Tony O'Kane | May 13, 2012 | 47 Comments

Small Hatch Comparison Review: Mazda3, Toyota Corolla, Holden Cruze, Hyundai i30, Ford Focus, Mitsubishi Lancer, Volkswagen Golf, Subaru Impreza, Kia Cerato, Renault Megane.

 

OVERVIEW

The small car segment is by far the most popular in this country, and also one of the most densely populated.

No fewer than 18 manufacturers compete there - 26 if we include luxury brands - and buyers have a total of 37 distinct models to choose from. The term “spoiled for choice” is most definitely applicable to buyers of new small cars.

So, to sort the wheat from the chaff, we joined forces with a team from motoring.com.au for a comprehensive group test of ten of the country’s most popular small cars.

Most were base models, and all were automatic hatchbacks, representing the most popular transmission/bodystyle configuration.

Crucially, nearly all of the cars tested (with the Subaru Impreza the sole exception) are priced at less than $25k in base form.

So which cars are worth the coin, and which are best left sitting on the dealership floor?

How we did it:

Our test involved a drive from Melbourne down to Victoria’s surf coast, a short urban loop and a day of performance testing at the Anglesea proving grounds.

We also assessed each car for cabin comfort - both front and rear - and took a close look at the features, mod-cons and overall quality of each car.

Value-for-money was also among the key criteria, and while some contenders impressed us with their gadget count, those with the stingiest spec sheets were heavily marked down.

We’ve assessed each vehicle in descending order of sales ranking according to the latest VFACTS new car sales figures, but take note: in this instance, popularity in the showroom is not necessarily a reflection of the quality of the drive or buying value.

 

​The Cars

 

​Mazda3 Neo

  • Price: $22,330 plus on-roads (as tested)
  • Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder | Output: 108kW/182Nm
  • Transmission: Five-speed automatic
  • Wheels/Tyres: 15 x 6.0-inch / 195/65R15
  • Fuel/CO2: 8.2L/100km / 193g/km

The highest-selling small car on the market today, the Mazda3 has been a runaway success. Younger drivers in particular have been won over by its sporty, breezy style and responsive handling.

It’s not hard to see why it’s riding high in the sales charts. Its MZR 2.0 litre engine feels strong and willing, it rides comfortably, corners flatly and the interior is very solidly constructed.

In short, it’s fun.

In fact, our only real complaint with the way the Neo drives is that the transmission tends to hunt through its ratios on steep inclines.

On the flipside, it’s starting to show its years. Even though the current-gen 3 is only four years old, the interior design looks dated when placed next to the Golf, Focus and even the Megane and Impreza.

The interior isn’t at the front of the pack for spaciousness either. The back seat has tight knee and foot room, as well as firm seat cushioning. Boot space is good though, and would easily swallow up a week’s groceries.

It’s decent value too, with cruise control, alloy wheels, six airbags, a five-speed transmission (rather than the more typical four-speed) and a trip computer all included in the Neo auto’s $22,330 sticker price.

However, the Neo is the only Mazda3 variant to miss out on Bluetooth phone integration as standard and there’s not a USB audio input in sight.

It’s definitely one of the more competent drives in its segment, and a very satisfying and enjoyable car. But with the bar being raised by many of its competitors in recent years, the Mazda3 isn’t quite as impressive now as it was when first launched.

 

Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport

  • Price: $24,490 (as tested), $22,990 (base auto)
  • Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder | Output: 100kW/175Nm
  • Transmission: Four-speed automatic
  • Wheels/Tyres: 16 x 6.5-inch / 205/55R16
  • Fuel/CO2: 7.7L/100km / 180g/km

The Corolla has consistently been near the top of the small car sales figures, but, unlike the Mazda3, much of its sales success can be attributed to its substantial book of fleet customers.

While conservatively styled, it is not without its charm, but perhaps its ace for private buyers is in its solid resale value, fixed-price servicing and reputation for reliability that comes with a Toyota badge.

But the E150 Corolla is an old car. It’s right near the end of its life-cycle and an all-new replacement is just around the corner, so is it worth buying?

Well... maybe. Besides the inevitable run-out bargains, there’s still plenty working in the current Corolla’s favour.

The Ascent Sport we tested is marginally more expensive than the base Ascent, but it’s got a good equipment list and still scrapes in under the $25k mark.

As standard you get power windows, air-conditioning, Bluetooth, USB audio input, 16-inch alloy wheels, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, cruise control, fog lamps and seven (rather than just six) airbags.

It’s pretty roomy too, with decent rear knee, foot and headroom and a back seat that was rated as one of the more comfortable ones in this line-up.

In-cabin stowage is also good thanks to numerous cupholders, door bins, a double-decker glovebox and a handy slot under the center console that can accommodate wallets and purses.

Its 290 litre boot area isn’t quite so capacious though.

However, while the Corolla may look a good proposition when sitting in a showroom, it’s out on the road where it starts to show its weaknesses.

The handling is mushy and the Corolla leans markedly when cornering quickly. Such handling is comfortable enough in the ‘burbs, but not particularly inspiring out on country backroads.

The Corolla’s 1.8 litre engine has an adequate amount of power and torque, but the four-speed automatic it’s mated to is a weak point.

The gaps between ratios is too wide, and and it can feel a little reluctant and unresponsive when you least want it to.

With four aboard and faced with a steep hill on test, the Corolla’s transmission refused to kickdown, and only barely maintained 50km/h with the accelerator firewalled. To say it needs another cog added to its gearbox is a gross understatement.

 

Model Tested: Holden Cruze CDX

  • Price: $27,040 (as tested), $23,790 (base auto)
  • Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder | Output: 104kW/176Nm
  • Transmission: Six-speed automatic
  • Wheels/Tyres: 17 x 7.0-inch / 215/50R17
  • Fuel/CO2: 7.5L/100km / 179g/km

Holden wasn’t able to provide us with a base-grade Cruze CD, so the ‘pleather’ upholstery and 16-inch alloys seen on our test car aren’t representative of what you get with the base model.

Neither are the rear parking-sensors, fog lamps, heated seats and leather-upholstered steering wheel, which also aren’t offered in the Cruze CD.

The Cruze’s interior is acceptably roomy, but taller passengers may struggle for legroom in the back seat. Headroom however is good.

Boot space is excellent, measuring in at 413 litres. The boot floor is flat and broad, and there’s a multitude of tie-down points.

Cabin quality is sub-par in the Cruze though, with hard plastics dominating the dashboard and centre console.

The console was showing some deep scratches and there was a rattle somewhere on rougher tarmac (but press cars get an awful thumping).

The 1.8 litre inline four, while strong enough, is unrefined and thrashy when worked hard; for just a few dollars more ($1250) the 1.4T is a much classier and more potent unit.

The driving experience is more impressive though. The suspension is supple over poor-quality roads and the steering not too light.

Even with a load up the Cruze drives quite well. The six-speed auto shifts smoothly and mostly had the engine working at its best over the winding and hilly sections of road we encountered.

The Cruze also ‘points’ quite well and is reasonably relaxed at the wheel over longer distances - the Australian designed and engineered chassis perhaps apparent here.

 

Model Tested: Hyundai i30 SX

Price: $22,590 (as tested)
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder | Output: 105kW/186Nm
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Wheels/Tyres: 15 x 5.5-inch / 195/65R15
Fuel/CO2: 7.6L/100km / 182g/km

It’s an old car, the i30, and its replacement is less than a month away. There are runout deals to be had though, so if you can snare a bargain the i30 may be worth considering.

We weren’t fans of the i30’s soggy ride and slim equipment list, and its chassis dynamics were perhaps the worst of this group thanks to a significant amount of understeer, a lack of roll control and poor stability under braking.

Ride comfort is acceptable, but it’s hard to overlook the Hyundai’s on-road shortcomings.

Its 2.0 litre four has the right power and torque numbers, but is let down by an antiquated four-speed auto. The auto trans does a better job than the Toyota’s four-speed, but ultimately it could do with an extra ratio or two.

Build quality is generally good, but the hard plastic surfacing of the i30’s cabin is worlds apart from the classy Golf, Focus and Megane.

Equipment levels are good with Bluetooth and a USB/aux input being standard, but there are no steering wheel-mounted audio buttons and no cruise control.

On the plus side, the i30 has plenty of room for front and rear passengers, with plenty of knee, head and foortoom in the back - even for six-footers. The back seat is also nicely sculpted, and the cushioning neither too firm nor too soft.

