Best car group tests 2023: our biggest head-to-heads
The creme-de-la-creme of our 2023 group tests is here for your entertainment and there really have been some good ones…
The famous Auto Express group tests are an absolute linchpin of our magazine and website. This is where we test the latest new cars head-to-head with their leading rivals over an action-packed week or more, it’s where we really find out about the strengths and weaknesses of each model and our findings inform all our recommendations and reviews.
Group tests are the engine room of Auto Express, nobody else does more of them or goes in to greater detail. That’s why they’re so valuable to car buyers seeking to make a decision about their next car.
As with every year, 2023 has brought a huge variety of group tests covering models from affordable superminis to exotic supercars. There were so many highlights but we’ve chosen the very best group tests of the year on this page, the ones that really confirmed a car’s class-leading status, the ones where the newcomer ousted an existing champ and the ones where the result shocked us all.
Scroll down for our team’s favourite group tests of 2023 and click the links to read the full tests…
The best car group tests of 2023
Type R vs Type R: new vs old
The year started with one of the most exciting New vs Used twin tests we’ve ever covered. One Honda Civic Type R is thrilling enough, but when we pitched the very latest edition of the sector-defining hot hatchback against its predecessor, sparks were certain to fly.
The latest FL5 generation managed to lap the Nürburgring Nordschleife in 7 min 44.881 sec – a record for a front-wheel-drive car. We didn’t have access to The Green Hell to put this lap time to the test, but we had a very wet Thruxton Circuit to see just how much had improved over the previous FK8.
What wasn’t up for debate was how the latest model has taken virtually every facet of what made the old car so great and improved upon it. Take the engine; the 2.0-litre turbocharged unit has been boosted to 324bhp and 420Nm – improvements of 4bhp and 20Nm – yet the car’s fuel efficiency also sees a small upturn, too.
Meanwhile, the six-speed transmission – already one of the finest fitted to any modern road car – has been refined with new springs and a weighted gearknob, so slipping through all the forward ratios felt more satisfying than ever. The suspension has been beefed up, the track widened and the geometry fettled to deliver a car that we found to be even more focused and grippy when pushing hard, just as playful when you want to have fun, yet more refined all at the same time. On top of that are all the fundamental improvements that have been introduced throughout the whole Civic range; the rear-seat space is superb, the in-car tech is improved and the dashboard looks much more stylish than before.
But what we had to ask ourselves is, with the new model now reaching £52,000, and used examples of the previous- gen model going for half that, were the upgrades really worth it? We concluded that although the old car will be a hugely tempting used buy, the latest is the absolute peak of current hot hatches. Given that it might be the last-ever pure-petrol Type R, it’s a peak that might never be bettered.
Ora Funky Cat loses dogged fight with MG4
GWM Ora made its UK debut with the curiously named Funky Cat, which we pitched against the MG4. This contest proved to be a triumph of substance over style; even though the MG was the cheaper model of the two, it also had better performance, ride, handling, interior space and efficiency than the newcomer.
The Funky Cat was certainly more distinctive to look at inside and out, but it proved to be massively hamstrung by a small range. In the cold conditions of our test, it struggled to achieve a real-world distance of 134 miles.
Read our Ora Funky Cat vs MG4 test here...
One of our most significant road tests of 2023 came courtesy of a pair of cars with the smallest price tags of any new model on sale today. However, it wasn’t simply the face-off between two bargain superminis – the Dacia Sandero and the Citroen C3 – which was a reason for the fanfare; this test also marked the launch of our new-style real-world road test.
In order to give you, the reader, a more detailed yet accessible insight into the merits of every new car that we try, our revamped strategy shines more light on what a model is like to live with, what it’s like to own and also how much you can expect to pay in running costs over three years.
From PCP finance rates – the most common way for customers to finance a new car – to insurance, fuel and servicing, we add all of the numbers together and display them in bar graphs to give a clear indication of which model will be the best value. And value is more important on a pair of budget superminis than it is in any other area of the market.
The You was introduced as a new entry trim level to the Citroen C3 range; it missed out on some of the kit of pricier models, but also undercut the next cheapest C3 by over £3,000. Our test showed that this saving was enough to make the newcomer by far our pick of the C3 range, because it still boasted the smooth ride and funky cabin of the more expensive versions.
However, it still wasn’t quite enough to overcome the appeal of the Dacia. Similarly comfortable yet even more spacious, the Sandero sealed the win in two key ways. First, its three-cylinder engine exploited turbocharging much more effectively than the C3, giving it usefully more torque, and therefore flexibility, around town, on a motorway and along a twisty A-road. Secondly, although the Citroen was very cheap to run, it still couldn’t quite match the Dacia’s superb value.
