I read somewhere recently that shopping has become Britain's number one pastime, overtaking something more earthy like fishing, or walking. Britain is now a nation of conspicuous consumption. You can buy designer labelled clothes in Debenhams. We want gardens designed by Diarmuid Gavin and food cooked by Nigella Lawson, although homes decorated by Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen might be stretching our consumerist sensibilities a little too far.
And it is being reflected in car choice. While the shrinkage of D sector Mondeo heartland is often put down to downsizing, equal pressure is being applied from above by the encroachment of premium brands, the designer labels being drip-fed into the mainstream.
Compact executive cars at about £20,000 are rightly popular with the user-chooser – fleet's own conspicuous consumer. Because of high build quality and solid residual values, leasing companies can offer super-competitive rates safe in the knowledge they are not going to be stung in three years' time with clapped-out motors worth next to nothing.
We have chosen six of the best to compare – three with new engines, two high spec and one all-new model.
The three with new engines are the mainstays of the sector. The BMW 3-series is the volume seller, and has an upgraded Valvetronic engine, paring off emissions and adding miles per gallon.
The Audi A4 has the new FSI 'common rail' petrol engine, and has CO2 levels that make it worthy competition tax-wise against any diesel, as well as 20bhp more than the current 2.0-litre petrol unit.
Mercedes-Benz has put a supercharger on its 1.8-litre engine, creating a unit that lowers emissions to levels similar to the BMW. The Saab 9-3 is the new car here, and at least is a genuine contender, rather than an oddball choice. The question is, does it have the wholelife costs to match and what confidence does the industry have in such a new car?
The Volvo S60 and Lexus IS200 appeal because they have very high specification in an area of the sector famed for being miserly. The Volvo is likely to appeal to those looking for comfort, while the IS200 goes for driving enjoyment, although high emissions might prove its downfall.
Kelvin Collins, marketing manager, HSBC Vehicle Finance
'The dynamics affecting new and used compact executives are quite different. Benefit-in-kind rules have a major impact on the vehicles chosen here – the wrong decision could cost an individual as much as £110 per month. This suggests the worst performing car in BIK terms, the Lexus IS200, will be around in very small numbers in three years, and small numbers normally leads to strong prices.'
Rob Rossiter, remarketing manager, ALD Automotive
'Not long ago, the only car on the wish list of aspiring executives was the 3-series. However, this is now one of the most keenly contested sectors. With running costs affecting us all, there is some excellent new engine technology that improves performance, but not at the expense of higher CO2 or poorer fuel consumption. Could we now possibly be on the verge of a petrol engine renaissance?'
Martin Phillips, purchasing and database manager, ING Car Lease
'The BMW continues as the benchmark in this sector, but the others are getting closer through better handling, increased equipment levels and lower running costs. Residual values are one of the key elements. The status perception is a huge factor but so is the badging policy. Some of these manufacturers have more work to do to ensure that at disposal the next owner understands what they're buying.'
Andy Brown, operations director, Hertz Lease
'The growing choice of compact premium badged cars available illustrates a major shift in the market and the importance of the company car within the fleet industry as part of the remuneration package in recruiting/retaining the best staff. Residual premiums once enjoyed by the Germans now apply over a broader spectrum of models but these cars will still be aspirational products in the used car market.'
David Harnett, head of LeasePlan Fleetline
'With the taxman biting hard on petrol models the major swing over recent months has been to opt for diesel equivalents. However, with many drivers still preferring the smoothness of petrol, manufacturers have reacted by re-engineering their petrol units to lower emissions but also improve fuel consumption. The winners will combine these features with style, comfort and driving appeal.'
