Are compact executive cars too compact for their own good? I’ve been wondering that after spending a week driving the updated BMW 3 Series and the new Jaguar XE.

There’s always been something snake-oilish about the compact executive class. They are – or should be – alternatives to family cars like the Ford Mondeo or Volkswagen Passat, but with a more upmarket badge. Partly because compact execs have typically been rear-wheel drive they have struggled to match front-wheel-drive cars of similar size for interior space, but in general they have been better finished and sharper to drive. 

Sending power to the rear wheels rather than the fronts has its advantages when towing caravans, too. Some front-wheel drive cars struggle for traction with a full boot and the weight of a caravan on the back. The extra weight over the rear wheels improves the traction of a rear-wheel drive car.

From a pounds, shillings and pence perspective, a compact executive may cost more to buy than a mainstream family car, but better resale values tends to reduce the real price difference over several years of ownership. 

So, you can make a case for choosing a compact executive as a tow car over a mainstream rival that isn’t based solely on badge appeal. Right now, though, with the high standard set by the family cars on the market, I’m not sure it’s a case that convinces.

The new Jaguar XE has been praised to the skies for its handling, fuel economy and low emissions. It doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the best-looking saloons on the road.

Sure enough, I found the XE cornered beautifully, with well weighted and precise steering that makes some rivals feel remote and clumsy. On the right road, in the right mood, it really is a pleasure to drive.

It tows well, too. I’ve been driving the least powerful 163PS (161bhp) version. There’s still enough poke for brisk towing, and stability at speed is very good indeed. At 60mph on the road it felt secure. At 70mph on the test track it still tracked straight and true. The 1475kg kerbweight gives an 85% match figure of 1254kg, and the legal towing limit is 1600kg.

For a company car driver, the XE makes a lot of sense. With a manual gearbox the Jag emits just 99g/km, which means rock bottom tax bills for business users. Private buyers will benefit, too, with no Vehicle Excise Duty to pay. What’s more, the XE achieves 75mpg in official testing. We found mid-50s mpg more typical in our time with the car, but we did achieve more than 30mpg towing on our economy route.

Inside, the XE is very handsome, although I couldn’t say that it’s better finished than the best mainstream family cars. What is striking, though, is just how cramped it is for anyone travelling in the back seats. The elegant curve of the door means you need to duck getting in and out, and once in place, head and legroom are very tight. The boot is also small, with a limited capacity of just 455 litres. 

The BMW 3 Series is noticeably roomier. The difference in luggage capacity is only slight (480 litres), but there’s much more head and legroom in the back. It’s not just about the measurements – the windowline makes the back of the 3 Series feel noticeably less claustrophobic. I could see the 3 Series as a viable car for a family of four – just –  but the Jaguar is better suited to people without children or whose kids have grown up. It’s almost a four-door coupé.

The BMW 320d ED rivals the Jag for economy and low emissions, and its engine is noticeably quieter than the Jag’s new diesel. With the optional adaptive dampers (£750) fitted to the car I’ve been driving, it rides more comfortably, too. The Jag’s sport suspension (standard on our R-Sport spec version) is a little too firm.

The 3 Series may ride more comfortably than the XE, but the BMW doesn’t steer with the balance and precision of the Jag. On a favourite country road, the XE out-BMWs the BMW to earn its place as the keen driver’s choice. I’d really like to try the XE on standard suspension to see if it retains the driver appeal, but with a more supple ride quality.

Does the new 3 Series tow better than the XE? We’ll have to wait a while to answer that as the BMW test car didn’t have a tow ball. But I suspect it will be a close run thing.

Would I choose either over a mainstream rival, though? A Ford Mondeo, Škoda Superb or Volkswagen Passat won’t score so many points with your mates at the golf club, but all three tow well, cost less, and are far more practical than either the BMW or the Jag. The difference in space isn’t small. Whether you need room for a lanky teenager or space for your bags on your caravan holidays, any of these three are miles ahead of the BMW and the Jag.

I still hanker after a compact executive saloon, but with two kids to fit in the back I’d rather live with a mainstream family car.