The humble hatchback has come a long way in recent years, and Aussie buyers still love their small five-door models.
We’ve assembled a couple of big names, which just also happen to be the big sellers, in order to find out which is the best small hatchback you can buy. For this test, we set ourselves a price point of about $25,000, with all three models being petrol-powered and automatic.
Leading the design pack is the Toyota Corolla. It matches sharp edges with shapely curves, and looks decidedly more modern than its rivals. It looks almost European.
The Corolla doesn’t appear to be an ‘affordable’ hatch - particularly in this colour, and on that point, it had visibly better paint than the Hyundai and Mazda.
The Corolla doesn’t appear to be an ‘affordable’ hatch - particularly in this colour.
The Corolla matches sharp edges with shapely curves, and looks decidedly more modern than its rivals.
It doesn’t have a body kit, but the front bumper is low and almost gives the illusion of a front spoiler.
The Corolla’s alloys aren’t extravagant, but it’s a really interesting design.
Admittedly, the Corolla’s alloys aren’t extravagant, but it’s a really interesting design in lots of other ways. While it doesn’t have a body kit and there are no side skirts on this spec, the front bumper is low, and almost gives the illusion of a front spoiler. At the back there is a small rear spoiler, and the gloss black plastic rear diffuser section of the bumper helps hunker it down to the tarmac.
The Hyundai i30 is inoffensive to look at, but in this company its exterior styling is somewhat sedate. The wheel design doesn’t help in that regard, and nor did the colour we had. It’s not unattractive whatsoever, and the cascading grille treatment and its catlike headlights give it some road presence, plus its LED daytime running lights help ground it.
The Mazda3 has been a big seller, largely because of its attractive styling.
Admittedly, the Mazda 3 is starting to look a touch mature.
While the Kodo design is ageing well, perhaps the fact you see so many of these cars has meant it’s easy to take the looks for granted.
The Mazda 3's wheels are a good design.
While the Mazda3 has been a big seller largely because of its attractive styling, it is starting to look a touch mature. It doesn’t have LED DRLs, for instance, and while the Kodo design treatment is undoubtedly ageing well, perhaps the fact you see so many of these cars has meant that it’s easy to take the looks for granted.
The simple front bumper and squinty headlights might be to your taste, and that’s fine.
The Hyundai i30 is inoffensive to look at.
In this company, the Hyundai's exterior styling is somewhat sedate.
It’s not unattractive, however; there are some measures to give it some road presence.
The i30's wheel design doesn’t help with the rest of the car's sedate styling.
It was unanimous from our testing team: the much newer Corolla out-looked the rest, and was our pick for its exterior design.
The dimensions of these three models are pretty close.
The Hyundai i30 is the shortest car here from nose to tail (4340mm, on a 2650mm wheelbase), but the tallest from the ground to the turret (1455mm) and equal widest (1795mm).
The Toyota is second longest (4375mm, on a 2640mm wheelbase) but its size is slim between the mirrors (1790mm) and lowest (1435mm).
The Mazda is comparatively big: it has a length of 4470mm (2700mm wheelbase) and 1795mm wide, with a height of 1450mm.
The Corolla’s alloys aren’t extravagant, but it’s a really interesting design.
The Mazda 3's wheels are a good design.
The i30's wheel design doesn’t help with the rest of the car's sedate styling.
How do those figures relate to interior dimensions? No model here has leather seats, but the Hyundai and Mazda both have leather-trimmed steering wheels and gear selectors - the Toyota’s tiller and shifter are plastic-covered.
So can the Corolla’s cabin win us over, too? See the interior section below to find out.
The Hyundai is the plainest in terms of its cabin design - but it’s also the most practical.
There is more loose-item storage throughout the cabin of the i30 than the others offer, and while it doesn’t have the greatest appeal in terms of aesthetics, there are no gripes with the usability of the space.
Much like the exterior, the interior of the Hyundai is inoffensive, but it’s also bland as far as presentation goes. The Hyundai’s tablet-style screen wins the infotainment challenge, because it has the latest smartphone integration and is the quickest to load.
The interior of the Hyundai is inoffensive, but its tablet-style screen wins the infotainment challenge.
