When it comes to making a choice between a low specification premium car or a high specification volume model, there are merits for choosing either car.
With some volume manufacturers aiming to creep further up the 'perceived quality' ladder the selection of cars in our latest group test provides an intriguing comparison. We have the new Vauxhall Signum, which comes with a new 2.2-litre direct injection petrol engine and, in Elite trim, plenty of toys. It is aiming to steal sales from premium brands such as Saab, Alfa Romeo and Lexus and may also attract a few Vectra and Omega drivers as well.
Although it is based on the Vectra, it comes with a longer wheelbase and hatchback/ estate type tailgate.
Meanwhile, Honda also wants to make inroads into the premium sector with the new Accord, and for almost £20,000 on-the-road you can have a 2.0 Executive Tourer, the i-VTEC engine matching Vauxhall's direct injection unit on power.
To benchmark these two pretenders, we have chosen an Audi A4 Avant, a Fleet News Award winner two years running. Its 2.0-litre FSI unit is the lowest emission petrol engine in the range, although for the same money as a Signum Elite, you only get a base-spec A4.
The Honda steals an early advantage in the running costs comparison, having both the lowest P11d price and the highest percentage residual value over three years/60,000 miles. Its CAP Monitor rating of 39% beats the Audi on 37% (pushing the boat out for an SE would bring a further 1% increase) and trounces the Signum on 32%.
It translates to a total loss of £11,196 over the period for an outright purchase fleet (at 18.66 pence per mile), compared with £12,378 (20.63ppm) for the A4 and £13,614 (22.69ppm) for the Signum.
The only options available on the Accord are metallic paint, or you could select more impressive 17-inch alloy wheels, which are unlikely to cut its advantage over the other two cars by much.
The Honda also has the lowest service, maintenance and repair costs of the bunch at 2.16ppm or £1,296, compared with the evenly matched Audi and Vauxhall on £1,698 and £1,722 respectively.
Our sample contract hire rates for each of the cars match these figures with fixed monthly costs over three years of £417 for the Accord, £441 for the A4 and £507 for the Signum.
Add in the fuel costs of 10.12ppm for the Audi, 11.23ppm for the Honda and 10.94 for the Vauxhall and the Honda seems to make a strong case for itself as an alternative to the established premium cars.
At 32.05ppm it is more than 1.5ppm less expensive than the Audi A4, and nearly four-and-a-half pence less expensive than the Signum, which appears out of its depth in this contest. The Vauxhall does claw back some credibility in the benefit-in-kind tax stakes – there is little to choose between the Signum and the Accord, although Audi's frugal and efficient FSI engine comes into its own, maintaining lower tax liability than the Honda despite its higher P11d price.
Picking a winner in this part of the comparison is easy.
Despite the appeal of an established premium badge to the used car buyer, the Honda's residual value advantage, lowest SMR costs and decent fuel consumption seals the running costs victory.
Audi A4 Avant 2.0 FSI
A class benchmark in many areas and the car many of the new semi-premium models aspire to. However, base spec is the only one within reach at this price
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £21,060
CO2 emissions (g/km): 180
BIK % of P11D in 2003/04: 20%
Graduated VED rate: £145
Insurance group: 14
Combined mpg: 37.7
CAP Monitor residual value: £7,650/37%
Depreciation (20.63 pence per mile x 60,000): £12,378
Maintenance (2.83 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,698
Fuel (10.12 pence per mile x 60,000): £6,072
Wholelife cost (33.58 pence per mile x 60,000): £20,148
Typical contract hire rate: £441 per month
Honda Accord Tourer 2.0 Exec
Sleek estate version of the new Accord offers extra space and in this company comes in high-spec Executive trim. It is still £1,000 less expensive than its rivals on P11d price.
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £19,815
CO2 emissions (g/km): 196
BIK % of P11D in 2003/04: 23%
Graduated VED rate: £160
Insurance group: 11
Combined mpg: 34.0
CAP Monitor residual value: £7,650/39%
Depreciation (18.66 pence per mile x 60,000): £11,196
Maintenance (2.16 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,296
Fuel (11.23 pence per mile x 60,000): £6,738
Wholelife cost (32.05 pence per mile x 60,000): £19,230
Typical contract hire rate: £417 per month
Vauxhall Signum 2.2 Elite
A sector-busting new car hoping to steal sales from semi-premium upper-medium cars. Offers direct injection petrol engine and roomy interior as well as high specification
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £21,165
CO2 emissions (g/km): 194
BIK % of P11D in 2003/04: 22%
Graduated VED rate: £160
Insurance group: 11
Combined mpg: 34.9
CAP Monitor residual value: £6,775/32%
Depreciation (22.69 pence per mile x 60,000): £13,614
Maintenance (2.87 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,722
Fuel (10.94 pence per mile x 60,000): £6,564
Wholelife cost (36.50 pence per mile x 60,000): £21,900
Typical contract hire rate: £507 per month
Audi A4 Avant 2.0 FSI
There are no surprises with the A4 Avant – we've driven enough of them to know the ride will be on the firm side, the boot will be small compared to the competition, and to get the little luxuries the other two cars have here will require a delve into Audi's rather large box of options.
