Best Small Cars

Australia's Best Cars 2018

Best Small Car Under $35,000

As the single biggest-selling category of vehicles in Australia, small cars remain a favourite for affordability, practicality and good value. 

Winner: Mazda3 Maxx Sport


As the single biggest-selling category of vehicles in Australia, small cars remain a favourite among Aussies looking for affordable, practical and high-value motoring. They made up almost 20 per cent of the total new car market in 2017 and, as you’d expect, the ferocious competition in this segment has been great for consumers.

Mazda fired a significant shot across the bows of the competition in July 2016 when it made a number of important safety features standard across the range. These include autonomous braking, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert – the latter being a particularly useful daily driving safety feature.

Some of the competition is still catching up on this aspect alone. However, this was just one of the reasons it nosed ahead of the pack in Australia’s Best Cars 2018. The Mazda3’s build and finish remains class-leading and, at $27,000 drive away, it’s as close to premium as you’ll get without paying premium small-car prices.

To this you can add the quality of the materials and the neat, solid ways they’re put together. They’re all pleasing to look at and touch, without being ostentatious. The functionality of the interior and its controls, and the ease with which people can interact with them, has long been a targeted area of design for Mazda. This is evident in the intuitiveness of the controls. The driver’s relationship to the steering wheel, pedals and gearshift  also remains best-in-class, making the Mazda3 very strong in the area of ergonomics. It’s not the cheapest car in the class, but you can clearly see why.

Mazda’s focus on driver involvement, even in a high-volume car such as this, is also one of this car’s stand-out attributes. Mazda’s G-vectoring control, which manages the engine’s torque during cornering to improve handling, is just one of the features that contribute to its rewarding on-road dynamics. 

Driving the Mazda3 Maxx Sport has also become a little more convenient and comfortable following an update in February 2018 when Mazda added rain-sensing wipers, automatic on/off headlights, dual-zone climate control and an electric parking brake.

The Mazda3 excelled with minimal fuel consumption, claiming 5.8L/100km. It’s important to note the Mazda3 still only requires 91 RON fuel, unlike some of its competitors that require the significantly more expensive 95 RON premium fuel and consume it at the same rate.

It’s also clear Mazda has been working on getting road and engine noise intrusion down which, along with all the above, has helped push the Mazda3 to the front of the pack by a comfortable margin in Australia’s Best Cars 2018.

Second place: Ford Focus Trend


The Ford Focus has undoubtedly suffered an image problem following issues with the twin-clutch automatic transmission in some models. After affecting numerous Focus owners, this was rightfully followed up by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in 2017 and 2018, resulting in a $10 million penalty for Ford and a court-enforceable undertaking for the company to resolve the issues with certain vehicles for customers.

However, the Focus Trend has now been running a conventional torque converter six-speed automatic transmission for the past two years. With its gearbox issues appearing to be in the past, perhaps of more interest to consumers now is the 1.5-litre turbo petrol engine’s substantial output of 132kW. This makes it one of the most powerful in the category and is the main reason why it topped the class for its performance score.

This is certainly a car for those who like driving, and its relatively conservative looks belie its sporty handling – an area where it also sat well above average in the eyes of the Australia’s Best Cars judges.

The Focus Trend holds its own in the value-for-money stakes, particularly for its low fuel consumption, running and repair costs, impressive warranty and access to the Ford dealer network.

A reversing camera is standard, however autonomous braking is not.

Third place: Hyundai i30 Active


The i30 has consistently been a strong contender in Australia’s Best Cars and its showing in the 2018 awards was no exception.

The launch of the new i30 in April 2017 introduced fully integrated satellite navigation, plus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto phone-mirroring capability across the range, which was a notable addition given its starting price of $20,000 plus on-roads.

The 2.0-litre direct-injection petrol engine also brought an extra 13kW and 28Nm compared to the previous model’s 1.8-litre engine, and to top it all off, the entry-level model was priced $500 lower than the model it replaced.

A year after the launch of this i30, Hyundai made its suite of active safety equipment, which it calls SmartSense, available across the i30 range. This includes forward-collision warning and autonomous braking. However, if you really want a manual transmission, you’ll have to forgo all this gear as it’s only available with the auto.  

The i30 did fall behind the pack on its fuel consumption, with the 2.0-litre engine claiming 7.4L/100km. Still, this i30 is much better to drive than the previous model. Its well-tuned chassis puts its handling closer to the front of the pack, and its build and finish is also well above average.

