You might open your eyes a little wider at the sight of the full five stars here, but any fewer would be a perverse choice. Across the board from a 316 SE to a 335i M Sport, the 3-series should be the starting point for everyone shopping in this market with an open mind.

There may be many reasons you might eventually prefer an Audi or a Mercedes, not to mention a Lexus or Toyota, but they’re likely to be largely subjective and matters of personal taste. 

Matt Prior

Road test editor
The 320d is in a league of its own on performance, economy and driving dynamics

For in terms of outright ability, currently there is nothing that gets close to the 3-series, let alone looks likely to beat it. What must be so terrifying for rival manufacturers is the car’s ability across the board. It gives not just outstanding performance, but combines it with fabulous economy. It’s not just the best-handling car in the class, but the best-riding, too. 

The 3-series is a triumphant testament to BMW’s driver ethos and engineering prowess, and now stands head and shoulders above its competition, towering clearer of the pack than any other new BMW, or any other class-leading car, we can think of.

And until someone can devise a way of attacking successfully on such a myriad array of diverse fronts, the position of the 3-series as the world’s best small saloon looks more secure than ever.

Top 5 Compact execs

  • BMW 3-series
    The 3-series remains strong in the areas it has always excelled but now it's more rounded than ever

    BMW 3-series

    1
  • Mercedes-Benz C-class
    The C-class shares a lot of its looks with the new S-class, furthering its desirability

    Mercedes-Benz C-class

    2
  • The Audi A4 saloon is bigger, roomier and more aerodynamic than its predecessor

    Audi A4

    3
  • The CC offers a handsome alternative to the staid Passat

    Volkswagen CC

    4
  • Volvo S60
    The Volvo S60 is offered with an impressive new D4 diesel engine

    Volvo S60

    5

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • First Drive
    29 May 2015
    New compact Vauxhall shows lots of promise, but sluggish performance and intrusive road noise leave it trailing its rivals
  • First Drive
    28 May 2015
    BMW's luxurious coupé has been given a style refresh and more equipment. This is our first chance to drive the popular 640d Coupe on UK roads
  • First Drive
    28 May 2015
    We drive Ssangyong's new small SUV, which isn't up with the best in class but is certainly worth consideration as a budget option
  • Car review
    26 May 2015
    Hardcore 493bhp GT3 RS represents a new level for the Porsche 911 - faint hearts need not apply
  • First Drive
    25 May 2015
    Track drive of Lamborghini's astonishing limited-run special, the Aventador LP750-4 Superveloce