Which Small Car Should You Buy in 2016?

Wondering which small car to buy? If you’re in the market for a mainstream small car costing less than $40 grand - that means a Toyota Corolla-sized car - let’s eliminate the crap and get you down to a manageable short list so you can go test driving with confidence this weekend.

Note that this is a guide for mainstream small car buyers only - if you want to save the planet or buy something one the cheap side or Euro-chic, some of the cars I've excluded might still tempt you. But if this is transport first and foremost for you, and you care about practicality, value, solid engineering and good value, keep reading.

Have a guess how many cars this size are onsale today in Australia? (Think: Bigger than a Mazda2 and smaller than a Mazda6.) Pick a number … you better double it. It’s 28. Twenty-eight different cars that size, from 18 manufacturers. They all want you to walk in to a dealership and drop $20,000-$40,000 on the counter this weekend - and they want it bad. If you’re an ordinary consumer, this is completely unmanageable. Twenty-eight cars. You’ve got to be kidding. Un-workable, from a private research and test-driving point of view. So let’s get out the cutthroat razor and, over the next few minutes I’ll have a therapeutic slash, and you’ll get a manageable short list of the best buys.


Clockwise from top left: Chery J3, Proton Persona, Proton Preve, Skoda Rapid and Proton Suprima S

The chaff’s has no business hiding in there with the wheat - so let’s crank up the industrial-strength separator. The Chery J3 - nobody deserves that, not even in Gitmo, not in Abu Ghraib, not even if you were Pol Pot in a previous life. It’s out. We’re also saying goodbye to three Protons that are disinclined to take their energy pills - the Persona, Preve and Suprima S. Let’s also bid an early farewell to the Skoda Rapid. It’s clubbed with the same reliability deficiencies as the Volkswagen Golf (we’ll get to that), and benefits from none of the sophisticated styling. You don't want to own these cars.


Above, L-R: Toyota Prius & Prius V. Combined, these two accounted for slightly more than one vehicle in every 1000 sold across 2014

You don’t really want a hybrid, do you? I didn’t think so. Statistically, nobody does. In 2014 - in a car market of 1.1 million vehicles - Toyota Prius sales numbered just 487 (down from 555 the year before). Prius V sales were higher: 722 (down from 943 previously). Prius - and hybrid generally - is a curiosity; nothing more.

The Prius first entered the market in 1997 - so the badge turns 18 this year. (The name, in case you're interested, is a Latin word meaning 'to go before'. Curious that they'd choose a word from a dead language...) Even after all this time in the market, hybrid cars are a nice idea that still hasn’t really caught on, and, frankly, they never will.


Above, Row 1, L-R: Citroen C4, Citroen DS4, Kia Soul
Row2, L-R: Toyota Rukus, Peugeot 3008, Renault Fluence
Row 3, L-R: Renault Megane and Peugeot 308
All these cars are either irrelevant to mainstream small car buyers, or irrelevant in terms of sales, or too much of a roll of the dice. Or uneconomical and/or uncompetitive. Or all five. Don't waste your valuable time on these if you're a mainstream buyer.

Some vehicles just don’t pass the relevance test. So, out the door go the Citroen C4 and DS4, plus the boxy brothers (Kia Soul and Toyota Rukus), and the Peugeot 3008 (what were they thinking there?). Renault’s Fluence never really got out of the blocks either. And we’re down to 15. Sounding better, but still way too many to manage at the weekend.

The Renault Megane and the Peugeot 308 have to go to that great parking garage in the sky, as well. I love anything ‘Megane’ - with one simple caveat: the words ‘Renault' and 'Sport’ must must come first. Vanilla Megane (that’s not a real model variant) is just not up there. And the Peugeot 308 is a three-cylinder 1.2 that doesn’t even manage to emit 100kW downhill with a tailwind. The diesel 308 is $4300 more. I’m having real difficulty getting past that. So let’s not.



The Alfa Romeo Guilietta: It’s like having a fling with the boss’s PA, on the boardroom table. Irresistable, but risky. Maybe that’s why it’s irresistable. Guilietta - either in the flesh or the sheetmetal - just doesn’t measure up objectively against the things that really matter, long-term. Although I’m sure it seems quite intense in the moment. 


Volkswagen Golf. Just gorgeous. In that minimalist, Teutonic way. And great to drive. Just sensational. What a pity Volkswagen still hasn’t bothered to get its act together on reliability. There are too many Golf owners with too many problems that too many dealers couldn’t just give a toss about fixing. This is the whole ‘smoke/fire’ scenario, writ large, in Technicolor. Buying a Volkswagen Golf is like playing Russian roulette with reliability - and four of the chambers are loaded. It’s tempting, I know. But don’t do it.


