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For all the hoo-ha about booming sales of SUVs, the so-called ‘small car’ segment remains the market’s most popular, still accounting for almost 20 per cent of all new vehicles sold in Australia.

Of this, the majority are hatchbacks instead of three-box sedans, which draw people in based on their improved practicality and generally less conservative design approaches.

And there’s rarely a better time to do a deep-dive into this diverse segment, given the plethora of new metal on offer today. Equally worth noting is the extreme demographic diversity in play – you can feasibly make a case that no buyer demo is without representation in the small car sales race.

Here we’ve chosen nine vehicles to test against each other, comparing their value, design, packaging, performance and some running costs, to give you an idea of which brands suit you best.

Three of the cars on test are in the top five overall sellers in the market, and probably the three best-known by the wider market. These are the Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3 and the just-launched new-generation Hyundai i30.

Also featuring are a handful of new offerings such as the Subaru Impreza, Honda Civic, Holden Astra and the newly arrived Volkswagen Golf ‘7.5’ update. Rounding things out are two familiar players in the Kia Cerato and Ford Focus.

The hardest part beyond this was deciding what price and specification point to hone in on. Booking so many cars is like herding cats, but we’ve done our best to give you a good cross-section.

The vehicles and specs on test are (alphabetically): Ford Focus Sport, Holden Astra RS, Honda Civic RS, Hyundai i30 Elite, Kia Cerato SLi, Mazda 3 Touring, Subaru Impreza 2.0i-S, Toyota Corolla SX and Volkswagen Golf Trendline.

Our group had a total market value before on-road taxes and charges of $258,480, with an average vehicle price of $28,720. This means we aren’t testing base ‘fleet-friendly’ models here, but rather mid-high level variants with many of the latest technologies.

The interesting finding was that none of this nine are dunces – trust me, it would have been an easier write-up if there were some – and there’s a genuine case to be built for each, depending on what one’s requirements are.

So think about this more as an advisory piece than a hard-and-fast objective list. However, it’s clear that at this $28k-ish price band, some small cars are more equal than others.

Judges: Curt Dupriez, Mandy Turner, Matt Chandler, Trent Nikolic (co-presenter) and Mike Costello (writer).


Pricing as tested

We’ve chosen fairly high-specification grades to show you. It’s a good balance between keeping each relevant to most buyers while testing a wider array of features. But each of these cars can be had for many thousands of dollars fewer in lower grades.

The cheapest model on test is the Toyota Corolla SX at $26,000 before on-road costs.

Next are the Holden Astra RS ($26,240 or $27,240, we will explain), Mazda 3 Touring ($27,290), Ford Focus Sport and Volkswagen Golf Trendline (both $27,490), Hyundai i30 Elite ($28,950), Subaru Impreza 2.0i-S ($29,190), Honda Civic RS ($32,290) and Kia Cerato SLi ($32,490).

We’ve been a touch unfair to Honda and Kia because the Civic RS and Cerato SLi are higher grades than the others, ergo more expensive. The brands could not supply us with a $27,790 Civic VTi-L or $28,990 Cerato Si, both of which would have been a better fit. Moving on.


Standard specifications

As you’d expect, given the $6500 differential between the cheapest and priciest cars here, there are obviously some equipment differences.

Moreover, some of these are perfectly forgivable given a certain car’s positioning. Additionally, we’d be much less forgiving if an expensive car here – such as the Civic RS and Cerato SLi, higher grades than we wanted – were lacking, than if a cheapie such as the Corolla SX also went without.

Regardless, this is a good way to get an idea of what you should expect on a small hatch that costs a tick under $30k.

Every car here come standard with a touchscreen (varying between 7.0 and 8.0 inches), rear-view camera, six to seven airbags, Bluetooth/USB/Aux connections, automatic on/off headlights and alloy wheels (between 16- and 18-inch).

Most cars tested have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (except for the Corolla and Mazda) and satellite navigation (except for the Astra, Civic and Golf). Most also have dual-zone climate control (excluding the Astra, Corolla and Golf), and forego a key for a starter button, usually with proximity sensors (not the Corolla or Golf).

It’s an even split between cloth seats (Focus, Astra, Corolla and Golf) and those appointed with leather (Civic, i30, Cerato, Mazda 3 and Impreza). It’s also an even split on what the cars’ headlights are made of. The Focus, Astra, i30, Mazda 3, Corolla and Golf all have halogen bulbs, the Cerato has HIDs and the Civic and Impreza have ritzy LEDs.

