Best small cars
The small car segment used to be the top-selling vehicle class in Australia, but the market’s shift to SUVs means compact passenger vehicles aren’t the sales powerhouses they once were.
That’s not to say they aren’t good anymore, in fact in most cases this list of passenger cars are fundamentally better in most respects than their SUV equivalents.
Here’s our top picks in the small passenger segment, including mainstream and premium options.
The Mazda 3 was once Australia’s favourite car for a number of years, but now it lags behind the CX-5, CX-30, CX-3 and BT-50 in Mazda’s own line-up.
Despite this, the Mazda 3 is one of the very best small vehicles you can buy, offering a plush interior, high levels of standard equipment, wonderfully balanced dynamics, and a range of variants to cater for most budgets.
Pricing starts at $26,340 before on-road costs for the entry-level G20 Pure, climbing to $42,490 plus on-roads for the flagship X20 Astina featuring Mazda’s lean-burning compression-ignition petrol engine with mild-hybrid technology.
All models get a full suite of active safety assists, LED headlights, alloy wheels and an 8.8-inch Mazda Connect infotainment system with satellite navigation and smartphone mirroring.
The Mazda 3 also performed impressively in crash tests, with a 98 per cent adult occupant score and 89 per cent child occupant score as part of its five-star ANCAP safety rating.
While it’s well-equipped across the board, the Mazda 3 lags behind competitors in terms of rear seat space and luggage capacity, particularly in hatchback form.
Mazda covers its line-up with a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty.
The Golf is a top-seller in Europe for decades, and has long been lauded as one of the automotive benchmarks.
Now in its eighth generation, the Golf aims to build on the foundations of its predecessor by loading up with technology usually reserved for luxury cars, and a new tech-laden design.
Like its forebears, the newest Golf is one of the most mature compact vehicles to drive, and offers features and technologies borrowed from luxury brands.
However, Australia’s lack of emissions standards has left us without the latest and most efficient powertrains available globally, and the high level of features and tech has pushed the price well up on the previous-generation Mk7.
Pricing starts from $32,790 plus on-road costs, and extends into the $50k and $60k brackets if you go for the hot GTI and R versions.
If you need a bit more space, there’s also a Golf Wagon available, one of the few small estates left in the Australian marketplace.
All Volkswagen models are backed by a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty.
The world’s best-selling nameplate hails from Toyota, and the current model is arguably the best iteration yet.
Offering hatchback and sedan body styles, a choice of efficient petrol and petrol-electric hybrid powertrains, as well as a full suite of safety features across the line-up, the Corolla is a hard act to beat on paper.
Team those strong characteristics with a capable new TNGA platform, a well-built interior and some of the cheapest maintenance costs in the business, and it’s not a secret why the Corolla continues to be Australia’s favourite passenger car.
Like its Mazda 3 rival, however, the Corolla is a little tighter in the back seat and the boot if you go for the hatchback, though the Corolla Sedan with its longer wheelbase compensates for that – though you can’t get the top-spec sedan with a hybrid powertrain.
Pricing starts at $25,395 for the entry-level Corolla Ascent Sport petrol and tops out at $34,695 for the ZR Hybrid hatchback. The flagship grade is one of the more affordable top-spec models in the class.
Toyota covers its line-up with a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, and has the most wide-reaching dealer network in the country. It’s a compelling no-nonsense package.
Czech brand Skoda is gaining more and more traction in the Australian market, though its SUV nameplates are making most of the noise – at least in terms of sales.
The Skoda Scala is a left-field choice in the small passenger segment, offering Euro build and technology with segment-straddling space and affordable pricing.
Based on the MQB A0 platform shared with the Volkswagen Polo, the Scala is actually dimensionally larger than a VW Golf but uses a cheaper platform to cut costs. Unlike its Golf cousin, however, the Scala offers a newer 110kW 1.5-litre turbo petrol engine capable of fuel consumption under 5.0L/100km when equipped with the standard six-speed manual.
A three-variant line-up consists of the base Ambition, sporty Monte Carlo and premium Signature grades, with prices ranging from $30,990 drive-away to $38,990 drive-away before options.
One of the Scala’s party tricks is its massive 467L boot, which is more accommodating than many mid-size SUVs.
All Skoda models are covered by a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty.
The humble Kia Cerato has always been one of the best value small cars on sale, and continues to play on big space and a strong list of features for an affordable price.
Like the Skoda Scala, the Cerato in both hatch and sedan bodies is larger than the bulk of the competition, offering rear seat space and luggage volume on par with mid-size SUVs.
Further, Kia covers its line-up with an industry-leading seven-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty that adds peace of mind.
Two engines are on offer, a 2.0-litre petrol engine for core models and a zesty 1.6-litre turbo for the GT warm performance model, with all models now standard with an automatic transmission – a dual-clutch in the case of the GT.
Priced from $25,990 before on-road costs for the base S and stretching to $35,790 before on-roads for the GT flagship, the Cerato may not be the bargain it once was but is still one of our picks of the segment thanks to its all-round value proposition.
Particularly in this latest generation, the A3 brings a layer of polish and refinement to its design and technology the Golf cannot match.
While the gap in user-friendliness and quality may have widened between these German relatives, the gulf in price has shrunk. Even a base A3 is within thousands of a top-spec Golf, and it’s far from poorly equipped these days.
Even better, the base A3 comes with the Volkswagen Group’s latest 1.5-litre turbo petrol engine with 48V mild-hybrid technology, something available in overseas versions of the Golf but absent locally.
It can achieve hybrid-like efficiency in real-world driving, which is pretty darn impressive.
Like previous iterations, the new A3 looks and feels like a luxury product, offering Audi’s latest infotainment and driver assistance technologies trickled down from its flagship products.
There’s also go-fast S3 and even faster RS3 models available if you want supercar performance in a useable package, and there’s added peace of mind with Audi’s new five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty as of January 1, 2022.
Prices start from $46,900 for the base 35 TFSI, while the all-out RS3 costs $94,700 in its dearest sedan body style. While it’s not cheap, the A3 is more affordable than both the BMW 1 Series and Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
The A-Class started life as an awkward, boxy little people mover, but subsequent second- and third-generation models have made the nameplate rather sexy.
Now into its third generation, the A-Class holds the title of tech leader with its array of available infotainment and driver assistance technologies, which debuted here before even some of its more expensive products.
A range of variants are on offer, starting with the humble A180 and extending to the fire-breathing AMG A45 S, with prices ranging from $49,889 to an eye-watering $99,895 for the AMG A45 S hyper hatch.
Mercedes-Benz was one of the first premium brands to back its range with a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, and that covers the 1.3-litre turbocharged A180 right through to the 310kW A45 performance hero.
Unlike its Audi A3 arch rival, the A-Class requires a few options boxes to be ticked before it can match the spec levels of competitors in both the mainstream and premium segments, meaning you can pay big money to have the Three-Pointed Star on that little car nose.
Still, get the balance right and you have a little luxury car that has as much tech as an S-Class but is as easy to park as a Golf.