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The small car market is one of the busiest segments of the Australian automotive landscape, both in terms of sales and for new product – and 2016 in particular proved to be a big year for the humble hatchback.

Sales of small cars may have slowed off a little as people move towards the plethora of small SUV alternatives, but make no mistake: this segment still makes up the single biggest proportion of overall new vehicle sales, and it’s dominated by a couple of big-name models.

However, instead of opting for the likes of the Hyundai i30, Mazda 3 and Toyota Corolla for this test, we’ve got three newcomers to assess. It has been a busy year in the segment, and these latest additions have all arrived on sale during the latter part of 2016.

First is the Holden Astra, which the brand hopes will reignite its charge in the small car segment after a few disappointing years with the now-defunct Cruze range. The Astra – sourced from Europe (it’s built in Poland, despite the fact they market it as being German) – offers, according to Holden, “class-leading luxury, superior style and innovative technology in one world-class package”.

Our second entrant in this test is the Renault Megane. This French-made small hatchback has been labelled by its maker as being destined to be “a hit with Australians seeking superior levels of style, refinement and driving dynamics, all packaged at a highly competitive value proposition”. We’ve never rated the regular small Renault too highly, but the brand’s styling renaissance alone could be enough to get a few buyers through its showrooms.

The third, and newest, rival in this test is the Subaru Impreza. With all-wheel drive this Japanese-built hatch already stands out from the pack, but Subaru says the new model “won’t just keep you moving, it’ll deliver pure, effortless fun”. That’s something we’ve associated with the hotter WRX, but not so much the white-bread regular Impreza line-up.

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So, which of these three new hatchbacks offers the right blend of value, practicality, driving nous and ownership credentials? Let’s find out.


Value

The vehicles you see here aren’t the base models of their respective ranges – instead, we have the second-tier Holden Astra and Renault Megane, while the Subaru Impreza is the third-tier version.

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Starting off with the Astra, we have the RS version… well, in fact, we had both the RS and the RS-V, because the RS won’t initially be available with an automatic transmission – those cars will arrive from around March 2017.

In the meantime, we attempted to create an RS automatic by testing just that drivetrain in the more expensive model, and everything else in the cheaper version: so we’re essentially testing auto against auto, just with two Astras on hand – and don’t worry about the dearer model having a weight disadvantage: it’s only 19 kilograms heavier in RS-V guise.

Oh, and if you’re one of those rare humans who hates automatic gearboxes, the Astra is the only car here to be offered with manual transmissions across the model line-up. The Megane has a base model manual (Life, not on sale yet), while the Impreza is exclusively automatic.

Anyway, the Astra RS kicks off at $26,490 plus on-road costs for the six-speed manual or $28,690 plus on-roads for the six-speed automatic version, making it, even in theoretical guise, the most expensive car here.

Read all about the 2017 Holden Astra pricing and specs here.

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A sign of Renault’s intent in the local market is the aggressive pricing it has in place for its new small car range.

The Megane Zen we have here is priced pretty close to that, with the automatic hatchback listed at $27,490 plus on-road costs.

Read the 2017 Renault Megane pricing and specs here.

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The most affordable model here, though, is the Subaru Impreza – which is a big surprise, given the brand has previously pushed a bit of a premium for its all-wheel-drive underpinned models.

The Impreza 2.0i Premium is listed at just $26,490 plus on-road costs for the auto hatch, and it’s the only vehicle here – at the time of writing – with a sedan version available, if that’s what you prefer (and that body style is even cheaper: Subaru offers a $200 discount on the Impreza sedan range).

Read all about the 2017 Subaru Impreza pricing and specs here.

All three of these vehicles have strong equipment lists, but some are packed with more kit than others.

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All three cars have touchscreen media systems – the Holden and Renault being 7.0-inch units, while the Subaru’s is an 8.0-inch screen in this spec.

Both the Holden and Subaru have both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity across their respective model ranges, but the Renault misses out on both those forms of extended smartphone integration. The Subaru misses out on digital radio reception, which the other two have.