The Civic and Impreza are also alone in offering a sunroof, alongside the Cerato, which partly justifies its price premium.

Where things really get interesting is in the realm of preventative and active safety tech. As you’d expect, it’s the newer-design cars that carry the advantage, yet many brands make running changes to stay present.

Autonomous emergency braking is standard on the Holden, Hyundai, Mazda, Subaru and Volkswagen, part of an options package on the Focus ($2000) and Corolla ($750). The Cerato has a forward collision warning system. What the, Honda?

Every car here has cruise control, but you’re upgraded to adaptive cruise control that mirrors the speed of the car ahead in the Hyundai and Subaru, and can option-up to it in the Focus and Golf. No dice on the Astra, Civic, Cerato, Mazda 2 and Corolla.

The same story with blind-spot monitoring, standard on the Astra, i30, Cerato, Mazda 3 and Impreza, and optional on the Golf and Focus. The Civic has a blind-spot LaneWatch camera, while the Corolla is a big bup-bow.

Perhaps we should take a different tack: we compiled a list of key features that we think are pretty important, and put them into a table. There are 26 in total, covering safety, convenience and tech.

These features are: number of airbags, rear-view camera, front/rear parking sensors, park assist, rear cross-traffic alert, AEB, blind-spot monitoring, lane assist, adaptive cruise control, touchscreen size, connectivity types, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, sat-nav, DAB+, speakers, climate control, keyless entry, leather seats, rain-sensing wipers, auto headlights, LED headlights and DRLs, sunroof, alloy wheels, and a full-size spare.

The Hyundai i30 Elite had 22 of these standard, ahead of the Subaru Impreza 2.0i-S (21), Cerato (21), Civic (18), Astra (18), Mazda 3 (17), Focus (15), Golf (13) and Corolla (9).

Spend an extra $2000 for a safety pack on the Ford, though, and it’s still less than $30k and that number of fitted features rises to 20, placing it in the upper grouping.

Spend another $1500 on the Golf (taking it to $29k) and its number climbs to 18. Spend $750 on the Corolla for its safety pack and it’s still the cheapest car here, and its number of fitted features climbs to 11. Okay, still modest.

The Hyundai takes the edge here on a pure price-for-feature basis despite lacking LED headlights, ahead of the Impreza, equally impressive really. The Cerato holds its own but it costs too much, meaning the Astra and options-fitted Focus and Golf at the very least edge it out; ditto the very well-priced Mazda.

We’re disappointed that Honda believes bling such as a sunroof, leather and LED headlights makes up for leaving most key modern active safety tech off the list (unless you buy the $33,590 VLi-LX spec). It’s wrong.

The Corolla is sparse, frankly, but it’s also cheap as chips and in hindsight a Corolla ZR that adds more preventative safety tech, LED headlights and leather for $30k may have fitted equally well.

Please read our very detailed set of tables, to get much more detailed side-by-side analysis on each of the nine cars on test, below.


Interior design and packaging

The Holden Astra has many strong points, but cabin presentation isn’t one. Okay, it’s clean and simple, and even looks pretty slick in images.

Yet, from the small 7.0-inch screen to the hard and cheap plastics scattered about, it’s all a little uninspiring in this company. As one pithy tester said, it comes a little “pre-aged”.

The centre screen is also small, lacks sat-nav and has a very low-res rear-view camera. On the plus-side, the Bluetooth pairs quickly and the Siri Eyes Free voice control is intuitive.

The back seat space is outstanding as well, genuinely surprising given its dimensions, though the side windows are small-ish and the plastic trims average. Ditto the halogen cabin lighting.

The Kia Cerato’s cabin is dated, with the slabby plastics and weird melting pot of textures doing it few favours. Nor does the tacky red font splashed everywhere.

However, it’s hard to argue with the luxury touches such as faux leather trim with heating, memory and electric adjustment, and the sunroof, nor the large touchscreen with all the requisite connectivity, good user-interface and navigation.

And while the gloss-black trims aren’t to our taste, the actual fit-and-finish is to to a high standard, and the driver orientation creates a welcoming feel.

Rear seat space is also among the most generous here, and occupants get rear air vents. They’re also well-supported and comfortable. But the entry versions costing thousands less offer most of this stuff, too.