The Mazda3 steps things up for cockpit style - it’s classy, but not as contemporary today as it was when this generation model launched back in 2013. Items like push-button start, dual-zone climate control and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror are all nice, and the materials are mostly good, too. The screen looks smaller than Mazda’s claim of it being a 7.0-inch unit, but that could be an illusion because it’s tucked into the dash a little more.
The Mazda3 is the only one with a rotary dial to control the screen (which can also be operated by touch at a standstill), which is super handy - even if the system can be slow to load, and a bit glitchy.
The 3 is classy, but not as contemporary today as it was when this generation model launched back in 2013.
The Corolla’s interior is a real ‘wow’ moment. When you sit inside, you feel as though you’re in something more expensive than its rivals - and that’s in spite of the fact this car doesn’t have a leather-lined steering wheel, while the others do.
The dash is eye-catching - but one of the most impressive elements of the new Corolla is its seats: they’re comfortable and offer the best support here.
When you sit inside the Corolla, you feel as though you’re in something more expensive.
The Toyota’s media system can be sluggish between screens, too, and it won’t let you use input destinations or connect to Bluetooth while you’re moving - which is annoying, because your passenger (if you have one) could do that, and the other cars in this test trust you, the driver, to make your own decisions. At least its huge looking screen is more impressive than its competitors, and its reversing camera display is the clearest, too.
Storage for all three models is decent up front, with bottle holders in the doors and cup holders between the seats. The Mazda scores a nice roller cover for its cup stowage, but lacks a few of the smart options of the others. The Hyundai’s door pockets are the biggest, if that matters to you.
Now, what about the back seats? All three have central arm rests with cupholders, and there are bottle holders in all of their doors (the Hyundai’s fit more than just bottles) and only the i30 has dual map pockets.
The Hyundai has the least legroom, but decent headroom.
The Mazda’s back seat is marginally the most comfortable for three adults across, but it offers decent room in the back.
The Corolla's small door openings make me think this is more of a couple’s car than a real family hatch.
As for human space, I’m six feet tall, or 182cm in the new money, and the driver’s seat was set for me in each of these cars.
The Hyundai has the least legroom, but decent headroom and it’s the only one with rear-seat air vents - a great bonus on hot or cold days. It’s only because our car has the safety pack, though - more on that soon.
The Mazda’s back seat is marginally the most comfortable for three adults across (none of them are genuinely comfortable in that configuration!) but it offers decent room in the back. Sadly, the seat recline is a bit too sloped, the seat base is pretty short, and the transmission tunnel intrudes a lot. That said, overall it has the best back-seat comfort.
The leg and toe room in the Toyota is the best here, but headroom is really tight, with the dark headlining and oversculpted ceiling making it feel a bit claustrophobic. A light headliner would change this massively, but Toyota doesn’t currently offer that on any grade of Corolla hatch. Plus it’s small door openings make me think this is more of a couple’s car than a real family hatch.
As for boot-space dimensions and luggage capacity? That’s where the Toyota really drops its bundle.
You can check out our loaded-up photos to see for yourself - we attempted to put our three suitcases and the CarsGuide pram in the back of each of these hatches and the pictures tell the story.
The Corolla's high boot floor eats into the cargo area, to the point that the boot space is shallower than a lot of micro cars.
The 3 has a still-small-for-the-class 308L cargo capacity, but the pram was an easier fit.
The i30's boot floor is a lot lower, making for a deep cavernous space. It literally swallowed the pram.
The boot size of the Corolla Ascent Sport model is tiny, at just 217 litres - its high boot floor eats into the cargo area, to the point that the boot space is shallower than a lot of micro cars. In the Corolla we only managed to slot two suitcases, where the other two managed all three. The pram fit in, but you’d probably struggle to fit all the other stuff kids need.
Hey, you could always fit some roof racks/roof rails and a cargo box if the storage space isn’t big enough for you. That’d look really cool, actually… But we can understand why the size of the boot could be a barrier to some buyers, but I genuinely think the Corolla is aimed more at couples than families (there’s a Camry or RAV4 if you fall into the latter category).
The Toyota and Hyundai both get full-size alloy spares, but the Mazda makes do with a space-saver.