All three have the requisite Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, and there’s voice control in all three – the Subaru’s system was by far the best. The Subaru also outdoes its rivals here with four USB connection points (two purely for charging), while the Renault has two USB jacks and the Holden has just one. Each also has an auxiliary port.

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The trio has built-in satellite navigation systems, none have leather seat trim in their respective specs, nor do any of them have heated seats (get the next spec up if you’re prone to a cold bottom) or electric seat adjustment – but each has a leather-lined steering wheel, though the materials are very different in each of the cabins.

The Subaru gets a sunroof fitted as standard at this price point, which is an intriguing consideration: the Holden can’t be optioned with one in this spec, but the Renault can be optioned with that for $1990, and it adds an auto-dimming rear-view mirror (the other two cars have auto-dimming rear-view mirrors standard).

The Renault and Subaru both have dual-zone climate control in this spec, but Holden asks buyers to step up a rung for that.

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As you’d expect, each has a rear-view camera – the Subaru’s, again, was the best, and included active guidance lines – but both the Holden and Renault have front and rear parking sensors as standard; the Subaru can’t be had with parking sensors at any price point, which is odd. All three cars have digital speed readouts, which is good.

The Impreza has the brand’s EyeSight forward camera system, which includes forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance. The system also includes a neat feature where it will alert you if the car in front has moved away if your eyes aren’t on the road ahead.

The Astra has a similar system called Holden Eye for autonomous emergency braking and forward collision warning, as well as lane-keeping assistance. It goes one step further with blind-spot monitoring fitted on this mid-spec model (the Subie can be had with that tech, but only in the top-spec), but in the Astra RS you can’t get adaptive cruise control. The Astra does, however, pip its pals here with a semi-automated parking system that can perform parallel parks – and it’s fitted as standard.

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Pictured above: Holden Astra (top); Renault Megane (middle); Subaru Impreza (bottom)

The Renault doesn’t come with any form of autonomous braking system at this point in time, nor is this version fitted with adaptive cruise control (unavailable on any model) or blind-spot monitoring (you need to buy the GT-Line for that). So that’s a few points deducted, then.

The Subaru misses out on auto headlights and auto wipers, which both of its rivals have. And the Subaru’s halogen headlights and running lights look quite old-school compared to the bold LED daytime running lights of its competitors. You can get LED headlights and DRLs on the top-spec Impreza, while LED headlights are optional only on higher-spec Renaults, and the adaptive matrix LED headlights available on the Astra are also optional on the highest-spec version.

As for airbags, the Renault and Holden both have six (dual front, front side, full-length curtain), while the Subaru has seven (adds a driver’s knee ‘bag). The Impreza and Astra have both attained five-star ANCAP crash test ratings this year, while the Megane scored five stars in a Euro NCAP test in 2015.

If you like big, blingy rims, the 17-inch wheels of the Subaru (with Bridgestone Turanza 205/50 rubber) and Holden (with Michelin Primacy 3 rubber in sportier 225/45 size) will likely appeal to you more than the 16s of the Renault, which are clad in chubby Continental ContiEcoContact 205/55 rubber.


Interior

If there’s a car here with a “wow” interior, it’s the Subaru. Surprised? We were, too.

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The new Impreza’s cabin design – dominated by that big, bright, colourful media screen in the middle of the dash – was instantly judged by our experts to feel the most upmarket, the most complete, the most thoughtful and the most premium of these three cars.

The materials are of a higher standard, and there is more soft-touch plastic through the cabin. The lower part of the dash, including near where your knees are, is soft in the Subie, while in the other two cars it’s a harder, scratchier plastic.

All three cars have soft plastic dash-top finishes and front door tops, and hard plastic finishes on the rear door tops for grubby kids’ mitts.

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Speaking of grubby fingers, the centre design of the Renault is prone to showing up disgusting oily prints, even when you think your hands are clean. Its shiny, touch-sensitive surface will, undoubtedly, be a pain to keep clean. The Renault’s media screen, too, seems quite washed out, and we had issues with it being slow to load as well.