The Corolla’s cabin is very Toyota. Slab-like in design, basic to look at, but with idiot-proof ergonomics and bulletproof quality. There’s not a heap of space, but the seats are comfortable and supportive, and the fascia doesn’t intrude.

While the screen has no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, the phone re-paired rapidly, the sound quality was clinical (good base, lacking higher-end separation) and the sat-nav works well. The home-screen shortcut tiles are also very user-friendly with familiarisation.

The cloth trim and lack of button-start add to the basic, but-serviceable feel, while the faux carbon weave-trims and lairy orange stitching will polarise.

Back seat legroom us modest given the short wheelbase but the tall body gives good headroom and outboard visibility. It’s a defiantly middle-of-the-road experience.

Mazda does some things terrifically well. The first thing that comes to mind is its knack for creating a premium cabin feel, exemplified by the high quality of materials used, the clean and simple design language, the Euro-style tablet screen with rotary control dial and the build quality.

It feels high-class in here, and while the seats aren’t the last word in bolstering, the grade of leather used is the second-highest here. Small touches such as the leather wheel and the classy gauges (lacking a digital speedo, though) give it great showroom appeal.

Mazda has aimed the Touring at older buyers (reserving the sportier SP25 for a younger demo) though the exceptional sound system, modern UX and low-slung racy ergonomics broaden the appeal.

Hurting the car are average rear seats that have little support, limited space and offer minimal outward visibility. It feels quite tight and hemmed in, despite the long-ish wheelbase.

In some ways the Focus feels its age, on account of the fussy design cues, middling trim quality and cabin storage options, and relatively poor passenger seat packaging. And that Casio watch font on the climate control screen is very 1988.

In other ways the company has done well to keep things cutting-edge. The crisp 8.0-inch screen has Sync 3 software with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, DAB+, proper sat-nav and a very effective conversation voice control function that understands even the thickest Ocker accents.

There’s also good LED cabin lighting, door storage pockets, well-bolstered front seats and ample steering wheel adjustability.

Back seat legroom is middling despite knee cutaways, though headroom was deemed excellent despite the optional sunroof being fitted, and our judges also liked the rear storage options. There are no rear vents, however.

The Subaru Impreza looks cutting-edge on familiarisation, with two display screens, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, navigation and four (count ’em) USB inputs.

The general material used is also excellent, with solid switchgear, lovely leather seats and fake carbon-weave trims. It looks and feels premium.

However, the tinny doors, occasionally non-responsive touchscreen and slow loading times don’t help its cause.

There are flat rear seats, but lots of room – indeed it’s among the roomiest here, with four adults able to get comfortable. It feels the most SUV-like inside.

We’re big fans of Honda’s new cabin design focus. There’s more than a hint of BMW in the materials and the cabin orientation, coupled with clever storage options (such as the massive console) that leave rivals for dead.

We like the simple digital dash, the quality of trims, audio quality, seat comfort and the attention to detail. We weren’t so big on the steering wheel buttons, lack of a volume knob on the fascia and lack of proprietary navigation.

While not to all tastes, the RS moniker demands some ‘sportiness’, provided by the red back-lighting and stylish metal pedals.

The back seats are very capacious, though the huge C-pilar impinges. The Civic, Impreza and Cerato are the most suited to families here. There’s also the best boot and a clever side-mounted sliding cargo cover.

The Volkswagen Golf feels like the most ‘substantial’ car here, proverbially hewn from granite, with the nicest touch-points and thoughtful bits such as the felt-lined door pockets and frameless rear-view mirrors.

The Mk 7.5 update also has the most sophisticated touchscreen, with smartphone-style usability, and very crisp audio quality. Everything is simple, resolved and should prove timeless. There’s real substance of depth.

Of course, the cloth seats, lack of push-button start and manual air conditioning exemplify the equipment differential, which is the Golf’s biggest weakness.

Rear headroom and outward visibility works well thanks to the car’s boxiness and big windows, while the seat angle and rear vents add comfort. Overall, low on frills but high on intangibles such as ‘premium feel’.

But we’re actually giving the edge to the Hyundai i30, which has 90 per cent of the Golf’s depth and a heap of extra value – sat-nav, leather, more active safety and keyless go, for instance. The doors even ‘thunk’ shut like a Golf.

The tablet screen isn’t to all tastes, but the software works well, with good shortcut buttons. The materials scattered about feel worthy of a pricier car, and the fact you can option cream leather (of a very supple grade, the best here) is a nice point-of-difference.

