There was a time when the saloon car was the most popular body style on the market, but over recent years things have changed.
Today, family buyers are favouring crossovers, MPVs and SUVs as the ultimate family transport, but there’s still a market out there for the traditional three-box saloon, especially when there’s a premium badge on the boot lid.
Indeed, the three best-sellers are all German compact executive models – the Mercedes C-Class, BMW 3-Series and Audi A4. Here’s what you need to know about each.
Mercedes-Benz has seen a huge boom in registrations over the past 18 months, thanks to a completely redeveloped product range and a new focus form the manufacturer to go head-to-head with rivals BMW and Audi in the ultra-competitive fleet market.
Spearheading the brand’s renaissance is the C-Class saloon, which has long been a staple of the Mercedes line-up. The current C-Class finished 2017 in the top 10 sellers charts and remains there to this day, as the best-selling saloon car and compact executive car in the UK.
It’s easy to see why it’s popular, too. Even in entry-level 2.1-litre diesel form, the C-Class feels like something special, with classically elegant styling and a cabin that manages to cleverly amalgamate traditional appeal with cutting-edge technology.
There’s also a plug-in hybrid model, the C350e, which works out extremely cost-efficient for company car drivers as well as being quick and rewarding to drive.
The C-Class is arguably less sporting to drive than its most direct rivals, but it’s far from shabby in the handling and performance stakes, while the car’s ride comfort is exemplary.
If style is your most important facet, then the Audi A4 is the saloon car to go for, with strikingly handsome styling and by far the best interior in its class – cleanly styled, yet modern and efficient.
The model range is vast, with four and six-cylinder diesel and petrol engines and a choice of front-wheel-drive or quattro all-wheel-drive, with manual or twin clutch automatic transmissions.
The sports-oriented S-Line models are particularly popular among UK buyers, although these do tend to have a very firm ride and won’t be to everyone’s tastes, so make sure you take one for a test drive before you tick the S-Line box on the options sheet.
From mid-range SE models upwards, all A4s get Audi’s seven-inch infotainment system with integrated sat nav and a tablet-style display operated by a controller wheel between the front seats, known as MMI, or Audi’s MultiMedia Interface. The system includes smartphone connectivity and is compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
The 3.0-litre TDI variant is a particular hidden gem of the A4 range, but unlike its rivals there’s no plug-in hybrid variant…yet.
It may be the oldest of the trio, but the BMW 3-Series retains the mantle of being the best drivers’ car among the three best-selling saloons in the UK.
Available as a traditional rear-wheel drive or xDrive 4x4, the 3-Series has tenacious grip and great road manners, even if you go for one of the four-cylinder entry-level cars, all of which are a delight to drive.
Cheaper models are rather stingily specced, though, so if you can afford to do so then you should look up the range at SE or Sport grade models at the very least.
The 3-Series range is vast, with four and six-cylinder petrol and diesel engines, all the way up to the wild M3, which shines a halo over the rest of the range. There’s also a very competent plug-in hybrid, the 330e iPerformance, which combines 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine with an electric drivetrain that has a range of around 30 miles.
Some of the most popular models are the M Sport variants of the mainstream 3-Series cars, which borrow styling touches and suspension tweaks from the genuine M cars to deliver better looks and handling performance – they’re a great combination of goof looks and usability.
Which should I choose?
There’s a compelling reason to choose any one of these three cars, as they’re all superb to own and drive, with strong resale values and great road manners. The BMW is the most polished drivers’ car by quite some margin, though the vast model range means you need to choose carefully to get the right engine and trim combination. The A4 is the cleanest looking and most neatly styled, though possibly the least engaging of the three to drive. The C-Class is a great combination of the two, but combination doesn’t mean compromise – it’s a standalone excellent car in its own right, which makes it no surprise to us that it’s one of the UK’s top 10 sellers.