Top 10 best compact saloons 2022
Each of our top 10 here mixes strong practicality, refinement, performance and desirability with engaging dynamics, but which takes top spot?
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-
Recently refreshed, the seventh-generation ‘G20’ BMW 3 Series continues to rule the compect executive roost - and it's not hard to see why.
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. Now the car' appeal is further enhanced by subtly sharper looks on the outside and an interior that's been overhauled to include the brand's latest tech, including a vast touchscreen infotainment system.
However, where the BMW continues to standard head-and-shoulders ahead of the 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. And not much has changed since then.
The plug-in hybrid 330e will be of even greater interest to many fleet drivers, of course, although its inability to crack a claimed 40 miles of EV running means it languishes in the 12% BiK bracket It remains our favourite hybrid executive saloon of its size.
*Save money with new 3 Series deals from What Car?*
-2. Mercedes-Benz C-Class-
It doesn't quite manage to knock the BMW 3 Series off the top step of the podium, but the latest Mercedes C-Class is a mightly impressive compact exec contendor. As ever, it's best to think of the C-Class as a miniaturised S-Class, an in the case of this W206 model that analogy has never been more accurate.
Once again the Mercedes leads the way for interior design and luxury, especially if you like wall-to-wall TFT screens, while a longer wheelbase means taller passengers are now able to get comfy in the back. 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 proving to be 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. And while diesel is distinctly unfashionable these days, the standard 2.0-litre that forms the basis of the C220d and C300d models is a quiet, efficient and willing performer. There's also the 402bhp AMG fettled C43 that's now a four-cylinder electrically assisted Q-car, plus the forthcoming (and also a four-pot hybrid) C63 that promises a knee-trembling 670bhp.
Unlike Jaguar and Alfa Romeo, Mercedes does offer a tax-saving plug-in hybrid version of the C-Class, with the impressively efficienct C300e. Featuring a (you guesssed it) four-cylinder engine, electric motor and large 25.4kWh battery, the PHEV claims a very impressive 68 miles on a charge, easily enough for most day-to-day chores and to drop it into the 8% BiK band. Better still, its a punchy and smooth performer that's rearly wrong-footed as its switches between different power sources.
*Save money with new C-Class deals from What Car?*
-3. 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 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 P250 petrol is a little thirsty and not exactly smooth if you really ring its neck, while the automatic gearbox its paired with isn’t the slickest operator, either. The lack of a plug-in hybrid also makes it Cryptonite to fleet managers.
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.
*Save money with new XE deals from What Car?*
-4. 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.
*Save money with new Giulia 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 now discontinued 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 305 miles for the entry level Rear Wheel Drive model, 340 miles for the Performance and and 374 miles for Long Range AWD.
*Save money with new Model 3 deals from What Car?*
-6. BMW i4-
Effectively an electrified version of the 4 Series Gran Coupe, the i4 is BMW's answer to the Tesla Model 3. Unlike its rival it hasn't been designed from the ground up as an EV, but so well-integrated are the motors and battery that you'd never guess it wasn't a bespoke creation.
There's the option of a 537bhp twin motor M50 version, but it's the entry-level single motor 335bhp eDrive40 that's actually the pick of the line-up. Sure it's not as fast as its BMW M3-baiting brother, but its quick enough and its simpler rear-drive layout results in a more natural and engaing driving experience, partly because it weighs around 150kg less, The steering is direct and well-weighted, body control is good and there's strong grip, allowing you slice quickly and cleanly through corners. With a near 50/50 weight distrubution the i4 for feels perfectly balanced through corners, while the torque rear-mounted motors serves-up surprsing throttle adjustability. Yet this agility is combined with a controlled ride and strong refinement, making the BMW an easy-going everyday choice.
Despite its swoopy coupe lines the i4 is surprisingly accommodating inside, while the 3 Series derived dash is enhanced by a wraparound TFT instrument cluster and large touchscreen infotainment. It also feels a cut above in terms of the materials used and the tight fit and finish. And with a generous 83.9kWh battery pack the BMW claims and excellent 365 miles on a charge, meaning long distance business trips should be no sweat.