The Mazda 3 has a still-small-for-the-class 308L cargo capacity, but fit all three bags in (just), and the pram was an easier fit, too. But the 3’s cargo liner - the bit that covers the spare wheel - is really flimsy. Rather than being made of wood/particle board or heavy-duty hard plastic, it’s made of a corrugated plastic.
The Hyundai i30 has the biggest boot of these three with a massive 395L of cargo room. The boot floor is a lot lower, making for a deep cavernous space. It literally swallowed the pram, and did the same with all three suitcases with a lot of room to spare.
The crux of this comparison is price, and this segment is particularly sensitive to it: so how much does each of these models cost? Here’s the price list - and remember, these are before on-road costs (RRP) - you will find drive-away prices if you shop around.
Our Hyundai had the SmartSense safety pack fitted, pushing its price up by $1750, to $25,140. And our Toyota stepped over the threshold with its optional $1000 sat nav and privacy-glass pack (making for a $25,370 list price).
As for where each of these models fits into the range, both the Hyundai and Mazda are the second levels up vs the Toyota, which is the entry point.
Full details can be found in the safety section below, but each comes with reversing camera, although the Toyota alone misses out on standard-fit rear parking sensors. In terms of more advanced tech, the regular i30 Active doesn’t get AEB where the other two do as standard, and the Toyota and Hyundai both have electric power steering, meaning they can run lane-assist technology (as part of the Hyundai safety pack), but Mazda doesn’t. We’ll go into deeper detail below.
Let’s do a bit of a model comparison in terms of what you get as standard features.
Touchscreen sizes vary from the 7.0-inch system used in the Mazda and Hyundai to the 8.0-inch unit in the Toyota (pictured).
Only one has LED headlights: it’s the Corolla, and not only are they better than the competitors, they’re also auto-high beam lamps. You get LED daytime running lights on the i30, but the headlights are halogen lamps. There are no DRLs for the Mazda3 in this spec, and it gets halogens, too. If you’re a country driver you might want to consider a light bar, as the halogens are pretty dull in both instances.
If you prefer proper satellite navigation over a maps app, there’s a GPS navigation system fitted to the Mazda (pictured) and Hyundai.
If you prefer proper satellite navigation over a maps app, there’s a GPS navigation system fitted to the Mazda and Hyundai, but its optional in the Toyota ($1000 pack, includes tinted windows).
The Mazda and Hyundai have DAB radio (digital DAB+), and none of these models has a multimedia system backed by a CD player or DVD player. But each has a sound system with six speakers (no subwoofer in any of these, though), and the touchscreen size varies from the 7.0-inch system used in the Mazda and Hyundai to the 8.0-inch unit in the Toyota.
Only the Mazda has dual-zone climate control - the other two have manual air conditioning, though the Toyota’s system has nice digital display. And the Mazda gets an auto-dimming rearview mirror, too. But the 3 is the only one to miss out on vanity-mirror illumination at this price point, and while it has a detailed trip computer, it’s the only one that misses out on a digital speedometer.
Only the Hyundai’s multimedia system has integrated mirroring software in Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Driving gadgets and technology for the Corolla include adaptive cruise control as standard. You get that as part of the safety pack in the Hyundai, but you can’t get it in the Mazda 3 unless you buy the top-spec version.
You’ll need to step up the trim levels if you want full smart-key functionality with keyless entry - but you do get push-button start in the Mazda 3, where the others have conventional key ignition systems.
None of these models has leather seats, and you can forget business-class niceties such as a panoramic sunroof or heated steering wheel.
You have an array of colours to choose from across these three models. Each comes with the choice of white, blue, black, grey and silver. If you like brown, you could choose Titanium Flash from Mazda’s catalogue, or Oxide Bronze from Toyota (as seen here). There’s no orange available in the trim grades we have, but you can get red paint.
You’ll need to check out our classifieds pages if you want to know what price second hand each of these cars will command.
If you choose metallic/pearl/premium paint on the Toyota it will cost you $550, while those colours will add $495 for the Hyundai and Mazda charges just $300 for its two hero colours (Soul Red Crystal and Machine Grey).
And each brand has a catalogue of accessories - be it floor mats or different rims. The Mazda 3, for instance, can be had with a Kuroi sports pack (giving the impression you bought some sort of sport edition model), while there’s a touring pack for the i30 with some neat add-ons, and a lifestyle pack for the Corolla that includes a tow bar and roof rack with bicycle carrier.
