Three really is the magic number for BMW.

Ever since the original 3 Series debuted more than 35 years ago, the sporty saloon has been the car to beat in the compact executive class. So the arrival of an all-new model is big news.

On paper, the latest 3 Series has what it takes to continue its reign at the top. It’s bigger than before, meaning there’s more space for passengers and luggage, while a lower kerbweight ensures it’s also faster and more efficient than ever.

As always, the diesel-powered 320d is expected to be the biggest seller. We’re testing it in new-for-2012 Sport trim, which costs £29,080.

Filling the BMW’s mirrors is a pair of familiar foes: the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class. Both have recently been updated in the hope of knocking the 3 Series off the top step of the podium once and for all.

Our Audi is a range-topping £30,130 S line with the punchy 175bhp 2.0-litre diesel, while the Mercedes is a racy £31,380 C220 CDI Sport model.

So which of our desirable trio will emerge from this high-stakes encounter on top?

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BMW 320d Sport vs Audi A4 2.0 TDI S line vs Mercedes C220 CDI Sport

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