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Not even Toyota, Holden or Kia could save them: Affordable fire-breathing V8 family cars, stylish small wagons, cool cabrios and other quirky niches lost forever as new-car variety nosedives in Australia

It's amazing that – just a few years ago – Australians could buy a Corvette V8-engined Commodore SS for under $45K.

If choice is a luxury, then Australian new-car buyers were rolling in it a decade ago.

Back then, the market was a rich tapestry of bargain-basement babies, sporty little coupes, homegrown limos, myriad mid-sizers, locally-made utes and civilised people movers.

Today, most of these have quietly disappeared, as more and more consumers instead completely embrace SUVs and pick-up trucks, leaving a trail of deserted niches and frustrated buyers with fewer options now than in living memory.

Buckle up, then, as we take a trip back to 2012 (or thereabouts), to find out just how diverse things really aren’t nowadays.

Big V8s, done dirt cheap: EXTINCT

Trigger warning here.

When the VF Commodore was released in early 2013, a desperate Holden hacked away at the preceding VE’s prices, resulting in the cheapest V8 version – the SS – plummeting from nearly $48,000 before on-road costs to $41,990. The ute version came in at a now-barely believable $38,990.

Now, we’re not talking about the wheezy Alloytech V6 but a Chevy-made V8. Both scored a thundering 270kW of power and 530Nm of torque from 6.0 litres driving the rear wheels via a six-speed gearbox, and all for around the price of a Hyundai Tucson Highlander 2.0-litre FWD today.

Meanwhile the opulent Calais V V8 Sportwagon was just $51,190, or $59K adjusted for inflation in 2022. Let that sink in.

Though Ford’s FPV GS with a 315kW/545Nm 5.0-litre supercharged V8 started from $57,870 and $52,990 respectively back then, the big Falcon also offered a V8-matching XR6 Turbo (270kW/533Nm 4.0-litre I6 turbo) from a little over $46,000, highlighting how much value and performance we’ve surrendered since the demise of Australian manufacturing five years ago.

And, remember, because the locals were struggling so hard to sway people away from SUV imports, nobody paid recommended-retail prices back then anyway. And just for good measure, good old Chrysler also pitched in a 300 SRT8 Core with a 347kW/631Nm 6.2-litre Hemi V8 from an entirely reasonable $56,000.

The good old days, eh.

Small wagons: ENDANGERED

So, what did people buy before SUVs?

Plenty of things, actually, including sleekly styled small wagons that could provide both practicality as well as powertrain efficiencies due to their elongated shapes and lightweight engineering. No heavy faux-by-four waste going on here.

Even up towards the end of last decade, Australians were treated to a smorgasbord of chic wagons ­– with most of them from Europe – wearing alluring sub (or circa) $30,000 price tags.

These included the Skoda Fabia, Peugeot 207, Peugeot 308, Hyundai i30 Touring, VW Golf, Opel Astra Sports Tourer, Holden Astra, Ford Focus, Renault Megane, Holden Cruze Sportwagon, Subaru Levorg and Skoda Octavia (until it grew into a medium-sized car in 2015).

But you know how the story goes by now. This motley crew of compact yet commodious wagons could never reach the lofty heights of higher-riding small SUVs, and once the latter started selling in serious numbers from the early 2010s with the arrival of the Mitsubishi ASX, Hyundai iX35 and Holden Trax, Australians dropped them like a hot piece of coal.

Today, only the Golf wagon carries the legacy on, but for how long?

Inexpensive four-seater convertibles: ENDANGERED

In the early ‘80s, VW created the Golf Cabriolet, a convertible version of the famous small hatchback, with four seats and a soft top.

It started a mad trend that spawned countless copycats and lasted well into the 2010s, spurred on by the folding-hardtop ‘CC’ coupe convertible craze that gave drop tops a massive boost in early years of the new millennium.

Even a decade ago, you could still buy CCs such as the Peugeot 207 and 308, Renault Megane and VW Eos, while the evergreen Golf Cabrio, related Audi A3 Cabrio and BMW 1 Series Convertible flew the fabric-roof flag. However, today, all have been outlived by the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500 cabrios, which are probably the closest in size and packaging to that original Golf of the ‘80s.

If you still want to feel the wind in your hair, it’s either them or the fabulous Mazda MX-5 two-seater roadster, and that’s that. Where’s the glamour in cheap motoring gone nowadays?

Small MPV/tall hatchbacks: EXTINCT

If you think cheap four-seater convertibles was a niche too far for hatchbacks, then surely the, err… tallboy boxy hatch-wagons of the 2000s and 2010s were answers looking for questions nobody had ever asked.

Well, maybe from an Australian perspective, but internationally, Renault started something monumental in 1996 when it launched the Megane Scenic in Europe.

SUVs were still finding their feet back then, so the lifestyle promise of a roomier hatch with sliding and/or removable rear seats, endless storage spaces, huge boots and multi-configurable seating positions added a whole new level of versatility. Dubbed mini MPVs in some markets, they sold in huge numbers, and every major European manufacturer created a Scenic rival in quick succession – though often to the detriment of SUV development, as it turned out.

Back in Oz, however, compact SUVs entranced consumers from the moment the pioneering Toyota RAV4 debuted in early 1994, and then went supernova three years later with the release of the Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester. The rest, as they say, is cliché.  

Which means the Scenic and its disciples – including the Holden Zafira, Mazda Premacy, Daewoo Tacuma and Hyundai Elantra La Vita – never stood a chance 20 years ago.

Still, even within the last decade, others tried to ride this flash-in-the-pan phenomenon, as the Citroen C4 Picasso, Kia Rondo, Skoda Roomster, Toyota Rukus and Kia Soul proved.

Such dazzling variety, now all gone. We’re all the poorer for it.