Read our Dacia Sandero vs Citroen C3 test here...
A comparison test between the Volkswagen ID. Buzz and Tesla Model Y might seem a bit perplexing at first glance, given just how different these cars are on the surface. The Model Y is also £10k cheaper, completes the 0-62mph sprint in under half the time the VW takes and comes with 80 more miles of range. So a walkover for Tesla was surely the only result here, right?
Well, not quite. The Volkswagen ID. Buzz is one of the UK’s most desirable EVs and the biggest issue for customers is that VW isn’t making them quickly enough, leading to an excruciating 18-month waiting list.
The design harks back to the classic Type 2 microbus, yet it’s as modern as you’d expect from a brand-new EV. The MEB platform that VW uses for its fully electric cars gives the ID. Buzz car-like driving manners and we found the ride and refinement to be better than the Tesla’s.
The VW’s interior space also trumped its rival’s, although the ID.Buzz is 38mm shorter, which helps give it a surprisingly tight turning circle. At the time, we said we would have liked the option of a seven-seat ID. Buzz and the answer came just a few months later, with the unveiling of the ID. Buzz LWB. The longer model allows for a bigger battery and supposedly more range, so we can’t wait to try out that version of VW’s funky electric people-carrier.
The ID. Buzz’s victory over the Model Y – still one of the very best electric SUVs – was a bit of a shock, but also a potential turning point in the wider automotive landscape. We’ve seen the popularity of SUVs grow rapidly in the past 10 years or so, but the sheer practicality of an MPV bodystyle is hard to ignore. Throw in some charm like the ID. Buzz has and you’re on to a winning formula.
Read our Volkswagen ID. Buzz vs Tesla Model Y test here...
Honda Civic hatch pips Corolla and Ceed
We set ourselves the immensely difficult task of choosing a winner out of three truly excellent hatchbacks earlier in the year. Now in its 10th generation, the latest Honda Civic is a fantastic all-rounder, the Toyota Corolla appeals on almost every front, and the Kia Ceed remains a challenging and slightly more wallet-friendly option in the family-car class.
The Civic won in the end, thanks to its smooth hybrid system and great handling. The Honda’s interior has also taken a massive step on, while its build quality is as impressive as ever.
Even 10 years ago, the idea of a Korean saloon taking on Mercedes’ best (and beating them) would’ve been crazy, but that’s exactly what happened.
The Genesis Electrified G80 went up against the Mercedes EQE in a battle of luxury all-electric limousines and won, thanks to its cheaper running costs, pricing and driving dynamics – impressive, given the Mercedes’ refinement and its excellent range. What surprised us most was the fact that the Genesis felt so much more special inside.
Updated Vauxhall SUV takes on Kia rival
Vauxhall revamped its range in 2023, and we put one of its refreshed models, the Grandland, up against the formidable challenge of Kia’s Sportage. The Korean SUV ultimately came out on top in our Real-World Test, thanks to it having few obvious weaknesses, relatively keen finance offers and a class-leading warranty.
But the updated Grandland, tested with the proven Stellantis 1.2 PureTech powertrain, put up a decent fight, impressing us with improvements to its suspension and excellent infotainment system, and finished only half a star adrift.
Read our Vauxhall Grandland vs Kia Sportage test here...
There was little to split the two SUVs, with the Kia being slightly better to drive and the BYD fighting back with its well specified cabin. Some keen finance figures swung the deal, though, handing a breakthrough test victory to the Atto 3. Against such a highly rated rival, it felt like a huge achievement for the Chinese manufacturer.
Read our BYD Atto 3 vs Kia Niro EV test here...
Skoda pips VW in eight-car head to head
They might be part of the same group, but Volkswagen and Skoda compete against each other in a number of key areas. We brought eight of the pair’s top-selling models together to see whether Skoda was really better value, and if VW was higher in quality.
In the end it was a narrow victory for the Czech brand, thanks to the strength of its Fabia supermini, Enyaq EV and Karoq family SUV. Only the Golf upheld pride for Volkswagen, albeit by scoring a win against the model that Skoda considers its trademark vehicle, the Octavia.
BMW M2’s win over M3 CSL shows progress
BMW’s M Division has made some stunning performance cars over the years, and we pitched one of its latest, greatest efforts against a classic when we brought the new M2 to face the 20-year-old E46 M3 CSL.
There were similarities between them – six-cylinder power, auto transmission, rear-wheel drive – but the test highlighted how progress has made the M2 quicker, even more capable in corners and refined when cruising. M3 CSL values have rocketed, but the M2 held its own and could become a future modern classic.
