Best Sporty Small Car Under $25,000

Let’s say you want a sporty small car - engaging to drive - a bit of fun that won’t break the bank, and you’ve got $25,000 to spend. You can get there - just

I guess there are plenty of options, really, but I’m a huge fan of benchmarking the market. This means identifying what are objectively the best cars in this engaging, sub-$25k category, and comparing your preferences to them.

Whatever cars you have on your short list, you need to benchmark those choices against these two objective frontrunners below. If you still decide to buy another car after that - OK. Everyone’s priorities and preferences are different, but it pays to make the choices in an informed way.

Just to put this in perspective, $25,000 doesn’t really get you what could be described as a ‘hot hatch’. What we’re talking about here is a car that’s one rung up on the sportiness scale from the ‘whitegoods with wheels’ on offer at this (and lower) price point.

And the price I’m talking about here is the recommended drive-away price (notionally for New South Wales - but realistically they’re all about the same nationally). There’s a fair bit of wriggle room in those prices, so while I’ve focussed on the manuals here, you’d either be looking at getting a substantial reduction on the price of the manual or getting the auto - a $2000 extra spend - still inside the $25,000 drive-away price cap.

Want something sportier? Read about the Hyundai i30 SR in my Hyundai i30 buyer's guide >> and the Mazda3 SP25 here >>

Here are the two I'd suggest are the benchmarks.

MAZDA2 GENKI

FOR: Technical accomplishment and fuel efficiency. Excellent packaging. Very slick manual transmission. Classy interior loaded with features (beats Accent SR features list). Feels premium and is fun to drive. Great engine tractability.
AGAINST: Three-year warranty can’t match the Hyundai. Space-saver spare tyre not really compatible with use in regional Australia. A bit noisy inside.

HYUNDAI ACCENT SR

FOR: It’s almost $2000 cheaper, notionally, than the Mazda2 Genki, plus you get a longer warranty, more power and torque, cheaper servicing, and a full-sized alloy spare wheel and tyre. Hyundai’s done a good - but not outstanding - job tuning the suspension here in Australia.
AGAINST: Aggressive ESC engagement if you’re having fun. Lacks the technical finesse of the Mazda2 Genki, and feels a bit cheap on the inside.

Top 20 ways to beat a car dealer >>
How to test drive a new car >>
Top 20 lemon cars named and shamed >>

HEAD TO HEAD

MAZDA2 GENKI
RRP *$24,440

Best Sporty Small Car Under $25,000

Body: Hatchback
Safety: Five-star
Warranty: 3 yr / unlimited km
Service: 12 mth / 10,000 km
Manufactured: Thailand
Economy: 5.2 L/100 km
Engine: 1.5-litre
Injection: Direct
Max Power:  81 kW @ 6000 rpm
Max Torque: 141 Nm @ 4000 rpm
Fuel: 91 RON unleaded
Trans: 6 sp man/auto
Length: 4060 mm
Width: 1695 mm
Height: 1495 mm
Kerb Weight: 1049 kg

STANDARD FEATURES
16" alloy wheels
6 speakers
Tilt/reach steering adjustment
Climate air conditioning
Bluetooth
Reversing camera
Reverse parking sensors
Cruise control
LED daytime running lamps
GPS
LED headlamps
Proximity key
Auto wipers
Space saver spare tyre
Trip computer
Voice recognition

*recommended drive-away price in NSW, manual transmission

HYUNDAI ACCENT SR
RRP *$22,787

Best Sporty Small Car Under $25,000

Body: Hatchback
Safety: Five-star
Warranty: 5 yr / unlimited km
Service: 12 mth / 15,000 km
Manufactured: South Korea
Economy: 6.1 L/100 km
Engine: 1.6-litre
Injection: Direct
Max Power:  103 kW @ 6000 rpm
Max Torque: 167 Nm @ 4000 rpm
Fuel: 91 RON unleaded
Trans: 6 sp man/auto
Length: 4115 mm
Width: 1700 mm
Height: 1450 mm
Kerb Weight: 1150 kg

STANDARD FEATURES
16" alloy wheels
6 speakers
Tilt-only steering adjustment
Air conditioning - not climate control
Bluetooth
-
-
Cruise control
LED daytime running lamps
-
Headlamps - not LED
Remote (non-proximity) key
-
Full-sized alloy spare wheel and tyre
Trip computer
-

*recommended drive-away price in NSW, manual transmission

Basically, comparing the two, the first thing you notice is the straight-line performance of the Hyundai is clearly in front (80.2 W/kg for the Mazda and 89.6 W/kg for the Hyundai). That's a 12 per cent advantage in straight-line acceleration to the Hyundai. (Although the Hyundai offers closer to 25 per cent more power, it's held back to some degree by its greater mass.) Interestingly, the Mazda2 powertrain is common to all three variants, but the Accent SR's direct-injected 1.6 is a real upgrade over the Active's multi-point 1.4 - which is common to the Hyundai i20 and Kia Rio as well. Lesser Accents also score a CVT transmission instead of the SR's superior six-speed conventional automatic transmission.