Small Car Under $35,000

Small Car Under $35,000

WEIGHTING

Mazda3 Maxx Sport

Ford Focus Trend

Hyundai i30 Active

Details

Scores are weighted – critical, high, medium or low – according to their importance to buyers of cars in this class. The overall average totals reflect these weightings.

Type: 5-door hatch
Fuel type: 91 RON
Fuel economy: 5.8L/100km
Engine size: 2.0L, 4cyl
Transmission: 6-spd auto
Ind. drive-away: $27,853
ANCAP: 5 stars

Type: 5-door hatch
Fuel type: 91 RON
Fuel economy: 6.2L/100km
Engine size: 1.5L, 4cyl
Transmission: 6-spd auto
Ind. drive-away: $27,799
ANCAP: 5 stars

Type: 5-door hatch
Fuel type: 91 RON
Fuel economy: 7.4L/100km
Engine size: 2.0L, 4cyl
Transmission: 6-spd auto
Ind. drive-away: $26,763
ANCAP: 5 stars

VALUE FOR MONEY
Pricing

Critical

6

6

7

Cost of depreciation ($)

Medium

7

6

7

Running and repair costs

High

7

8

8

Fuel consumption

Critical

9

8

6

Warranty and dealer access

High

3

8

8

Insurance

Low

6

7

7

Standard features

High

7

4

5

DESIGN AND FUNCTION
Safety

Critical

9

7

7

Environment

Critical

7

7

6

Seating comfort

Medium

7

6

7

Space

Low

5

5

5

Practicality

Medium

5

6

6

Ergonomics

High

8

7

7

Build and finish quality

High

8

6

7

ON THE ROAD
Performance

Medium

7

8

7

Ride

Medium

8

7

7

Handling

Medium

7

7

7

Braking

Medium

6

7

6

Smoothness and quietness

Low

7

7

7

OVERALL AVERAGE

798

770

766

Best Small Car Over $35,000

European makes dominate the small car class over $35,000, and for many it is their first step into luxury car brands.

Winner: BMW 125i M-Sport


European makes currently dominate the small car class over $35,000 and, for many buyers, it is their first step into the prestigious world of luxury car brands. The category represents a relatively small but highly competitive field of premium-grade compact cars. The BMW 125i M-Sport started out as defending champion and, after all facts and figure were closely analysed, the classy 125i retained its crown despite tough competition from Audi, Volvo, Mercedes, Renault and Alfa Romeo, with Lexus and Toyota flying the flag for the Asian brands.

The 1-Series follows BMW’s traditional, beautifully balanced driveline configuration with a front-mounted longitudinal engine, mid-ship transmission and rear-wheel drive, in a class packed with front-wheel-drive models. In recent times, BMW 1-series buyers have preferred to pay a little more for the extra power and better equipment in the mid-spec 125i M-Sport model, making it the top-selling version in the range.

There is a touch of sporting elegance and refinement about the 125i M-Sport five-door hatch, both in the way it looks and drives. The distinctive body styling and interior presentation are smart, BMW uses high-quality trim materials, and there is a pleasing attention to detail in the fit and finish. Continuing the slightly sporting character, the 1-series has a cockpit-style cabin layout. It’s a touch tighter on space than some of its peers and is probably best described as cosy rather than cramped. Well-contoured front seats, with a wide range of adjustments, provide great comfort and support.

The 125i hatch is a superb everyday drive, with the technically sophisticated 2.0-litre bi-turbo petrol engine delivering almost hot-hatch performance. Sharp, nimble handling, good steering feel and excellent cornering grip are backed up by a well-controlled ride that is firm but not harsh, making it an involving and enjoyable driver’s car under all conditions. A well-matched eight-speed automatic keeps the engine working in its most effective range and fuel consumption is relatively low, although it still lags slightly behind the hybrid models.

The 125i M-Sport five-door hatch provides the prestige small car buyer with an enjoyably dynamic, high-quality, well-rounded package for everyday use. Although not the cheapest in its class, the 125i M-Sport boasts a relatively high level of standard equipment for this class and its excellent suite of advanced safety features help it achieve a five-star ANCAP rating.

New car warranty is only a basic three-year cover, which is similar to many others in this class, but well below what many manufacturers are offering in other classes. The other area where the 125i falls a little behind is its relatively high depreciation should you intend to sell the car after five years.

Second place: Audi A3 Sportback 1.4 TSFi COD


Hot on the heels of the class-leading BMW125i hatch is Audi’s 1.4 TSFi COD five-door Sportback. As the top-selling variant in the extensive A3 line-up, the 1.4 TSFi COD Sportback sits just above the entry-level model.

