Small hatchbacks and sedans are still popular. As a category, they sit in fifth place overall – underneath the ever-growing small, medium and large SUV classes, and the dual-cab ute segment.
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Being fifth means over 10,000 Australian private buyers and businesses take delivery of a small car each month.

The prices vary, but entry into one of the most popular nameplates in this segment – i30, Corolla or Mazda 3 – starts from about $25,000.

However, outright purchase price is one thing. Fuel usage, insurance and maintenance costs are also worth deep consideration. We will scrutinise the detail and level the playing field over a three-year ownership period.

For fuel usage, we will use our own historic testing figures to create real-world data. Distance comes from the Australian Bureau of Statistics's most recent average of 12,100km per year. Fuel price comes from the Australian Institute of Petroleum's latest national average figure of $1.43 cents per litre.

With regard to insurance, an averaged insurance value based on a 30-year-old female in a metro postcode, with one minor driving offence, will be factored in.

Servicing can be confusing, as some brands include things like a brake fluid change in their servicing plans, whereas others don't. All items required by the manufacturer will be included.

Let's take a look at the ongoing costs with three of Australia's best-selling small cars to see who comes out on top.


Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport

The best seller in the segment starts from around $27,600 drive-away with a manual transmission. Flicking over to the CVT automatic transmission adds another $1500 to the cost, or $29,100 give-or-take on the road.

Given the popularity of the auto, we'll use that for our test case. The first three services are held at either 12-month or 15,000km intervals, whichever arrives first.

They cost $180 each, totalling $540 over 45,000km or three years. The cost includes changing the engine's oil at every sitting, as well as replacing the brake fluid and internal cabin air filter at the second, and engine air filter at the third.

No nasty surprises or mathematics required here. Our previous tests have shown fuel consumption to sit around 6.3L/100km against the manufacturer's official claim of 6.0L. That sees your annual fuel bill land at $1090 per year, or $3270 over three years.

With insurance coming in at $800 per year, it sees annual ownership costs (aside from registration) costing $2070 per year, or $6210 over three years. With the purchase price included, you're in for $35,210 all up.


Hyundai i30 (base)

The next-best performer on the list is the Hyundai i30. Recently updated at the start of 2021, the entry model is currently offered nationwide for $27,490 drive-away. Simple.

Maintenance intervals for the Hyundai i30 are identical to the Toyota Corolla – one year or 15,000km. The brand does offer a three-year service pack; however, it must be paid upfront at time of purchase.

In order to remain fair, we will use pay-as-you-go pricing. The first three services roll in at $299 a pop, or $897 over three years.

The online pricing tool does not factor in brake fluid or cabin air filter changes either, and Hyundai states that it "cannot provide a cost as it fluctuates from dealer to dealer".

Not so simple. A few phone calls were made to random dealerships, which stated that both brake fluid and the cabin filter must be changed every two years at a cost of $135 and $125 respectively.

As a result, the annual average rises to $385. Final three-year figure? $1157.

The official combined fuel figure is 7.4L/100km, but our most recent testing saw fuel use settle at 7.1L. Your theoretical annual fuel bill is now $1229, and $3685 over three years.

Insurance using the prescribed criteria is $754 per year, which times three is $2262.

Summed up, year-one running costs are $2368, and after three years $7104. All up, owning an entry i30 is a $34,594 expense over three years.


Mazda 3 G20 Pure

Third place in the sales race goes to the Mazda 3. Entry into the stylish hatch range is the G20 Pure model priced from $30,300 thereabouts, depending on which state you drive-away in.

Mazda expects you to return to the dealership either every 12 months or 10,000km. As the distance is some margin off the average, we'll work with four services instead of three.

The first four are costed in pairs: two at $316, the others $361, totalling $1074 over a 40,000km distance. This does not include a cabin air filter expected every 40,000km, brake fluid every 40,000km or two years, or engine air filter every 60,000km or three years.

Factoring in one cabin air filter, two rounds of brake fluid changes and one air filter bumps up the annualised average to $468, and three-year cost to $1406.

Mazda claims you'll use 6.2L/100km over mixed use; however, our testing has shown 7.1L to be a more realistic figure. That makes its fuel bill identical to the i30's of $1229 annually, or $3685 over the prescribed three-year period.

Insurance is the cheapest of the three, however, at $690 a year, or $2070 all up.

That makes the Mazda the most expensive in terms of both outright purchase cost and ownership costs. One year of ownership is $2387, three years $7161, and in total $37,461 for a three-year affair including the purchase price.


Conclusion

The clear-cut winner here is the Hyundai i30, with the Toyota Corolla landing in second and Mazda 3 in third.

Consider this a guide as every circumstance varies, but hopefully it provides insight into medium-term ownership costs.

The Toyota, despite being more expensive initially, is the cheapest to run over a three-year period by nearly $1000. If you're the type of person to buy a car outright and manage your cashflow, you may prefer the cheaper ownership approach.

However, if you're planning on financing the lot, opting for the stylish Mazda may just be a few bucks more a week to you, depending on your arrangement.

We've included an easily digestible table below, which breaks down the figures and highlights the difference.

If there's another segment you'd like to dissect, just let us know in the comments section below.

VehicleDrive-away priceCost to run –one yearCost to run – three yearsTotalDifference to cheapest(purchase price + three-year cost)
Hyundai i30 (base) auto$27,490$2368$7104$34,594 $0
Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport auto$29,100$2070$6210$35,310+$716
Mazda 3 G20 Pure auto$30,300*$2387$7161$37,461+$2867

*average due to manufacturer not offering a national drive-away pricing