Vital statistics: how our models compare
Avg monthly rental rates
Audi A4 £397
Volvo S60 £400
Lexus IS200 £416
BMW 318i £417
Mercedes C180K £427
Saab 9-3 £446
Avg maintenance costs 3years/60,000 miles
BMW 318i £1,713
Saab 9-3 £1,761
Audi A4 £1,842
Volvo S60 £1,937
Lexus IS200 £2,093
Mercedes C180K £2,227
RV forecasts 3years/60,000 miles
Lexus IS200 £8,030/40%
BMW 318i £8,218/39%
Audi A4 £7,647/38%
Mercedes C180K £8,059/38%
Volvo S60 £7,365/37%
Saab 9-3 £7,249/34%
CO2 Emissions (g/km and tax band)
Audi A4 170/16%
BMW 318i 175/17%
Mercedes C180K 175/17%
Volvo S60 218/25%
Saab 9-3 206/23%
Lexus IS200 233/28%
Audi A4 39.8
BMW 318i 39.2
Mercedes C180K 38.7
Saab 9-3 33.3
Volvo S60 30.7
Lexus IS200 28.8
HARNETT: 'The Audi is a well-engineered car. The FSI engine is a revelation and offers class-leading CO2 and MPG figures together with good overall engine performance. Although safety levels are good, other specification is poor.'
COLLINS: 'An excellent all-rounder: styling and build quality is up there with the best. The new technology is likely to provide a serious alternative to diesel. It's a shame it carries such a price premium over the standard engine.'
BROWN: 'The new FSI engine is more tax- efficient than the diesel version. Not quite as exciting to drive as it looks but still a highly desirable car to own.'
ROSSITER: 'Audi has stolen a march on its competitors with a car that has 20bhp more than its predecessor, while greatly improved consumption and lower CO2 further enhances an already excellent performer.' PHILLIPS: 'Choose this car. Audi style is ever present but standard equipment is light. This engine is designed to use low sulphur; high-octane petrol so may prove more costly at the pump than at first glance.'
Average monthly rental £397
P11D price £20,010
Average net price £16,099
Average maintenance £1,842
Average RV £7,647/38%
ING Car Lease £395.14
Hertz Lease £404.58
2002 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £704/£1,281
2002 VED bill: £140
COLLINS: 'The icon of compact executives, and recent changes with the 2.0-litre Valvetronic engine make it very difficult to beat. Not the cheapest to run but that would never concern anyone with the desire to own one.'
BROWN: 'BMW has not been complacent. The last round of revisions and in particular the new engine really gave it the boost it needed in the face of the ever-increasing competition.'
ROSSITER: 'The 3-series remains solid and dependable, but with more competition than ever, its title of best in class is being severely tested.'
PHILLIPS: 'The drivers' car according to everyone but I find the pedals too close to the driver's footrest. Specification is good but spoilt by no CD. Build quality is fantastic but it's not that exclusive any more. Still it looks good on the driveway.'
HARNETT: 'The 3-series has long been class- leader in this sector. Image, driving characteristics and performance mean it sets the benchmark. The rentals are not as competitive as the Audi, but the BMW is still a winner.'
Average monthly rental £417
P11D price £20,990
Average net price £17,147
Average maintenance £1,713
Average RV £8,218/39%
ING Car Lease £400.70
Hertz Lease £440.43
2002 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £875/£1,427
2002 VED bill: £140
BROWN: 'The 2.0T S is probably the optimum S60. Relaxing to drive long distances but still fun on the A-roads, although not as quick as 180bhp might suggest. A car you will appreciate more with long term use.'
ROSSITER: 'The cheapest list price may appeal, and it offers competitive levels of comfort, safety and performance, but is let down by running costs which are significantly higher than the best here.'
PHILLIPS: 'This is a super car that the badge conscious will ignore at their peril. The ride is relaxed and there is lots of power on tap. Equipment levels are good and metallic paint is FOC on contract hire.'
HARNETT: 'The Volvo is a good proposition: strong, safe, well built with generous spec. It is let down by uncompetitive CO2 and fuel economy, meaning the driver will either opt for diesel or choose an Audi or BMW.'
