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.
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.
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.
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.