You’ll need to check out our classifieds pages if you want to know what price second hand each of these cars will command (see our ownership section below for projected resale values).
The scores for this component are close, but we think the Mazda3 Maxx Sport has a bit of an edge over the Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport and Hyundai i30 Active.
Now, let’s talk drivetrains, and while no model here has a turbo, there’s one that’s punching a little bit above its weight in terms of power specifications - it’s the Toyota.
All three of these models have the same engine size - each motor is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol, but engine specs differ.
The Mazda has the lowest outputs here, pushing 114kW/200Nm through a six-speed automatic transmission.
The i30 chucks out 120kW/203Nm to its six-speed automatic transmission.
With 125kW/200Nm, the Corolla's output is the highest here. It sends drive through a continuously-variable transmission.
The Corolla’s horsepower output is the highest here: 125kW of power. The Mazda has 114kW, and the i30 has 120kW.
As for torque, the i30 has the edge, with 203Nm putting it ahead of the Corolla and Mazda3 (both 200Nm).
The Mazda and Hyundai both have a six-speed automatic transmission, but the Toyota gets a 10-speed continuously variable transmission (CVT) with a launch gear function, which essentially means it has a torque-converter first gear then switches to CVT mode from second onwards. It’s clever tech, and very, very well executed.
Fuel-tank size is almost identical between this trio: the capacity of the Mazda3 is 51 litres, while the others have 50L tanks.
It wouldn’t be my suggestion that you fit a towbar to your small hatch, but if towing capacity matters to you, here’s the breakdown. The Toyota has a 450-kilogram limit for an unbraked trailer (600kg for the others). If you tow a trailer with brakes, you’re limited to 1200kg in the Mazda (1300kg for the others).
You can spec the i30 with a diesel, but not in the Corolla or Mazda3.
On the topic of weight, it’s somewhat surprising to us that the Mazda3 Maxx Sport has the lowest kerb weight (1296kg) because it didn’t feel lightest - not by a long shot. The kerb weight of the i30 Active is 1382kg, and the Corolla Ascent Sport tips the scales at a porky 1420kg.
What about petrol vs diesel? You can get a turbo diesel i30 Active (manual: $23,950; auto: $26,090) but there is no diesel Corolla but it has a hybrid version (not a plug in hybrid). There is no diesel Mazda3 anymore.
If you’re considering one of these cars - new or used, in the specs seen here, or not - you may want to check out our dedicated and detailed Toyota Corolla problems page, Hyundai i30 problems page and Mazda 3 problems page. There you’ll find reference to any potential automatic gearbox problems, auto transmission problems, suspension, turbo, clutch, diesel engine, cruise control or gearbox issues.
None of these petrol-auto models represents the benchmark of fuel economy in the small-car class.
In fact, if mileage and low fuel figures matter to you most, you should take a look at a hybrid (like the Corolla hybrid models) or go for an i30 diesel, because diesel fuel consumption in a small hatch can be truly astounding.
But the petrol-consumption figures we saw across a mix of driving ranged from fine to good. None were great.
Bear in mind, we didn’t drive in eco mode, and during our test loop we did some spirited driving, and also dealt with the daily grind and covered a good mix of open road and highway miles.
The Mazda took advantage of being the only car of this trio with engine stop start. It’s claimed fuel consumption is the lowest here at 5.8 litres per 100 kilometres, and while it didn’t match that during our testing, it was the most frugal: we saw 8.4L/100km measured at the pump.
The next best in terms of claimed usage and actual consumption was the Corolla. It claims 6.0L/100km, and we measured its actual usage at 9.0L/100km.
The least impressive is the Hyundai. It claims 7.4L/100km, but we saw 9.6L/100km on test.
These aren’t the sort of cars where 0-100km/h acceleration and top-speed blasts are decision makers, so we didn’t measure performance figures. But there was a standout in terms of drivetrain performance and outright handling from this trio - and it could come as a surprise.
I’ll run through them, one by one.
As with all Hyundai passenger models, the i30 has been tuned to suit Australian tastes, with a local steering and suspension tune.
