Each of our top ten compact saloons mixes strong practicality, refinement, performance and desirability with engaging dynamics, but which takes top spot?
3 January 2020

With sales of SUVs skyrocketing, fewer and fewer people are getting behind the wheel of compact saloons, which is a shame because there are some cracking options out there.

To stand out in this class, competitors need to mix deft handling, a comfortable ride, impressive interior quality and respectable fuel economy all together with the saloon car's most traditional calling card: elegant three-box exterior style and desirability. It's a balance that can be difficult to strike. Below are the cars we think have best nailed this brief.

1. BMW 3 Series

The return of the BMW 3-Series to the top of our compact saloons rankings, in this its seventh full model generation, has very little, if anything, to do with luck.

The 3-Series has brought greater handling dynamism and driver appeal to this segment than any rival over the last four decades. Of late it has added into the mix engines that lead the class for performance and efficiency, making it even harder to overlook. And now, with its rich, classy, spacious and technologically advanced cabin and top-notch mechanical refinement to match its other dynamic qualities, the ‘G20’-generation 3-Series has become a more outstanding class-leading act than you’ll find in many of the other vehicle classes with which we concern ourselves.

It’s not quite the sort of car that can be all things to all people. Tuned to appeal more to buyers and tastes at the core of the 3-Series’ following, it’s more of a sporting prospect than the car it replaces, with a firmer and more insistent ride than the ‘F30’ had – but even sharper, more vigorous and more engaging handling, too. Call that a response to the challenges laid out, in recent years, by the likes of the Jaguar XE and Alfa Romeo Giulia.

BMW’s engine range is not short on quality, but it’s as strongly represented by the big-selling 320d diesel as almost anywhere: a car that sets a very high standard for its competitors on pace, drivability, efficiency, refinement, handling poise – in other words, in all of the ways that really matter.

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The plug-in hybrid 330e will be of even greater interest to many modern fleet drivers, of course, which has greater real-world electric-only range than its predecessor as well as improved performance and interior packaging. It remains our favourite hybrid executive saloon of its size.

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2. Jaguar XE

The Jaguar XE was a bold attempt to take on some of the biggest-selling and most complete compact executive saloons in the world, by relative minnow Jaguar. While it hasn’t transformed the brand that created it, it has certainly had a bigger impact upon the class in which it sits than its sales footprint might suggest; and it’s well worth considering if you want a business saloon that delivers for its driver first and foremost, and that works better on British roads, in some ways, than any other.

The British car has a supple ride and handling compromise that gives it the poise and dexterity to deal with UK cross-country roads particularly well. Being one of the smaller cars in the class, it still feels relatively small within its lane, and has very impressive steering precision and handling balance when driven quickly.

Performance from the car’s petrol and diesel Ingenium engines is not quite as strong as the XE’s handling, with upper-level petrols using a combination of four-wheel drive and automatic gearbox that makes for slightly disappointing performance and fuel economy. But Jaguar’s new RDE-compliant, rear-driven D180 diesel option is a strong one for company car drivers.

The handsome Jaguar is somewhat let down by limited space in the rear and a slightly smaller boot than those in rivals such as the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class – although much of the rest of the cabin was updated as part of Jaguar’s 2019 facelift, and now more easily passes muster for perceived quality than it used to.

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3. Alfa Romeo Giulia

The Giulia marks a rather dramatic and significant return to form for Alfa Romeo. Built on a new rear-driven model platform and well able to mix it with the best cars in this class for handling poise and driver appeal, it’s also as fine-looking a saloon car as the class has seen in recent years and, with strong engines in its armoury, has all of the qualities that Alfa brand devotees would be likely to want from it.

In the way it goes about dealing with a challenging road, the car has a rare blend of light-rimmed handling agility, handling balance and compact on-road feel that give even diesel-engined versions a surfeit of sporting appeal. It's let down somewhat by an interior that seems low-rent when judged against the German alternatives, and by a lacklustre infotainment system that’s a bit light on features and unintuitive to use.

The car certainly looks the part, though, especially in barnstorming Quadrifoglio guise, which adds in a Ferrari-derived 503bhp twin-turbocharged V6 and huge driver appeal. More economy-minded buyers will find the diesel engines also offer strong performance and fuel economy.

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4. Mercedes C-Class

Where the 3-Series, Giulia and XE place more focus on driver engagement, Mercedes has taken a more luxurious and refined approach to what a compact saloon can be with the C-Class. Think of the ‘W205’-generation ‘C’ as a miniaturised S-Class and you wont go far wrong in your expectation of the kind of dynamic compromise it offers.

Material quality inside is among the best in this class, and overall the interior is only let down by the fact that some taller passengers will find space in the back a bit tight. Standard equipment is generous across the range, too – with the technological and material highlights of top-of-the-range versions being particularly ritzy and impressive, and the car’s driver assist systems being very strong.

That the C-Class’ handling isn’t quite as poised or inviting as some is unmissably true, but it’s unlikely to discourage Mercedes owners who will value this car’s more laid-back ride and more opulent character. Meanwhile, when Mercedes banished its old 2.1-litre turbodiesel engine from this car midway through its life and replaced it with a much quieter, more efficient and more willing new 2.0-litre unit, it addressed what was arguably the car’s biggest weakness.

Unlike Jaguar and Alfa Romeo, Mercedes does offer a tax-saving plug-in hybrid version of the C-Class; but unlike the equivalent BMW 3-Series, it’s got a diesel engine. The C300de combines just under 200-horsepower from its combustion engine from just over 100- from its electric motor, and qualifies for ‘BIK’ tax from the 2020/21 financial year at just 12 per cent of its P11D-qualifying list price where a C220d diesel would make you liable for 31 per cent of it.

