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Good first cars: 10 Best first cars for Australian drivers

Thousands of new and used cars on the market make it confusing and frustrating when searching for your next car. Here's a guide

Think “first car”, think “budget car”. Price is the key to unlock the best choices in vehicles for first-car buyers, but if you’re in this bracket, your second criterium should be safety. Then look at affordability (can I afford to keep it on the road?), size (does it fit in my parking space?), style (do I look good in this?), reliability (am I going to make it home?), and even the enjoyability factor (is this fun to drive and own?). So, there are lots of factors, including if you buy a new vehicle or opt for a late-model car. Let’s look at the differences.

What makes a good first car?

PRICE: You probably have a limited budget. New is attractive and sometimes the extra price can pay for itself in the long run, but used is cheap, so consider the differences:

New: Full price, full-term warranty and the latest model with all the new technology and safety equipment. Plus, it smells as good as a freshly laundered jumper. Here’s an example: The automatic Mazda2 G15 Pure, brand-spanking new with your name on it, is about $25,000 driveaway. It has a five-year warranty, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, revised sound deadening to make it much quieter, a more upmarket dashboard, a prettier grille from the Mazda6, and other niceties.

Used: Discounted price, a portion of new-car warranty and a reasonable inventory of equipment that may not include the latest features such as a reversing camera, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and the high-safety item, autonomous emergency braking (AEB). An automatic 2018 Mazda2 Neo (equivalent to the latest G15 Pure) sells on the used market for about $18,500 - incidentally about the same as it was when new. From August 2018, it came with AEB, a five-star ANCAP safety rating and rear parking sensors but no reversing camera, touchscreen or smartphone mirroring. However, from August 2018, it had a five-year warranty (previously three years), which means today it would still be covered for another three years. 

Opting for a used car, instead of a new one has benefits. In this case, buy the used Mazda 2 instead of the new one and you’ll have to live with less bling but will have $6500 more in your pocket.  

Opting for a used car, instead of a new one has benefits. Opting for a used car, instead of a new one has benefits.

SIZE AND BODY TYPE: Buying new means there’s probably more choices in the SUV segment. It’s also a segment that new-vehicle buyers prefer, hence the fact they outsell the more traditional hatchbacks and sedans. Buyers are less inclined to want a sports car (or a two-door car) purely because they lack practical features and may be inconvenient when sharing a ride with friends. While the SUV shape screams “mummy”, the brand and price range and the high-ride stance are attractive benefits. But it is a personal choice. Don’t discount sedans and hatchbacks. Sedans are neat, look stylish, are easy to use - four doors and a separate boot for security - while hatchbacks have many of the cabin space, comfort and ease of occupant entry and egress of the sedan but a more flexible, although smaller, cargo area. 

SAFETY: Vehicles are crash rated and buyers shouldn’t consider anything below the maximum five-star rating. Backdated ratings are available for used cars through ANCAP and should also be used as a guide for buying a second-hand vehicle. Late-model used cars should have stability control, a minimum of four airbags, a reversing camera, rear parking sensors and even the basics like low-wear, quality tyres. New cars get autonomous emergency braking (AEB, but some brands use other acronyms), which automatically brakes the vehicle when it senses an imminent collision with another vehicle or pedestrian. Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are also brilliant at minimising an accident.

RELIABILITY: Basically, all new cars are considerably more reliable today compared with 30 or more years ago. There are also binding warranties with carmakers to allow the car to be fixed at the maker’s cost, supported by Australian legislation. Look for a new car with a long warranty. It may not be a dealmaker, but it could be important to give confidence about the purchase and also ensue the resale value - if you sell before the warranty period expires - remains strong. Some long warranties demand the vehicle be serviced by a dealer, which may not suit some buyers seeking a budget ownership experience. Used cars can be a pickle. Some carmakers offer used cars from dealerships with a factory warranty, which can be worth looking at, despite the cost being higher. European brands are generally more expensive to repair, and parts can be difficult to obtain. Japanese and Korean brands are regarded as the best for reliability.

