Each of our top ten compact saloons mix practicality, refinement, punchy engines and engaging dynamics, but which takes top spot?
26 January 2018

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. Jaguar XE

Sitting pretty at the top of our list of 10 favourite compact saloons is the excellent Jaguar XE.

The British car comes up trumps over its rivals thanks to its excellent ride and handling, plush interior and strong standard equipment across the range.

Performance from the petrol and diesel Ingenium engines is on par for the course, too. However, 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.

2. BMW 3 Series

The formidable BMW 3 Series has been a stalwart of the compact saloon market for as long as most can remember.

It serves up impressive levels of dynamism - if not as good as those you’ll get from the XE - as well as a spacious interior and BMW's excellent iDrive infotainment system, which leaves those in the Alfa Romeo Giulia and XE seriously wanting.

BMW also has a knack for extracting more performance and greater economy from its engines than its rivals. The plug-in hybrid 330e iPerformance makes a strong case for itself, too, combining those famed driving dynamics with reduced CO2 emissions and the capability of all-electric motoring.

3. Alfa Romeo Giulia

While the Giulia comes as a rather dramatic return to form for Alfa Romeo, at least in the way it goes about dealing with a challenging road, it's let down somewhat by a seemingly low-rent interior and a lacklustre infotainment system.

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

4. Ford Mondeo

While it may not boast the same levels of badge prestige as the Alfa Romeo, BMW or Jaguar, the Ford Mondeo still delivers where it counts.

To drive, it’s not quite as sharp or poised as its predecessors, but it can still hold its own on a challenging B-road. It’s also comfortable and refined out on the motorway – its natural habitat.

The interior does leave a fair bit to be desired in terms of material quality, particularly when compared with premium rivals. However, the abundant space will no doubt appeal to family buyers.

5. Audi A4

A firm favourite with company car drivers, the Audi A4 makes a strong case for itself based on its excellent build quality, material richness, premium badge and brilliant infotainment systems.

While similar things can be said about the XE and 3 Series, the A4 is let down by an uninvolving driving experience that favours high-speed stability over total driver engagement.

However, it excels as a long-distance tourer as a result - a trait that is further backed up by a range of refined and smooth petrol and diesel powerplants.

6. Mercedes-Benz C-Class

Where the 3 Series 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.

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.

Keener drivers may despair to find the C-Class’s chassis isn’t as well-sorted as those of the 3 Series, XE and Giulia, though.

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.

8. Audi A3 Saloon

It wouldn’t be entirely unfair to label Audi’s A3 Saloon as a semi-skimmed version of the larger A4.

Looks-wise, the two are incredibly similar; squint and the A3 could just about pass as its bigger brother.

Like all Audis, the A3 Saloon benefits from an upmarket interior and sound build quality, although its more compact proportions do mean space is a bit tight, particularly in the rear.

Opt for the 395bhp RS3 Saloon, and you’ll find yourself behind the wheel of a hugely thrilling little car.

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 newly named 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 those of the A4 and 3 Series, while fit and finish are on a par with the similarly priced Mondeo.

The Insignia may not be as potent as the Mondeo on a challenging road, but it's well suited to long-distance touring.

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. In this spec, the Stinger is just as quick as a Jaguar XE S yet significantly cheaper.

It 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'.

Our Verdict

Jaguar XE

Jaguar's first attempt at a compact exec saloon is good - very good. But can the XE hold off the BMW 3 Series and Alfa Romeo Guilia to retain its crown?

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