Without doubt the Cruze is worst mainstream small car on Australian roads today. Imagine for a moment a car with every conceivable engineering research and development defect that should have been corrected at the proving ground, but wasn’t. That’s what the Cruze is. We’re almost up to double digits on official Holden Cruze safety recalls - probably get there this year, if history repeats. Incredible. The Cruze is a hand grenade with a loose pin - fire sales haven’t helped, but they’ve burnt plenty of existing owners, and Holden has managed to make the Cruze even uglier for 2015. That’s a real achievement. Cruze is on the fast train to obscurity. Do not buy a ticket and climb aboard.


Honda was a great carmaker in the 1990s - the BMW of the Orient. An engineering juggernaut. A powerhouse. But the Honda of today is just a shadow of its former self: smashed by the global financial crisis and washed up on the rocks after the terrible Tohoku tsunami. Research and development at Honda has stalled, which is why the Civic sedan today has been substantively unchanged since 2006. In human years, that makes the Civic about 90 years old. Civic’s a geriatric. They should throw in a Zimmer-frame keyring to mark its longevity. Brand new and 10 years old at the same time: you don't get that very often. Thankfully.


Also in the automotive nursing home critical care unit - do not resuscitate order in place - the Mitsubishi Lancer. I had hair when this platform was launched. The old Lancer. This year marks the 10th year on sale not just for the current generation Honda Civic but also the Mitsubishi Lancer. If you want a brand new car that’s essentially already a decade old, these are the two for you. How embarrassment. You don’t buy cars the way you buy wine. All other things being equal, the newer car is always better.


Nissan Pulsar is pretty new, refreshingly enough. So that’s good. Except, manuals aren’t all that well sorted out (the engine revs just don’t drop quickly enough after you depress the clutch) and the auto is a CVT. Nothing wrong with CVT - except Nissan is having a horror run with CVT reliability issues elsewhere in its current product inventory, with Pathfinder and Murano in particular, and it’s probably too risky to give the CVT in the Pulsar the benefit of the doubt. Pulsar has also been clubbed repeatedly with the ugly stick. Pulsar’s a ‘don’t bother’. There’s better buying in this market at the same pricepoint.


Last - but not least - in the 'scratch-me' department is the Ford Focus. Frankly, here’s a car with delusions of adequacy. It’s pitched squarely at the Mazda3, but it really doesn’t measure up. I'm talking about key criteria: value, performance, operation and economy.

Focus is made in Thailand, which has had a free-trade agreement in place for donkey’s years, and yet it’s not cheaper than the Mazda3, which is made in Japan. Incredibly, the Focus is priced pretty much line-ball with the Mazda3 - despite its cheaper country of origin.

The Focus powertrain’s simply absolutely not as good as the Mazda's. There are 1.6-litre and 2.0-litre petrol fours in the Focus that are down on power and torque, compared with the Mazda's engines, as well as less fuel efficient than Mazda’s 2.0 and 2.5-litre SKYACTIV petrol fours.

The Focus's power and torque deficit is not the full story here. The 1.6 in the Focus needs to rev to 6300rpm to deliver its peak power. The Mazda's 2.0-litre makes 24 per cent more power at 5 per cent fewer revs (6000) - making it about 30 per cent better to drive hard, and having 26 per cent more peak torque at the same revs makes the Mazda3 2.0-litre seem much stronger in traffic, compared with the Focus 1.6.

There's an even more profound difference in the premium engines between the pair. There's only a 10 per cent difference in peak power between Ford's 2.0 and Mazda's 2.5, with the advantage to Mazda, but the Focus needs to rev to a ridiculous 6600rpm to deliver it. The Mazda manages to pump out its peak power at just 5700rpm (16 per cent fewer revs). Torque delivery is a similar story: Mazda3 2.5 delivers 24 per cent more torque at 3250rpm while the Mazda has to scream all the way to 4450 to deliver its peak torque. Have a guess which one feels tremendously more capable in the mid-rpm range? The Ford engine is in a ridiculous state of tune for a mainstream car. This is supposed to be a car families drive...

The Focus also has a hideous dual-clutch transmission that’s just wrong for normal driving. And sales are in freefall (down 21 per cent in just 12 months) like much of Ford’s inventory at the moment, presumably because buyers aren’t stupid.

