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The term was coined in the 1960s to describe cars targeted at successful professionals and middle-to-senior managers. It was often a company car but retained enough performance and comfort to be desirable to private motorists.
The executive car was seen as aspirational, hence the emphasis on good performance and premium features - but it was also a business tool enabling its users to exploit Britain and Europe's evolving motorway networks. Early executive cars typically offered engines of between 2.0 and 3.5 litres in size, compared with 1.6 to 2.4 litres of a large family car. These days the average family saloon is more likely to be a two-litre car with executive cars generally starting at around 2.5 litres, although in some markets such as Italy and France where tax structures make large engines prohibitively expensive to own and run there are many 2.0-litre executive vehicles.
History in Europe
One of the earliest modern executive cars was introduced by Jaguar Cars in 1955. It's retrospectively known as the Mark 1 but was sold as the 2.4 Litre and 3.4 Litre. The unitary construction Mark 1 evolved into the Mark 2 and was offered with a larger 3.8 litre engine. The Jaguar S-Type and Jaguar 420 were derived from this model. After the successful launch of the Jaguar XJ in 1968, Jaguar left the executive car market to concentrate on its luxury and sports cars and did not proffer another competitor until 1998 with the new, retro-styled S-Type. This was replaced by the avant-garde XF in 2007 which is currently in its second generation.
The executive car market was further defined in the 1960s with sporty, upmarket mid-size saloons appearing from numerous brands. In 1962 Rover previewed the innovative 2000, later available as 2200 and 3500 models and commonly known as the P6. In 1963 Triumph debuted their own 2000, later expanded to 2500, which competed head-on with the Rover even when both companies became subsidiaries of British Leyland in 1968. Both cars were very successful and dominated executive car sales in Britain.
In 1974 an unusual executive car offering, also from British Leyland, was introduced and commonly known as the Princess but was initially marketed as the Austin and Morris 18-22 series and Wolseley Saloon. These cars offered the sophistication expected of an executive car but in a smaller, more space-efficient package. Luxurious trim, a six-cylinder engine and automatic transmission were available to give the cars an upmarket positioning. They were replaced in 1981 by a similar car with a hatchback body, called the Austin Ambassador. The Princess and Ambassador were closer in spirit to the FWD Renault 20/30 than their in-house rivals.
In the 1970s Rover replaced the P6 with the larger SD1, marketed as either 2000, 2300, 2600, 3500 or 2400 D, depending on engine size. It was this car that was converted to the Standard 2000 in India long after Rover replaced the SD1 with the front-wheel drive Rover 800. Rover's last executive car, the 75, appeared in 1998 and straddled both the compact and mid-size executive car markets due to its middling size, although a long wheelbase version was available.
Ford identified some of the higher-equipped Cortina models as Executives. An example of Ford's executive car of the 1970s and 1980s was the Granada. Larger Vauxhall models from the VX4/90 and Ventora through to the Carlton firmly fitted into this category.
In the twenty-first century it is German executive models like the BMW 5-Series which are the biggest sellers in the executive car market. BMW can trace the 5's lineage back to 1972 with the E12 generation, but arguably the 1962 Neue Klasse, sold as the 1500 to 2000, was BMW's first modern executive car. There have been seven generations of the 5-Series to date. Also on sale is the 6-Series, available as a coupé, convertible and four-door coupé (called Gran Coupé). This is marketed slightly above the 5-Series, which is only available as a saloon or estate (called Touring), but below the range-topping 7-Series luxury car.
Mercedes-Benz's executive cars are known as the E-Class which has been used to identify the brand's mid-size offerings since 1993, although the 1953 Ponton is where Mercedes-Benz's modern executive car lineage really begins. A more upmarket and sportier executive car is available under the CLS branding which is currently sold as a four-door coupé and sporting estate, called Shooting Brake.
Audi has been selling the A6 saloon and estate (called Avant) since 1994 and the A7 fastback (called Sportback, a BMW 6-Series and Mercedes-Benz CLS competitor) since 2010. The former was a replacement for the long-running Audi 100 which dates back to 1968.
One of SAAB's last ever cars was the 9-5, based on the GM Epsilon II platform (which underpins the majority of large GM vehicles), which was only manufactured for two years after full production began in 2010. Like the previous generation 9-5, SAAB's last executive car was available as a saloon or estate (called SportCombi); a hatchback variation was no longer offered unlike the preceding Saab 9000.
Volvo Cars continues to offer executive cars to this day and recently streamlined its range by replacing the S80 saloon and slightly smaller V70 estate with the S90 and V90. Like Mercedes-Benz and Audi, Volvo also offers an off-road orientated version of its executive estate car called the V90 Cross Country which is a continuation of the theme seen on XC badged predecessors.
