Fleet News

50 Greatest company cars of all time: the final countdown

IN the last three weeks we have looked back to the 1950s to consider the finest car ever in fleet, chosen by a panel of experts from across the fleet industry.

Here we give the crucial assessment from 10 to 1.

10. FORD SIERRA

THE much-loved Cortina was a hard act to follow for the Ford Sierra, and initial reactions to it in 1982 were not favourable. The jelly mould shape was radical for the early 1980s and the Sierra earned the nickname ‘the salesman’s spaceship’.

Sales were slow to start with – not helped by a stability problem in crosswinds not rectified until 1985 – until other manufacturers started adopting more flowing lines, making the Sierra seem more mainstream.

Unusually, the ‘cooking’ Sierras were rear-wheel drive while the competition were driven by the front wheels, and originally only came in hatchback and estate bodystyles. Ford controversially dropped the successful saloon format of the Cortina and added instead a saloon Escort – the Orion – to plug the gap in 1983.

However, customer demand meant that by 1987 Ford had to launch a four-door, in the shape of the Sierra Sapphire.

The 1987 204bhp RS Cosworth was an executive’s dream, but also became the joyrider’s chariot of choice.

The Sierra got some minor styling tweaks in 1987 and 1990, but technologically by then was way behind the competition, even it had become a key company car. That it still had a freshness about it looks suggests Ford designers were right to take such a bold step more than a decade earlier.

9. FORD CORTINA

THE Mark IV/V Cortina produced between 1976 and 1982 replaced the ‘Coke Bottle’ version of the early seventies, swapping curvy American lines for straight-edged Germanic efficiency, although the dashboard was carried over from the Mark III.

This conservative but beautifully-proportioned shape was an instant hit with fleet buyers and the car became ubiquitous in the company car park. It was offered in base, L, GL, GLS, S (for Sport) and Ghia trims.

The facelift of 1979 (either called the Mark V or Cortina 80) was a reaction to the inroads Vauxhall was making into the fleet market with the Cavalier, and featured revised headlights, larger tail-lights, a wider, more aerodynamically-efficient slatted grille, slimmer C-pillars and better trim. As well as the standard trim levels, the revised Cortina also came in Calypso and Crusader special editions.

8. VAUXHALL CAVALIER

THE last Cavalier almost became the first Vectra, but Vauxhall was afraid buyers would make a link between it and the unloved Victor of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Staying with the trusty Cavalier name pleased company car drivers not yet used to flirting with premium brands, and like its Mark ll version, the top end sporty models such as the SRi and GSi were extremely desirable cars. Both were powered by versions of the 2.0-litre 16-valve fuel injected engine.

The hatchback and saloon Cavalier also came with an economical 1.7-litre diesel unit and powerful 2.5 V6 after an early 1.4 unit was dropped due to slow sales. Such was its appeal that a Diplomat version was offered, which came with every luxury a car of the early 90s could have, as well as being offered with a sliding sunroof as standard on the key fleet 1.6L model.

7. BMW 3-SERIES

THE ‘E36’ 3-series signalled the start of the premium invasion into the British fleet market, despite BMW’s stubborn insistence at the time that it did not sell fleet cars.

Many of the ingredients of BMW’s success before and since are evident in the model: rear-wheel drive, a Z-axle multi-link rear suspension, VANOS variable valve timing, handsome looks and a solid, logical, if sparsely specced, interior. And of course, there was the usual strong residual values and faultless reliability.

In low-end 316i format, the 3-series was available on an increasing number of choice lists, and with the familiar line-up of diesels, Compact, Touring, coupe, convertible and M3, there was a model to suit any aspirational executive, although the stubby Compact was always the runt of the litter.

6. VOLKSWAGEN PASSAT

THE ‘B5’ Volkswagen Passat was a perfectly judged car of its time. Company car drivers were looking for more upmarket vehicles and the Volkswagen brand, enjoying an uplift thanks to the brilliant Golf, was seen as a cut above volume brands.

The Passat was a dull-but-safe car to drive, but with a top quality interior and solid-looking body at a good price it delivered exactly what drivers were looking for.

The TDI and 1.8T turbocharged engines were particularly popular with fleets and the facelift in 2000 continued the predictably dependable theme but with a slightly fresher look. Good reliability and residual values a few points above the rest of the volume sector ensured this car always delivered low running costs and fleet appeal.

5. FORD MONDEO

FORD was in a right old state when the Mondeo was launched. The Escort of the time was universally panned and critics reckoned that the company was run by accountants rather than engineers.

The Mondeo signalled a desperately needed change in attitude, and as Ford’s first ‘world car’ cost a staggering £4 billion to develop.

Thankfully, it handled beautifully, was well-specced and had the more popular front-wheel drive the competitors had all switched to years before.

It also majored on safety, with airbags, side-impact bars, seat-belt pre-tensioners and ABS brakes standard on most models.

The 1.8-litre diesel lagged behind the likes of Peugeot but it had strong petrol units such as the 1.8 and 2.0 Zetec S, which were popular with company car drivers.