The Holden’s dash-top screen is relatively bright and not too hard to use, but the mapping system is at odds with the menus, in terms of colours and fonts. At the very least, there’s a selection of buttons and knobs below, which is much easier to master than the Renault’s touchy centre console, which could will see you accidentally bumping the wrong buttons below if you’re adjusting things on the move. It’s annoying.

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Not only is the Subaru’s big screen the nicest to look at, it was the quickest to load when switching between screens, jumping around the map on the navigation, and joining back up to your Bluetooth-connected device – it should be noted that your passengers can’t join up their device when you’re on the move, though.

Our test crew assessed the sound systems of each of these cars – the Impreza and Holden with six speakers, the Renault with eight – and we found the Subaru to have the best quality, while the others lacked depth and clarity.

The Subaru also has a second screen above the media screen that displays information like your fuel use, Eyesight monitoring, and also – cutely – illustrates whether you’ve got your headlights on or off, and even shows when you touch the brakes. The other two cars have information on their dashboard screens, but not to the same extent.

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Pictured above: Holden Astra (top); Renault Megane (middle); Subaru Impreza (bottom)

The steering wheel of each car offers buttons for the cruise control system, and the Astra and Impreza have audio controls there too. Renault persists with its silly stalk that extends off the steering column, and not only does it look daft, in our Megane it was also quite poorly finished.

Our judges felt the plastic finishes on the dash and doors weren’t as classy as those used in the Subaru (Tony, oddly, labelled the design of them as like a “pyjama party gone wrong” – whatever that means!), but they are at least something different to the piano black that is liberally used around the cabin of the Astra.

The Astra’s controls also don’t feel as nice as those in the Subaru, and they can be quite hard to read due to the fonts used.

As for space, the Astra and Impreza are both surprisingly roomy in the rear, where the Renault is considerably tighter. Tony went as far as saying that the Renault “feels like economy, where the Subaru feels like business class” – and believe us, with the amount of travel he does, he knows the difference. [Ed… does he though? When was the last time Tony flew Economy?]

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Pictured above: Holden Astra (top); Renault Megane (middle); Subaru Impreza (bottom)

The Astra’s back seat was the most capacious, but it is a pretty bare environment back there, despite the fact you slide a long way back into the seats and the support and comfort is pretty good. Maybe it’s best considered to be like premium economy then, hey Tone?

You don’t slide quite as far back into the Subaru, which means taller occupants may find themselves wanting a little more headroom (that’s true of the front seats, too, due to the sunroof), but the leg and toe room on offer is excellent. The design of the Impreza’s beltline means it’s easier to see out of than its competitors whether you’re in the front or the back, and that could be a big consideration if you’ve got kids.

The Renault’s back seat lacks both knee and toe room compared to the other two – in fact, with the same driving position in all three cars, my knees were touching the seat back in the Megane where I had more than a fistful of space in the Astra and Impreza. Despite lacking some space, the Renault is the only car here with rear seat air-vents.

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Pictured above: Subaru Impreza

All three cars have dual ISOFIX child-seat anchor-points and three top-tether points, too. We aren’t massive fans of the Subaru’s silly middle seat-belt setup that sees the clicker drawn from the boot and over the backseat. Why not just integrate it into the seat like everyone else does?

In terms of access, the Renault’s shallower entry point means those with big feet may struggle a little. The Holden’s back door openings are very accommodating, while the Subaru’s openings are great, too – but occupants in the Impreza may require a few attempts to shut the doors, which detracts a little from its otherwise plush feel.

Another debit is the fact the Impreza has auto up/down windows only for the front occupants, where the Astra has auto down for all four windows and auto up for the driver, and the Renault has auto up/down all around.

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Pictured above: Holden Astra

Loose-item storage is good in all three cars: the Renault even has a pair of cupholders between the front seats – but even then, they’re a bit shallow for taller cups.

