Family car once meant locally-built large car, however, the Australian market has evolved and fragmented, and now the prime picks come from a variety of classes and countries of origin.
Small refers to the size of the most-popular sellers, not their market share. The Toyota Corolla and Mazda3 now battle for the outright sales top spot. The Corolla is a good buy; the Mazda is great to own, and our pick of the pair.
The 3 is the only Japanese car in our recommendations, which reflects the diverse state of the Oz market. In terms of their brands, our other recommendations are Korean – the Hyundai i30 – and European: the Volkswagen Golf, Skoda Octavia and Ford Focus.
Mazda could have left well enough alone while developing its new small car – its 3 sedan and hatch were already best-sellers.
But instead, in the new model, which arrived for 2014, Mazda addressed the small flaws of its predecessor to deliver a cracking third-generation 3.
Uncompetitive fuel consumption was a shortcoming across much of the range. With a suite of efficiency-enhancing technologies Mazda calls SKYACTIV, the 3 now has the official figures – and real-world capability – to challenge rivals.
Take the 114kW 2.0-litre four-cylinder standard in the Base Neo and mid-spec Maxx and Touring, which boasts an official figure of 5.7-5.9L/100km, depending on the variant and transmission.
The more powerful 138kW 2.5-litre four in the SP25 and SP25 GT is thrifty too, with 6.0-6.5L/100km combined-cycle consumption.
Road noise has been a Mazda bugbear for many years, but the new 3 goes a long way to banishing excessive tyre roar. It’s still no Golf, but the Mazda is much quieter than it was before.
A stylish sedan and practical hatch are offered, starting at $20,490 for a base Neo manual.
In a fine display of egalitarianism, Volkswagen’s Golf is no less great in affordable, 90TSI form than it is in mid-spec 110TDI diesel form or as the flagship Golf R.
In fact, the base model could just be the pick of the line-up.
Better than most, the turbo small-capacity four delivers on its combined-cycle fuel consumption promise – a miserly 5.4L/100km is the official figure in seven-speed dual-clutch automatic form.
Great engines contribute to the brilliance of the package, but the Golf’s biggest strengths are its terrifically judged blend of ride quality and handling and refined, beautifully built cabin.
Not just classy and quiet, it’s roomily well packaged, including in the back, where there’s good head and leg room and a capacious 380-litre hatched-back boot.
Little in the class goes close to the small VW in terms of real-world comfort and efficiency and, as a result, all-round appeal.
You can outlay $30K, $40K or more than $50K on a Golf (the flagship R), but to experience a Golf’s greatness you only really need to spend $21,490.
Skoda’s Octavia could be considered a larger liftback/wagon version of the Golf because the Czech car borrows its platform and mechanicals from VW’s small car.
However, the Octavia has unique selling points, such as its stately styling, acres of interior and cargo space (especially in the wagon) and the fact there are a lot less of them on the road than there are Golfs.
In the Volkswagen Group hierarchy of interior ambience and quality, Skoda can’t touch a Golf, let alone an Audi A3, but the Octavia offers a comfortable cabin chock with surprise and delight that tops most Japanese offerings.
Engine-wise, the base $21,690 Octavia Ambition gets the up-specced 103kW, 250Nm 1.4-litre turbo four cylinder found in the Golf 103TSI, for a pricetag just $200 more than a Golf 90TSI – value is perhaps the overriding Skoda selling point.
The resale value won’t be as good as a Golf, which might make an Octavia a smarter buy used than new. Either way, you’ll have to explain that your car is no oddball but, rather, an Eastern European version of a class-leading small car.
If fabulous steering and handling are high on your list of small car wants, Ford’s Focus could be for you.
Volkwagen’s all-conquering Golf might be the all-rounder, while Toyota’s Corolla and Mazda’s 3 are the best-sellers.
But nothing steers like a Focus, and few small cars possess the fluency and balance of its chassis.
It’s worth noting, though, that the Focus (which arrived in 2011) is showing its age.
The Blue Oval’s small sedan/hatch had some decidedly old-school features even when it was new, such as the five-speed manual transmission and the underpowered 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine found in entry-level variants.
Clearly, not all Focuses are created equal, so it pays to pick the right spec.
The 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, which is introduced in the $22,290 Trend manual hatch, is vastly preferable to the base 1.6, though the 2.0-litre turbo-diesel is the only genuinely potent engine south of the flagship ST. Equally, the slick six-speed dual-clutch auto is the pick over the manual.
By all means, buy a Focus now if you spot an enticing deal. But otherwise it’s probably worth holding out for the refreshed 2015 model.
One of the Hyundai i30’s aces is that you can get a turbo-diesel in great-value entry-level Active trim for just $23,590.
There’s also a Touring wagon, which is a body variant offered by few rivals.
And in terms of styling and finish, Korean cars have come far, and the i30 is a prime example.
But how does the i30 drive?
Though the turbo-diesel is thrifty, with an official combined cycle figure of 4.5L/100km, it’s not the most refined small oiler, while the 110KW 1.8- and 129kW 2.0-litre petrol engines, while offering competitive outputs, are no more or less than decent.
The i30 is a comfortable, agreeable drive, but it’s not quite in the league of terrific steers such as the Focus, or fine handlers such as the Mazda3 and Volkswagen Golf. Despite its push-button steering modes, the Hyundai’s electric steering falls short of best-in-class while the dynamics are a fraction rough around the edges.
Some the i30’s value dissipates at the top end of the range. They’re well equipped, but the Premium and Elite variants cost more than $30K.
But at the value-packed bottom end of the range the i30, with its enviable reliability reputation and five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, makes a compelling case to buy Korean.
This article originally appeared on Motoring.com.au. All images via Motoring.com.au.