 

Model Tested: Ford Focus Ambiente

  • Price: $24,290 (as tested)
  • Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder
  • Output: 92kW/159Nm
  • Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch automatic
  • Wheels/Tyres: 16 x 6.5-inch / 205/55R16
  • Fuel/CO2: 6.6L/100km / 154g/km

Ford’s Focus is an often-overlooked contender, but it’s through no fault of the car. Yes, it’s a tad more expensive than the cars that outsell it, but it’s a more polished product than each.

It is in fact a very impressive and well-rounded car and carries substantial Euro appeal.

Its naturally-aspirated engine has a modest 1.6 litre displacement and just 92kW of power and 159Nm of torque but feels a lot punchier than those numbers suggest.

Mated to that 1.6 is a twin-clutch six-speed automatic. Unlike many other ‘twin-clutchers’ on the market, this one is smooth away from a standing start; it also shifts cleanly and crisply when on the move.

With six ratios, it allows the Focus to extract more performance from that relatively small engine.

Dynamically, the Focus was the highest-rated car in this test. It cornered flatly and keenly through the slalom, and, on road, its steering response is exceptionally sharp (if a bit over-assisted), and it is stable and controllable at high speed.

The Focus is also impressive on the inside. There’s a strong sensation of quality in the Focus’ cabin, and soft-touch surfaces and tight panels gaps abound.

It’s perhaps a bit drab thanks to its black-on-black colour scheme and the multitude of blanking plates in the base model, but it feels classy and long-lasting. Perhaps even more so than the Golf - long the yardstick for interior quality in small cars.

Cabin comfort is also excellent. Well-contoured seats hold driver and passengers in place nicely, and there’s adequate room in both front and rear. However tall back-seaters may struggle for knee room.

It could use a slightly larger boot too. Measuring just 316 litres, the Focus was near the back of the pack for cargo capacity.

It also wasn’t the most generously-equipped model either.

Bluetooth phone and audio integration, a USB input, air-conditioning, a trip computer, voice controls and power windows are all standard on the base Focus Ambiente, but given its higher pricetag, we expected to see items like cruise control, alloy wheels and parking sensors added to that list.

 

Model Tested: Mitsubishi Lancer ES

  • Price: $24,190 (as tested)
  • Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder | Output: 110kW/197Nm
  • Transmission: Continuously variable automatic (CVT)
  • Wheels/Tyres: 16 x 6.5-inch / 205/60R16
  • Fuel/CO2: 7.3L/100km / 171g/km

The Lancer has been a mainstay of Mitsubishi’s line-up for a long time, and, like others in this comparison, it’s fast approaching the end of its life.

Still, it’s got one of the better CVT gearboxes around and decent cabin space. In hatch form, it’s also got a useful 344 litre load area with under-floor storage and boot-mounted release catches for the rear seats.

The dominance of hard plastics in the cabin can be a bit overbearing, but the construction appears hard to fault. However, one significant downside is the steering column and its lack of reach adjustment.

The Lancer’s cloth-upholstered seats are comfy and accommodating for those of average Aussie proportions, but rear knee-room and headroom is limited for tall passengers.

On the road the Mitsubishi felt very softly-sprung, and practically rested on its bumpstops around each cone in the slalom test. It also lacks grip when cornering, although it wasn’t quite as loose as the i30.

The engine and gearbox are a good pairing though, with the former providing the highest torque figure in this test and the latter being a well-sorted CVT that boasts sharp kick-down performance.

Mechanical refinement is lacking, unfortunately, with the engine emitting a very thrashy note at high revs.

Value-wise, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Cruise control, power windows, air-conditioning, seven airbags and a trip computer are all standard in the Lancer ES, but Bluetooth connectivity is a cost option.

It’s a relatively expensive car too, and given the slim equipment list, soft ride and lack of reach-adjustable steering, it trails the leaders in this comparo.

 

Model Tested: Volkswagen Golf 77TSI

Price: $24,490 (as tested)
Engine: 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbo | Output: 77kW/175Nm
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
Wheels/Tyres: 15 x 6.0-inch / 195/65R15
Fuel/CO2: 6.2L/100km / 144g/km

Volkswagen’s entry-level Golf 77TSI carries a hefty sticker price and not much equipment, but boy is it a nice car to drive.

Its 1.2 litre engine is the smallest here and has the lowest power output, but thanks to a low-blow turbocharger it develops a healthy 175Nm of torque.

That engine is also matched up with a seven-speed twin-clutch DSG transmission, which although it doesn’t have the standing-start smoothness of the Focus’ gearbox, is a slick-shifting (and very refined) little unit.