The Renault has a pair of lined map pockets where the other two only have one map pocket, but it and the Holden both miss out on a flip-down centre armrest, and neither has cupholders in the back where the Subaru does.

The Impreza’s door pockets are bigger all around, and its rear door grab-handles also act like little storage cavities.

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Pictured above: Renault Megane 

As for boot capacity, there’s quite a lot between then in terms of claimed room.

Renault says that the boot of the Megane has a capacity of 434 litres, which is considerably more than the Astra’s claim of 360L and the Subaru’s claim of 345L.

We found, though, while the Megane’s boot may have been deeper, the aperture at the rear of the vehicle made it hard to load it larger items, like my dodgy old golf bag (click the Photos tab above for more images).

All three have space-saver spare wheels beneath the boot floor, and each has 60:40 split-fold rear seats – the Renault’s with the biggest lip between load area and passenger space, which could be a pain at IKEA.

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Drivetrains

There’s a fair split in terms of engine capacities represented here, with the Renault rocking a 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol, the Holden harbouring a 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol, and the Subaru stocking a 2.0-litre four-cylinder ‘boxer’ petrol engine, sans turbo.

The power, torque and claimed fuel consumption differences are pronounced, too, but all three have engine stop-start technology.

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Starting at the smallest capacity engine, the Renault’s 1.2-litre churns out 97kW of power at 4500rpm and 205Nm of torque at 2000rpm. It runs on 95RON premium unleaded fuel, with claimed consumption pegged at 5.6 litres per 100 kilometres.

The Renault is offered only with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission in this specification, and it is front-wheel drive.

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The larger capacity Holden engine has considerably bigger outputs, with a stonking 147kW of power at 5500rpm and 280Nm of torque (300Nm on overboost) at 3500rpm. Unsurprisingly, it needs premium (95RON) fuel as well, and the claimed fuel use for the auto model is 6.3L/100km.

As mentioned, we had both the six-speed manual and six-speed auto on test, and both are front-wheel drive.

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Subaru’s 2.0-litre horizontally-opposed ‘boxer’ engine forgoes the downsized, turbocharged trend, and suffers as a result.

The engine produces 115kW of power at 6000rpm and just 196Nm of torque at 4000rpm. Its claimed fuel use is higher than its rivals, too, at 6.6L/100km. The Subaru is the only model here with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) automatic, and likewise it’s the only vehicle on test with all-wheel-drive.

As for performance, there was one standout vehicle here: you guessed it – the powered-up Holden Astra.

With warm-hatch levels of grunt, the engine felt like it propelled the Astra along at a greater pace than its rivals, rewarding the driver with delicious power on call. The claimed 0-100km/h time from Holden is 7.4 seconds, which is a damn sight speedier than the Renault (claim: 10.3sec) and Subaru (10.1sec).

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Our focus was on assessing the performance of the auto Astra, and it outshone both of its rivals here due to its superior acceleration. It was also the least fussy at lower speeds, with the six-speed auto generally offered well thought-out shifts despite a bit of slurring when you’re on and off the throttle a lot. If you like manuals, the six-speeder was pretty sweet despite a bit of a long throw action.

At higher speeds the Astra was easily the peppiest and most potent, and the auto gearbox was good under hard pressure, offering decisive shifts. It’s the only car here with a sport mode, and that enabled the driver to rev the engine out more – but it and the Renault both miss out on paddle-shifters, unlike the Subaru.

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The Holden’s engine performance was helped by the fact it cuts a reasonably lithe figure, with a kerb weight of 1344 kilograms.

The lightest car on test is the Renault with a kerb weight of 1265kg, while the Subaru is a relative porker (that all-wheel-drive system has its downside!) with a 1417kg kerb weight.

The Renault’s diet body and engine combination may not sound like a match made in heaven, and there are elements of the drivetrain that disappointed us immensely.

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Its low-speed behaviour in traffic is gross. From a standing start, particularly if the stop-start system has been engaged, there’s a profound hesitation when you get on the throttle, before the car surges or lurches forward. The way it takes off can be so violent in stop-start traffic that it drove fellow tester Tony Crawford to label it “unliveable”.

