This paper presents a numerical study of the 3D flow around a cylinder which was defined as a benchmark problem for the steady state Navier–Stokes equations within the DFG high-priority research program flow simulation with high-performance computers by Schafer and Turek (Vol. 52, Vieweg: Braunschweig, 1996). The first part of the study is a comparison of several finite element discretizations with respect to the accuracy of the computed benchmark parameters. It turns out that boundary fitted higher order finite element methods are in general most accurate. Our numerical study improves the hitherto existing reference values for the benchmark parameters considerably. The second part of the study deals with efficient and robust solvers for the discrete saddle point problems. All considered solvers are based on coupled multigrid methods. The flexible GMRES method with a multiple discretization multigrid method proves to be the best solver. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.