FEATURES: What’s in the vehicle can be very personal and depends on your priorities. Aside from safety items, the convenience basics could be satellite navigation (very handy in all situations), hands-free Bluetooth connectivity for the phone, automatic headlights and wipers (another two things you don’t have to think about), tilt and telescopic steering adjustment, heated mirrors and a great audio system that could and should include digital radio and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Some people may opt for a leather interior for looks and ease of cleaning, but these require care and maintenance and new-age plastic materials are just as good without any need for upkeep. Cloth seats are always on base models yet tend to be warmer in winter and cooler in summer than other materials, but if you have children, they are harder to clean. Large wheels with low-profile tyres look great and improve handling at higher speeds but the tyres cost more and generally have higher wear than less sporty versions. Window tinting is useful in harsher climates, but most cars have low-UV glass.

OWNERSHIP COSTS: For new vehicles, brands offering long warranties usually have excellent capped-price service programs that announce the service pricing through a set period, say five years. This is ideal for buyers on a budget who can plan their annual motoring costs. Brands that have 12-month service intervals are better (six-month intervals mean you’re visiting the dealer twice as often, sometimes at twice the price), and those with roadside assistance should be preferred. Be aware that though a brand has a long warranty and service program, it doesn’t necessarily have a long roadside assistance period. Check first. Buying a car at 'driveaway' prices can save $2500-$4000 and makes for an attractive incentive. Fuel consumption and insurance are the other main costs, so check out how much fuel the desired vehicle uses (there’s a yellow sticker on new car windscreens in the showroom). Used cars can be researched online. The attraction of the low fuel consumption of a diesel should be balanced with the expected mileage of the vehicle and consider the often extra cost of diesel fuel over petrol. Diesels are usually dependable and have less parts than a petrol engine, but high-pressure injection systems in newer diesels can be sensitive and parts are expensive to replace.   

1. Mazda3

All new for its fourth generation, the Mazda3 continues to redefine what a mainstream small car is. All new for its fourth generation, the Mazda3 continues to redefine what a mainstream small car is.

The go-to car for many people as a new or used purchase. Outside of Japan, Australia is Mazda’s nirvana with a giant market share based on style, economy and a strong corporate image. Available as a sedan or hatch for the same money. Priced from $25,590 plus on-road costs.

Pros: Pretty, impressive build quality, high safety kit and good convenience features (mid to upper-spec grades), economical, smooth and quiet drive

Cons: More expensive than other Japanese and Korean makes, pay more to get features

USED (three years): Pay $21,000 for a low-spec hatch with 30,000km. Warranty expires after three years but for 2018 and onwards, there is a five-year warranty.

2. Toyota RAV4

The RAV4 is currently selling like hotcakes. The RAV4 is currently selling like hotcakes.

The go-to SUV for years rarely disappoints, though value for money is not as strong as many rivals. Heaps of drivetrain and feature options, including the lauded hybrid versions, with good interior space and comfort. Priced from $32,695 plus on-road costs.

Pros: High demand new and used, functional cabin, hybrid option

Cons: Weak value for money

USED (three years): Pay $30,000 for a low-spec model with 25,000km. Warranty is three years' long.

3. Kia Seltos

The Seltos looks great and has plenty of room for the family. The Seltos looks great and has plenty of room for the family.

Surprisingly upmarket SUV from Kia with a comfortable and quiet ride, lots of top-end features, the option of a turbo engine and all-wheel drive. Looks great and has plenty of room for the family or for leisure activities. Priced from $25,990 plus on-road costs.

Pros: Long seven-year warranty, low ownership costs, comfortable ride, great features

Cons: Expensive, likely to have a wait list, mid-spec models the best

USED (two years): Pay $31,000 for a low-spec model with 5000km. The Seltos was only launched last year. Has a seven-year warranty.

4. Hyundai Venue

The Venue replaces the Accent as Hyundai's entry-level model. The Venue replaces the Accent as Hyundai's entry-level model.

The new baby for Hyundai looks too small and too vulnerable to be a player here, but it’s a great package with plenty of appeal for a couple, drives very well, is easy on fuel and can haul a surprising amount of luggage despite its exterior dimensions. Good features, too! Priced from $20,190 plus on-road costs.

