Compact executive cars are some of the most sought-after vehicles on the road today, as they are popular both as family all-rounders and also as some of the best company cars. No matter what they are used for, desirability is part of their key appeal, and the best compact executive cars have sharp looks to match their driving dynamics. And desirability is something that the premium brands from Stratstone offer in spades.
But it's also important that they excel in other areas. A lot of time can be spent in the driving seat, so it's key that each car is a nice place to sit. A refined drive that glides over the roads ahead, with a comfortable, plush interior scores top marks. Their dashboards exude quality from every pore, but also adorn themselves with the latest gadgets and safety gear to serve every requirement.
Last but not least, engines also play a key factor. The need for a frugal, powerful and low-emission engine, which can stay quiet and refined even at motorway speeds, is a role usually filled by a diesel engine. But not all were created equal. So here's our picks of the top compact executive cars.
The BMW 3-Series is probably the first name that comes to mind when looking at executive cars, but it's with good reason. Carbuyer's best executive car for two years running, the 3-Series shows little sign of slowing down on its way to the top.
What makes this car so great is that BMW have always prided themselves on the fantastic driving dynamics of all their cars. This spirit is instilled in to the heart of the 3-Series, which has excellent road manners and agile, responsive steering considered to be the best in-class.
Paired with a range of excellent engines, it's hard to go wrong. Diesels such as the 320d give strong performance to enjoy the 3-series at its best, but also achieve 62.8mpg on the combined cycle that makes it a compelling choice for distance drivers and commuters.
Not to be left behind in the practicality stakes, there's also an impressive boot space of 480 litres. The cabin also strikes a good blend of substance and style, thanks to BMW's intuitive i-Drive system.
Mercedes Benz C-Class
The Mercedes-Benz C-Class is comfortable and refined, but still boasts a dynamic edge to its driving persona. It draws remarks for being a smaller version of the S-Class, and that's certainly no bad thing. A focus on ride quality across all variants of the C-Class mean that it can smooth over the deepest of potholes and uneven country lanes with the smallest of intrusions in to the cabin.
Build quality is also solid, and the C-Class has a great reliability record, with a history of scoring above-average marks in the JD Power customer satisfaction survey. Interior quality is also amongst the best on our list, with the use of quality materials that really makes the C-Class cabin feel special.
Engines also impress. Bluetec powertrain variants (which make up a majority of the range) all offer impressive economy which in some cases exceeds 70mpg, whilst still offering good performance.
The choice engine in the range is the C220, a true all-rounder for performance and economy, which is ideal for both personal and business use. As always with Mercedes-Benz, the safety features are vast even on standard C-Class models and it achieves a 5-Star Euro NCAP rating.
The Audi A4 remains a hallmark of reliable quality. The driving feel of the car matches this - it's reassuringly planted on roads and offers plenty in the way of grip meaning it's a confident performer on a wide array of surfaces. The A4 also comes with quite a varied range of model choices thanks to the practical A4 Avant estate, and the A4 Allroad model which adds some off-road ability thanks to all-wheel drive.
Renowned for their interior build quality, Audi's efforts in the A4 don't disappoint. There are plenty of hardy materials and sturdy-feeling buttons which you'd confidently leave alone with your family over the weekend. There is also plenty of interior space on offer and a well-sized boot for those that need the practicality.
The primary focus of Audi's engines is on power and performance, with a range of turbocharged petrol engines, but there is some economy to be had. The 2.0 TDI engine can achieve 67mpg on the combined cycle, whilst still offering 163PS.
BMW 4-Series Gran Coupe
A choice you may not have thought about as a compact executive car is a four-door coupe. BMW's version, the 4-Series Gran Coupe, aims to blend the traditional sporty styling of the BMW 4-Series with the practicality and access benefits of the BMW 3-Series. Essentially, it's a much sleeker offering than many of the cars on this list as it's the same size as the two-door coupe.
It comes with the same range of engines as the traditional 4-Series, but also comes with an added engine in the form of the 418d, which targets itself squarely at the best premium executive cars. Emissions are low, at just 121g/km, but it still offers reasonable performance.
It impresses not only for its looks, but also for the incredibly refined driving characteristics. It shares the same great handling feel and performance of the BMW 3-Series, and is suitably balanced. Taking most of the best bits from the 3-series, it also shares the generous 480-litre boot space.
The Lexus is notable as it's the only car on our list that has no diesel engines as standard - usually an essential element to a compact executive. In fact, there's a range of both petrol and hybrid powertrains to choose from instead. Determined to stand out from the crowd, the Lexus also features sharp styling features borrowed from the Lexus LFA Supercar, which is unusual in this sector.
Despite the odd choice of engines and unique styling, the IS is still a compact executive at heart, with a big focus on ride comfort and refinement. Standard equipment levels are good, and the interior has a plush quality to it, meaning it's a natural-born long distance cruiser. As with all Lexus models, reliability shouldn't be a problem.
For the engines, there's a powerful V6 engine designed purely for driving enjoyment, and a hybrid model in the 300h. The hybrid model gives diesel engines a run for their money, able to achieve 65mpg on the combined cycle, and less than 99g/km which makes it exempt from road tax. All this, and the IS engine produces an impressive 223bhp from the combined petrol and electric engines.