The i30's steering is pretty good, but it can be inconsistent with its weighting and twitchy at the front.
While the Mazda's steering offers lots of feel, the wheel can jostle in your hand over bumpy bits.
The Corolla's steering is pretty light; it’s the most agile and dynamic feeling to drive.
The steering is pretty good, but it can be inconsistent with its weighting and twitchy at the front, too - especially if you hit a mid-corner bump.
If you’re driving it hard, you’ll find the limits of enjoyment because of the Kumho tyres on the 16-inch wheels - they’re not terrific. And look, if driving enjoyment really matters to you, take the sportieri30 SR for a spin. It’s much more enjoyable.
But the i30 offers pretty decent refinement, and the engine has good mid-range pulling power. The transmission is smart when you’re driving it hard, but eager to upshift in normal driving.
The i30 has the smallest turning circle of these three, at 10.3m (Mazda: 10.6m; Toyota: 11.0m).
And while it stops decently, the brake pedal feel is very squishy.
On the plus side for urban dwellers, it has the smallest turning circle of these three, at 10.3m (Mazda: 10.6m; Toyota: 11.0m).
Next, the Mazda3.
Zoom, zoom? Not so much with this engine, which is a bit of a dullard in comparison to the other cars here.
The Mazda's transmission is pretty smart in the way it tries to deal with things, particularly if you flick it to Sport mode.
It’s slower, and feels it even more when you put a few adults on board. The transmission is pretty smart in the way it tries to deal with things, particularly if you flick it to Sport mode.
But it’s a buzzy engine, and I’m not the only tester at CarsGuide who found this a pretty uninspiring drivetrain. At least it has stop-start?
The ride is firm and easily upset by sharp edges, and while the steering offers lots of feel - which could be great if you live near a section of smooth corners, but the wheel can jostle a lot in your hand over bumpy bits.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the road noise in this car was worst of this trio. The Hyundai wasn’t terrific, either, and the Toyota offered the most hushed overall experience.
It can be fun on the right road, but it’s not the best of this trio.
Overall, the Mazda is mostly fine to drive, and can be fun on the right road. But it’s not the best of this trio, and the ride can be frustrating on broken-surfaced city streets.
The best car to drive out of this mix is the Toyota. Yes, you heard me correctly, and let me tell you - it’s by a decent margin.
The new Corolla’s chassis setup is on another level when compared with the other two cars. In fact, it was so different, fellow tester James Cleary said “it feels like a different road” when we did back-to-back three-up testing on a challenging twisty section.
The Corolla's suspension comfort and compliance is excellent - the ride is mostly very supple.
The suspension comfort and compliance is excellent, the ride is mostly very supple, and while the steering is pretty light, it’s the most agile and dynamic feeling to drive.
Some of that comes down to the Dunlop tyres, which are nicely grippy - but Toyota’s engineers deserve the biggest pat on the back. It’s the lowest in terms of ground clearance, with 135mm under the car (Hyundai: 140mm; Mazda: 155mm).
Let’s be clear - we’re not just talking about it being good to drive on 'fun' roads - this is a general rule: over speed humps, in traffic, through roundabouts, this car is better. Over road joins it can jolt a tad at the rear, but it’s certainly not hard to live with.
The drivetrain wins out, too - the engine has the most get up and go, and the CVT auto with Toyota’s clever launch gear makes stop-start traffic a cinch - you notice it if you pay attention, but the most rewarding thing about it is that you don’t get that whining at low speeds that most CVTs exhibit.
The Toyota has the best brakes of this trio in terms of response and pedal feel.
Plus the Toyota has the best brakes of this trio in terms of response and pedal feel.
Overall, the Corolla gives you a really positive drive experience. And that’s something we’re not used to from this brand.
A reverse camera is fitted to all three models, but rear parking sensors are standard only on the Mazda and Hyundai. You can get them as a dealer-fit accessory in the Corolla, if you choose. None have front park assist at this price point, and none have self parking.
Safety features in these three models vary. The Hyundai and Toyota have seven airbags, while the Mazda has six because it misses out on knee coverage.
Buyers need to option the SmartSense pack if they want AEB.
Auto emergency braking (AEB) isn’t fitted as standard to the Hyundai i30 in this grade (or the Go model below it): buyers need to option the SmartSense pack if they want this potentially life-saving tech.