The A3’s presentation is first class for this model segment, with high-quality materials and outstanding attention to detail in the trim and interior fittings. Well-placed controls fall naturally to hand and operate with a precise feel. For an upmarket car it is not overly endowed with standard equipment, but like most in its class, it has plenty of extra-cost options to dress it up further if you want.

As a compact five-door hatchback it is one of the roomier models in this category. Although not an exceptionally big car, the A3 uses its passenger space efficiently, seating comfort is among the best in class, and it has plenty of load-carrying versatility, with a respectable luggage compartment and flat-folding 60 /40 split rear seats.

The sophisticated 1.4-litre turbocharged engine, with Audi’s impressive COD (Cylinder On Demand) technology delivers an excellent blend of strong performance and thrifty fuel economy. The engine output is a useful 110kW, while 250Nm of torque developed from 1500rpm to 3500rpm provides plenty of driving flexibility. The COD system can drop from four to two cylinders in a seamless manner when minimal power is needed for cruising, which reduces fuel consumption. The extent of savings, naturally, will depend on the operating conditions and driving style.

Its handling might not be quite as sporty and dynamic as BMW’s 125i, but it has a secure, easy-going nature that makes it nimble around town and enjoyable on the open road, while the ride is among the more comfortable in the class.

Third place: Volvo V40 T4 Inscription


Volvo’s long-serving V40 T4 Inscription five-door hatchback brings a slightly different flavour to the small car over $35,000 class with its unique Swedish character. While the German brands are sportier driver’s cars, the Volvo V40 has a more conservative, comfortable riding focus with generous equipment levels and Volvo’s clinically efficient style of luxury, which still appeals to many buyers.

Volvo tends to run its model cycles longer than some manufacturers, but when you have the basics right a model will endure the test of time. Renowned for its approach to safety, Volvo was an early adopter of advanced technologies such as autonomous emergency braking.  Although other manufacturers have caught up, the V40 still rates highly for safety. Blind-spot monitoring was added as a standard feature on the Inscription model in 2017.

The T4 model’s 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine is not quite class leading but delivers a pleasing balance of performance and fuel economy for everyday use. It isn’t as sharp as its German rivals dynamically and the cushioning ride can make it a touch floaty at times, but the handling is still secure.

The Volvo V40 T4 Inscription’s conservative nature may not appeal to everyone, but it is neatly styled, easy to drive, and rather than being a standout in one or two specific areas, it’s a consistently good all-round package.  

Small Car Over $35,000

Small Car Over $35,000

WEIGHTING

BMW 125i M-Sport

Audi A3 Sportback 1.4 COD

Volvo V40 T4 Inscription

Details

Scores are weighted – critical, high, medium or low – according to their importance to buyers of cars in this class. The overall average totals reflect these weightings.

Type: 5-door hatch
Fuel type: 95 RON
Fuel economy: 5.9L/100km
Engine size: 2.0L, 4cyl
Transmission: 8-spd auto
Ind. drive-away: $55,489
ANCAP: 5 stars

Type: 5-door hatch
Fuel type: 95 RON
Fuel economy: 5.0L/100km
Engine size: 1.4L, 4cyl
Transmission: 7-spd DSG
Ind. drive-away: $45,728
ANCAP: 5 stars

Type: 5-door hatch
Fuel type: 95 RON
Fuel economy: 5.6L/100km
Engine size: 2.0L, 4cyl
Transmission: 6-spd auto
Ind. drive-away: $48,853
ANCAP: N/A

VALUE FOR MONEY
Pricing

High

5

6

6

Cost of depreciation ($)

Medium

5

7

6

Running and repair costs

Medium

7

6

6

Fuel consumption

Critical

7

9

8

Warranty and dealer access

Medium

2

2

2

Insurance

Low

5

5

7

Standard features

High

7

4

8

DESIGN AND FUNCTION
Safety

Critical

9

9

9

Environment

Critical

7

8

7

Seating comfort

High

8

7

7

Space

Low

6

6

6

Practicality

Medium

6

5

5

Ergonomics

High

7

6

5

Build and finish quality

Critical

7

7

6

ON THE ROAD
Performance

High

9

8

8

Ride

High

6

7

6

Handling

High

9

8

7

Braking

Medium

7

7

7

Smoothness and quietness

Medium

7

6

6

OVERALL AVERAGE

866

852

830