Additionally, the firewall insulation means diesel clatter is minimised. Even the headlining is great quality. All that really lets the team down is the grade of some plastics way down on the transmission tunnel.

Rear seat space is middle-of-the-road, though the high-quality leather and rear vents help, even if the flimsy storage pockets detract. There cargo area also gets netting, and the underfloor full-size alloy spare is commendable.

Hyundai has nailed the brief of making a semi-premium, Golf-like luxury hatch while charging mainstream money.

Dimensions and underpinnings

The average length of all nine vehicles here is 4385mm. Shortest is the Golf at 4258mm, followed by the Corolla (4330mm), i30 (4340mm), Cerato (4350mm), Focus (4360mm), Astra (4386mm), Impreza (4460mm), Mazda 3 (4470mm) and Civic (4515mm).

The Focus is the widest car on test, 63mm broader than the narrowest car on test, the Corolla. The Astra is the tallest at 1485mm, 64mm taller than our lowest car, the Civic. Four cars on test have 2700mm wheelbases (Civic, Cerato, Mazda 3 and Impreza), with the Corolla shortest at 2600mm.

The cargo capacity champion is the Civic’s 414 litres, followed by the i30 (395L), Cerato (385L, also with a full-size spare), Golf (380L), Corolla and Astra (both 360L), Impreza (345L), Focus (316L) and Mazda (308L).


Drivetrains and fuel economy

The car with the lowest outputs is the Corolla with its old but proven 1.8-litre normally aspirated (NA) engine making 103kW/173Nm. Using 2.0-litre NA engines are the Cerato (112kW/192Nm), Mazda 3 (114kW/200Nm) and Impreza (115kW/196Nm).

There are four cars on test using downsized turbocharged petrol engines: the Golf (1.4-litre with 110kW/250Nm), Civic (1.5-litre with 127kW/220Nm), Focus (1.5-litre with 132kW/240Nm) and Astra (1.6-litre with 147kW/280Nm). The Holden leads the petrol-fired field in both power and torque.

The i30 is a different proposition because it comes with a diesel engine in this specification, a 1.6-litre turbo with a modest 100kW of power but a very strong 300Nm of torque. For background, the similarly priced but less well-equipped i30 SR gets a 1.6 turbo-petrol with 150kW/265Nm, giving a sporty bent.

All but one of the vehicles we’ve tested are fitted with automatic transmissions, because that’s what the overwhelming number of consumers buy.

A number of cars here don’t even have a manual option, though the Astra on test had a six-speed manual even though we asked Holden for the $1000 more expensive six-speed auto.

The Focus, Cerato and Mazda all use a six-speed automatic with torque-converter. The Civic, Impreza and Corolla use a continuously variable ‘single speed’ box (CVT) while the i30 and Golf use seven-speed dual-clutch automatics.

The dynamometer-tested combined-cycle fuel consumption average of all nine cars here is about 6.2L/100km.

Ahead of the curve are the diesel i30 (4.7L/100km), plus the Golf (5.4L/100km), Mazda 3 (5.8L/100km) and Civic (6.1L/100km). The Focus’ average is (6.2L/100km), then there are the Astra (6.3L/100km), Corolla (6.7L/100km), and the Cerato and Impreza (both 7.2L/100km).

As always the real-world results were less flattering, as follows: i30 (6.1L/100km), Astra (6.3L/100km, matching its claim), Golf (6.9L/100km), Impreza (7.2L/100km), Civic (7.4L/100km), Mazda 3 (7.6L/100km), Cerato (8.5L/100km), Corolla (8.5L/100km) and Focus (8.9L/100km).

The Impreza gets a pass for being a little thirstier than some because, unlike all the other front-wheel drive (FWD) offerings on test, it’s exclusively available with grippier all-wheel drive (AWD). Of the eight petrol cars, all but the Astra and Golf are capable of running on cheaper 91 RON fuel effectively. The latter have a 95 RON requirement.

Disappointingly, the least inspiring drivetrain on test belonged to one of the newest cars here – the Subaru Impreza. Its AWD layout makes it the second-heaviest car on test (behind the diesel i30), and its outputs of 115kW/196Nm give it sub-par power- and torque-to-weight ratios.

The engine is actually pokey enough around town and responsive, and also relatively relaxed at highway cruising speeds, but it’s a little raucous, its CVT lacks engagement and refinement under heavy throttle loads, and its response when tucking into gaps or punching out of corners, is middling at best.