That pack is worth the $1750 because it has AEB and forward-collision warning (FCW) with pedestrian detection, plus blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assist, driver-attention alert, adaptive cruise control and an electric park brake. That pack also adds a 4.2-inch colour TFT driver info screen, those aforementioned rear air vents, and a chrome finish grille.
It gives the i30 almost everything you could want.
The Corolla misses out on blind-spot monitoring in this spec, but gets AEB and FCW.
The Corolla misses out on blind-spot monitoring in this spec, and it doesn’t have rear cross-traffic alert either. But its AEB and FCW system includes pedestrian detection (day and night) and cyclist detection (day), plus it has auto high-beam lights, road sign/speed limit detection (and the adaptive cruise control can be adjusted to suit at the flick of a button). It has lane-keep assist with active steering guidance, too.
The Mazda misses out on the steering assistance and lane keeping, but comes with blind-spot monitor and rear cross traffic as standard. And while it misses out on adaptive cruise control and therefore doesn’t have a high-speed AEB system like the other two, it does have low-speed AEB whether you’re going forwards or in reverse.
The Mazda misses out on the steering assistance and lane keeping, and doesn’t have a high-speed AEB system like the other two.
All three of these hatches have ISOFIX child seat anchor points for outboard rear seats, and there are three top-tether hooks if your baby car seat isn’t ISOFIX ready.
People still worry about country of origin, often asking "where is the Toyota Corolla built?", or "where is the Mazda 3 built?". The answer is Japan for both of those cars, and the Hyundai i30 is built in South Korea.
Each has strengths but none nail the safety brief entirely. Our opinion is that Hyundai should just fit the pack standard in order to stay competitive with its like-priced rivals.
We can understand if you’d turn up your nose at the Toyota for being the only one here without a five-year warranty. The Japanese brand’s local arm reckons it’s not a decision-making factor for customers - but we heartily disagree.
The Mazda and Hyundai both have warranty plans spanning 60 months/unlimited kilometres, but Toyota persists with its three-year warranty capped at 100,000km.
And at odds with Toyota’s now-short-by-industry-standards warranty is a five-year capped-price-servicing plan. It sees the Corolla require maintenance every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first, and service costs are capped at $175 per visit. That’s very, very good.
Unlike its rivals, the Hyundai is covered for ‘lifetime capped price servicing’, and includes free roadside assistance for up to 10 years.
The Hyundai i30 also requires maintenance every 12 months/15,000km, and its prices average out at $279 per visit over the first 60 months/75,000km.
But unlike its rivals, the Hyundai is covered for ‘lifetime capped price servicing’, and includes free roadside assistance for up to 10 years if you maintain your car at a Hyundai dealer. You have to pay for roadside assistance from Toyota and Mazda.
The Mazda 3 is a bit more needy in terms of servicing: maintenance is due every 12 months/10,000km, and it’s more expensive than its two rivals in this instance, with the average annual cost over five years working out at $314.
Plus you’ll need to get it serviced at least two more times over a five-year period if you do the predicted 15,000 kilometres per annum - which potentially makes it a lot more expensive to own.
You might want to check our problems pages to find out common faults. We’ll add to each of the car's problems pages as we learn of concerns.
Resale value is a crystal-ball topic, and we can’t vouch for these figures - but we checked with industry experts Glass’s Guide, and the projected retained values were as follows after three years or 50,000km: Mazda 3 Maxx Sport - 48 per cent; Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport - 48 per cent; Hyundai i30 Active SmartSense - 51 per cent.
Well if you need a big boot and good in-cabin storage, the i30 Active would prove a worthy companion. Plus it offers a really strong ownership plan, which could make a big difference if you plan to hang on to your car for a while.
We like that the Mazda3 Maxx Sport now gets a five-year warranty - but its service intervals are short and costs are high. And while the equipment levels are good, this generation model is ageing, and it wasn’t that enjoyable to drive in city circumstances.
Our winner is the new Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport. It is so much better to drive than the other two, it feels like a more expensive car than it is and it looks terrific. The small boot and Toyota’s resistance to offer a longer warranty may rule it out for you, and that’s fair enough.