But the Mazda does manage to feel more refined to drive - and inclusions such as the app-based MZD Connect infotainment system, and more premium materials generally make the Mazda2 Genki feel like a more polished vehicle generally. The Accent's five-inch touchscreen is not a patch on the MZD Connect system, which is pretty slick. Also slick is the Mazda2's manual gearshift, whereas the Hyundai's is only average.

The Mazda is notionally more expensive - about $2000 more - but the reality of the price difference at the coalface of buying either one will depend on your ability to negotiate ... and the dealer's individual motivation. Although the Mazda notionally costs more, you also get more standard features - such as a reversing camera, inbuilt GPS, parking sensors and voice recognition.

You can't fault Hyundai's warranty and ownership costs proposition - it's clearly in front. And if you're travelling outside the city generally, the full-sized alloy spare wheel and tyre is a real asset. (It's also good as a one-shot replacement if you 'gutter rash' one of the alloys - a trick you can't pull off in the Mazda2 with its space saver spare.

DON'T BUY

Best Sporty Small Car Under $25,000

Alfa Romeo MiTo

Why not?
It's delightful to drive and better to look at but comes from a company (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) with the worst customer complaint track record in Australia (as a proportion of vehicles sold).

Best Sporty Small Car Under $25,000

Fiat 500

Why not?
Another third-rate Fiat Chrysler Automobiles vehicle (worst customer complaint track record in Australia as a proportion of vehicles sold). Additionally, the Fiat 500L was rated the least reliable car in North America by respected consumer advocates, Consumer Reports.

Best Sporty Small Car Under $25,000

Ford Fiesta

Why not?
In its 2015 Annual Reliability Survey, Consumer Reports found the Ford Fiesta to be the second-least reliable car in the entire United States of America. Do you really want to take this risk? Here in Australia, the Fiesta has one of the worst transmission reliability track records of all time, and Ford in Australia is renowned for not assisting customers - no matter how legitimate their concerns and/or issues.

Best Sporty Small Car Under $25,000

Holden Barina

Why not?
Holden is struggling for relevance into the second half of this decade. It does a poor job at customer support, has an average warranty and the Barina RS needs premium unleaded fuel - an incomprehensibly lazy engine tuning choice for Australia.

The Holden Barina is also built, ignominiously, in the old Daewoo factory (now called 'GM Korea' - but the name change hasn't helped the quality. So if you want one of the few South Korean cars without a five- or seven-year warranty, and poor build quality ... step right up.

Best Sporty Small Car Under $25,000

Honda Jazz/Civic


Why not?
Honda has been asleep at the wheel since just before the GFC, and this shows in the current product lineup generally. It can't match the Mazda on all key criteria that count, and you can't find a Jazz or Civic that is even vaguely sporty. There's also the average warranty and poor service interval to consider, and the outdated engine technology.

Best Sporty Small Car Under $25,000

Hyundai i20

Why not?
Accent SR is so much better/sportier. And the four-speed auto in the i20 is Dickensian - as is the 1.4-litre four.

Basically, the use-by date on the i20 has expired and Hyundai would be well advised to put it out of our collective misery ASAP.

Best Sporty Small Car Under $25,000

Kia Rio

Why not?
Rio isn't sporty - and the 1.4-litre + four-speed auto in most Rios is embarrassing. The 1.6 + six-speed auto in the Rio Sport (3dr) and Rio SLi (5dr) is more than acceptable - but it's over-priced compared with these two recommended vehicles.

Best Sporty Small Car Under $25,000

Mitsubishi Mirage/Lancer

Why not?
Like Honda, Mitsubishi has also been asleep at the wheel since the GFC. Move on: Nothing for you to see here...

Best Sporty Small Car Under $25,000

Nissan Micra/Pulsar

Why not?
Nothing remotely sporty here, under $25k drive-away, and plenty of 'asleep at wheel' syndrome, in the manner of Mitsubishi and Honda.

Best Sporty Small Car Under $25,000

Peugeot 208

Why not?
Only the base-model Active will fit inside the $25k cap, and you'll miss out on a lot of features that come standard in the Mazda2 Genki as a result. Furthermore, Peugeot has a terrible record on quality and customer service, and has failed to achieve critical mass in Australia.

Best Sporty Small Car Under $25,000

Skoda Fabia

Why not?
Skoda is a joke - which still hasn't achieved critical mass in Australia. It's part of Volkswagen - and nobody is yet certain how far the rabbit hole that is the Volkswagen scandal will go. Could easily be a depreciation disaster.

Best Sporty Small Car Under $25,000

Toyota Yaris

Why not?
This car is the quintessential 'whitegoods with wheels' proposition. Poor service interval, average warranty and good reliability - buy wholly, completely, totally devoid of anything resembling passion. Sportiness? Forget it. Also not very fuel efficient and has a powertrain from the jurassic.

Best Sporty Small Car Under $25,000

Volkswagen Polo

Why not?
Volkswagens are great to drive and gorgeous to look at, but have poor reliability, and a worse track record for customer (non) support when anything goes wrong. And the 2015 emissions scandal has turned them into depreciation dogs.

MORE CAR ADVICE