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Executive car is a British term for an automobile larger than a large family car. In official use, the term is adopted by Euro NCAP, a European organization founded to test for car safety. It is a passenger car classification defined by European Commission.
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 and a business tool enabling its users to exploit Britain and Europe's tax schemes as a company owned vehicle. 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.
In current popular use, an executive car is a "catch-all phrase covering a wide group of prestige models" and they are now available in numerous body styles.
As of the late 2010s, there are no French executive cars on sale although Citroën, Peugeot and Renault have all offered executive cars in the past. Citroën marketed the C6 as its flagship model from 2005 to 2012, which was a delayed replacement for the 1990s XM which replaced the 1970s CX. Citroën's 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 then followed 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 Vel Satis hatchback in 2002.
In the 2000s, German models like the BMW 5 Series became 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. It was also sold as a "shooting brake" estate until 2017.
Audi has been selling the A6 saloon and estate (called Avant) since 1994 and the A7 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.
FIAT introduced the six-cylinder 1800 and 2100 models in 1959 before expanding the range with a four-cylinder in 1961 called 1500L (with the 'L' standing for Lunga or long, to differentiate it from the regular 1500). The 2100 derivative was replaced in 1961 by the more powerful FIAT 2300. FIAT's last executive competitor was the V6 engined 130, which was available from 1969 to 1977. The only Italian brand to offer an executive car now is Maserati with the high-performance Ghibli. Other FIAT subsidiaries such as Lancia have made executive cars in the past, most recently by offering a short-lived, re-badged version of the Chrysler 300 called the Thema, which was discontinued in 2015.
SEAT created their one and only executive-sized car, called the SEAT 1500 in 1963. It was a re-badged version of the FIAT 1500L.
One of SAAB's final models was the 9-5, based on the GM Epsilon II platform (which is the basis of many large GM vehicles), which was 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 variant was no longer offered unlike the preceding Saab 9000.
Volvo has been selling executive cars since the 1960s and continues to compete in the sector to this day. Volvo 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 estate car called the V90 Cross Country which is a continuation of the theme seen on XC badged predecessors.
The Humber Hawk (Mark III to VIA) was arguably one of the first executive cars and debuted in 1948; it was available with premium features such as two-tone and metallic paintwork, sunroof, as well as leather and wood trimmings. Humber's first unitary-construction Hawk (Series I to IVA) was announced in May 1957. It was longer and lower than the car it replaced and available with an automatic transmission for the first time. The similarly sized Humber Super Snipe and Imperial were marketed more towards the luxury car buyer.
Jaguar entered the market in 1955 with a car that is retrospectively known as the Mark 1 but was sold as the 2.4 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 have another competitor until 1998 with the retro-styled S-Type. This was replaced by the avant-garde XF which is now in its second generation.
Daimler created more luxurious and exclusive versions of both the Jaguar Mark 2, called the Daimler 2.5 V8 (later renamed Daimler V8-250), as well as a derivative of the Jaguar 420 called Daimler Sovereign.
The executive car market was further expanded in the 1960s with sporty, upmarket mid-size saloons marketed by numerous brands. In 1962 Rover previewed the innovative 2000, later available as 2200 and 3500 models and sometimes 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 successful in the executive car sector in Britain.
British Leyland initially marketed their new 1974 executive cars as the Austin and Morris 18-22 series and Wolseley Saloon. In 1975 they were renamed Princess. These cars offered the features of an executive car but in a smaller, more space-efficient package. They were available with modern technology, luxurious trim, four or six-cylinder engines and an optional automatic transmission. 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 front-wheel drive Renault 20/30 than their in-house rivals from Rover and Triumph.
In the 1970s Rover replaced the P6 with the larger SD1, marketed as either 2000, 2300, 2600, 3500, or 2400 D depending on the engine. This car was adapted and marketed as 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 size, although a long wheelbase version was available.
Japan doesn't have an explicit executive car classification but many domestic manufacturers sell models which are targeted at this sector in markets such as Europe and the United States (where an executive car is more likely to be called a mid-size luxury car).
One of the earliest Japanese executive cars was the 1985 Acura Legend (called Honda Legend outside of the U.S.). This was designed in collaboration with Britain's Austin Rover Group who, in turn, created the Rover 800. The 2004 - 2012 KB generation Legend was the last to be sold in Europe, but its successor continues to be sold in other markets.
Lexus launched the first GS executive sedan in 1991; it was designed to have a more European feel by Ital Design. Lexus has since launched three further generations of the GS. However, in 2018 Lexus stopped taking orders for the GS in Europe and announced it will replace it with the Toyota Camry-based ES model.
Mazda had intended to launch their own high-end brand, called Amati, like Honda had done with Acura and Toyota with Lexus. The Amati Cars project was cancelled, however, which meant Mazda's first proper executive competitor - commonly known as the Millenia (U.S.) or Xedos 9 (Europe) - was launched under its own branding and under the marque Eunos as the 800 (Japan, Australia).
Chinese manufacturers offer a number of home-grown executive cars. Many are based on proven Western technology, such as the 2012 Roewe 950 which is a re-bodied 2010 Buick LaCrosse from GM. Roewe also created the slightly smaller Roewe 750, developed with MG Rover engineers. It is, in effect, a face-lifted and lengthened version of the British Rover 75.
Often exclusive to China are long-wheelbase versions of Western brands' executive car competitors; this is due to the preference Chinese owners have for being driven by a chauffeur. Jaguar launched the XF L in 2016 while BMW debuted the 5-Series Li in 2017. Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo also make long-wheelbase versions of their executive cars. In contrast, Cadillac is intending on discontinuing their lengthened models in China.
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.
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.
A saloon car larger and/or more expensive than an executive car would be classified as a full-size luxury car / F-segment in Europe. In Germany, these cars are referred to as Oberklasse ("upper class").
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.
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