Read our BMW M2 vs BMW M3 CSL test here...
Ford Ranger picks up the big win
Pick-up trucks may not be the tax-busters they once were, but these practical workhorses still play an important role for businesses up and down the country. Ford’s Ranger has long been one of the best, so when the new version went on sale, we wanted to see how it stacked up against a pair of talented rivals.
Blowing the competition out of the water, it beat both VW’s new Amarok V6 and Toyota’s Hilux. It’s well equipped, comfortable and good to drive – attributes that also helped the Ranger scoop a win at our NCAs).
BMW i4 wins out against still-impressive Ioniq 6
Having crowned the Hyundai Ioniq 5 our overall Car of the Year in 2021, we had high hopes for the Ioniq 6. However, we knew it was up against some tough competition – not least our favourite electric exec, the BMW i4.
The Hyundai held its own when we brought the two together, but it ultimately missed out on the win due to a slightly cramped cabin, a compromised boot and a firm ride. The i4 isn’t the biggest, but it’s sharper to drive and an excellent cruiser. BMW has since bolstered the range with an even cheaper eDrive35 edition.
Read our Hyundai Ioniq 6 vs BMW i4 test here...
ZR-V faces up to evergreen Qashqai
The popular SUV sector got a fierce new contender in the form of Honda’s ZR-V, based on the superb Civic and ready to out-compete Nissan’s Qashqai. Our test saw the two, £40k-topping flagship models go head-to-head.
The Honda won by the skin of its teeth; we liked its practicality, great build and smooth, efficient powertrain, but it fell down with a firm ride and compromised boot space. The Nissan, by comparison, didn’t quite excel to the same level, but fought back with better all-round comfort and a nicely presented interior.
Read our Honda ZR-V vs Nissan Qashqai test here...
Cayenne is too hot for tow-car rivals
Every year the Caravan and Motorhome Club Tow Car Awards help us work out which new models on the market are the best suited for hitching up your home from home.
This time the Porsche Cayenne E-Hybrid emerged victorious, proving difficult to fault, and winning Tow Car of The Year plus the class winner for caravan weights over 1,700kg. The awards saw a strong showing from EVs, with the Volkswagen ID. Buzz, Skoda Enyaq Coupé, Polestar 2 and Nissan Ariya all taking home silverware.
Read our list of the best tow cars to buy here...
Leaf lords it over BMW i3 in used EV test
With a bountiful selection of second-hand EVs now on the market, and many sporting reasonably affordable price tags, we wanted to see how much cheap, used examples of two pioneering electric models would cost to run. Unpretentious, relaxing to drive and as practical as any combustion-engined family car, the Nissan Leaf emerged victorious in this test.
The BMW i3 was certainly the better vehicle to drive, and felt as cutting edge as it did a decade ago, but its limited range and cabin space restrict it to urban-runabout duties.
Read our used BMW i3 vs Nissan Leaf test here...
Grenadier, Defender and Ranger Raptor in the rough
As autumn set in, we got down and dirty by pitting the new Ineos Grenadier head-to-head against the Land Rover Defender and Ford Ranger Raptor. We respected the Grenadier’s devotion to being an unstoppable off-road machine, and couldn’t ignore its charm. However, it was the Defender that took home the win, thanks to the way it drives both on and off road, as well as its higher-quality interior.
The Ranger Raptor, which by comparison is somewhat brash, came third – although it’s a hoot to drive in the right environment, and boasts true pick-up truck practicality.
Revamped Renault Clio has rivals licked in showdown
The classic supermini class might feel like a smaller place with the loss of the Fiesta, but the Ford’s historic rivals aren’t quite finished yet, as our test of the sharp new hybrid-powered Renault Clio proved when we put it up against the Honda Jazz and Skoda Fabia. All three impressed, but the Clio’s balance of a dynamic chassis, sharp looks and value for money sealed the deal.
With the new Renault 5 on its way, we worried about the plight of the Clio, but after this victory we suspect its future is assured for at least the foreseeable future.
Ford faces Vauxhall in our mega showdown
Ford and Vauxhall have been big rivals for decades, with the two manufacturers generally competing in the same segments for most of their long history here in the UK.
We decided to bring together each maker’s core models, from family hatches to crossovers and SUVs, to find out which brand has the edge in terms of the cars it sells here and now. It was a close call, but despite Vauxhall’s sharp new design language, it was Ford that took the win, thanks to its typical mix of brilliant driving dynamics matched to impressive practicality.
Just follow the link for the rest of our 2023 Review of the Year pages...