The Kia Cerato’s little 2.0-litre unit has lower outputs than the Impreza, claiming 112kW/192Nm. Yet it’s a little more peppy and willing – albeit louder and thirstier on fuel than the class average – with a well-calibrated gearbox that squeezes the most from the modest engine. Character goes a long way.

This sentiment also carries through to the old lump under the bonnet of the Corolla, a 1.8 with measly outputs of 103kW and 173Nm. Helping its cause is the surprising amount of verve and willingness it has to carry revs, helped by the CVT’s artificial stepped ratios that mimic a regular auto. It’s also the third-lightest car on test.

The Mazda’s 114kW/200Nm 2.0-litre high-compression engine is the pick of the non-turbo units on test, with good instant throttle response, linear delivery, a keenness to rev and a brilliant little automatic ‘box with a sports mode that downshifts with aggression. Yet, it’s also a victim of bad firewall sound-deadening, and its idle on cold-start is almost agricultural.

Development of small turbocharged petrol engines has come a long way, with precious little of the old traits such as lag (from the turbo spooling) that inhibits your ability to sneak into gaps being largely ironed out. Couple this with a more prodigious mid-range and it’s little surprise we prefer this engine type.

The Ford Focus has the second-most power on test but it’s not the second-best engine.

The 132kW/240Nm 1.5-litre unit is grumbly, gruff and lacks a little down low, a point exacerbated by its portly 1380kg tare weight (third-heaviest car here). This also makes it rather thirsty for fuel. We commend the six-speed auto (a torque-converter, not the Powershift dual-clutch with its well-publicised issues).

Honda is synonymous with free-revving atmo engines but, like many others, it has gone down the force-fed road. The 1.5-litre turbo’s outputs of 127kW/220Nm are middling, but it’s highly responsive while refined, with an inoffensive CVT as far as they go. It’s punchier than you’d think.

The base engine in the revised Golf range is now the so-called ‘110TSI’, a 1.4-litre turbo-petrol with 110kW and 250Nm (the old base 92TSI had 92kW/200Nm). What defines it are class-topping noise and vibration suppression, and diesel-like low-down pulling power. It feels decidedly more muscular than it ought to, and as such belies its modest on-paper numbers.

This also applies to the diesel Hyundai, with 100kW and a whopping 300Nm (280Nm with a manual). You get that typical surge of torque that’s brilliant for lazy cruising, but also some urban pep and – most importantly – an almost complete absence of diesel clatter or vibrations into the cabin.

Both the Hyundai and Volkswagen use dual-clutch gearboxes with seven speeds, which can have the next ratio ‘ready’ faster. These ‘boxes are also light and save fuel, though they’re complex and expensive. What’s noticeable is how well both companies have ironed out the once-typical low-speed indecisiveness and jitteriness, though the Hyundai still rolls when switching from R to D and vice-versa.

The important thing with dual-clutch cars (DCT, DSG et cetera) is to modify your driving style, away from a point-and-shoot approach of stabbing on the throttle, to a smoother and progressive technique. It’s at the point now where we’re believing these transmissions’ positives outweigh the negatives, if done, and used, properly.

The winner in the engine department, though, is the Holden Astra. Its turbo 1.6 has 147kW and 280Nm, which was proper ‘hot hatch’ territory a decade ago. The engine is punchy and characterful, and despite the slightly rubbery and long-throw shift action of the manual ‘box, is the only unit here capable of overwhelming the grip potential of the front wheels.

Even with the auto it’d still be the most potent unit here. If we had the aforementioned 150kW/265Nm Hyundai i30 SR here things may be different, but we wanted to show some diversity within the segment. As it stands, they’re both good. Nice work, Holden.


Ride and handling

Ride and handling are underrated considerations among many buyers. It’s not necessarily about having a car that handles like a hot hatch or a track monster, but rather something that commingles a sense of fun and verve with comfort and stability.

If a car does comfort well, or does sportiness well, that’s great. If a car does both, that’s laudable. Much of the way we’ve judged each car also comes down to the obvious intention of its maker. Nobody expects a Corolla to be a pocket rocket, just like nobody imagines the Mazda has cushiness at the forefront of its brand DNA.

Two-thirds of the field on test have independent rear suspension that theoretically improves road contact. The two Koreans (Hyundai and Kia) use a torsion beam, albeit with extensive Australian tuning work, while the Corolla also has this simpler setup.

