Although the BMW 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class date back to the 1970s, many of the 14 entries in the premium compact class have been added in just the past few years. It’s only recently that Americans have really embraced the idea of small cars with big price tags, which is what has brought several of these cars into being.

There’s quite a bit of diversity in this segment, with a range of body styles available. Some entries focus on luxury, some on performance, some on fuel economy. Most start as front-drive cars, others as rear-drive cars, but many also offer all-wheel-drive versions. Engines range from relatively small 4-cylinders to potent V6s, and even a couple über-muscular V8s. Prices are all over the board, with the least expensive starting at around $30,000 and the most expensive topping $80,000—and that’s before options.

What ties them all together, however, is that they offer refinement, amenities, and all-around athleticism above and beyond those of “normal” mainstream-brand compact cars. They also wear a more prestigious nameplate, which is a large part of their appeal as well.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2018

Audi launches an A5 Sportback 4-door hatchback for 2018; the Sportback shares its basic architecture with the A5 coupe, and is available in A5 and high-performance S5 trim. Speaking of high-performance, the S4 model returns to the Audi A4 lineup; the new S4 is powered by a 354-hp turbo 3.0-liter V6, paired to a 8-speed automatic transmission and standard AWD. After its debut last year, the Jaguar XE gets an upgraded base turbo 4-cylinder engine with 247 horsepower, and 4-cylinder XEs are now available with AWD. S and limited-edition Portfolio trim levels are added; the S gets a 380-hp version of the supercharged V6. Newly available features include Forward Traffic Detection, Forward Vehicle Guidance, and a hands-free trunklid.

The Lexus IS lineup gets a bit more confusing for 2018; the rear-wheel-drive-only turbocharged 2.0 4-cylinder model, formerly called IS 200t, is renamed IS 300. The all-wheel-drive IS 300 keeps its name; its 3.5-liter V6 gets a five-hp bump, to 260 horsepower. Likewise, the IS 350’s 3.5 V6 gets a five-hp bump, to 311 total. Mercedes-Benz’s base C-Class model, the C300, gets a 9-speed automatic transmission in place of the previous 7-speed, and all C-Class models are now available with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. Note that a plug-in-hybrid C350e was added in late 2017. The BMW 4-Series Gran Coupe gets refreshed headlight/taillight styling along with revised suspension and steering tuning. The Acura ILX gets a Special Edition model that adds aero body trim. 18-inch wheels, and unique badging.

The rest of the class sees either no noteworthy changes or minor updates such as updated infotainment systems, new appearance packages, and/or a shuffling of trim levels and standard/optional equipment. The Buick Verano and Lexus CT 200h hybrid are discontinued.

MODELS THAT OFFER SOMETHING UNUSUAL

Most prominent here are the AMG performance versions of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. With a turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 with 469 or 503 hp, the C63 is the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove. In the same vein are BMW’s 425-hp M3 and Cadillac’s 464-hp ATS-V sedan and coupe.

At the opposite end of the performance spectrum are hybrids. Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz offer plug-in hybrid versions of the A3 (4-door hatchback only), 3-Series, and C-Class (both sedan only). The BMW 3-Series and Jaguar XE both offer a diesel engine option.

Although sedans dominate the class, there are two wagons (Audi Allroad and BMW 3-Series wagon), two hatchbacks (Audi A3 e-tron hybrid and BMW 3-Series Gran Turismo), two convertibles (Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class convertible), and two coupes (Cadillac ATS Coupe and Mercedes-Benz C-Class coupe).

Vehicles in the Premium Compact Car class:

Acura ILX
Alfa Romeo Giulia
Audi A3
Audi A4
Audi A5 Sportback
Audi Allroad
BMW 3-Series
BMW 3-Series Gran Turismo
BMW 4-Series Gran Coupe
Cadillac ATS
Jaguar XE
Lexus IS
Mercedes-Benz C-Class
Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class