Pros: Nice drive, cheap to own, good features

Cons: Too small for some buyers

USED (two years): Pay $23,000 for a mid-spec version with 5000km. Five-year warranty.

5. Kia Cerato

You might think SUV is the only way, but the Kia Cerato hatch disagrees. You might think SUV is the only way, but the Kia Cerato hatch disagrees.

Excellent ownership statistics with seven years of warranty, roadside assistance and capped-price servicing. The Cerato impresses with good road manners, comfort and features. Build quality is better than some Europeans. Hatch and sedan. Priced from $21,490 plus on-road costs.

Pros: Price, long warranty, low ownership costs, comfort, practicality

Cons: Average fuel economy, average engine performance.

USED (three years): Pay $18,000 for a low-spec car with 45,000km. Still under its seven-year warranty.

6. Toyota Camry Hybrid

The latest Toyota Camry is great for families with a full suite of safety kit and low running costs. The latest Toyota Camry is great for families with a full suite of safety kit and low running costs.

All the space and reliability of a Camry with a hybrid powertrain that will return as low as 4.0 litres per 100km, less than half that of the sedan's petrol version. Hybrids use a petrol engine and an electric motor, either powering the car together or separately. City and suburban driving favours the hybrid. Great comfort, good features and about the same service costs as a petrol Camry. Priced from $31,790 plus on-road costs.

Pros: Low ownership costs, spacious, quiet, comfortable

Cons: Prefers servicing at a Toyota dealer

USED (three years): Pay $25,000 for a low-spec model with 50,000km. Three-year warranty, but battery warranty is eight years.

7. Hyundai i30

The i30 has a reputation for reliability and low ownership cost. The i30 has a reputation for reliability and low ownership cost.

Almost as popular on the roads as the Mazda3. Has a well-deserved reputation for reliability and low ownership cost from new thanks to five-year warranty and a cheap service program. It’s also a no-brainer for ease of ownership. Hatch and sedan. Priced from $23,420 plus on-road costs.

Pros: Low ownership costs, good build quality, great features, quiet and easy to drive

Cons: Average fuel consumption and engine performance

USED (three years): Pay $20,000 for a low-spec car with 20,000km. Warranty lasts five years.

8. Toyota Corolla

The Corolla is the go-to car for most motorists. The Corolla is the go-to car for most motorists.

The go-to car for motorists right through from P-platers or young drivers that just got their driver's license to retirees buying their last car. Recently hit by more stylish offerings from Mazda and long-warranty lures from Hyundai and Kia. Most sales are to fleets and rental companies which indicate these are very reliable and suit a range of purposes. Hatch and sedan. Priced from $23,335 plus on-road costs.

Pros: Cheap to own and maintain, very reliable, good features

Cons: Average fuel economy and performance, basic cabin, conservative styling

USED (three years): Pay $18,000 for a low-spec car with 45,000km. Warranty expires after three years.

9. Mazda CX-30

The Mazda CX-30 is an eye-catching piece of automotive styling. The Mazda CX-30 is an eye-catching piece of automotive styling.

Name links it to the smaller CX-3 SUV, but this one sits under the CX-5 and is based on the latest Mazda3, so it gets great roadholding, sweet engines and lots of high-tech features. Styling is chic, and it looks like it cost thousands of dollars more, especially in the Soul Red colour. Priced from $28,990 plus on-road costs.

Pros: Looks great, drives beautifully, heaps of features

Cons: Not cheap, AWD version unnecessary

USED (two years): Pay $31,000 for a low-spec version with 5000km. Mazda has a five-year warranty.

10. Honda CR-V

The CR-V drives well and has heaps of cabin room. The CR-V drives well and has heaps of cabin room.

Once at the top of the SUV list but has more recently slipped under stiff competition. Well-made, excellent engineering and a name for reliability. Drives well, if a bit underwhelming, but has heaps of cabin room and appreciated family friendly touches. Priced from $30,490 plus on-road costs.

Pros: Reliability, quality, features

Cons: Uninspiring performance, above-average ownership costs

USED (three years): Pay $25,000 for a mid-spec version with 30,000km. Five-year warranty.  

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