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Jonathan Crouch Checks Out The Pick Of The Current Crop Of Executive Saloons

The Executive Car sector has changed almost beyond recognition in the last few decades. Once it was controlled by the mainstream makers, with big Fords and Vauxhalls marking their territory in the executive car parks the length and breadth of the country.

No longer. This sector is now controlled largely, though not exclusively, by the Germans, with BMW and Mercedes leading the way. Jaguar however, now has a big say with the success of its award winning XF saloon, while Audi and Volvo also offer very appealing alternatives.

BMW 5 Series

The latest BMW 5 Series very much marks the start of a new design philosophy for BMW having largely dispensed with the controversial designs of Chris Bangle.

British buyers though, like their BMWs. Taking on Mercedes and recognising that most buyers are in their Fifties necessitated a more luxury-orientated approach: once a bigger 3 Series sports saloon, this Five is now essentially a shortened 7 series luxury limo. But, as BMW points out, that doesn't necessarily mean that with the right spec in place, it can't still remain the default driver's choice in this class. It is, they say, simply now a car with a wider breath of abilities, whether you're after a truly luxurious or truly sporting driving experience. That statement gains further traction with the recent launch of the most frugal 5 Series saloon ever, the latest evolution of the mighty M5 and a raft of across-the-range improvements and engine upgrades.

Mercedes E-class

The current Mercedes E-Class has at last been able to take on its BMW 5 Series rival on equal terms, something this car's predecessor never really managed.

Mercedes models have traditionally taken a more comfort-orientated approach than the firmly sprung BMWs and the latest E-Class now offers both options with its adaptive shock absorbers. These automatically adapt to the current driving situation softening or firming up to give optimum stability. Together with the intelligent bodyshell technology which renders this E-Class 30 per cent stiffer than its predecessor, the driver receives a suitably composed driving experience.

Mercedes was never the manufacturer most likely to push the stylistic boat out and come up with a brave new design direction. Instead the E-Class is typically reserved, displaying many of the handsome squared-off elements seen on its smaller C-Class cousin. Inside, the S-Class luxury saloon is the inspiration, with quality materials and switchgear in evidence.

The E-Class is a car that's immensely reassuring. Buyers want a car of impeccable quality that utilises sensible technology and whose reliability and desirability will prop up residual values for years to come. This is just such a car.

Audi A6

The bigger Audi's have always been supremely elegant cars and none more so than the latest A6 saloon. This A6 focuses on efficiency brought about via lightweight construction which may be the way to put more Europeans in the driving seat of the A6. Audi is bullish about this latest car and given its recent record of success, it looks likely that the A6 will continue to prosper.

Weight reduction as a method of improving the driving experience applies just as much to executive models as it does to sports cars. The benefits in terms of handling, braking and acceleration are easy to imagine but there are also key benefits for ride quality, especially if the weight reductions come, as they do in the A6, hand in hand with an increase in chassis stiffness. The A6 has never had the best reputation for ride, largely because it took Audi quite some time to figure out how to tune their suspensions systems to harmonise with the stiffer sidewalls of run-flat tyres. The current A6 improves that situation by taking crucial un-sprung weight out of the suspension system through the use of aluminium components and it also offers the option of adaptive air suspension with controlled damping.

If you want a BMW or a Mercedes, this Audi won't change your mind. If you want something charismatic and different however, it might be just what you're looking for.

Jaguar XF

Jaguar's XF has caused a real stir in the Executive saloon market. Suddenly the trio of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz had a real British contender on their hands with the XF winning Best Executive Car three years in succession.

When it was launched, the Jaguar XF set new class standards in ride and handling. Since then, its rivals have closed the gap slightly but the tactility of the Jaguar still has the capacity to surprise and delight. What was lacking was a tempting selection of diesel engines, and since its introduction we've seen a cleaner 3.0-litre diesel in 238 and 272bhp flavours and now there's a four-cylinder 2.2-litre, good for 188bhp. The focus is strongly on diesel power, with the 385bhp 5.0-litre V8 petrol engine continuing on the halo models, and the 510bhp supercharged version of this powerplant fitted to the fiery XFR sports saloon. This thumps its way to 60mph in 4.7s and hits an electronically limited 155mph maximum.

For most, however, there's more relevance in the performance of that 2.2-litre diesel. Hardly a sluggard, the entry-level XF will stop the watch at 8.2 seconds en route to 60mph and hit 142mph. With 450Nm of torque available from only 2,000rpm, there's no shortage of muscle, and the XF eight-speed auto transmission means you're always plugged into the meat of it. Across the new XF range advances have been made in refinement with active engine mounts (diesels) and new sound deadening material featuring on the car as well as redesigned wing mirrors to reduce wind noise.

The Jaguar XF just keeps getting better and better, much to the irritation of its continental rivals!

Volvo S80

Volvo's Executive-sized S80 saloon comes armed with an awesome portfolio of virtues. First impressions are deceiving with this car. It's only when you get the Mk1 S80 next to the current generation model that you'll see quite how far it has evolved. Many of the primary design cues are still much the same though - the distinctive shoulders that run all the way back to the tail lights, the arched roofline and the distinctive front grille up front. Look beyond them though and you can see some significant changes to the vehicle's stance and its fine detailing. This one has smartened up nicely and the most recent models feature a more distinctive front featuring a larger badge, plus extra chrome detailing on the air intakes, the lower part of the doors and under the tail lamps.

Inside, well, it's all rather refreshing. Instead of trying to copy their German rivals, Volvo have gone their own way. The Swedes claim that their 'design language' radiates a simpler, more stylish and modern feel by combining aesthetics and technology in a more inviting and intelligent way. The result is a nice blend of no-nonsense Scandinavian style thanks to subtle touches like the slim 'floating' centre stack in the centre of the dashboard, quality materials for upholsteries and a thoughtful choice of inlays and colour schemes that blend smoothly together.

In summary, this is the most credible luxury saloon Volvo has yet made - by some margin. If you never thought of yourself as ending up behind the wheel of a Volvo, you could be in for a shock.