4. FORD CORTINA

THE CORTINA Mark II defined the era of the company car, setting Ford up as a major force in fleet that has continued for nearly 40 years.

Such was its ubiquity, nearly anyone running a company car in the late 1960s and early 1970s was likely to have had a Cortina at some point and in 1600E form, which was launched in 1967, was the undoubted king of the car park.

It had the lowered suspension of the Mark l Lotus Cortina with a highly tuned version of the GT 1600 Kent engine, as well as luxury wooden dashboard and door trims, bucket seats, front fog lights, vinyl roof and plated Rostyle wheels.

The Cortina also came in base, Deluxe, Super, GT specifications and an in-house Cortina Lotus version.

3. VOLKSWAGEN GOLF

THE Mark IV Golf had an essential contradiction: it was not a great car to drive, being heavy, big and slow, but for company car drivers it represented everything that being successful was all about.

Look in any company car park now and there will still be dozens of Mark IV Golfs. It has a solidly respectable look and well as being classless – anybody, from a high end manager to a young account executive can happily run a Golf, from the poverty spec 1.4 E form to the bonkers R32 version with a 3.2-litre V6.

The GTI was the most desirable, with both petrol and diesel (latterly GT TDI badged) engines despite ponderous handling, illustrating the combination of indestructible brand strength, build quality, keen pricing and residual values – a heady brew few cars could match.

2. VAUXHALL CAVALIER

THE Luton-built Cavalier managed to do something for Vauxhall that no other had managed: challenge the supremacy of Ford as the top company car maker. Ford’s radical stance with the Sierra replacement helped, giving Vauxhall an opportunity and the Cavalier became the best-selling car of the 1980s.

Produced in front-wheel drive, the Mark ll Cavalier was also the first mainstream car with electronic fuel injection (in the 1.8-litre model).

Other engines included a 1.3-litre, 1.6-litre diesel and a 2.0-litre, although the tax regime of the time favoured the 1.8-litre and smaller engines.

Vauxhall also produced a version that was a genuinely aspirational car for many company car drivers. The 2.0 SRi, with its 130bhp, 120mph top speed, go-faster stripes and bodykit proved you had made it big.

1. BMW 3-SERIES

THE number one spot in our Top 50 Greatest Company Cars – Ever! goes to a vehicle that illustrates just how much the fleet market has changed in the past decade.

It would have been unthinkable in 1995 that the BMW 3-series would be voted the greatest company car of all time, but in the 1998-2005 E46, all the essential elements of the ultimate company car are present. For a start, it was a great product. It looked good, had some wonderful engines, especially the 2.0-litre and 3.0-litre diesels and 3.0-litre petrol. There were versions, such as the 316i, for those desperate to make their first step on the premium ladder, as well as the usual, unbeatable brilliance of the M3 at the other end of the scale.

Touring, coupe and convertible models still look as fresh today as when they were launched, with the only blackspot (again) the Compact, which despite its odd proportions still sold well.

The E46 also drives beautifully, with a lightness and balance few volume cars have ever matched. Add in that 3-series rarely break down, the cabin is rock-solid and made of the highest quality materials and it’s easy to see why this is a great car. But the product only tells half the story. By the time of the E46, BMW had got serious about fleet, and specifications such as the ES were introduced with corporate buyers in mind.

The E46 sold in massive numbers, and outsold many major volume fleet cars, yet never once did its popularity among executives waver as more and more appeared.

And amazingly, despite the huge numbers on the roads, residual values were barely affected, maintaining class-leading levels throughout its life, illustrating its legendary status among drivers, used buyers, sellers, leasing companies and fleets. Truly an unbeatable recipe as the Greatest Company Car – Ever!

THE FLEET WORLD CUP

Not surprisingly, the UK takes an historic victory, with more than half of the top 50, although of course many of the Fords, Vauxhalls and Rovers have their origins in far-flung fields.

1. UK: 26
2 Germany: 12
3. France: 8
4. Sweden: 2
5. Japan: 2

TOP FIVE FLEET BRANDS

The top two might be predictable, with Vauxhall sneaking victory by one entry in the Top 50 (although all eight of Ford’s entries were in the top 20), but there are surprises lower down – British Motor Corporation for its showing in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, BMW with a late run in the 1990s and Citroen for delivering great company cars from the 1955 DS until recently with the Xsara.

Vauxhall: 9
Ford: 8
BMW: 4
BMC: 4
Citroen: 4

THE DECADES

The 1990s was the era of the company car, with nearly half of our list launched in that decade, including five of the top 10 entrants. The recession-struck 1970s put up a poor showing, while the formative years of the company car, the 1950s and 1960s, took up less than a fifth of our chart.

1950s: 3
1960s: 6
1970s: 5
1980s: 11
1990s: 20
2000s: 5

What’s your favourite

Which company car is YOUR number one? We’ll be featuring reminiscences from our readers in Fleet News. Email: fleetnews@emap.com

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