BMW 3 Series saloon

£24,975 - £40,330

The BMW 3 Series is a compact executive saloon car that's great to drive and surprisingly cheap to run. It's a rival for the Mercedes C-Class, Audi A4, Lexus IS and Infiniti Q50 that's powered by a range of powerful yet efficient petrol and diesel engines. In our opinion, it's the best all-rounder in its class.

Its sporty nature is obvious from the outset, with a stylish design, big bumpers and – on top-of-the-range models – large alloy wheels. Inside, the high-quality cabin oozes upmarket appeal, with an easy-to-use dashboard and enough toys to keep the driver and passenger entertained.

There are plenty of versions to choose from, so there should be a BMW 3 Series for everyone. The conventional saloon can trace its heritage back 40 years and is still the top seller today, while if you need a bit more space, there's also the practical BMW 3 Series Touring estate or BMW 3 Series GT hatchback. However, the coupe and convertible models now bear the BMW 4 Series badge – even though they share most of their components with the 3 Series.

Sharp handling and strong performance lie at the heart of the BMW's appeal. A rear-wheel-drive layout, precise steering and well weighted controls make it a joy to drive on twisting back roads, while the four and six-cylinder diesel engines are quick yet surprisingly economical. There's even the option of a petrol-electric hybrid version – although with its turbocharged six-cylinder petrol, the emphasis is on performance rather than fuel economy.

Even so, the 3 Series' entertaining driving experience doesn't mean big fuel and tax bills. Thanks to BMW's EfficientDynamics technology, the 3 Series emits surprisingly little CO2, while fuel economy is excellent, particularly from the diesels.

If we had to choose one model, it'd be the BMW 320d, which offers a decent blend of performance and economy. But if out-and-out speed is more important, then the BMW 335i is hard to beat.

There are six trim levels to choose from: ES, SE, Sport, Luxury and M Sport. All are reasonably well equipped, with alloy wheels, climate control, DAB digital radio and a Bluetooth phone connection fitted as standard. However, SE is our pick of the line-up, as it adds desirable extras such as parking sensors, along with automatic lights and wipers.

If the 3 Series has a weakness, it's poor interior space. The latest version is a vast improvement on its predecessor, with more legroom for rear-seat passengers and a 480-litre boot, but it can't match mainstream rivals such as the Skoda Superb or Ford Mondeo. The 3 Series Touring estate has more boot space, while the 3 Series GT hatchback rivals the larger 5 Series for interior space – but both cost thousands of pounds more than the saloon to buy.

Find out what we think is the best compact executive car by watching our video below.