Eight of the most underrated sports saloons

26th March 2023
Ethan Jupp

Sports saloons are some of the most versatile performance cars you can buy, only coming up short in the practicality stakes next to the rare estate versions they sometimes spawn. Supercar power, four doors, most of the creature comforts of any executive or luxury car worth its salt and often a truly compelling driving experience. Plus, there aren’t many more tried and true aesthetics, than a hopped-up three-box. What’s not to love? Naturally many have tried, and while the top-tier machines get all the attention, there are some that deserve more. Let’s count some down.


1. Jaguar S-Type R

The Jaguar S-Type was much-maligned from new. Not because it was a bad car. It was actually a very good car, but lord did it look gawky and when being compared with the timelessly handsome E39 5 Series, that was a massive blow to its appeal. A shame, because in supercharged S-Type R form, it was a compelling sports saloon, with 406PS (299kW) from its blown 4.2-litre V8 going to the rear wheels.


2. Lexus IS F

Before the Lexus LFA, there came this, the Lexus IS F, the first of the marque’s high-performance line of cars wearing an F badge for Fuji, the track where it was developed. Using a Yamaha-developed 5.0-litre V8, it had 420PS (309kW), the world’s first eight-speed automatic gearbox (with a locking torque converter for faster shifts), bespoke suspension and big brakes. It was, if not for a slightly wonky chassis calibration, a fabulous alternative to the BMW M3, so fabulous in fact that I recently bought one myself. More reliable than the E92 V8 M3, better-built than the C63 and available in later years with a limited-slip differential, it’s a little-known sports saloon that’s well worth a look.


3. Audi S4 (B8)

Everyone loved the B7 Audi RS4, which made the B8 that followed all the more disappointing when it turned out to be inexplicably worse to drive. Later RS4s and RS5s then got a less-than-charismatic turbocharged V6 engine. So why are we highlighting the old S4? Because it got a unique supercharged V6 engine and drove really rather well for what it was, many thought it was better than the B8 RS4 it was junior to. It was highly tunable too, with upwards of 400PS possible with very minimal work. If you want a sleeper, these are a great option.


4. Cadillac CTS-V

The Americans aren’t known for their precise sporting motorcars but that didn’t stop GM and Cadillac going after BMW M in 2004. The CTS-V was the first in a long line of hot Caddis aimed at the Germans and, right out of the box, it was rather good. Developed on the Nürburgring and packing a 5.7-litre LS6 V8 good for 400PS (294kW), this was a properly punchy sports saloon that we Europeans just didn’t give the credit it deserved. Nor did we lend much to its consistently excellent successors in the next few V generations, or the Blackwings we have today. All remain a great option.


5. Mercedes CLS55 AMG

Mercedes will tell you the CLS is a coupe and not a saloon. It does look sleek and, if we might say so, bloody fantastic. But it’s got four doors, so it’s on our saloon list. The cabin is also a rather lovely place to spend time, and with 476PS (350kW) from its 5.4-litre supercharged V8 much of that time can be spent at great speed. Wind it up and the CLS55 turns from a classy four-door coupe into a proper muscle car. We love the CLS55 and so should you. 


6. MG ZT 260

Speaking of muscle cars, we present this rebadged Rover. Sorry, what? Yes, MG Rover in its twilight years saw fit to spend its last few pennies shoehorning the V8 from a Ford Mustang into a Rover 75, converting it to rear-wheel-drive in the process, and rebadging it the MG ZT 260. Examples of the, er, barn door engineering solutions, include a bright yellow damper on the rear end to temper axle tramp. It’s hardly one to scare BMW M but it was surprisingly friendly and well set-up to drive. If you’re looking for different, this is it.



7. Vauxhall VXR8

Holden or HSV, were arguably the unsung heroes of super saloon-dom over the past 20 years. Holden's fantastic Zeta platform was so good in fact, Chevrolet nicked it to underpin the gen-five Camaro. It also formed the basis of the contemporary Holden Commodore, which in the UK was the HSV-built Vauxhall VXR8. Think of it as GM muscle meets M5 track manners, with exactly the kind of skid-ability you’re imagining. Available first with a 6.0-litre LS2 V8 and latterly a 6.2-litre LS3 and supercharged LSA, the VXR8 was the left-field option everyone should have considered when in the market for an M5 or E63 AMG.


8. BMW M3 E36

A BMW? Underrated? Nonsense. Indeed, they are mostly beloved by many but every family has a black sheep. In BMW M3 land, that black sheep is the E36. The first straight-six M3 wasn’t even a homologation special, like the E30 that came before. It was just a more powerful, faster 3 Series. Except this is BMW M, so obviously the straight-six was magnificent and the chassis a boon. It was also the first M3 saloon, which wouldn’t return to the range until the E90 M3 of 2008. 

  • List

  • Jaguar

  • S-Type R

  • Lexus

  • IS F

  • Audi

  • S4

  • Cadillac

  • CTS-V

  • Mercedes

  • CLS55

  • MG

  • ZT 260

  • Vauxhall

  • VXR8

  • BMW

  • M3

  • E36

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