So, basically, if you want a car that costs the same as a Mazda3 but is less powerful, less efficient, worse at changing gear in traffic and the same price, your search is over. But I think the rest of us should move on.  


So that leaves us with six very solid mainstream contenders for your cash: Hyundai Elantra and i30, Kia Cerato, Mazda3, Subaru Impreza and Toyota Corolla. In no articular order.


The Toyota Corolla is the smart conservative buy. It’s not sporty. It’s not especially engaging. It blends in. It’s part of the background. It’s comfortable. It’s capable. It does what you tell it, and it never backchats. It’s well adjusted.

Corolla is also the top-selling car in the country. (Narrowly ahead of Mazda3.) So it’s popular, and Toyota knows how to manage its business in the way Ford and Holden apparently don’t - Toyota pitches vehicles to the market that are exactly what the market wants. Corolla is exhibit A. If you want transport, and the car’s essentially not an extension of your ego, Corolla is ideal.  


Subaru Impreza is on this short list because it’s the only one with permanent all-wheel drive. That means all four wheels are doing the driving, all the time. (All the other cars here are front-wheel drive.)

Subaru calls symmetrical ‘Symmetrical All-wheel Drive’ and it’s the foundation upon which they leveraged the brand out of obscurity many years ago. It’s a real asset for dynamic composure on wet bitumen and unsealed roads in particular. Anywhere that’s slippery underfoot, all-wheel drive rocks.

So if you’re concerned about having to negotiate regularly a treacherous bit of road in the wet, perhaps with a baby on board, then Impreza is one car to have a good, hard look at.


Above - Row 1, L-R: Hyundai Elantra, Hyundai i30 SR, Hyundai i30 wagon.
Row2, L-R: Kia Cerato sedan, Kia Cerato hatch, Kia Koup (Cerato coupe).
Row 3, L-R: Kia Cerato Si, Hyundai-Kia 2.0 GDI (direct injection) engine is a cracker, Hyundai-Kia head office in Seoul

Let’s lump the South Koreans all in together - Kia Cerato, Hyundai i30 and Hyundai Elantra. They’re triplets: Tri-zygotic triplets. Kia and Hyundai are owned by the same parent company. It makes good sense economically for that company not to design three different cars that are exactly the same size, so they don’t. The fundamental engineering underpinnings are common to all three. Only styling and specifications sets them apart. And, of course, minor pricing variations. (Many other companies do this. Volkswagen, Audi and Skoda do it too ... just not as reliably.)

Breaking these three down: Elantra is essentially an i30 sedan. The i30 also comes in a very neat wagon. Cerato is available in both flavours of body - sedan and hatch - and it also comes in a pretty neat coupe.

If you love driving, make sure you test drive the Hyundai i30 SR and/or the Kia Cerato Si or SLi - they’re the ones with a very impressive 2.0-litre direct injected petrol four. That’s the pick, engine-wise.

Lesser models in both ranges are pretty much Corolla competitors, and philosophically in the same territory. If the budget is tight, check out the Hyundai i30 SE or the Kia Cerato S Premium.

Versus the Japanese you'll find the South Korean warranty is also very impressive: five years for the Hyundais; seven for the Kia - both with unlimited kilometres. Everything else on the short list: three years’ warranty with 100,000 kilometres. Additionally, the South Koreans generally offer a full-sized alloy spare wheel and tyre whereas the Impreza and Mazda3 have only a space-saver spare. (Corolla's spare is full-sized.)


Last, but certainly not least, the Mazda3 - unarguably the best looking car you’d want to own in this shortlist. Brilliant to drive. Great on technology, but not quite as sharp on value or warranty as the South Koreans. Any Mazda3 with ‘SP25’ in its name - straight SP25, SP25 GT or SP25 Astina - is the pick for anyone who loves driving. The 2.5-litre engine in these models is a serious upgrade on the 2.0-litre in lesser Mazda3s and they’re very refined cars overall. Road noise is a little higher than it needs to be in the Mazda3, but you can still have a  sotto voce conversation at freeway speeds, so it’s hardly excessive. Most hateful thing about Mazda3 is i-Stop - Mazda’s cool-sounding name for shutting the engine down and re-starting it in traffic. Allegedly this saves fuel, but not much, and the tradeoff is: it’s quite unrefined. You can turn it off: press and hold a button under the right front air vent for that … but, hatefully enough, it’s default state, every time you get in the car, is ‘on’. I detest that - but otherwise, I love the Mazda3. And no car is perfect.

So that’s the surgical reduction of the small car segment complete. Down from double D to A - Much easier to handle.