The thing is, that’s pretty much only if you’re doing less than 10km/h, in forwards or reverse (yep, it’s lurchy when you’re trying to park or back out of your driveway, too). As soon as your speed rises above that, and you get into the higher gears, the response of the engine is pretty good. It certainly offers enough pep to execute overtaking manoeuvres on the highway, and the gearbox is considerably smoother at higher speeds.

One redeeming feature of the Renault is that it will automatically engage the electronic park brake when you shift it to P at a standstill. The Subaru didn’t do that, and the mid-spec Astra comes with a manual handbrake.

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The Impreza was also a bit of a slow-speed struggler. At times under light throttle in stop-start traffic it was a bit lurchy, chugging so much the body of the car wobbled along in time. This only occurred intermittently (the Megane’s issues were more consistent), and it was nowhere near as big a problem with more than one person on board – presumably the extra weight settles things down a bit.

Being the underpowered one of the group there’s no surprise the Subaru’s engine felt a little lacking for grunt, but it was definitely adequate under harder throttle. The Impreza’s engine was a bit whiny, in terms of its soundtrack, while the Astra had a beefier note to it at lower revs, and the Megane emitted some nice whooshing and a hearty chortle the harder you revved it.

The Subaru’s CVT auto offers a stepped feel to it, as though there are gears rather than ratio steps, but it’s as though it’s robbing the engine of what little power is there. At the international launch we felt it was a great car let down by a less-than-great engine, and we maintain that the Impreza would be a considerably stronger entrant in this class were it to have a turbocharged engine akin to its peers. That said, it’s neither offensive nor disappointing. It’s just what we’d come to expect.

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Putting aside the claimed consumption of these three cars, we saw the best economy out of the Subaru (average: 8.0L/100km), followed by the Renault (average: 8.3L/100km) and the Holden was well and truly last (11.0L/100km). The price you pay for power, eh?


Driving dynamics and comfort

As we said from the outset, we’ve never really praised the standard Impreza for its road manners. But this new-generation model changes all that. That’s because it’s built on an entirely new platform with a lower centre of gravity and completely rethought steering and suspension. As a result, it was surprisingly good to drive.

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The Impreza’s ride comfort and compliance was found to be excellent during our three-up testing: over sharper, smaller bumps it never felt clumsy or crashy, and Tony – our back-seat judge – said the comfort was the best in the Impreza, by some margin.

The Subaru’s independent rear suspension set-up does bounce and pogo a little bit following speedhumps and at higher speeds over sharp edged bumps, but the control of the car is never affected. That’s because the damping set-up is very soft, and for the most part that means it’s very comfortable.

The soft damping isn’t to the detriment of the Impreza’s handling, either – it holds a decent line through bends, and has a beautiful balance to its chassis and more willingness to turn into tight bends and better adjustability in the corners than either of its front-drive compatriots. Its steering is direct, weighty and responsive yet light enough and quick enough when you’re trying to complete parking moves, and while there’s a hint of understeer at pace – mainly because of the tyres – you always feel like you can get out of it, such is the Impreza’s balance.

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The fact it has all-wheel-drive means when you punt it out of bends there’s excellent traction on offer. It’s a shame the tyres weren’t a bit better… like the Holden’s, for example.

The Michelin-trimmed 17s of the Astra RS held on valiantly, and while its slightly lower-profile rubber meant it was a bit terser over bumps at low and high speeds. Part of that, obviously, comes down to the Astra’s more sporting chassis set-up, which features stiffer suspension damping. It was never uncomfortably firm at low speeds, and was well resolved after bit hits on sharp-edged bumps… on straights, that is.

If you hit a mid-corner bump there was a certain lack of balance, where the front end and rear end of the car didn’t feel as though they’re working hand-in-hand. It could understeer during hard driving, too: in fact, it felt a little bit brittle in the way it reacted to bumps, with the Watts link rear suspension twitching during direction changes, and as such it felt a bit unsettled.

