Audi A4 2.0 TDI 150 Ultra Sport
List price £30,550
Target Price £27,638
The newest contender here, and the cheapest. Can the latest A4 take class honours?
BMW 320d ED Plus auto
List price £32,220
Target Price £29,705
More refined since a recent update, and the only one that hits 99g/km with an automatic gearbox.
Jaguar XE 2.0d 163 Prestige
List price £30,775
Target Price £28,434
Not as new as its rivals, but still less than a year old. Here we're testing the entry-level diesel XE.
Welcome to the 99 club. Here, you can get an upmarket compact executive saloon for around £180 a month in company car tax, which is why this trio of 99g/km 2.0-litre diesels will be common sights in your office park.
First up is the Audi A4. Our reigning Car of the Year in more expensive, 3.0-litre TDI form, it features front-wheel drive, instead of the rear-wheel drive of its rivals, and offers the lowest tax and private ownership costs.
Then there's the Jaguar XE. The British manufacturer shook up the class when it launched the XE last year, not least because the entry-level six-speed manual version was one of the first compact execs to achieve such low emissions.
And finally, we have the recently updated BMW 3 series. It needs an automatic gearbox to hit the sub-100g/km milestone, and that raises its list price, making it the most expensive car here. However, neither of its rivals can hit 99g/km in auto form, so if you prefer to have your gears changed for you, the 3 Series is off to a fine start.
What are they like to drive?
The BMW 3 Series is undisputed top dog when it comes to performance, hitting 60mph nearly 2.0sec sooner than the Audi A4 or Jaguar XE in our tests. The XE disappoints most, because its claimed figures suggest it shouldn’t be much slower than the 3 Series. In fact, the XE was actually slightly slower than the less powerful Audi A4.
That’s not to say the A4 and XE are slow, mind. Both deliver acceptable acceleration when you want to make a snappy getaway or overtake, and in a 30-70mph sprint are less than a second behind the BMW. The XE’s leggy gearing means it tends to feel more sluggish than its German rivals at low revs, though.
These cars are more closely matched when it comes to handling. The XE has lovely steering; it’s intuitive and gives you a great sense of connection with the road. However, the XE doesn’t respond quite as sharply to steering inputs as the 3 Series does, and its front wheels run wide of your intended line the earliest of all in fast bends.
The A4’s steering actually tells you the least about what its front tyres are doing, but the A4 grips well and has the tightest body control of the three; it’s remarkably composed and easy to drive quickly. All three are composed motorway cruisers and are easy to manage in tight car parks.
Ride comfort is best in the A4, which surpasses even our 3 Series on its optional £750 adaptive dampers. It isn’t faultless, bobbing and shuddering a touch over scruffy town roads, but it is generally impressive and the high-speed ride is particularly serene.
'With optional acoustic glazing, the A4 is quieter than most cars from the class above'
The 3 Series and XE aren’t far behind. Opt for the softer suspension set-up that's standard on the XE in this Prestige trim and the ride feels very settled, albeit still firm over potholes. The 3 Series is more supple over sharper bumps, but even in Comfort mode it fidgets a bit at low speeds.
Refinement is a low point for the XE. This engine produces a gritty clatter that seeps into the car under even mild acceleration. The 3 Series also suffers with more engine noise than you might expect from a classy executive saloon, but it’s not as pronounced, and road noise is better suppressed than in the XE.
Our A4 test car had optional acoustic glazing (£200) on the side windows and was noticeably quieter that its rivals at 70mph. In fact, the A4 is quieter than most cars from the class above.
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