However, it is a class performer: solid, well-constructed and very smart, making a very tempting proposition. For a driver buying for status and looks, the Avant is the best. Its beautifully chunky yet clean design drips with easy style and the interior is dark and substantial.
But for somebody needing as much space as possible, it lags well behind the Accord Tourer. And while the other two cars allow the occupant to sink into leather seats, the Audi makes do with cloth.
The direct injection engine is very good. Only when cold and sitting in traffic does the FSI unit show the slightest weakness. It can sound a bit wheezy and clunky for a few moments – probably because it is burning the fuel in such a lean atmosphere.
But any other time it is strong and pulls well, without fireworks but pretty much as well as could be expected for a 2.0-litre petrol engine. The steering lacks any feel and the gearbox has the generic VW blandness, which means it is not as good to drive as the Honda.
In many ways the Audi is a difficult car to judge against the other two. Those that want one are unlikely to be dissuaded by the meagre list of equipment as the badge and aesthetics are more than enough. That said, if creature comforts and space are priorities, it will struggle to beat the other two – and the Honda in particular.
Honda Accord Tourer 2.0 Executive
The Accord Tourer has the biggest boot of the three cars at 576 litres, although that is only half the story as the figure is the volume up to the windows, so in reality that is only about two-thirds of the capacity.
The back end is a most voluminous-looking protuberance and the long tapering rear is reminiscent of a coffin and is not universally liked.
There is a fine line to be trodden between practicality and prettiness and of the three cars here, the Tourer looks like the load lugger. Its electrically-operated boot is a very useful addition to the practicality offering as well.
It is no coffin on the move though, and despite all the extra metal hanging out over the rear axle, it feels little different to the saloon model in handling and ride quality.
This means that at low speed there is some drivetrain shunt, mainly due to a snatchy throttle. Get it going though and the i-VTEC does a good job of pulling it along at high revs and the five-speed manual gearbox is a delight.
The Executive model comes with leather seats, cruise control, rain-sensing wipers and a six-CD player as standard, so is suitably specced up and the interior is comfortable and well thought out: the stereo and climate control unit is easy-to-use and nicely presented.
We can't say the same about the wood trim though. In the Type S model there is some nice fake carbon-fibre trim, and our long-term Accord has dark grey wood, but the light brown affair in this Tourer looks old-fashioned and out of place among the modern, sharp edges of the dash and exterior styling.
Vauxhall Signum 2.2 Elite
A pretty inauspicious week for the Signum in our hands. There was much head-scratching from the Fleet News road testers about why somebody would want a large car such as this which has only two seats in the rear.
Even without the Travel Assistant, the middle seat is too small for a child, let alone another adult.
The Travel Assistant features a place to stick a DVD player, storage compartments and a pretty large fridge, which could be handy, but makes the whole unit big and cumbersome when a cooled glovebox could do the trick instead.
And despite some spangly add-ons around the grille and the roof-mounted cubby holes, the Signum is still very much a Vectra, which in this company could count against it.
The Signum looks like an overgrown hatchback as the rear doors are very long, stretching back further than on a Vectra which means good access to the rear, although the styling is fairly bland.
There is lots of boot space though and the rear seats slide backwards and forwards and recline. Its equipment levels cannot be beaten by the other two cars. With cruise control and a very comfortable ride, the Signum is easy on long trips, except for problems with the 2.2-litre direct injection engine. It felt very breathless and power delivery was unpredictable to say the least. Above 3,000rpm it grumbled as though running far too lean: all air and no petrol in the cylinders. Then the engine management light came on and it almost lost all power. It was sent back to Vauxhall, who reported nothing was wrong, leaving us none the wiser – perhaps it had sorted itself out.
The Accord Tourer scores a victory here. It is practical, comfortable, good to drive and it has a clear running costs advantage over the Audi, even though it is loaded to the hilt with equipment. The Audi is a worthy second, bearing in mind it is in base specification. Perhaps if this was a comparison with higher-spec models things would be different. The Signum struggles on costs and fails to provide strong reasons to choose it over these rivals.