Best buys: Sports saloons

The BMW 3 Series wins but the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class are worthy contenders

The best one: BMW 3 Series

It’s a narrow, narrow decision to put the 3 Series at the top of the sports saloon pile, but perhaps it’s only appropriate that the car which, effectively, created the class bestrides it yet.

Okay, there are flaws with the current 3 and there’s the inescapable fact that it’s going to be replaced in the next 18 months by an all-new model, but there is still much to like here. Best of all, as it has always been, is the way it drives. Whether you’re in a boggo 316d or a screaming M3, the same sense of precision prevails. The current 3 doesn’t have the laser-like steering of old, but it’s still a hugely entertaining, rewarding and enjoyable car to drive. Better still, it rides properly these days too, thanks to BMW softening off the springs a little, and the improvements in runflat tyre tech.

Space in the cabin and boot is decent, but you will need to spend some money on options if the cabin is to look anything other than a little too plain and plastic-y. Also, you need to get creative with the leather and trim combos and avoid the basic black-and-alloy look which is just too dull. Most common diesel 320d is a touch noisy these days, but 316d is smoother, and not that much slower. 330e plugin hybrid is actually the pick of the range, not least because it’s €4,000 cheaper than a 320d.

Best model: 330e M-Sport for €45,060
Price range: €37,420 to €107,570. Finance from €POA per month.
CO2 emissions: 44 to 204g/km
Sum up: It's good to be the king.


Worthy contender: Audi A4

Really, it could so easily have been the A4 at the top of this list, as the 3 Series shades it on the merest of whims and fancies. Does being front-wheel drive (save for the optional quattro four-wheel drive) hurt the A4’s chances? No, not really – it’s actually a pretty engaging car to drive, even if its slightly too-light steering and lack of traditional rear-drive balance do count against it. It certainly has superior refinement to the BMW, as the 2.0-litre TDI diesel is close to being genuinely whisper quiet, and has more than sufficient punch even in 150hp form. Avant estate, with its even more handsome lines, is the one to have, and these days it’s actually pretty practical, even if space in the rear seats is nothing about which to write home. The cabin is genuinely lovely, although (as with the BMW) you do need to spend extra, on such things as the “Virtual Cockpit” digital instrument pack, to see it at its best.

Best model: Avant 2.0 TDI 150hp S-Line Ultra for €47,840
Price range: €36,150 to €69,850. Finance from €349 per month.
CO2 emissions: 104 to 166g/km
Sum up: Vorsprung indeed.

Worthy contender: Mercedes-Benz C-Class

Really, it could so easily have been the C-Class at the top of this list, as the 3 Series shades it on the merest of whims and fancies (sensing a pattern here?). The C-Class actually has an interior to beat both of its primary Teutonic rivals, with quality that matches the best Audi can manage, and style that far outstrips BMW’s too-sensible 3 Series (although, again, you do have to spend on extras for it to be at its best). The C also cuts perfectly up the middle ground between the 3 Series and A4 in its driving. It has the beautiful balance of a classic rear-drive chassis (and actually better steering than the BMW) but the refinement and comfort of the Audi. Well, almost – if you’re buying a C220d you’re getting Merc’s old, rattly, noisy 2.1-litre diesel, so it’s actually a better idea to go for the smaller, but smoother, 1.6-litre C180d, especially in ultra-handsome, ultra-useful estate form. Coupe version is utterly gorgeous. Mercedes recently applied a 10 per cent price cut across all models so take advantage soon.

Best model:C180D Estate AMG Auto for €45,290
Price range: €33,795 to €126,605. Finance from €396 per month.
CO2 emissions: 80 to 191g/km
Sum up: Stuttgart's sensible and sensual saloon.

Wild card: Alfa Romeo Giulia

Normally, you would find the hybrid Lexus IS300h occupying this position – sensible reliability, but with hybrid power and opinion-dividing styling equals a good, if not obvious, alternative to the German sports saloon norm. This time, though, we’ve decided to leave our heads at the door and choose with our hearts, so it’s the Alfa Giulia. Okay, so it’s possibly not the best-looking car Alfa has ever made, but it just might be the best actual car. Build quality, thus far, seem good and it is exceptionally good to drive, with fast steering and delightful rear-drive balance. The cabin is roomy, though some cheap buttons and features like the gear shifter are nowhere near good enough to match rivals. 150hp and 180hp diesel engines are fine, if nothing more, but the petrol units are the stars. 200hp 2.0-litre turbo is sweet and reasonably frugal, but the 520hp V6 turbo Quadrifoglio is an unmitigated superstar, with wild handling, sonorous noise, and staggering speed. At last, an Alfa that can truly go toe-to-toe with the Germans and not come away bruised.

Best model: Giulia 2.0 Turbo 200hp Super Sport for €42,566
Price range: €39,995 to €99,945. Finance from €436 per month.
Co2 emissions: 109 to 189g/km
Sum up: Bella macchina.