What Car? Car of the Year 2006 - Best compact executive

20 January 2006
BMW 320d ES
Price: £23,695
Target Price: £22,260

Traditionally, this has been one of the most tightly fought categories in our awards. Not this year – BMW's 3 Series is so good that it scored a comfortable victory.

Crucially, the way the Three steers, grips and handles is nothing short of outstanding. No rival is as assured, and on demanding roads it exhibits a poise that wouldn't be out of place in a sports car. Tight bends, scarred surfaces and changes in camber are dismissed with nonchalance, but the same precision and fluidity that rewards enthusiastic drivers ensures the most mundane journey is a joy.

Don't for one minute think this ability compromises the Three's everyday duties. Yes, the taut suspension and run-flat tyres mean a firm ride, but it's never uncomfortable, and body movement well restricted.

All the more impressive is that as well as being the sharpest-driving car in this class, the 3 Series is also the most refined. Any noise kicked up by the engine, road surface or wind passing over the car is so well muted that it barely registers in the cabin. The benefit? You get out of the car after a long journey feeling as fresh as when you got in.

The 163bhp 2.0 turbodiesel engine which powers our favourite model does little to disturb the hushed environment – it's one of the quietest of its kind and is smooth and quiet at all speeds. It also packs a punch.

While the Three's exterior styling isn't to all tastes, the fuss-free interior is hard to fault. Okay, the starter button is a gimmick, but the superb driving position, supportive seats, wide range of adjustment and simple dash make life stress-free. Build quality is beyond reproach, the 3 Series now feeling just as classy as its larger 5 Series brother.

Highly recommended
Audi A4 2.0 TDI SE
Price: £22,300
Target Price: £20,845

Mercedes C180K Classic SE
Price: £22,250
Target Price: £20,639
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