The only Italian brand to offer an executive car now is Maserati with the high-performance Ghibli, although its parent company - FIAT - has competed in the sector before. Other FIAT subsidiaries such as Alfa Romeo and Lancia have made executive cars in the past but no longer offer a competitor.
There currently aren't any French executive cars on sale although Citroën, Peugeot and Renault have all offered executive cars in the past. Most recently Citroën sold the C6 as its flagship model from 2005 to 2012, which was a delayed replacement for the 1990s XM which usurped the 1970s CX. Citroën's most famous executive car, the DS, also straddled the luxury car market and was the inspiration for PSA's new luxury car brand: DS Automobiles.
The Peugeot 604 was the first full-size executive car from the French brand since the 1930s 601. It was based "on the principles of the Peugeot 504", using its bulkhead, doors, and part of the 504 floorpan. It was replaced in 1989 by the Peugeot 605 which was supplanted by the 607 in 1999. This was Peugeot's last executive competitor.
The Renault 20 and Renault 30 twins were modern hatchbacks with the latter model featuring the same PRV engine as the Peugeot 604. They were replaced, in 1983, by the Renault 25 which featured a fastback body like the 1992 Renault Safrane. In an effort to differentiate its executive cars from the mainstream competition, Renault introduced the unusual upright Vel Satis hatchback in 2002.
In general, executive cars are 4-door sedans. Some manufacturers seek to differentiate their offerings by making them as estate variants, or with 5-door hatchback bodies—in particular Rover, Saab, Renault and Citroën formerly have been known to prefer such body styles, with Ford also offering such models through the 1990s, and Audi and BMW have recently offered such body styles for their executive cars. Until the 1990s, some models were also available as 2-door coupés.
While executive cars were popular in Europe in the beginning of the 1970s, with most major manufacturers and brands having an entry in this category, the fuel crises hampered their sales. Gradually, the executive cars became more premium vehicles, with basic versions with less equipment and smaller engines disappearing from the market.
On the other hand, large family cars grew in size, being offered with larger engines (including V6 units, considered premium in Europe) and higher equipment levels, taking over the role of less premium executive cars due to still lower prices. These included executive cars from mainstream manufacturers, such as Opel/Vauxhall Omega and Ford Scorpio, with the remaining models being positioned mostly as premium cars and coming from brands specializing in larger/more expensive vehicles. Ford's decision to discontinue the Scorpio in 1998 came just before the launch of the Jaguar S-Type, as Ford owned Jaguar at the time, and also a short time before it took over Volvo, which sold the similar sized Volvo S70/V70.
Other corresponding classes
The equivalent class for cars in Germany is "Obere Mittelklasse" (lit. upper-middle class) as defined by the German federal authorities. Another designation for the class is E-segment, within the classification that assigns a letter of the Latin alphabet to every class of car, starting with "A" for city cars. This designation is also often used in several other European countries, especially by automotive media with ties to German publications. German standards define such vehicles to be between 4.8 and 5.0 metres in length and with list prices of between EUR 30–60,000.
In France, these vehicles are known as "Grande Routière", a class of comfortable long distance cars that first emerged on the French market in the 1930s. The Citroën DS is a prominent example.
In the United States and Canada, these vehicles occupy the 1 million vehicle/year Mid-luxury segment. German exports are competitive in this sector and use 'entry-level-luxury' and 'mid-luxury' as the base of their ranges. Because brand perception of value is the key selling proposition, Japanese manufacturers have established separate luxury brands such as Infiniti, Lexus, and Acura to compete in this segment.
Rental car classification segments that generally correspond with it are 'P' (Premium) and 'L' (Luxury), though it has to be noted that these classifications are often applied quite liberally by rental companies.
The Australian term for cars this size is simply 'large car' size.
Cars bigger than executive in Europe
Compact executive cars
Within the large family car class, premium cars such as the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Jaguar XE, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Volvo S60 are sometimes referred to as compact executive cars in the United Kingdom, reflecting their status, equipment amount, materials used and relative size compared to mainstream large family cars and regular executive cars. In North America, such models can be labelled entry-level luxury cars, compact or sometimes mid-size luxury cars, or alternatively near-luxury cars, though this classification depends more on price than on size.
- Autocar, November 1977, p. 17
- Motor, 6 December 1975, p. 2
- Buckley, Martin (January 2007). "Riches To Rags". Classic & Sportscar Magazine. Vol. 25 no. 10. Teddington, Middlesex, UK: Haymarket. p. 148.
- "What Car? Car of the Year 2006 – Best compact executive". What Car?. 20 January 2006. Retrieved 9 May 2012.