Each car’s wheelbase sits somewhere between 2600mm and 2700mm, and each car weighs between 1261kg (Golf) and 1439kg (Hyundai). All vehicles on test are front-wheel drive (FWD), with the sole exception of the symmetrical always-on all-wheel drive (AWD) system underpinning the Impreza.

It feels like a cop out to say that none of these cars are bad to drive. The days of massive discrepancies appear to be behind us at this point. All this means, though, is we have to tilt our expectations on their axis and work within finer parameters.

Kia Australia’s suspension tuning division has done a good job on the Cerato, which is just a victim of its ageing design and underpinning. The suspension (springs, dampers, et cetera) gives the body good compliance over typical undulating roads and urban hits, though it’s firm at very low speeds, down in large part to the low-profile Nexen tyres.

The electric-assisted steering is typically lifeless, but what we didn’t like was the lack of linearity, the way its weight/resistance seemed to change at times we didn’t want it to. On the plus side, the car feels very stable at freeway speeds, and the handling is predictable and safe. It’s a solid pass.

Ditto the Corolla, which belies its humble underpinnings with good, old fashioned character. The steering is light but direct, the body control is as nimble as you’d imagine from such a small and light car, the brake pedal feel is good, the road noise suppression middle of the road, and the suspension only transmits the sharpest hits into the cabin.

The Mazda 3 embodies the company’s ‘zoom zoom’ philosophy well enough, with very darty handling thanks to a well-balanced chassis, a firm though never brittle ride, slightly more resistant steering than the class average, and a good transmission that kicks down at the right times. There’s way too much road roar in the cabin, though.

Also slightly below average is the new Impreza, which is very disappointing given it’s the first car to sit on the company’s brand new global modular architecture. Okay, the handling and body control is usually good despite a ride that’s very soft and cushy, the chassis balance is okay and the AWD is a great selling point.

However, Subaru has put almost no effort into the fine art of sound-deadening, meaning you hear every stone clattering against the under-carriage, every revolution of the Yokohama tyres, and even some stray wind noise through the pillars. We call this noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) suppression, and in the Subaru, it’s bad.

It’s hard to split the next trio, but we will do as we must. The Hyundai is the latest iteration of the company’s suspension tuning division setup in, and for, Australia. The aim of the diesel Elite is to prioritise comfort and a luxury feel, meaning cushiness and quietude, with upmarket Euro-style solidity.

The car is pretty well sorted, with good NVH suppression in the floorpan and firewall, a firm ride that improves body control but never deteriorates over sharp inputs, and ample steering resistance. However, it doesn’t feel quite as alive or segment-defining as the SR hot hatch i30 version. Just above-average, Euro-lite.

Ditto the Focus, which has Ford’s characteristic very light yet direct steering, good noise suppression, firm dampers/springs and a good chassis to sharpen handling, and high quality Michelin Primacy tyres. The Focus is one of the oldest cars here – its iffy turning circle proves as much – yet it remains an example of what Ford Europe can conjure.

The ‘sportiest’ car here is the Holden Astra, which matches its class-leading engine to very quick steering, a nimble chassis that relishes being driven hard, and acceptable levels of ride comfort over potholes, bridges joins and cobbles. Only the surplus wind roar through the B-pillar lets the team down.

The Honda Civic is also an example. An example of what the Japanese company’s engineers are capable of if you let them do their thing. The odd-looking hatch offers very quick steering from centre, good noise suppression, a plush ride over even sharp hits and an overall balance of amenable ride with nimble handling. Only the terrible outward visibility through the C-pillar lets it down.

Yet it doesn’t win. We hate to be predictable, but the Volkswagen Golf is the benchmark for balancing ride comfort and nimble handling. The alloy wheels are small but this means more rubber to insulate cabin occupants from the road. The Golf was the quietest car here, the plushest over even the harshest hits, the most stable and unflappable and yet capable of being nimble and dart-like.

You’d be content if your $50k car rode and handled as well as the Golf Trendline, which remains the ultimate driving experience in the class. Believe us, we’d love something to beat it, but no brand has managed to, yet.


