As SUV sales continue to reach ever greater heights, the compact saloon has become a slightly less common sight on our roads. That’s a bit of a pity, because for the keener driver, they’re arguably the best type of car to live with on a daily basis - provided you choose the right one.
The top cars in this class don’t just offer that classic three-box shape and a desirable badge on their noses: athletic, engaging handling, a smooth, comfortable ride, a plush, well-built interior, strong performance and decent fuel economy are all just as important. And with ever-tightening emissions regulations to contend with, the availability of a tax-friendly plug-in hybrid option doesn’t hurt, either.
Regardless, it’s certainly a delicate balancing act - one that can be tricky to successfully pull off. Here, we list the cars that, in our view, offer the most convincing mix of those aforementioned attributes.
1. BMW 3 Series
Recently refreshed, the seventh-generation ‘G20’ BMW 3 Series continues to rule the compect executive roost - and it's not hard to see why.
Over the past 40 years or so, the 3 Series has established itself as the go-to compact saloon for those buyers who truly value exquisite handling dynamism and genuine driver appeal. In more recent years, only the likes of the Jaguar XE and Alfa Romeo Giulia have managed to come close to the Munich powerhouse on these grounds. Now the car' appeal is further enhanced by subtly sharper looks on the outside and an interior that's been overhauled to include the brand's latest tech, including a vast touchscreen infotainment system.
However, where the BMW continues to standard head-and-shoulders ahead of the the pack is what it offers in addition to its obvious athletic streak. The engines in its line-up generally offer a superior blend of performance and efficiency compared with what’s available in the wider class. The cabin, meanwhile, is not only practical and well built, but it's materially desirable and technologically sophisticated, too.
With its keener focus on handling appeal, the 3 Series’ firmer, more insistent ride might erode its everyman appeal slightly. A Mercedes-Benz C-Class, for instance, is the comfier of the two over distance. But for us, it remains the standout choice - particularly in six-cylinder 330d or four-cylinder 320d guise. In fact, the 320d was awarded a full five-star rating when we road tested it in 2019 for the superb manner in which it blends pace, drivability, efficiency, refinement and handling poise. And not much has changed since then.
The plug-in hybrid 330e will be of even greater interest to many fleet drivers, of course, although its inability to crack a claimed 40 miles of EV running means it languishes in the 12% BiK bracket It remains our favourite hybrid executive saloon of its size.