Almost anyone can throw on a pair of gym shorts and runners and look reasonably sporting in the checkout line at Coles, and the same is true with cars – the addition of alloy wheels, a spoiler and foglights can suddenly make your small hatchback look at least a bit athletic.
As ever, though, it's the muscles beneath the clothes that counts. The five warm-hatchbacks assembled here cost between $28,000 and $32,000, and they all slide in around $10K beneath similarly-sized, properly toned hot-hatchbacks.
That's a lot of protein shakes-worth you could save for your own fitness regime, and it's not as though this lot are devoid of delivering driver enjoyment; they are, but to varying degrees.
From the tall and skinny look of the Nissan Pulsar SSS it perhaps appears the least primed of the bunch.
Proving looks can be deceiving, however, it is the most expensive car here (as with all contenders here, as an automatic, and priced from $32,390 plus on-road costs) and the most powerful, its 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder delivering 140kW of power and 240Nm of torque.
In unassuming grey, it will take a trainspotter to note the machined alloys, LED tail-lights and red badging as differences of the Hyundai i30 SR from the base model. A $30,190 sum gets you a bigger 2.0-litre (but non-turbocharged) engine with 129kW and 209Nm.
The Holden Cruze SRi-V was available to test only in sedan form, though the mechanically identical hatchback costs the same $28,690 in auto form, making it the first contender here to duck under the $30K barrier.
It gets racy red badging like the i30, and the same-sized engine as the Pulsar, though the General Motors motor makes a lesser 132kW and 230Nm.
A popular favourite that has had a warm-hatch in its line-up for longer than any other model here, the Mazda 3 SP25 is part of the non-turbo brigade, though its 2.5-litre capacity is the largest you'll find of any four-cylinder in the class. For $27,890, the extra litreage buys you the second highest power output (138kW) and the most torque (250Nm).
Which leaves the Ford Focus Sport as the bridge between the above warm brigade and the cheaper Corolla class that starts from about $20K.
It utilises the same-sized engine as the i30 SR, and although it makes a marginally lower 125kW and 202Nm – the least here – this engine can be had in lesser Focii if you can do without the alloys, fogs and spoiler. But this $28,190 S-badged – in red, naturally – Ford is one of the most dynamic cars in its class and deserving of its place here.
The 3 SP25 also shares the award for nicest interior with the Hyundai i30, both delivering a great balance of nice plastics and tight panel fit.
Conversely, the dashboard design of the Holden Cruze is starting to feel its five-year vintage, and as the oldest car here it also has scratchy plastics and some loose-fitting trim.
The Mazda and Hyundai continue to go toe-to-toe for interior supremacy, with the former kicking goals for its infotainment system and the latter for its seat comfort and storage.
Befitting of the newest contender here, Mazda's MZD-Connect system uses both a 7.0-inch touchscreen and console-mounted rotary dial to access its standard satellite navigation and apps connectivity such as internet music streaming facility Pandora.
Holden's MyLink equivalent is rarely beaten for infotainment ease-of-use, but it is here by a whisker. Why? The Cruze has the same-size touchscreen, but it's a bit of a reach away from the driver and lacks a secondary rotary dial like the 3; you can use Pandora, but only with an Android phone, not iPhone, does it need to run via a USB cable where the Mazda lets you vote a song up or down, and change internet stations via Bluetooth; and the nav controls are just a bit fiddly, and require your smartphone's internet to use maps – where its rival's is integrated.
In fact, Hyundai's Suna sat-nav (again on a same-size touchscreen) is easier to use, and its screen is brighter and clearer than the Holden's even though it lacks apps connectivity. That said, Bluetooth audio streaming, and auxiliary and USB inputs are included on all five models here.
Although the Ford has a pokey 5.0-inch non-touchscreen accessed via what looks to be a Sony home theatre system from the 1990s pasted onto the dash, it works intuitively once accustomed.
Likewise the 5.8-inch touchscreen in the Nissan – no apps connectivity, but clear graphics and simple accessibility.
While cruise control, automatic headlights and wipers, a trip computer and reverse-view camera are standard on all five models here, as you might expect the most expensive contenders have some advantages.
That said, the Ford, despite being less expensive than the Mazda, picks up auto keyless entry and rear parking sensors.
The Cruze SRi-V gets leather trim that the cheaper Focus and 3 SP25 miss, and it's the only one here that also gets front seat heating. Unfortunately its front seats are the hardest and least comfortable here, though its side bolsters offer good support.
The i30 SR is the only car here with an electrically adjustable driver's seat, and in concert with superbly comfortable seats, permits the sweetest driving position. The extra spend in the Hyundai also buys you xenon headlights, auto-dipping rear-view mirror and an extra driver's knee airbag over the others, all of which feature the standard dual-front, front-side and full-length curtain 'bag protection.
