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Best new small cars

Australia's favourite car in 2011 was the Mazda3.  The Japanese compact also topped the small-car class despite a solid challenge from the Toyota Corolla and opposition from more than 20 other babies.

But does that make it the best small car in Australia today? There is only one way to find out, which is why we have the Mazda3 lined up against its toughest showroom rivals for the first in a series of Carsguide title fights.

Picking the top four for this punch-up is - relatively - easy. We might like the idea of an Alfa Romeo, or the patriotism of a Holden Cruze, or the space in a Mitsubishi Lancer, but we would not recommend one of those to our best friend.

And, apart from personal preferences and bias, that's what car choice really comes down to. Which car would you choose to drive away if it was your life and your money?

The Mazda3 is an automatic choice since it's the reigning champion, and the Toyota Corolla gets an automatic spot as the number one contender. We also have to take the Volkswagen Golf because it's the best car in the small-car class - if not the best value - and the final spot goes to the Ford Focus because it's the sweetest drive and was a finalist in last year's Carsguide Car of the Year award.


You can spend just over $20,000 to put a quality small car on the road, but it's easy to go much higher with high-performance models such as the $39,490 Mazda3 MPS and $52,490 Golf R. So we settled in the midrange, where most private buyers spend their own cash, with four fighters with prices covered by only $2000. The Corolla Levin ZR comes in at $29,990 and the Golf 118TSI Comfortline is $31,990.

All come with a host of creature features that just five years ago were standard only in luxury cars. Apart from being the cheapest, the popular Corolla is also a valued asset because it is easier to sell at trade-in and is the only one here with the security of capped-price service costs. It also doesn't scrimp on features with a totally keyless entry and start system that detects when you approach the car and automatically unlocks, Bluetooth, an MP3 compatible CD player, front fog lights, cruise control, moonroof, rain-sensing wipers, auto-on HID headlights and climate control airconditioning.

Our Mazda comes with much the same gear, but this luxury version adds $3000 to the $27,990 price for Bi-Xenon headlamps, a sliding centre armrest console, leather seat trim and a 10-speaker Bose 242-watt sound system. The Focus Sport includes a spoiler, sports seats, auto wipers, Sony sound, leather steering wheel, dual-zone airconditioning and, since December, satnav as standard.

The Golf is the only one here with daytime running lights. It also has an optional park assist system at $1400 and rearview camera at $500.


The newest engine here is the Mazda Skyactiv-G 2.0-litre with an auto stop-start system called i-stop. It's not the most powerful unit at 113 kiloWatts, well down on the 125kW Focus However, Mazda's engine is married to a new Skyactiv six-speed transmission which is not only silky smooth but, together with the i-stop function, helps the vehicle achieve the best fuel figures of 6.1-6.2L/100km.

It is marginally lighter on fuel than the VW which has the smallest 1.4 engine, but boosted to 118kW with a turbo. It manages 6.2L/100km due also to the transmission, a seven-speed DSG auto. Toyota's ageing 1.8-litre engine is the weakest with only 100kW and is relatively thirsty at 7.3L/100km because it only has a four-speed auto.

On the electronics side, the Mazda and Ford have voice recognition and satnav, although the high-mounted screen in the Mazda is almost impossible to see in direct sunlight or for anyone over 50. On the low-tech side, the Corolla is the only vehicle with a full-size spare.


Carsguide takes safety seriously and all four cars have a five-star ANCAP rating. The Toyota and VW lead the pack with seven airbags, adding knee protection for the driver, while the Mazda and Ford have six airbags each. All have parking sensors to avoid carpark bingles, but the Focus and Golf have an optional self-parking feature which is a real show-stopper.



Jumping back into the cars is a reminder that small-car buyers have never had better choices than they do today. All four of the so-called babies have plenty of space, good performance and the sort of equipment that used to make time in a Mercedes-Benz special. But there are significant differences.

Looking first at the champion, the Mazda's cabin feels surprisingly cramped and dark, there is lots of noise from the tyres, and there is also bumping and thumping on poor surfaces. The Focus is a nicely sporty drive, but the cabin controls are complicated and confusing and it doesn't seem all that big.

The Corolla has the roomiest feel and update work last year has made the cabin a nice place, while the suspension is great. It's just a pity about the four-speed gearbox. And the Golf? We expected to drive best and it goes, but the cabin is dark and not particularly inviting, and the DSG gearbox - once a first choice with Carsguide testers - now has us worried. We get lots of owner complaints and poor feedback, and that's not good.