Ownership expectations

Holden Astra

  • Three-year/100,000km warranty
  • Full roadside assist
  • 12-month/15,000km service intervals
  • $229, $229, $229, $229, $289
  • Special offer five years warranty/roadside assist, three years free scheduled servicing

Toyota Corolla

  • Three-year/100,000km warranty
  • Roadside assist
  • 10,000km service intervals
  • $140, $140, $140, $140, $140

Hyundai i30

  • Five-year/unlimited km warranty
  • Full roadside assist
  • 12-month/15,000km service intervals
  • $299, $299, $299, $409, $209

Honda Civic

  • Five-year/unlimited km warranty
  • Full roadside assist
  • 10,000km service intervals
  • $281, $281, $281, $281, $281

Kia Cerato

  • Seven-year/unlimited km warranty
  • Full roadside assist
  • 12-month/15,000km service intervals
  • $289, $365, $331, $487, $325

Ford Focus

  • Three-year/100,000km warranty
  • Full roadside assist
  • 12-month/15,000km service intervals
  • Capped visit costs of $300, $330, $300, $565, $300

Mazda 3

  • Three-year/100,000km warranty
  • Extra-cost roadside assist
  • 10,000km service intervals
  • $300, $328, $300, $328, $300

Volkswagen Golf

  • Three-year/unlimited km warranty
  • Roadside assist over warranty
  • 12-month/15,000km service intervals
  • $318, $507, $382, $751, $318

Subaru Impreza

  • Three-year/unlimited km warranty
  • 12-months roadside assist
  • 12-month/12,500km service intervals
  • $348.30, $601.59, $348.30


Thoughts from outside motoring journalism

It’s vital for us to include the opinions of people from outside the ranks of motoring journalism.

We’ve included our Chief Financial Officer, Matt Chandler (pictured right, above), who brought some “real buyer” credibility to the table (and who enjoyed getting out of the office and away from his spreadsheets). He gave us a brief synopsis of each car.

Cerato: “Maybe not this model, but entry level this probably represents the value play.”

Impreza: “Someone who values space and AWD above cabin noise and drive performance.”

Mazda 3: “Someone who likes the Mazda brand and superior service.”

Corolla: “Someone who values the ubiquitous nature of the Toyota network, not looking for performance, doesn’t carry many passengers too often. If a sports team, it would be mid-table.”

Astra: “Someone who rates performance above anything else.”

Civic: “Someone looking to stand out from the crowd with design, and who would find huge boot space useful.”

Focus: “Single person wanting a fun car to drive, not concerned about space.”

i30: “Someone who wants a bit more space and features than the Golf offers, and doesn’t discern the build quality versus Golf.”

Golf: “Someone who values build quality and performance above bells and whistles featured in the car.”

Well said, Matt. Now about that pay rise…



Verdict

When we said that there was no real loser here, we meant it. You could make a genuine case for any car, and even among judges there was some disagreement.

The Kia Cerato is getting long in the tooth, and while it’s sensational value lower down the range, our tester just felt like the least rounded offering, despite its good cabin space, willing dynamics and sensational ownership coverage.

There’s a reason why the Toyota Corolla is so popular. It’s bulletproof, and has a certain charm thanks to its ergonomics and engaging urban manners. It’s also affordable. There’s just nothing stand-out about it.

The Mazda 3 has some real cabin design nous, signature sporty design and the badge cred that draws so many in, though it’s loud and has iffy cabin packaging.

In many ways we love the Subaru Impreza. It’s great value, spacious and the AWD is a unique selling point in this company. But it lacks refinement from behind the wheel, in terms of noise suppression and engine performance.

The Holden Astra has a brilliant engine and top-three dynamic engagement, and you’ll get a great deal. But its ‘pre-aged’ cabin lets the side down.

The surprise packet was the Ford Focus which, belying its age, has good cabin tech and a premium road feel, which makes up for some packaging shortcomings. Tempered kudos for the active safety pack option too, which is better than it not being available at all.

But the top three stand out.

The Honda Civic may look a little space-age for some, its outboard visibility isn’t great and the lack of some active safety tech is a downer, but it balances ride and handling well, has outstanding cabin space for the class and marks a return to form from a brand with its recent share of struggles.

The Hyundai i30 makes diesel cool again, with refined driving dynamics, excellent noise suppression, an upmarket and well-specified cabin and strong after sales care. In many ways it’s the new benchmark.

The issue is, we feel pretty strongly that any contender for the coveted ‘best-in-class’ award needs to do more than just ease to victory. It needs to tear the title from the class incumbent.

The updated Volkswagen Golf isn’t hugely well-specified, and if that’s a downer, then we understand why the Hyundai might be a better bet.