The more-expensive-again Pulsar SSS misses out all those features the i30 adds except xenons, while it joins the 3 SP25 being the only car here without parking sensors.
The Nissan's leather front seats are also the flattest here, sharing an awkwardly tilted-forward driving position with the Mazda. By contrast, the deep, soft and supportive Focus seats are almost as lovely as the Hyundai's.
At least in the 3 SP25 the driving position issue can be fixed by choosing the $32,590 GT version that gets an electrically adjustable driver's seat in addition to leather and seat heating – and it's only a few hundred more than the Pulsar SSS.
The same is true – though less required – for the Focus, which comes with all of the above (plus auto-parking, sunroof, etc.) in the $32,990 Titanium.
No Mazda 3 comes with a great amount of storage space, either, with tiny bottle-sized door pockets, a shallow tray under the climate controls and an average console storage box. It pales against, for example, the deep bins of the i30 and massive console storage of the Pulsar.
Above: Holden Cruze (top) and Hyundai i30 (bottom).
Quite literally, the Nissan continues to come forward from behind. Being the tallest contender here, its rear seats sit up high to give passengers a good view of the world, while rear legroom is the most generous by far – despite having 100-150mm less body length than 3 and Cruze hatch. It's also the only model to get rear air vents.
The Ford and Hyundai's seats are excellent in the rear, too, while the Mazda is good but noticeably more cramped and the Holden continues with a hard cushion and is similarly lacking in legroom.
There's nothing remarkable about the way the boots of these five models are packaged under their hatched-backs. All get 60:40 split-fold rear backrests that expand their cargo volume – in order, Cruze (445 litres for this sedan, 413L for the hatch) and i30 (378L); then, closely matched and on the small side for the class, Focus (316L), Pulsar (310L) and 3 (308L).
Above: Nissan Pulsar (top), Ford Focus (middle) and Mazda 3 (bottom).
With all the inside-health checks out of the way, it's time to see how fit this lot is when they're up and running.
As we thread out of the city, the Focus immediately reminds us of why it's here. Its steering is superbly mid-weighted, precise and fluent, typical of Ford of Europe tuning.
Riding on sports suspension, it can get fidgety at times but it never goes too far – it always has one eye on being a sports hatch while remembering it's still a small family hatch.
The same is true with the i30 SR, which compared with the regular 1.8-litre i30 has four per cent stiffer front spring rates and re-valved Sachs dampers, tuned locally.
The slightly firmer-again ride gels more in the SR than the already-firm suspension does in the regular i30 given this sportier application, but it still can be lumpy on freeways and unsettled over minor irregularities at speed. The upside is excellent control on rough roads.
The Hyundai's steering is no match for the Ford's, feeling noticeably less tight in all of its three modes – from lightest to heaviest: Comfort, Normal and Sport – though at least the vacant patch on-centre dries up in the latter one.
Only the Mazda's steering goes close to matching the Focus, though it's a bit lighter and slightly less connected.
The 3 SP25 uses the same suspension set-up as the regular 2.0-litre 3 models, and on the larger 18-inch wheels it can be noticeably more pitter-pattery across ruffled surfaces.
There's some softness on rough roads that hasn’t existed on previous Mazda 3 generations, though compliance is improved so you could say the suspension is better balanced than before.
With the Holden, control takes priority though not by a long way to the detriment of comfort.
The Cruze SRi-V can thump the hardest over big hits, but it also has the uncanny ability to be more settled than an i30 on the freeway.
Its steering is light, but also the most immediate and pointy here just off the centre position.
Nissan goes well the other way for its suspension and steering. It feels by far the softest car here, and the steering is slow and ponderous whether negotiating a shopping centre carpark or just trying to get the Pulsar SSS turned-in to a corner.
And as it turns out, getting this Japanese hatchback around a bend is hard work beyond the steering response.
The Nissan is the quickest car here, with a superbly perky engine working with a 1340kg kerb weight and a continuously variable transmission that in manual mode is the snappiest, sweetest transmission of the group.
Holden may use a same-size turbo engine with similar outputs in addition to a brilliant Australian-tuned six-speed automatic transmission (which in Sport mode is the most intuitive here, kicking back gears under brakes), but the Cruze SRi-V is a class heavyweight at 1493kg, so it never feels as fast.
The 2.5-litre Mazda makes similar outputs to the Pulsar SSS and runs a slick six-speed auto (without a Sport mode not quite Cruze-great though), and it even weighs less at 1308kg. Yet without a turbo that feeds in power and torque from low in the rev range, the 3 SP25 can drop off the ball unless it’s revving, where the Nissan just keeps on surging.
When it comes to wiping off all that speed in the Pulsar SSS, however, problems arise.
Well, they're not big issues if you (like this tester) find a softly sprung and rolly chassis entertaining, but there's no getting around the fact the Nissan is the least dynamic contender here.
It clings to the grip of its excellent Continental PremiumContact2 tyres, but it is a committed understeerer, even when you try to moderate it by backing off the throttle.
