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Each of our top 10 here mixes strong practicality, refinement, performance and desirability with engaging dynamics, but which takes top spot?
Autocar
News
10 mins read
10 February 2021

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

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.

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2. Jaguar XE

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.

Its ride is supple and composed enough to comfortably deal with the challenging road surfaces we’re faced with at times in the UK, but even more impressive is that this rolling refinement is backed by excellent steering precision and a keen handling balance when hustled along swiftly. Compact proportions make it easier to place in its lane, too. For driver engagement, it’s up there with the 3 Series.

However, the performance offered by its Ingenium petrol and diesel engines isn’t quite as impressive as its ride and handling balance. The higher-end petrols, combined as they are with four-wheel drive, are particularly thirsty and not exactly smooth if you really ring them out, while the automatic gearbox they’re paired with isn’t the slickest operator, either.

Somewhat limited space in the rear and a slightly smaller boot than those in rivals such as the 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class is a bit of a letdown, too. That said, a facelift in 2019 improved perceived quality significantly and a second update in 2020 introduced a new infotainment system, mild-hybrid powertrains and significant price cuts across the range.

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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, it has all of the qualities Alfa devotees would be likely to want.

In the way it goes about dealing with a challenging road, the car has a rare blend of light-rimmed agility, handling balance and compact on-road feel that gives even diesel-engined versions a surfeit of sporting appeal. Its interior was updated in 2020 in a bid to better take the fight to the likes of the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series, but it still lags behind those two on the grounds of material appeal. Still, its infotainment system now responds to touch and is far easier to use as a result - even if it's still graphically rather basic.

The car certainly looks the part, though, especially in barnstorming Quadrifoglio guise, which has 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

Whereas 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-Class as a miniaturised S-Class and you won’t 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 let down only 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.

The C-Class’s handling isn’t quite as poised or inviting as some, but that’s unlikely to discourage Mercedes fans, who will value this car’s more laid-back ride and more opulent character. Meanwhile, when Mercedes banished its old 2.1-litre turbo diesel 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 couple of tax-saving plug-in hybrid versions of the C-Class. There’s the diesel-electric C300de, which would be a wise choice for company car drivers frequently faced with long-distance journeys, and the more traditional C300e, which combines petrol and electric power sources. Both cars fall into the 10% benefit-in-kind tax bracket.

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Save money with new C-Class deals from What Car?

5. Tesla Model 3

Hitting the top half of this super-competitive top 10 with its first small saloon is a major achievement for electric car trailblazer Tesla. 

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 the 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 the same impressive outright cabin or boot space as its bigger sibling, the Model S, and compares less favourably with the best cars in the class on outright practicality. Although its clean-looking, reductionist interior has plenty of appeal, it doesn’t quite have the ride comfort or rolling refinement you might expect from the first fully electric saloon of its kind, either. Nevertheless, it should give people much greater cause to celebrate taking the plunge on an electric car than cause to regret.

A number of updates were introduced in late 2020, too. While these were primarily design based (there’s a selection of new alloy wheels and interior trim treatments to choose from), the biggest change was an updated heating/air-con pump. That sounds insignificant, but combined with a handful of powertrain tweaks, it gives the Model 3 even greater range. Tesla now claims 267 miles for the Standard Range Plus and 360 miles for both the Long Range and Performance models.

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6. Volvo S60

Volvo is thrusting itself right back towards the sharp end of the compact saloon class 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 for by the more sporting mission statements of other cars in this class – and it should enjoy plenty of success in doing so. It has good powertrain refinement, decent front-driven handling and a well-rounded, comfortable ride – although avoiding Volvo’s bigger optional alloy wheel sizes is advisable if you want the last word in ride refinement.

There are now just two powertrains to choose from and, as is the case with the wider Volvo range, both feature some form of electrification. The mild-hybrid 247bhp B5 petrol represents the entry level, but those wanting a bit more grunt can look to the four-wheel-drive, plug-in hybrid T8 models. The standard Recharge model packs a hefty 385bhp, while the flagship Polestar Engineered model ups this to 400bhp. 

The range-topper 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 bona fide super-saloon.

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7. Audi A4

The A4 makes a strong case for itself based on the smart material richness of its interior, the crisp-looking exterior design, its refined, economical engines and its brilliant infotainment systems.

The A4 is let down a little by an 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 on-board passenger space is on offer, too, and Audi’s finance deals make for strong value for money. It was once a firm favourite with company car drivers but this status has been eroded recently by the lack of a plug-in hybrid model.

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8. Volkswagen Passat

The 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 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% to a claimed 43 miles.

Although 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 has never really stood out for driver engagement or performance car pedigree, but it nonetheless remains an appealing choice for its value-oriented pricing, big-car practicality and smooth, comfortable ride.

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It was updated for 2020, with subtle changes made to its exterior design and a sharper infotainment system introduced. The engine line-up remains pretty standard fare, built around a choice of 2.0-litre petrol and diesel engines, and a smaller 1.5-litre diesel.

The Insignia’s interior is far roomier than plenty of cars in this class. Cabin ambience and perceived quality aren’t quite at a 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 and Vauxhall’s GSI-badged warm performance derivatives do at least offer a modicum of driver appeal at an affordable price.

10. Kia Stinger

Kia’s 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 buy you only four cylinders elsewhere. It was previously available with a range of four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines, but a model refresh at the start of 2021 removed those smaller powerplants from UK sales lists. A few visual tweaks were also introduced, as well as an updated infotainment system and a new range of colours.

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The Stinger isn’t without fault, though. Interior quality is good, but not quite 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, though.

Save money with new Stinger deals from What Car?