COLLINS: 'Not a match for the others when looking at dynamics, but nonetheless a stylish alternative to the German brands. Towards the higher end on cost of ownership for company car users.'
Average monthly rental £400
P11D price £19,815
Average net price £15,793
Average maintenance £1,937
Average RV £7,365/37%
ING Car Lease £391.54
Hertz Lease £401.92
2002 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £1,090/£1,982
2002 VED bill: £155
ROSSITER: 'Rock-solid residuals and an improved engine will see many plump for this car, and running costs have been reduced. I would much prefer to see this car with an automatic gearbox at disposal time.'
PHILLIPS: 'Poor build quality, low equipment, heavy emissions and high price were all criticisms that have been levied at the C- class, but not any more. Recent price realignments, excellent new engines and new SE derivative brings this car back into contention.'
HARNETT: 'Oozes class even at the lower end of the range, and even the standard specification is now more than respectable. Will win lots of orders due to assumed levels of exclusivity.'
COLLINS: 'Dynamically as close to a 318 as you can get and arguably more desirable with an even stronger image. New engine technology will place this car high up the choice list.'
BROWN: 'New engines and spec upgrades on the SE pack are welcome but overdue but what a confusingly badged range. The rentals are still more expensive than they should be. Is the badge really worth that much?'
Average monthly rental £427
P11D price £21,460
Average net price £16,922
Average maintenance £2,227
Average RV £8,059/38%
ING Car Lease £431.91
Hertz Lease £459.35
2002 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £803/£1,459
2002 VED bill: £140
PHILLIPS: 'Starting to fade a bit, but the IS once offered an interesting alternative to the default BMW 318 choice but failed to capitalise by not offering a supporting model range, further accentuated by a limited colour choice. Upgraded interior has answered earlier criticisms.'
HARNETT: 'In the early days the Lexus was a viable alternative to the 3 series. However it has not had the enhancements required to keep in touch and the petrol engine is uncompetitive on both CO2 and MPG. Not a real challenger.'
ROSSITER: 'The Lexus comes well-equipped and its six-cylinder engine and six-speed gearbox are excellent, as are its comfortable seats. Limited numbers assist its residual value.'
COLLINS: 'Very nearly succeeded in matching the BMW. Still a good car to drive and provides individuality the BMW cannot match. A loser in the BIK stakes but continues to offer much to the used car buyer.'
BROWN: 'If only emissions were lower it would be perfect. Specification is high but that advantage is being whittled away. A great drive and bags of style, and those chronographic dials are gorgeous.'
Average monthly rental £416
P11D price £20,050
Average net price £16,542
Average maintenance £2,093
Average RV £8,030/40%
ING Car Lease £411.55
Hertz Lease £425.45
2002 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £1,235/£2,245
2002 VED bill: £155
HARNETT: 'The 9-3 is undoubtedly a good looking car with strong performance and specification to match: leather upholstery is standard on this model. However due to limited appeal residuals are weak and rentals are high.'
COLLINS: 'Undoubtedly a great drivers' car and should become a rival to the Germans. It will not be as economical to run though, due to its higher CO2 figures, fuel consumption and depreciation.'
BROWN: 'There may be strong hints of the Seat Toledo in the styling but overall a massive step forward for Saab, from also-ran straight into the middle of the pack. Some may not see the sense in dropping the hatchback but the market wants saloons, and there are enough Saab cues to make traditional buyers feel at home.'
ROSSITER: 'Looks great and turbo engine gives great performance. Only average on running costs, and a small boot, but could steal market share.'
PHILLIPS: 'What a transformation. Saab DNA is ever-present so fabulous seats, great dash layout and ridiculous ignition position. The 1.8t makes more financial sense though.'
Average monthly rental £446
P11D price £21,215
Average net price £17,336
Average maintenance £1,761
Average RV £7,249/34%
ING Car Lease £449.34
Hertz Lease £447.07
2002 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £1,073/£1,951
2002 VED bill: £155