No drum roll, no fanfare, just the bottom line: it's the Toyota Corolla. The world's favourite small car is my choice - back at the top again, after a long run down the field - as the best small car in showrooms today.

The Mazda3 is still the people's choice, and consistently Australia's favourite, while the Volkswagen Golf is the class of the field and the Ford Focus is the most fun. But picking a winner in a very tight contest means I have no friends and must consider everything.

The Golf is quality but you pay the price, the cabin is like a cave, and I cannot help wondering and worrying - after a string of owner questions and complaints - about the DSG transmission. It's a lovely car, and one I love to drive, but I could not buy one. 

The Mazda3 is, plain and simple, showing its age. The cabin is cheap, there is too much road noise and suspension thump, the engine is nothing special, and - even though it's a little thing - the satnav screen is tiny. It's nice, but not as good as I remembered. And the Focus, a COTY contender last year? The thing it does best, corners, is the one thing most Australians don't care about. It's a good car, but not a great car. And the messy dashboard and confusing switches drive me batty.

In a field of four, the Corolla is ordinary but extraordinary. It sneaks up on you with surprising strengths that reflect a deep and long-term understanding of the real needs of small-car buyers. It's only got a four-speed automatic, but that is easily offset by capped-price servicing through the warranty period. The Corolla is the car I would be happiest to drive away and own, and that makes it my winner.

Paul Gover Rating

1. Toyota Corolla
2. Volkswagen Golf
3. Mazda3
4. Ford Focus

Toyota Corolla Levin ZR


Price: $29,990
Warranty: 3 years, 100,000km
Service: capped-price for 3 years or 60,000km
Safety: 5-star ANCAP, 7 airbags, stability and traction control, ABS, EBD and BA
Engine: 1.8L 4-cylinder 100kW/175Nm
Body: 5-door, 5-seater hatch
Dimensions: 4245mm (L), 1760mm (W), 1515mm (H), 2600mm (WB)
Weight: 1280kg
Transmission: 4-speed auto, FWD
Economy: 7.3L/100km

VW Golf 118 TSI Comfortline

imagePrice: $31,990
Warratny: 3 years, unlimited km
Service: 15,000km
Safety: 5-star ANCAP, 7 airbags, stability and traction control, ABS, EBD, BA and hill start
Engine: 1.4L, turbo 4-cylinder, 118kW/240Nm
Body: 5-door, 5-seater hatch
Dimensions: 4199mm (L), 1785mm (W), 1479mm (H), 2574mm (WB)
Weight: 1330kg
Transmission: 7-speed auto DSG, FWD
Economy: 6.2L/100km, 144g/km

Mazda3 SP20 Skyactiv luxury
imagePrice: $30,990
Warranty: 3 years / unlimited kms
Service: 6mths/10,000km
Safety: 5-star ANCAP, 6 airbags, stability and traction control, ABS, EBD and BA
Engine: 2-litre 4-cylinder, 113kW/194Nm
Body: 5-door hatch
Dimensions: 4460mm (L), 1755mm (W), 1470mm (H), 2640mm (WB)
Weight: 1346kg
Transmission: 6-speed Skyactiv auto, FWD
Economy: 6.1-6.2L/100km


Ford Focus Sport
imagePrice: $30,190
Warranty: 3 years, 100,000km
Service: 15,000km/annual
Safety: 5-star ANCAP, 6 airbags, stability and traction control, hill launch, ABS, EBD and BA
Engine: 2.0L 4-cylinder, 125kW/202Nm
Body: 5-door, 5-seater hatch
Dimensions: 4538-4362mm (L), 2010mm (W), 1451-1484mm (H), 2648mm (WB)
Weight: 1900kg
Transmission: 6-speed auto, FWD
Economy: 6.6L/100km, 154g/km

Pricing Guides

Based on 315 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
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Range and Specs

Ascent 1.8L, ULP, CVT AUTO $7,000 – 15,990 2012 Toyota Corolla 2012 Ascent Pricing and Specs
Ascent Sport 1.8L, ULP, 6 SP MAN $6,990 – 13,995 2012 Toyota Corolla 2012 Ascent Sport Pricing and Specs
Conquest 1.8L, ULP, 6 SP MAN $10,789 – 15,157 2012 Toyota Corolla 2012 Conquest Pricing and Specs
Levin SX 1.8L, ULP, 6 SP MAN $10,990 – 15,990 2012 Toyota Corolla 2012 Levin SX Pricing and Specs