-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 - although emissions regulations and slow sales mean the lusty V6 units are no longer available. As ever, quattro all-wheel drive is an option, and overall these versions are the most satifisfying to drive, in a neutral, confidence-inspiring and grippy way.
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.
*Save money with new A4 deals from What Car?*
-8. Skoda Superb-
It would be easy to assume that something with a Skoda badge would be out of its depth among these premium players, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Superb has been around for a while now, but a facelift a few years ago has helped keep it fresh, while its blend of comfort, value and space makes it hard to resist when you put aside badge snobbery and focus purely on quality and ability.
Based on the VW Group's venerable MQB platform (it''s a decade old now), the Skoda steers far more sweetly than its large proportions would suggest, darting into and out of corners with satisfying poice and accuracy. It's not as engaging as some, but its nimble and faithful enough to hold the interet, while the wide range of eager engines means there something for everyone - the turbocharged 276bhp 2.0-litre SportLine 4X4 is a real wolf in sheep's clothing. For many business users the plug-in hybrid will be the most attractive option, even if it does fall in the higher 12% BiK banding.
Regardless of the model you go for, you get the same impressive interior that has classy look and feel as well as rear legroom that would shame models from the class above, plus a cavernous 605-litre boot. Yes there will still be some that feel their premium-badged alternative has bragging rights in the corporate car park, but few can match the all-round appeal of the versatile Czech machine.
-9. Citroen C5 X-
A rather leftfield choice, the Citroen C5 X is a car that attempts to cover multiple bases with its mash-up of compact exec, crossover and estate car cues. With a very clear dynamic focus on comfort this is no driver's car, but in many respects its all the better for its single-minded pursuit of on road relaxation.
Deliberately soft suspension and seats that could double as armchairs help give the Citroen and easy-going vibe, while the refined and fairly pokey petrol engines make for effortless progress, occassionally jerky eight-speed automatic gearbox aside. The French machine clings on gamely enough through the corners, but lifeless steering and a healthy helping of bodyroll discourage you from pressing on - best to sit back, relax and take it easy. The relaxed approach is enhanced by the 222bhp plug-in hybrid model, which can run serenly in all-electric mode - although with a claimed range of 39 miles it falls agonisingly short of the 8% BiK banding, falling into the 12% bracket instead.
Based on a stretched version of the Stellantis EMP2 V3 platform means there's a decent amount of space for rear seat passengers, plus a 545-litre boot (485-litres for the hybrid). Crucially for this rarified segment o the market, the Citroen has an interior that's up to premium standards. Not only is it attractively designed, it features plenty of high grade materials and number of neat details, such as the chevron stitching for the leather trim. Not a car that'll get you blood racing, but then that's rather the point.
-10. Genesis G70-
While Genesis is a relative newcomer to the UK, the G70 itself has been around for a while - and in many respects it shows. It's effectively a heavy facelift of the original G70, which debuted in 2018, and is based on the same rear-wheel drive platform as the now defunct Kia Stinger. There's no doubting the quality and kit count, but it lacks the latest in the brand's tech, while a limited engine choice that runs to a single diesel and petrol option dampens the car's appeal.
It's not helped by the fact that it feels a little like Genesis can't quite decide whether this is a sports saloon and down-sized luxury limo. The handling is accurate and poised enough but there's little to lift the spirits, while the ride and refinement aren't quite cosseting enough to earn it a five-star comfort rating. Still, it's a capable all-rounder, while its top notch finish and lavish interior are more than a match for establised premium rivals.
If you're looking for something a little different then the G70 is worth a lok, but retail buyers should be aware of its precipitous residuals while company car users need to take note of hefty BiK bills that come hand-in-hand with the relatively old school engines and a lack of a plug-in hybrid option.