Australians rated the Mazda3, Toyota HiLux and Toyota Corolla as the best cars in the country through 2012.
These three topped the sales scores at the end of a year when a record number of cars were delivered across the country, competing in a field that runs all the way from the Chery J1 to the Rolls-Royce Phantom.
In total, there are now 360 models from 67 brands fighting for your business. And value has never been better, with record low prices and all sorts of showroom incentives including zero-percent finance deals.
But there are still some surprisingly good cars that flew under the radar and continue to under-achieve despite their obvious strengths. They might be missing a trusted badge, or suffering from a lack or advertising, or running up against a class champion that draws all the action.
So the Carsguide crew has dug below the surface to find the cars that deserve a second look, or better, when you go out shopping in the most competitive new-car showroom in the developed world.
We've focussed on five baby cars and another five family favourites that satisfy under-promise and over-deliver for 2013.
The one-time class champion is finally back, with much better safety and quality than early efforts on the Korean-sourced compact. Sales in 2012 reflected the improvements, with a lift of 50 per cent, as Holden also put more effort into trumpeting the Barina and Spark babies. It's still not selling anywhere near the Toyota Yaris, but it's roomier - even bigger than a Honda Jazz - and better priced. Right now, 2012-plate Barinas are priced at $15,990 drive-away and update transmission software for 2013 means the car drives better than before. The only downside is $550 for metallic paint. Ouch.
Definitely worth a second look, despite a sales dip last year that saw it overtaken by the Barina and a couple of others. The Swift remains a Carsguide favourite with its economical engine (5.5L/100km), Japanese quality, seven airbags and five-star safety. It lists from $15,990 plus on-road costs, typically $2500, but Suzuki is running out its existing stocks at $15,990 drive-away for 2012-plate cars and $16,490 for 2013 models. The only downside? No Bluetooth in base models.
A recent re-style has helped the performance of the i20, even though buyers still preferred the Yaris and Mazda2. It’s now priced at $13,990 drive-away for a 2012-built three-door – with six airbags, five-star safety and Bluetooth phone connectivity. The i20 is mazingly cheap buying when you consider the five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty. Only downside: the standard tyres have below-average grip in the wet.
Only half as many people chose a Micra as a Yaris, but the smallest Nissan is far better than that. It has cutesy looks but it drives so well that it very nearly won an enthusiast car magazine’s Car of the Year award a couple of years ago. The 1.2-litre three-cylinder engine is no ball of fire but it’s super-efficient and if you need more go there is also a 1.5. The best bits are a super-tight turning circle for city work, Bluetooth that really connects and a high-quality sound system - even though it looks drab. The downside is costly servicing and only a four-star safety score.
Carsguide testers have always rated the Jazz highly, particularly with of its clever seating and roomy cabin and boot. But we thought Honda was crazy when they announced the pricing of this model three years ago – asking Toyota Corolla money with stickers closer to $20,000 than the $15,000 price of its classmates. Honda has finally seen the light, dropped the pricing to realistic levels and, shock horror, it’s starting to sell. The downside is still expensive servicing.
The homegrown Aurion V6 only started to gain respect in the back end of 2012, even outselling the Falcon in December for the first time off the back of the family Ford's showroom slide. So buyers might have finally discovered the Aurion’s hidden talents, including a 0-100km/h sprint time that aces the Falcon and Commodore, impressive quality, a big boot and a coveted Toyota badge. The 2012 cars, complete with that superbly refined and powerful V6 engine are being run out from $29,990 drive-away. Unprecedented. Downside is the overtly-styled sports model.
It's easy to get lost in the maze of compact SUVs, which can be the only reason why one of the pioneers is often overlooked. The Grand Vitara is just not trendy, even though Suzuki has added a rear-drive 'urban' model to sharpen the price to $26,990 drive-away. The Navigation edition is $29,990 drive-away with a 2.4-litre engine - where others in this price range have 2.0-litre fours - automatic transmission, alloy wheels, Bluetooth with music streaming, a rear camera and, as the name implies, a navigation unit.
We liked the revised Kia Sorrento so much it made our Car of the Year top-10 shootout. The Korean family wagon is made, well equipped and nice to drive. The five-year warranty is a bonus. So why does it sell at a fraction of the rate of the other seven-seater SUVs? It’s a mystery to us.
A new nose announced the arrival of an updated CX-9 in the final months of 2012. There's still no diesel engine available but it's one of the best and biggest seven-seaters on the road today, even though only 4500 were delivered last year compared with 17,000 Toyota Prados. The V6 petrol engine has plenty of grunt and the CX-9 handles bends with ease. a Rearview camera and six airbags are standard, but wait for prices to come back down to the $46,990 driveaway specials of last year.
A delivery van might seem like an odd choice, but hear us out. The iLoad is a van, but in reality it competes with utes. Our favourite, the four-door, five-seater version, is $10,000 cheaper than the top-line crew cabs. And the “canopy” is, well, built-in. A five-year warranty, diesel frugality and a tight turning circle - for it size - are just some of its strengths. It even gets such mod-cons as Bluetooth. Downsides? Only two airbags and a four-star safety rating at a time when many crew-cab utes now come with six airbags and five-star safety.
This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling