TMR Best Buy 2016 – Top 5 Small Hatchbacks: VW Golf, Peugeot 308, Ford Focus, Mazda3, Toyota Corolla

Welcome to the most popular segment in Australia. More people who bought new wheels in 2015 picked from the under-$40k small car category than the 17 other vehicle segments.

A full 233,122 small cars were sold out of 1.155 million total new cars purchased last year. Is that a surprise when there are as many as 28 players in a segment that can start from less than $19,990 driveaway?

Actually, our ‘top 5’ best buys in this class listed below represented 50 per cent of total small car sales volume in 2015. There are good reasons why…

Volkswagen Golf

Price Range: $22,490 (92 TSI FWD manual) – $36,990 (110 TDI Highline FWD automatic)

Engine: 92kW/200Nm or 110kW/250Nm 1.4 turbo petrol 4cyl, 110kW/320Nm 2.0 turbo diesel 4cyl

Transmission: 6sp manual, 6sp or 7sp dual-clutch automatic

Now in its seventh generation, the Volkswagen Golf has never been more affordable to buy or more convincing to drive.

Starting at $22,490 (plus on-road costs) it still isn’t the cheapest car in its class, though you do get cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and touchscreen audio with integrated reverse-view camera and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity.

Towards $30k you start to find additional luxury and performance in the more powerful 110 TSI 1.4-litre turbo petrol and 110 TDI 2.0-litre turbo diesel specification. You can also choose hatchback or wagon bodystyles.

Our review verdict:

Whichever Golf you pick, there is simply not a dud in the range. The entry-level 92 TSI is basic, but it offers a luxurious driving experience in terms of its engine’s punch, the cabin’s refinement and the suspension’s ride quality.

A 92 TSI Comfortline at a whisker under $30,000 adds equipment and is probably the pick of the bunch, while the ‘110’ models in both TSI petrol and TDI diesel trim offer genuine luxury inside, excellent technology and extra performance without affecting economy.

This Volkswagen really is a ‘premium’ small car for a ‘mainstream’ pricetag.

Peugeot 308

Price Range: $21,990 (Access FWD manual) – $41,640 (Touring Allure Premium FWD automatic)

Engine: 96kW/230Nm 1.2 turbo petrol 3cyl, 110kW/240Nm 1.6 turbo petrol 4cyl, 110kW/370Nm 2.0 turbo diesel 4cyl

Transmission: 6sp manual or 6sp automatic

With the new Peugeot 308 range, the French brand has essentially placed tracing paper over the line-up of its Golf rival.

The 308 Active is cheaper, but it lacks equipment for the money. Other versions in the range are nominally more expensive than the Golf, but they deliver similar or more standard equipment.

The engines and transmissions all deliver competitive performance and economy, while the interiors are high quality mixed with a genuine dose of joie de vivre missing from its German foe.

Our review verdict:

The Peugeot 308 is the small car to buy if you don’t mind paying a bit extra for fun in place of finesse.

The 308 is the lightest car in its segment and its engines among the most powerful. It feels sprightly everywhere, while the steering is sharp and chassis eager. The suspension doesn’t quite have the composure of a Golf, but the interior is actually quieter.

There are many highlights, from the value-packed base manual through to the luxuriously specified Touring Allure Premium wagon at the top-end with a punchy yet frugal turbo-diesel engine and intelligent auto – it makes a great SUV alternative.

Ford Focus

Price Range: $23,390 (Trend FWD manual) – $32,690 (Titanium FWD automatic)

Engine: 132kW/240Nm 1.5 turbo petrol 4cyl

Transmission: 6sp manual or 6sp automatic

This third-generation Ford Focus launched in 2012, but it has only recently come of age. The Euro-designed, Thailand-made model copped a range overhaul late last year, with new pricing, equipment, technology and drivetrains.

