2019’s best small cars under $35,000

Moving Well | RACV | Posted on 15 November 2019

Australia’s Best Cars testing reveals the best small cars under $35,000.

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

Grey Toyota Corolla parked on a road

1st - Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport

Type: Five-door hatch
Engine size: 2.0-litre petrol
Transmission: CVT auto
RRP: $24,370 + on-road costs


Grey Mazda3 G20 Evolve being driven towards the camera

2nd - Mazda3 G20 Evolve

Type: Five-door hatch
Engine size: 2.0-litre petrol
Transmission: Six-speed auto
RRP: $27,690 + on-road costs


White Kia Cerato parked on a city street

3rd - Kia Cerato S

Type: Five-door hatch
Engine size: 2.0-litre petrol
Transmission: Six-speed auto
RRP: $22,290 + on-road costs


Winner: Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport

Popularity is not always an indication of quality – look at fast food and reality TV. However, in this year’s Australia’s Best Cars awards, Australia’s most popular passenger car, the Toyota Corolla, has also been crowned Australia’s best small car under $35,000.  

The current-model Corolla arrived in Australia in August 2018, but since then Toyota has added some important extras to enhance the ownership proposition even further. These include the introduction of a five-year factory warranty for the Corolla from 1 January 2019, which brought Toyota into line with most other mainstream manufacturers. Then, in October 2019, Toyota finally added the smartphone integration capability of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay to the Corolla, making it standard equipment across the range.  

On the road, Australia’s Best Cars judges were also impressed by the way the Corolla performed. The continuously variable transmission’s (CVT) ability to provide just the right gear ratios for the vehicle’s speed was particularly impressive, which can’t be said of all CVTs. The use of 10 artificial ‘steps’ in the CVT’s gear-changing program, including a mechanical launch gear, helped reduce engine flaring under acceleration. 

The 2.0-litre engine introduced with this current-model Corolla also provides a useful jump in power and torque to 125kW and 200Nm from the previous 1.8-litre engine (103kW and 173Nm). These outputs place the Corolla ahead of other popular entry-level small petrol cars such as the Mazda3. Yet, the Corolla still delivers a competitive fuel consumption figure of 6.0L/100km in the regulation test cycle.    

Second placed in this year’s awards was the Mazda3, which Mazda launched as an almost all-new model in early 2019. It brought with it a complete redesign, including a marked step up in build and finish quality and a revamp to the infotainment system.  

The Mazda3’s mechanical refinement was also upgraded to the point where it’s now on par with a number of premium European small cars. In particular, the Mazda’s start/stop fuel-saving feature is far smoother and quieter than in the previous model.   

Handling has traditionally been the Mazda3’s forte, and that continues with this car – it’s a delight to drive. However, the new Mazda3 did bring with it a significant increase in the entry-level price that affected its score. Also, the Mazda3’s dramatic styling came at the expense of room in the rear seats.  

Taking third place was the Kia Cerato S, which is one of the best-value small cars on the market. It’s inexpensive, but cheap would be too harsh a word. With a drive-away price of $23,790 and a seven-year warranty, the Kia scored particularly well in these important areas.   

Inside, the Cerato is spacious and, for the driver, there’s a digital speed readout along with the traditional analogue one, and the infotainment screen has good resolution and is big and mounted high on the dash. The Cerato S scored well in the areas of seating comfort and space, and although some of its on-road scores, like handling and performance, were slightly below average, it remains a very appealing package for the price. 

But it was the Corolla’s significant improvements to the traits it already had going for it, such as its very cheap servicing costs and the excellent access to Toyota dealers in metro and regional areas across Australia, that all worked to bring home a thoroughly deserved win for Toyota.

Best Small Car Under $35,000

Best Small Car Under $35,000

WEIGHTING

Mid-grey Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport on a test-drive track

Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport

Black Mazda3 G20 Evolve on test track straight

Mazda3 G20 Evolve

White Kia Cerato S parked beside a bridge

Kia Cerato S

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: 5dr hatch
Engine size: 2.0L petrol
Transmission: CVT auto
RRP: $24,370 + ORC

Type: 5dr hatch
Engine size: 2.0L petrol
Transmission: 6spd auto
RRP: $27,690 + ORC

Type: 5dr hatch
Engine size: 2.0L petrol
Transmission: 6spd auto
RRP: $22,290 + ORC

VALUE FOR MONEY
Pricing

Critical

6

3

8

Cost of depreciation ($)

Medium

9

4

10

Running and repair costs

High

10

6

9

Fuel consumption

Critical

9

8

6

Warranty and dealer access

High

8

7

9

Insurance

Low

7

6

8

Standard features

High

3

8

5

DESIGN AND FUNCTION
Safety

Critical

10

10

8

Environment

Critical

7

7

6

Seating comfort

Medium

6

7

6

Space

Low

3

4

6

Practicality

Medium

6

4

5

Ergonomics

High

6

7

5

Build and finish quality

High

5

7

5

ON THE ROAD
Performance

Medium

7

6

6

Ride

Medium

6

6

5

Handling

Medium

6

7

5

Braking

Medium

6

6

5

Smoothness and quietness

Low

5

8

5

OVERALL AVERAGE

790

756

750