It really is very, very hard to fault the Golf 77TSI’s on-road performance. The engine’s torque figure isn’t the highest in this test, but it’s spread over a much wider rev range and is thus exceptionally tractable.

Steep hills cause no trouble, and the DSG is never short of the right ratio for the situation.

Corners are no issue for the Golf either. Its steering is accurate, there is good feel through the wheel and it can be hustled around tight bends.

It rides fairly comfortably on its standard 15-inch wheels, but is bettered by some for on-road comfort.

The combination of turbocharging and a seven-speed trans also made the Golf the most fuel-efficient car in this test - definitely a key consideration for a small car buyer.

The Golf’s interior is built exceptionally well, and it feels a cut above most of the other cars here - bar the Focus, perhaps. The cloth seats are a bit firm, but rear headroom and knee-room is abundant and the Golf is the only contender boasting rear air-vents.

There’s 350 litres of cargo space behind the Golf’s 60/40 split rear seats, which is about average for this group.

The equipment list is definitely sub-par though.

Items like cruise control, Bluetooth, USB input and wheel-mounted audio controls are absent from the 77TSI’s spec sheet, which is hard to overlook considering it’s the third costliest car in this group.

 

Model Tested: Subaru Impreza 2.0i

  • Price: $26,490 (as tested)
  • Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder | Output: 110kW/196Nm
  • Transmission: Continuously variable automatic (CVT)
  • Wheels/Tyres: 16 x 6.5-inch / 205/55R16
  • Fuel/CO2: 6.8L/100km / 157g/km

The freshly-launched 2012 Impreza is unique in this group thanks to its standard AWD drivetrain.

It’s also the most expensive car we tested, but given its high level of standard features (Bluetooth, climate control, seven airbags, engine start-stop, trip computer, paddle shifters, USB, cruise control) that’s not something that hurts its value-for-money score.

Neither does its interior, which we rated as one of the most commodious. The back seat is especially roomy, and there’s plenty of sprawling space up front too.

At 340 litres, the Impreza’s boot space is also fairly spacious.

Interior presentation is a big step up from the last-gen Impreza, thanks to new soft-touch surfacing and a dashboard layout that’s easier on the eyes. It’s not as refined as the Golf, Focus or Megane, but it’s not far off.

The engine, with on-paper numbers of 110kW and 196Nm, feels a little dull in six-speed manual Imprezas we’ve tested, but is much more alive when mated to the CVT auto.

While the CVT can occasionally be slow to ‘spool up’ to the right ratio, steep grades don’t faze it, nor does it struggle with a load. That said, it doesn’t feel as brisk as some in this comparo.

That CVT is a very noisy transmission though, emitting a high-pitched whine at high rpm. The noise isn’t as pronounced in normal driving, but remains faintly but noticeably audible which impacts on cabin comfort.

Otherwise, for comfortable driving, the Impreza’s very well-sorted suspension provides a stable long-travel feel with superior isolation from road shocks and poor tarmac.

It also feels quite nicely buttoned-down, with flat cornering and good performance through the slalom.

The extra grip of its AWD system helps inspire confidence through fast corners and on gravel too, and that’s an advantage of the Impreza that none of the others can match.

 

Model Tested: Kia Cerato SLi

Price: $26,240 (as tested), $21,640 (base auto)
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder
Output: 115kW/194Nm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Wheels/Tyres: 17 x 7.0-inch / 215/45R17
Fuel/CO2: 7.7L/100km / 183g/km

The Kia Cerato doesn’t get much love from new car buyers, but in our opinion it’s a more enticing product than its corporate cousin, the Hyundai i30.

One of its aces is its back seat, which, besides having acres of legroom and headroom, has sculpted backrests that hold occupants firmly - and comfortably - in position.

The cushioning may be a little too soft for long trips, but we found the Cerato’s rear accommodation to be the most comfortable in this test by a large margin.

Also appealing is its low pricing. Kia couldn’t give us a base model to test (the SLi here is the top grade), but the Cerato Si auto’s $21,640 RRP gives it a price advantage among most of this company.

Its standard equipment list isn’t quite so sparkling, with cruise control, trip computer and Bluetooth being notable absences. Cabin quality is good though, and some buyers will appreciate the Cerato’s full-size spare wheel and sizable 385 litre boot.