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5. Tesla Model 3

Hitting the top half of this super-competitive top ten with its first small saloon is a major achievement for electric car trailblazer Tesla. The production rollout of the vital Model 3, the most affordable model yet produced by Elon Musk’s zeitgeist-defining car-making firm, is now nearing completion, with even right-hand drive production well underway and entry-level ‘standard range’ versions of the car, available from around £35,000, likely to hit the UK market later this year.

We road tested the car in rear-wheel drive ‘standard range plus’ form in 2019; and even with a couple of more powerful options available above it in Tesla’s model range, it was hard not to be struck by super-responsive and pacey outright performance of the car, as well as its agile handling, its athletic and compelling overall driving experience, and its creditable 200-mile real-world range.

The car doesn’t have same impressive outright cabin or boot space as its bigger sibling the Model S, comparing less favourably with the best cars in the class on outright practicality; and, while its clean-looking, reductionist interior has plenty of appeal, it doesn’t quite have the ride comfort or rolling refinement you might hope for of the first fully electric saloon of its kind either. 

Firm over bumps and quite noisy over coarse surfaces, the Model 3 is certainly a car with a sporting character that’s unlikely to tempt people to give up more grown-up and mature-feeling saloon rivals for long. But, more importantly, it should give people much greater cause to celebrate taking the plunge on an electric car than cause to regret – which is exactly what you’d hope for of Tesla’s bottom-rung option.

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6. Volvo S60

Volvo is thrusting itself right back towards the sharp end of the compact saloon argument with this, its third-generation S60 saloon – and the first to be built outside of Europe, in Ridgeville, South Carolina.

Great-looking, great to travel in, relaxing to drive and quite practical with it, the S60 will appeal to people who aren’t catered to by the more sporting mission statements of other cars in this class – but should enjoy plenty of success in doing so. It has good powertrain refinement, decent front-driven handling and a well-rounded, comfortable ride – although latterly, avoiding Volvo’s bigger optional alloy wheel sizes is advisable if you want the last word in ride refinement.

Available with either a 247bhp turbocharged petrol engine and badged ‘T5’ or as a petrol-electric, four-wheel drive plug-in ‘T8’ with either 385- or 400bhp (depending on chosen specification), the S60 has plenty of performance – although less powerful and expensive options and a more efficiency-minded and more affordable hybrid, will be along later. Volvo will not offer a diesel.

The top-rung T8 Polestar Engineered version has impressive body control and plenty of sporting pace, but doesn’t quite have enough all-round performance credibility or driver appeal to rank as a bonafide super saloon.

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7. Audi A4

A firm favourite with company car drivers, the Audi A4 makes a strong case for itself based on its excellent perceived cabin quality; the smart material richness of its interior; its smart exterior design; its refined, economical engines; and its brilliant infotainment systems.

The A4 is let down a little by an isolated but uninvolving driving experience that favours high-speed stability over driver engagement. However, it excels as a long-distance motorway tourer as a result - a trait that is further backed up by a range of refined and smooth petrol and diesel engines. Plenty of onboard passenger space is on offer, too, while Audi’s finance deals make for strong value for money also.

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8. Volkswagen Passat

The Volkswagen Passat has plenty going for it. It has a tidy, well-made interior, a refined and widely accomplished driving experience, strong standard kit and handsome – if a little subdued – exterior styling.

A range of economical Euro 6-standard four-cylinder diesel engines offers commendable refinement, performance and economy, while the plug-in hybrid Passat GTE gives buyers the option of lower CO2 emissions and electric motoring over a limited range. VW's 2019 facelift for the car added a bigger drive battery for the GTE, boosting zero-emissions range by about 40 per cent, to a claimed 43 miles.

While the Passat makes for a comfortable and relaxed motorway cruiser, it can’t compete with the likes of the Giulia or XE in terms of its dynamism, instead taking a more laid-back, functional approach to its driving experience. If you’re looking for a car to soothe away the rigours of daily motoring with the minimum of intrusion and fuss, look no further.

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9. Vauxhall Insignia Grand Sport

The second-generation Vauxhall Insignia enters the compact saloon market armed with attractive pricing, a great amount of standard equipment and plenty of interior space. The Grand Sport's handsome exterior styling is another draw, and it’s now much more comfortable than its predecessor.

Family buyers will find that the Insignia’s interior is far roomier than plenty of cars in this class. Cabin ambience and perceived quality aren’t quite at premium-brand level, but both are good enough to engage with every day without grating or disappointing.

The Insignia may not be as vivacious as some of its more sporting rivals on a challenging road but it's well suited to long-distance touring, while Vauxhall’s GSI-badged warm performance derivatives do at least offer a modicum of driver appeal at an affordable price.

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10. Kia Stinger

Kia’s new flagship model has made a good start at redefining just what people should expect from the South Korean manufacturer.

The Stinger flaunts handsome styling, excellent handling and, in full-fat GT-S guise, a properly potent 3.3-litre twin-turbocharged V6 for a price that will only buy you four cylinders elsewhere. The car’s four-cylinder engines are more ordinary in use, but there’s still decent performance, refinement and economy to be had from both.

The Stinger isn’t without fault, though. Interior quality isn’t on the same level as truly premium rival cars', and the infotainment system - although working well in isolation - also trails behind premium brands'. Practicality is excellent, however.

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