manufactured and good ones are highly valued.> Browse the classifieds for a Mercedes 500E
Lancia Thema 8.32
When it comes to performance cars, it’s fair to say that Italian-built ones tend to be built up around a fantastic engine. But the engineers at Lancia surpassed themselves with this one. Shoehorning a Ferrari engine into something as unassuming as the Lancia Thema sedan was a bit daft, and today in the era of the 1.0-litre Ford Mondeo it seems almost unimaginable.
While no slouch in 2.0-litre 16v turbo form, the V8 engine borrowed from the Ferrari 308 gave it some serious attitude. Minor changes in its new application did mean a slight reduction in power to 212bhp, but a 150mph top end was still serious speed for 1989. The Thema 8.32 also has the distinction of being the first production car to sport an electric rear wing. Values are low but surely won’t remain so for much longer.
If you had to name the fastest four-door saloon car of the mid-nineties and mentioned anything other than the 177mph Lotus Carlton you would be wrong. Based on the humble Vauxhall Carlton/Opel Omega, this 3.6-litre twin-turbo 377bhp monster not only embarrassed its natural rivals but could out sprint a few supercars as well. With its flared arches and aggressive styling, the Lotus Carlton quickly became the working man’s hero, as well as the escape car of choice for some unsavoury criminal types. On a long enough piece of Autobahn it will still outrun modern speed-limited super saloons; it is a true modern classic.
Bentley Turbo R
The Turbo R – powered by that immortal 6.75L V8 – was a true leather-lined super saloon of the 1980s. Weighing almost 2.5 tons required the addition of a turbocharger to provide ‘sufficient power’. This meant a thundering 140mph top speed (limited to save the tyres) and serious in-gear thrust. Dictators in a real hurry could opt for the very rare Turbo RT. With a mere 252 produced in the last few years of production, this 400bhp flying lounge was the last word in serene continent crushing ability. Values may be affordable but maintaining one correctly never will be.
Ford Sierra Sapphire RS Cosworth
The 204bhp four-door Sapphire RS Cosworth was the result of Ford’s touring car initiative. An evolution of the fire-breathing three-door RS, this Sierra was as far removed from your Mum’s beige 1.3GL as is vehicularly possible. That futuristic aerodynamic shape still looks utterly desirable today, and at 146mph it really sent the competition scrambling for cover in the ‘80s. Post-1990 models received four-wheel drive and a power boost to 220bhp, giving them serious wet weather performance. The original three-door derivatives command much higher values, but the saloons are just as exciting to drive, with space for your mates too.
Saab 9000 Aero
Saab may no longer be with us, but this quirky Swedish auto manufacturer will forever be remembered for some great cars – one of them being the 225bhp 9000 Aero. That power output may not seem like much in this company but Saab had mastered turbocharging long before it became an industry standard, and with 258ft.lb of torque at its disposal the factory claimed it could outsprint a Ferrari Testarossa from 50-75mph in top gear. Favourable gearing may have contributed to this stat but there was no denying that the Aero was a rapid machine. Today they can be had for less than a Testarossa wing mirror, and should be seriously considered if you can find an unabused one.
Volvo 850 T5 R
Another Swedish missile, the Volvo pushed the limits of what front-wheel drive technology could handle with the 250bhp 850 T5 R. With massive torque steer and wheel spin to contend with off the line it was perhaps at its best in-gear where the massive torque could pulverise unassuming German sports cars. The T5 R also proved itself in the BTCC where it famously campaigned in its first year in an Estate body shell. Hugely undervalued these boxy super saloons are still great fun today, just hold on tight to that steering wheel and save some of your budget for front tyres.
Renault 21 Turbo
Large French sedans are something of a rarity, fast ones even more so. Now add in four wheel drive for the Quadra version and you are down to one car: the Renault 21 Turbo. This unique vehicle featured a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder, and produced a claimed 170bhp from the factory. th and could manage a top whack of 141mph all without resorting to a bone jarring ride. Its boxy 80’s lines have aged rather well and the good ones have started rising in value. For a big French saloon with a difference this one is rather special.
And the one that started it all…
The XFR and other fast family Jags owe their existence to one car, the original Mk2 Jaguar. Adored by the police and immortalised on TV this was one of the first fast saloons to offer real sports car performance (especially in 3.8L form) with the practicality and comfort of a run-of-the-mill saloon. Using a variant of the XK motor, the MK2 could reach 60mph in 8.5 seconds when most family cars were doing it in twice that time. There may have been other fast four door cars built during this era by manufacturers the world over, but for British car lovers it is the MK2 that they remember most fondly.