On a massive upside, there's an important marking in my notes: "Pulsar the only one here that doesn't make you think about the road surface". It rides well, though the others then run off into the distance for dynamics.
The Focus handles sweetly as the second softest car here, though it is nicely balanced.
With the least power and torque, though, and the second-heaviest kerb weight (1396kg) of the lot, it's somehow unexciting.
It's also not helped by unintuitive manual mode +/- buttons on the transmission selector, and an intrusive, non-switchable stability control. The six-speed dual-clutch automatic itself gets the most out of the engine, though it can be surprisingly slow under duress.
The Hyundai, as the Ford's other 2.0-litre rival, is a whole lot lighter at 1282kg.
The engine feels quicker to rev and generally more active and keen, though it too is a bit unexciting compared with the turbos and the 0.5-litre larger Mazda. Flat and composed handling is let down only by the lack of grip from its Hankook VentusPrime2 tyres.
That's particularly noticeable when you swap into the Cruze SRi-V that runs fantastic Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres. It sits even flatter than the Hyundai on the road, the front in particular feeling pointier and allowing the driver to use its extra power earlier. It has an agility level when changing direction that is superior to any car here.
The Mazda 3 used to be untouchable as the handling benchmark in the small car class, though it now takes second to the Holden.
It is the keenest here to move around on its chassis, and the rear end will let go the easiest under provocation to help the nose point, though never by a dangerous amount.
Its Dunlop Sport Maxx tyres lack some grip, though the stability control is expertly tuned, the auto is quick and there's enough power to have fun.
Officially, the 3 SP25 also uses the least fuel, needing 6.0 litres per 100 kilometres of regular unleaded during combined cycle laboratory tests, just ahead of the Focus Sport (6.6L/100km), i30 SR (7.5L/100km) and the twin turbos, the Pulsar SSS (7.8L/100km) and Cruze SRi-V (7.9L/100km).
On a light freeway run, both the Mazda and Ford dropped to 6.2L/100km, before the former settled at 8.5L/100km overall versus 8.2L/100km for the latter once urban and country driving was factored in. The Nissan did 6.4L/100km on the highway, rising to 8.8L/100km, compared with 6.9L-8.8L/100km for the Hyundai.
Continuing the run of GM engines being thirstier than rivals, a total 7.0L-8.9L/100km was recorded for the Holden that (along with the Pulsar) also needs more expensive premium unleaded fuel.
Back to the number-crunching part. Given our overall fuel figures, the 15,000km Australians drive each year on average, and current fuel prices ($1.40 per litre unleaded, plus 10 cents for premium), the Focus will need $1722 from your wallet annually.
That's a mere fortnight's worth of city gym membership ($63) ahead of the 3, followed by the total for the Hyundai ($1848), then the fastest-on-test Pulsar ($1980) and Cruze ($2003).
If GM engines are typically thirsty, then Holden servicing is also regularly the cheapest, and that's no different here. To three years or 60,000km, the Cruze (with nine-month/15K intervals) costs $740.
Although that’s only $7 less than the i30 if you reach three years before its annual 15K limit, if you do happen to reach 60,000km first you'll need an extra Hyundai service, pushing the total to $1096.
The same story is true for the Mazda 3 ($976 or $2042 respectively) and Ford Focus ($1140 or $1615), though for either time or distance you'll pay a hefty $1908.50 to get your Nissan Pulsar checked.
The Hyundai also has the added value of a five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty, compared with three year cover to either 100,000km (Ford, Holden, Nissan) or limit-free distance (Mazda).
So, then, if you're not ready to partake in a fast-paced motoring marathon with a hot-hatch but would like the equivalent of a nice, sporting jog around the bay, which of these five fits?
The Nissan Pulsar SSS is roomiest in the rear, and its performance is genuinely a step above anything in the small car class, both exciting and usable, if in a straight line only. But may we suggest the cheaper Pulsar ST-S that runs the same engine because the SSS isn't worth the $5300 extra.
The Hyundai i30 SR and Ford Focus Sport feel less special in their performance than the Pulsar SSS, but they are more rounded, premium propositions.
Conversely, the Holden Cruze SRi-V feels the cheapest of the lot in its cabin design and seating, but strides ahead of every car here for handling and almost matches the Nissan for performance.
Ultimately, the Focus just edges past both, with better steering, a lower entry price and more grip than the Hyundai, with a similarly comfy interior that is also much nicer than the Holden’s … which it almost matches for handling, if not performance. Personal preferences could easily swap the thick of this middle order, however.
That leaves the Mazda 3 SP25 on top. From its drivetrain punch to the great – if no longer class leading – handling, sweet steering to decent ride comfort, and fine interior quality to benchmark infotainment, it's the sub-$30K hatchback that best blends sports with sensibilities.
Photography by Christian Barbeitos.