The Shortlist: medium car around $30,000 with space for growing tweens

Doing what we do, CarAdvice writers are often asked by friends and family, and through our contact page: which car is best for me?

Most buyers can identify the top three non-negotiable factors that will guide their purchase decision. But... where to from there?

In this series, we look at these cases and single out three cars that fit the brief. If there are more than three, we'll highlight the three models that have scored well in past CarAdvice reviews.

Kate is a busy mum with a husband and three growing girls aged between seven and twelve. The family no longer needs to cart around the paraphernalia associated with young children, like prams and booster seats, but now needs room for stuff like surfboards and netball gear.

She has been looking for a car that will accommodate the family's needs as the girls get older but there are so many options that she's finding it hard to narrow the list down. Kate has pointed out that it will mostly be her and the three girls using the vehicle around town, but there'll be the occasional longer trip with the whole family.

She's already looked at a number of new and used cars including the Subaru Forester, Nissan X-Trail and Volkswagen Tiguan – all medium SUVs. She's looking for something with space, that's comfortable both around town and on the open road, and has a budget of $30,000. Based on Kate's situation, here are the criteria for this iteration of The Shortlist.

  • $30,000 budget
  • Medium SUV or similar
  • Space and comfort

This is a very generic list of 'needs' and it's no wonder Kate is going around in circles trying to narrow it down. Without the desire for AWD, diesel or specific tech and safety features, there's a very long list of possibilities.

She could even get into a small car from a premium brand if she were prepared to sacrifice space, with the Alfa Romeo Giulietta 1.4 Super, Audi A1 1.4TFSI hatch and Mini Cooper five-door all meeting the budget criteria. Of this bunch, the Alfa Romeo has the largest cargo volume at 350 litres followed by the Mini with 278L and then the Audi at 270L.

But let's get real, rear seat space isn't generous, neither is boot space, and surfboards and suitcases would end up piled on to the roof. Unless there was a genuine desire for brand cache, the small car segment isn't the best place to be looking in this situation.

Moving up to the medium passenger segment increases second-row room and cargo volume, and there's a long list of sedan contenders in this range. The base-model options are the Hyundai Sonata Active with an automatic transmission for $30,590 before on-road costs, the Skoda Octavia 110TSI Ambition is a cheaper alternative at $22,990 for the manual or $25,290 with an automatic transmission, the Subaru Liberty 2.5i is an auto priced at $30,240, or for a hybrid option the Toyota Camry Altise is $30,490 with an automatic gearbox. Sticking with petrol rather than hybrid, the second-tier specification automatic Camry Atise S is $30,190.

When it comes to boot space, the Skoda checks in with an impressive 568 litres, the Toyota 515L, the Hyundai serves up 510L and the Subaru offers 493L. Boot space is generous in all, the three girls would fit in the second row and again surfboards would end up on the roof. But will any of these handle the troop comfortably in three or more years time?

Small SUVs would be too cramped, so I think Kate is looking in the right direction at medium SUVs – with one exception that I'm saving for The Shortlist. So, let's dive into the medium SUV pool and see what we find.

Because Kate didn't specify manual, I'm going to assume she'd prefer an automatic transmission. Of those with a variant priced at $30,000 or under, the Hyundai Tucson Active, Subaru Forester 2.0i-L and Mahindra XUV 500 are ruled out because only the manual options meet the budget criteria.

That still leaves us with a big list! All are automatic two-wheel drive vehicles with a petrol engine and all are base models. In alphabetical order they are the Ford Escape Ambiente ($29,990), Haval H6 Premium ($29,990 drive away), Kia Sportage Si ($28,990), Mazda CX-5 Maxx ($29,890), Mitsubishi Outlander LS ($30,500), Nissan X-Trail ST ($30,490), Renault Koleos Life ($29,990), Suzuki Grand Vitara Navigator ($29,490) and Toyota RAV4 GX ($30,590). There is also one option from the large SUV segment, the Holden Captiva LS is priced at $30,490 for the seven-seat option or $28,690 for five-seats.

Our Top 5 Medium SUV list includes the Mazda CX-5, Kia Sportage and Ford Escape, but given there is quite a variance in cargo volume between the trio, and taking all the other factors into consideration, here is The Shortlist.

Skoda Octavia wagon

It's a left-of-centre option but a standout given her criteria and I'd strongly encourage Kate to check out the Skoda Octavia wagon despite it being a medium-sized wagon and not an SUV like she was thinking. It's not only spacious, comfortable but the base-model Ambition is well under budget at $26,990 before on-road costs, and it comes equipped with a long list of standard features. Every Octavia scores adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, rear-view camera with rear sensors and a 6.5-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity.

Boot space is a massive 588L, and by flipping down the smaller part of the 60:40 split-fold rear seat a surfboard could be carried in the car rather than on the roof. Though the long roofline and roof racks are perfectly suited for this. Headroom, legroom and shoulder room in the second-row are all generous and the big windows offer great visibility on the road.

Under the bonnet is a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine that produces 110kW and 250Nm teamed with a seven-speed DSG. It's front-wheel drive, nice and quiet on the road and has a claimed combined fuel consumption figure of 5.2-litres per 100 kilometres – great for family time in the car and the family budget.

Toyota RAV4

In the medium SUV realm the Toyota RAV4 is a bit of a heavyweight when it comes to cargo capacity, with 577 litres of space behind the rear seats. The range starts with the GX variant, priced at $30,590 for the auto. It has a 2.0-litre four cylinder petrol engine that produces 107kW and 187Nm teamed with a continuously variable transmission.

Inside there's a 6.1-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth connectivity, a rear-view camera with rear parking sensors, and LED headlights and taillights. A technology pack can be optioned that adds a long list of features including satellite navigation, auto headlights and windscreen wipers, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking and lane departure alert for $2500.

There’s a great amount of storage in the cabin, loads of rear seat room and good visibility out of the windows on the road, despite its angular shape. Well worth an all-in family test drive.

GXL variant pictured above.

Kia Sportage

This is the all-rounder option. The Kia Sportage entry level Si offers a good mix of driveability, space and value for money. It's priced at $28,990 with a 2.0-litre four cylinder petrol engine that produces 114kW and 192Nm teamed with a six-speed automatic transmission and it’s front-wheel drive.

It doesn’t have the biggest boot in class, at 466 litres, but it’s roomy enough inside for a family. The highlights are the standard features and ownership package. The Sportage has a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, auto headlights, cruise control, three 12V outlets, two USB points and a rear-view camera with rear parking sensors.

Kia offers a seven-year/unlimited kilometre warranty with seven years roadside assist and a capped-price servicing plan giving you peace of mind for a long time.

Honourable Mentions

The Nissan X-Trail seems to have caught Kate's attention and it's worth continuing to check it out because it has an impressive 550-litre cargo volume.

Both of these are part of our Top 5 Medium SUV list, and the Ford Escape may be a good all-rounder, however it is let down in this case by its 406-litre cargo volume as is the Mazda CX-5 with 403 litres.

Given they aren't as highly rated by us as other medium SUVs, the Renault Koleos, Mitsubishi Outlander, Suzuki Grand Vitara and Holden Captiva were ruled out based on their respective boot volumes of 458 litres, 477 litres, 398 litres and 465 litres.

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