The Cerato’s 2.0 litre engine is a good performer and is the most powerful here.

Free-revving and not short of torque, it has plenty of pull to deal with steep hills and a full load of passengers. Having a six-speed transmission certainly aids its performance, and this particular gearbox also doesn’t put a foot wrong when selecting its own ratios.

Dynamic performance is good; the steering is a little numb but it corners well and drives quite well. Its over-intrusive stability control however will probably prevent you from ever coming close to the Cerato’s handling limits.

It’s so intrusive, in fact, that on the handling circuit at the Anglesea proving ground it behaved more predictably and was easier to control with the stability control deactivated.

But if looking for a definition of “solid performer”, the Cerato would be it.

 

Model Tested: Renault Megane Dynamique

Price: $24,990 (as tested)
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder | Output: 103kW/195Nm
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic (CVT)
Wheels/Tyres: 16 x 6.5-inch / 205/60R16
Fuel/CO2: 7.9L/100km / 186g/km

Renault sells only a handful of Meganes in Australia, although sales have been steadily improving of late.

Hurting its showroom appeal is its price. At a tenner under $25k, the automatic Megan is at the upper limit of what punters will pay for a base model FWD hatchback.

Combating this though is a healthy specification list that shames the competition.

Standard features include fog lamps, cruise control, speed limiter, dusk-sensing headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, keyless entry and ignition, Bluetooth audio and phone integration, a USB audio input and 16-inch alloys.

Heck, even integrated sat-nav is available as an option.

In reality, the base model Megane auto is specced more like a mid or high-grade variant, but it still slides in (just) under the $25k barrier. It is, in fact, exceptional value for money.

It also drives very well indeed. Its 103kW 2.0 litre four is a solid performer and is backed up by a versatile CVT transmission.

French cars have a reputation for dynamic excellence, and the Megane is not one to buck this trend.

The steering is tactile and sharp and the chassis is very responsive to driver inputs. Ride comfort also is superb on both smooth tarmac and corrugated dirt.

On the road, our only complaint is that the CVT auto is slow to kick down when bursts of acceleration are required - something the Lancer’s CVT has no trouble with.

Inside, the Megane is well-appointed and built with high-quality materials. It suffers from a relative lack of space though, with front passenger knee-room compromised by the shape of the dashboard and rear knee, foot and headroom being quite tight.

The seatbelt buckles in the rear bench also had a habit of digging into the posterior of some of our passengers, making for some very uncomfortable journeys.

 

Small Car Comparo Verdict

The clearest winner for us was Ford’s excellent Focus.

It has few compromises, handles superbly, and, although its 1.6 litre engine was the smallest naturally-aspirated motor tested, it has plenty of go.

The Focus isn't the cheapest car here, but, for quality, capability, and the all-round value of the package, is well worth the extra cashola.

Second place went to the Volkswagen Golf.

It’s a pretty bare-bones unit in terms of standard equipment (especially considering its price), but there was no ignoring the tractability of its turbocharged engine and its supple - yet grippy - suspension tune.

It’s also a comfortable, tightly-assembled car, and backseat passengers are well catered for in terms of space and comfort. If only it had a more generous spec sheet, it would have pinched the crown from the Focus.

Third place was the cause of some debate.

Subaru’s Impreza is a well-sorted car that handles well, benefits from AWD grip, has acres of interior space and a long list of features, but it’s also priced on the wrong side of $25k.

The Impreza was up against the Megane for the bronze medal with its even lengthier standard equipment list and lower pricetag. However the Megane’s lower cabin comfort score saw it slide into fourth, leaving third place to the Subaru.

The middle of the pack was occupied by the Mazda3, Kia Cerato and Mitsubishi Lancer, in that order.

All are competent performers, but edged out by lower levels of standard equipment (Cerato and Mazda3), and tilt-only steering (Lancer).

At the bottom of the list were the Corolla, Cruze and i30.

The Corolla is dogged by its age, handling and four-speed auto.

The Cruze, although nicely styled, doesn't quite cut it for interior feel and the 1.8 engine is getting past its prime. The 1.4T is far the better proposition (and only $1250 dearer).

Hyundai’s i30 is on the cusp of retirement, and had to face off against fresher rivals. Consequently it placed last, but a new one is coming.

Does TMR’s verdict surprise you? Have your say in the comments section below.

Photos by Peter Watkins.

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