But the way the German offering drives, the way it blends refinement with engagement, the thoughtful touches in its cabin and the overall sense of maturity and sophistication, needs to be experienced to be appreciated.

Accuse us of wearing blinkers if you will, question the veracity of our testing and ask us hard questions below, but every judge had the Golf in their top two, and it’s done enough to remain our benchmark.


Tables

Car

Price

Engine

Outputs

Fuel use

Focus Sport

$27,490

1.5 T petrol

132kW/240Nm

6.2L/100km

Astra RS

$27,240

1.6 T petrol

147kW/280Nm

6.3L/100km

Civic RS

$32,290

1.5 T petrol

127kW/220Nm

6.1L/100km

i30 Elite

$28,950

1.6 T diesel

100kW/300Nm

4.7L/100km

Cerato SLi

$32,490

2.0 NA petrol

112kW/192Nm

7.2L/100km

3 Touring

$27,290

2.0 NA petrol

114kW/200Nm

5.8L/100km

Impreza 2.0i-S

$29,190

2.0 NA petrol

115kW/196Nm

7.2L/100km

Corolla SX

$26,000

1.8 NA petrol

103kW/173Nm

6.7L/100km

Golf Trendline

$27,490

1.4 T petrol

110kW/250Nm

5.4L/100km

 


Trans

Drive

Rear susp.

Wheels

Focus Sport

6 auto

FWD

Independent 

17-inch

Astra RS

6 manual

FWD

Independent

17-inch

Civic RS

CVT

FWD

Independent

17-inch

i30 Elite

7 dual-clutch

FWD

Torsion beam

17-inch

Cerato SLi

6 auto

FWD

Torsion beam

17-inch

3 Touring

6 auto

FWD

Independent 

16-inch

Impreza 2.0i-S

CVT

AWD

Independent 

18-inch

Corolla SX

CVT

FWD

Torsion beam

17-inch

Golf Trendline

7 dual-clutch

FWD

Independent

16-inch

 


Length

Wheelbase

Weight

Cargo

Focus Sport

4360mm

2648mm

1380kg

316L

Astra RS

4386mm

2662mm

1306kg

360L

Civic RS

4515mm

2700mm

1365kg

414L

i30 Elite

4340mm

2650mm

1439kg

395L

Cerato SLi

4350mm

2700mm

1332kg

385L

3 Touring

4470mm

2700mm

1280kg

308L

Impreza 2.0i-S

4460mm

2670mm

1398kg

345L

Corolla SX

4330mm

2600mm

1280kg

360L

Golf Trendline

4258mm

2620mm

1261kg

380L

 


Rear camera

AEB

Adaptive cruise

Blind-spot monitor

Focus Sport

Yes

Option

Option

Option

Astra RS

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Civic RS

Yes

No

No

LaneWatch 

camera

i30 Elite

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Cerato SLi

Yes

Fwd collision

warning

No

Yes

3 Touring

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Impreza 2.0i-S

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Corolla SX

Yes

Option

No

No

Golf Trendline

Yes 

Yes

Option

Option

 


Screen size

CarPlay/Auto

Sat-nav

DAB+

Focus Sport

8.0”

Yes

Yes

Yes

Astra RS

7.0”

Yes

No

Yes

Civic RS

7.0”

Yes

No

Yes

i30 Elite

8.0”

Yes

Yes

Yes

Cerato SLi

7.0”

Yes

Yes

No

3 Touring

7.0”

No

Yes

Yes

Impreza 2.0i-S

8.0”

Yes

Yes

No

Corolla SX

7.0”

No

Yes

No

Golf Trendline

8.0”

Yes

No

No

 


Seats

Button start

Headlights

Spare wheel

Focus Sport

Cloth

Yes

Halogen

Temp

Astra RS

Cloth

Yes

Halogen

Temp

Civic RS

Part-leather

Yes

LED

Temp

i30 Elite

Part-leather

Yes

Halogen

Full-size

Cerato SLi

Part-leather

Yes

HID

Full-size

3 Touring

Part-leather

Yes

Halogen

Temp

Impreza 2.0i-S

Part-leather

Yes

LED

Temp

Corolla SX

Cloth

Yes

Halogen

Temp

Golf Trendline

Cloth

Yes

Halogen

Temp

Click the Photos tab for all images, taken by Sam Venn. Videography by Glen Sullivan, Sam Rawlings and Zo Kouros. 

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