Each of our top ten compact saloons mix practicality, refinement, punchy engines and engaging dynamics, but which takes top spot?
14 May 2019

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 will need to have a mixture of deft handling, a comfortable ride, impressive interior quality and respectable fuel economy - a balance that can be difficult to strike at the best of times. 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.

Our Verdict

Vauxhall Insignia Grand Sport

The new Insignia is essential to Vauxhall’s future and needs to be good. So is it?

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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 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-Benz 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.

 

 

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5. 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, for now, with only a 247bhp turbocharged petrol engine and badged ‘T5’, the car has plenty of performance – although less powerful and expensive options, and a more efficiency-minded hybrid, will be along later. Volvo will not offer a diesel, however.

Save money with new S60 deals from What Car? 

6. 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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7. Volkswagen Passat

The big Volkswagen Passat has plenty going for it. It has a tidy, well-made interior, 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.

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 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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8. 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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9. 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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10. Peugeot 508

Peugeot is making a play for the style-conscious crowd with its latest big saloon, the 508. We use the term ‘big’ fairly loosely, mind you – since this car is actually quite small and svelte even by compact saloon class standards, and offers fairly limited second-row passenger space. However, the 508 certainly cuts a dash at the kerbside, with its striking daytime running lights and frameless doors – and if you happen to think French saloons ought to be stylish first and foremost, it should hold plenty of appeal.

Being 80mm shorter and 70kg lighter than the old 508, the new one has a hatchback-style rear end for greater boot accessibility. The car’s engine range is diesel-dominated, although there are a couple of 1.6-litre turbo petrols to add a note of spice – the more powerful of the two with 221bhp at heel.

Handling is fairly agile and spry, and ride refinement respectable even on bigger alloy wheels – but only top-of-the-line GT models get adaptive dampers as standard.

 

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