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.
In seventh-generation ‘G20’ guise, the BMW 3 Series returned to the top of our compact saloon rankings in 2019 and it looks set to hold on to that crown for some time yet.
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.
But what really elevates this latest 3 Series above the rest of 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.
The plug-in hybrid 330e will be of even greater interest to many fleet drivers, of course, and it 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.
The XE might not have been the runaway sales success that Jaguar had hoped for, but that hasn’t stopped it from leaving its mark on the compact saloon class. This is a car that puts its driver first and, in certain ways, feels more well matched to British roads than any of its rival contenders.