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Top three small hatches

Sometimes a car is genuinely both popular and good.

If we’ve learned nothing else from that pop pest Justin Bieber, it’s that popularity is never a guarantee of greatness. And there are plenty of cars that achieve stunning sales success despite being, well, pretty damn average compared to the competition. 

Conversely, though, there’s no shortage of cars that are loved by the motoring media, but that fail to make any kind of impact on Australia’s sales charts. Most of us reviewing types loved the Fiat Panda, for example, but you were about as likely to see an actual panda crawling along the M5 Motorway as you were to see one of FCA’s super-practical city cars.

Sometimes, though, a car is genuinely both; popular and good. Take the small hatch segment. It can’t be an accident that the three best-scored hatches according to CarsGuide's road-test team are also among the best-selling cars in the segment.

The small car (under $40k) market is massive, shifting more than 134,000 units so far this year across a vast cross-section of more than 25 different models. The lion’s share, though (not including the fleet-friendly Toyota Corolla), belong to our three favourite hatchbacks: the Mazda3 (22,681 sales so far this year), the Hyundai i30 (18,803 sales) and the Volkswagen Golf (11,534 sales). 

These three are, in our opinion, among the very best options for sale at the moment, but each shines for slightly different reasons. So if you’re in the market for a small hatch, then read on as we break down the pros and cons of three of the most popular offerings. 

Mazda3 (CarsGuide rating 7.5/10). From: $20,490

The 2017 Mazda 3. The 2017 Mazda 3.

Pros
Premium Euro-style design
Great value package
Arguably the most dynamic choice

Cons
Lack of Apple CarPlay/Android Auto
Three-year warranty and 10,000km service intervals
Small boot for a hatch impedes practicality

There’s a reason Mazda’s perennially popular small car is almost always found atop the sales charts, and that’s because few offer the same blend of curb appeal and driving dynamics as the Japanese brand’s 3 small hatch.

Perhaps most importantly, it simply looks good. The brand’s Kodo design theme performs its best work on the Mazda3 hatch, with that smiley-face grille, swept-back headlights and thoughtful collection of swoops giving the exterior a sporty, stylish look, while the clean, simple and functional interior is understated and elegant. 

While the engine choices are not exactly cutting edge, the Mazda3’s tried and true formula still works, and the latest update addressed complaints of excessive noise in the cabin, too.

So, downsides. Mazda’s three-year warranty is simply sub-standard now (Hyundai will offer you five years, and Kia offers an industry-best seven years), and 10,000km service intervals could have you visiting a dealership more than once a year, depending on how much you drive. 

It’s also not the most practical hatch in the segment, swallowing 308 litres of luggage with the rear seats in place. That said, its 2700mm wheelbase does mean there’s genuinely room for four adults to ride in something approaching comfort.

Volkswagen Golf 7.5 (CarsGuide rating 8.3/10). From $23,990 drive-away

The 2017 Volkswagen Golf '7.5'. The 2017 Volkswagen Golf '7.5'.

Pros
Sublime ride quality 
Now better value than ever before
European quality you can actually afford

Cons:
Design doesn’t exactly push the boundaries
Diesel engines aren’t particularly quiet 
Petrol engines demand expensive premium fuel

Few subscribe to the “if it ain’t broke” mantra quite so religiously as Volkswagen when it comes to the brand’s Golf hatch

This latest iteration is called the 7.5 (a mid-step between the current Golf 7 and the incoming Golf 8), and, from the outside at least, there’s not much to write home about. Exterior changes include new headlights and a tweaked front guards, but that’s about it. That said, it was handsome before, and those slight changes have done nothing to reverse that view. 

Inside, though, the changes are more significant, headlined by a new 8.0-inch multimedia screen, which gives the already premium-feeling cabin the technology to compete with its rivals. 

If you’re into carrying stuff, the 4.3-metre Golf hatch pips the Mazda with its 380 litres of luggage space swelling to 1270 litres with the 60/40 split rear seats folded flat. And even our lengthy reviewer (at 183cm tall) found interior space ample, even in the back seat.

But it’s on the road where the Golf truly shines, serving up a supple ride quality blended with engaging driving dynamics that easily compete for the title of segment best. There have been complaints about the brand’s DSG transmission in the past (mostly over a tendency to get confused in the lower gears) but any bugs feel ironed out in the Golf 7.5

Downsides? Again, a three-year warranty fails to inspire here, and while service intervals are a healthy 12 months or 15,000kms, VW’s indicative service pricing for the first five years is $2276. The Mazda, by comparison, claims $1539 for the first five services, while Hyundai’s capped-price servicing limits the cost to between $1555 and $1651 for the same period.

Hyundai i30 (CarsGuide rating 8.3/10). From $20,950

2017 Hyundai i30. 2017 Hyundai i30.

Pros:
Better looking than ever before
Well equipped, even from the entry-level car
Sensational warranty and ownership package

Cons:
No longer among the cheapest ways into the segment
Opting for a manual transmission will cost you safety kit
It’ll cost you $2300 for an automatic transmission

Hyundai is taking something of a risk with its all-new i30. While the outgoing car competed not just on its merits, but on some of the sharpest drive-away pricing in the segment, this new one is shooting for a more premium space.  

The weird thing, though, is that this new model is technically cheaper (in most trim levels) than the car it replaces, but removing the drive-away deals means it doesn’t appear that way to the customer. 

Anyway, this third-generation i30 is pretty much the complete package: new Euro-style looks, well-equipped trim levels and a ride that’s been tuned in Australia for our unique (read terrible) road surfaces. 

This new version is 40mm longer, 15mm wider and 20mm taller than the car it replaces, which is good news for cargo space, now the best of our three at 395 litres with the 60/40 rear seats in place, and 1301 litres with them folded flat.

The five-year warranty with capped-price servicing throughout is a game-changer in this segment, too, with ownership costs capped at between $1555 and $1651 for the first five years.

Downsides? Well, there genuinely aren't too many. It’s nowhere near as cheap as it once was (despite what the sticker prices read), and to climb into an automatic-equipped model will be a minimum $23,250 plus on-road costs. And if you do opt for a manual, you miss out on rear air vents, while key safety stuff like AEB also goes missing.

What's you preferred option in the hyper-competitive small hatch segment? Tell us in the comments below.