A 1.5-litre turbo four-cylinder engine is now the only choice. It produces more power and torque than rivals, and is refined, too. Pricing for the Focus Trend starts slightly higher than others, but you also get more equipment including alloy wheels and satellite navigation.

It also tops out with Sport models that do justice to their name, boasting superbly tuned suspension, while the flagship Titanium delivers more technology than any other competitor for around $33k – such as auto park-assist, low-speed auto braking and blind-spot monitor.

Our review verdict:

If you love the way a car steers and handles, then the Ford Focus should long have been at the top of your small car shortlist. The latest one adds ‘performance’ to its list of virtues with a powerful new engine helping deliver a more complete driving package.

It’s good value, too, offering more standard technology than a Golf or 308 teamed with lower pricetags. While the three-year warranty is similarly average, Ford servicing costs are notably lower than the Volkswagen and Peugeot competition, so that’s worth keeping in mind.

Choose confidently between Focus Trend, Sport and Titanium, manual or auto, hatch or sedan – there is no particular model highlight as they’re each very good.

Mazda3

Price Range: $20,490 (Neo FWD manual) – $41,290 (XD Astina FWD automatic)

Engine: 114kW/200Nm 2.0 petrol 4cyl, 138kW/250Nm 2.5 petrol 4cyl, 129kW/420Nm 2.2 turbo diesel 4cyl

Transmission: 6sp manual, 6sp automatic

The Mazda3 is the most popular small car with private buyers, and it’s little wonder when it offers such a complete range of hatchbacks and sedans, in petrol or diesel, from a bargain starting price.

Although it’s cheap, the base Neo is not very well equipped, even lacking a touchscreen and reverse-view camera. Spend a couple of thousand more on the mid-range Maxx and it picks up Mazda’s superb infotainment system with satellite navigation among other niceties.

Those models get a 2.0-litre engine, while the SP25 versions start at around $25k and get a sporty 2.5-litre engine that makes it one of the quickest cars in its class.

Our review verdict:

Just call the Mazda3 the ultimate all-rounder. It has no major flaws and several impressive features.

Mazda reliability is a given, and something not always assured with the Volkswagen, Peugeot and even Ford listed above. If you’re living with a car outside the three-year warranty period, particularly, it’s a worthy consideration. Build quality is high, and everything inside is easy to use.

The Mazda3 is a bit dull to drive in 2.0-litre form, but it’s inoffensive enough. The 2.5-litre SP25 adds some welcome verve to the experience, while also delivering a nicer interior with more equipment. It is definitely the pick of the range.

Toyota Corolla

Price Range: $19,790 (Ascent FWD manual) – $30,990 (ZR FWD automatic)

Engine: 103kW/173Nm 1.8 petrol 4cyl

Transmission: 6sp manual, 6sp automatic

The workhorse of the small car segment, the Toyota Corolla is a favourite among fleet, rental and private buyers alike.

It is cheap in base form, yet it is well equipped. Although the Ascent starts at $19,790 (plus on-road costs), even the Ascent Sport for just $1000 more remains among the least expensive cars in the segment. Yet it adds alloy wheels, foglights, leather-wrapped steering wheel and a 7.0-inch touchscreen – all good stuff.

The sedan is the standout performer, simply because it is so big inside – it really is a medium sized car masquerading as (and priced like) a small one.

If you want space for the family without paying much money, a Corolla sedan is the one. It also has extremely cheap servicing costs, and strong resale value, so as a total package, it presents a strong value case.

Our review verdict:

The Corolla sedan is roomy and comfortable. It prioritises sheer space ahead of fashionable styling or perky dynamics, while the 1.8-litre engine isn’t what you’d call the spriteliest in the class. Still, every version of this Toyota is more than pleasant to drive.

The Corolla hatch is meant to be the sportier offering, but it drives similarly to the sedan while being much squeezier inside.

Although the base model Ascent and Ascent Sport offer outstanding value, this Toyota loses some of its value appeal the further up the range you go – in this case it’s best to stick with base.

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