The Astra’s sport mode not only plays with the drivetrain, it also makes the steering feel meatier – but there was quite a bit of kickback through the wheel over mid-corner bumps at higher speeds, and the steering rack was slower than the Subaru, meaning more effort to turn into parking spots or even through hairpin corners.

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The Renault didn’t exhibit the same levels of cornering alacrity as the Holden and Subaru, mainly because of its dull, heavy steering that felt as though it lacked accuracy in the tighter bends. Those eco tyres may help a bit with efficiency, but they don’t help with grip at the nose, as it understeered more noticeably than the other two.

Its body control was better than the Holden when it came to changes of direction – provided there were no bumps, because its twist beam rear suspension tended to get upset in those instances.

Under braking, the Holden was both the most impressive and also the quickest to feel like it was starting to lose stopping power, but that could have been because it was also the fastest to drive, and therefore had more momentum to halt. The Subaru and Renault both offered honest braking, with the Renault’s brakes feeling a bit sharper to react at lower speeds.

As for quietness in the cabin, the Subaru was again the standout, with the Renault and Holden close to even. The Renault made more of a clatter over cats-eyes, where the Holden was a touch louder over coarse-chip surfaces.

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Ownership

For some buyers, ownership is a big deal. If they do a lot of kilometres and their car needs servicing more regularly than other competitors, it could be a painful experience. Automotive brands have realised that, and now they sell their wares not only on the first drive impressions, but also the notion of what the first few years of ownership will look like for the buyer.

Renault offers a five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty for its models, and that also includes five years’ roadside assistance. The brand has a capped-price service campaign covering the first three maintenance visits, which are due every 12 months or 30,000km (generous!), depending on which comes first. The price per service for the first three years/90,000km is $299.

Holden has a lifetime capped-price servicing program – yep, as long as the car lives, they’ll guarantee a set level of pricing for it – and the Astra requires visits every nine months (a bit annoying) or 15,000km. The average cost per visit over a three-year period is just $229. The brand’s expansive dealer network is bigger than either of its competitors, but it still has the bare minimum three-year/100,000km warranty, albeit with three years’ complimentary roadside assist.

Subaru has long been known for its expensive servicing that is required more regularly than competitor brands, and that’s still the case for the new Impreza – but thankfully it, unlike other Subarus, doesn’t need to visit the service centre every six months! Instead, it requires maintenance every 12 months or 12,500km, whichever occurs first, but it is the dearest to service of these three: the average cost per visit over three years or 37,500km is $432. That said, Subaru has added a promotional five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty program with the new Impreza, where the standard cover is three years/unlimited kilometres. It only has 12 months’ roadside assist.

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Verdict

These three newcomers each offer different aspects that could appeal to different buyers.

If you love the design of the Renault Megane, for example, then its interior shortcomings and twitchy drivetrain at low speeds might be forgivable for you.

If you want the most rewarding and effortless drivetrain, you have to choose the Holden Astra. But you’d be paying more than you should for it, considering its price:equipment ratio.

And if you want the most comfortable and plush feeling small car of these three, then you should get a Subaru Impreza. You may not like its drivetrain, though…

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So, which would it be if we had to choose one?

The Subaru, and without a second thought.

It felt the most complete, rounded, and mature vehicle here – and the fact it was the most affordable, and now offers more affordable servicing, simply adds to its credentials in the small car segment.

The new Impreza may look like a humble hatchback, but it’s a very impressive vehicle for the price.

Click the Photos tab above for more images by Sam Venn.



SUBARU IMPREZA BREAKDOWN

Small hatchback comparison: Holden Astra v Renault Megane v Subaru Impreza
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  • 8.5
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HOLDEN ASTRA BREAKDOWN

Small hatchback comparison: Holden Astra v Renault Megane v Subaru Impreza
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  • 7.5
  Submit an Owner Car Review

RENAULT MEGANE BREAKDOWN

Small hatchback comparison: Holden Astra v Renault Megane v Subaru Impreza
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  • 7
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