Best small cars
This big guide will help you compare the bestselling small cars and pick the right one for your next purchase.
Small cars, lots of choices
The small car segment is very popular with buyers right now. Orders for thousands of these cars are placed every month. There are dozens of different makes and models to choose from and then about five different trim levels on average, per carmaker. This guide will help you cut through the sales banter and compare each car based on facts and the findings of the expert automotive reviewers.
Small car comparison table
|Model||finder score||Boot size (hatchback)||Fuel economy (best model, combined)||Body styles||Running costs (inc depreciation) per week*||Driveaway price (click for repayments)|
|Mazda3||Coming soon||308 litres||5.8l/100km||Hatch, sedan||$153.27||From $21,490|
|Hyundai i30||82.2%||395 litres||4.7l/100km||Hatch||$154.09||From $20,990|
|Kia Cerato||Coming soon||428 litres||6.8l/100km||Hatch, sedan||$128.55||From $19,990|
|Volkswagen Golf||82%||380 litres||5.4l/100km||Hatch||$171.04||From $28,993|
|Holden Astra||81.2%||360 litres||5.8l/100km||Hatch, sedan, Sportwagon||$150.73||From $21,990|
|Honda Civic||78.6%||414 litres||6.1l/100km||Hatch, sedan||$154.30||From $24,990|
|Suzuki Swift||76%||242 litres||4.6l/100km||Hatch||$115.30||From $16,990|
|Toyota Corolla||71%||470 litres||6.0l/100km non-hybrid
|Hatch, sedan||$155.50||From $26,439|
|Ford Focus||Coming soon||375 litres||6.4l/100km||Hatch, wagon, crossover||$163.08||From $29,700|
Prices are for NSW postcode 2000.
*Running costs per week include depreciation, component wear, fuel costs and maintenance. These figures are based on covering 15,000km per year.
Summary of some of the best small cars
The Mazda3 often places as the bestselling small car on monthly sales figures and frequently nets a top-five position for overall market sales. And those strong numbers are well deserved.
The Mazda3 has a modern, minimal interior (though the rear seats and boot are a little snug) and lots of modern active driving safety assists. The pricing is pretty keen too, with a Neo Sport entry-grade model costing $21,490 national drive-away. For the money, you get a reverse camera, a highly reviewed infotainment system with smartphone connectivity, A/C, 16" alloy wheels, cruise control and a push-button start engine.
Standard driving assists include:
- Dynamic stability control
- Electronic brake-force distribution
- Emergency brake assist
- Emergency stop signal
- Hill launch assist
- Rear parking sensors
- Smart city brake support
- Traction control system
Splashing out for the top-spec SP25 Astina, Mazda swaps out the standard 2.0-litre petrol engine for a more athletic 2.5-litre block. The SP25 models have larger 18" alloy wheels, LED automatic head and fog lights, a sunroof, rain sensing wipers, dual-zone climate control, smart distance adjusting cruise control, heated front seats and leather upholstery, keyless entry, a nine-speaker Bose sound system, blind spot monitoring, driver attention alert, electric parking brake, lane departure warning with lane keep assist, sat nav and traffic sign recognition. This model costs $33,790 according to Mazda's website.
In short, the Mazda3 has a few foibles, like the cosy rear seats and slightly impeded rear vision thanks to large c-pillars, but it's a great all-rounder that delivers solid value, a comfortable drive and great interior. No wonder it's the bestselling small car in Australia consistently.
Australia's second bestselling passenger car is the Toyota Corolla. Car reviewers love the edgy, clean and modern styling of the Corolla, with its superb safety features and sharp handling.
Price wise, the base model Corolla, known as the Ascent Sport, costs more than the Mazda3. You'll have to hand over $26,439 for this small car. For the money, you get a 2.0-litre petrol engine with a six-speed manual gearbox or an automatic. Toyota also builds a hybrid version. 16" alloy wheels are standard, like the Mazda3, as is a reversing camera. The Corolla has a larger infotainment touchscreen than its rival, at eight inches compared to the Mazda's seven. Like the Mazda, you also receive a suite of smart driving assists like:
- Active cruise control
- Pre-collision safety system that detects pedestrians (during both day and night) and cyclists (day only)
- Lane departure alert
- Automatic high beams and road sign assists
- Automatic transmission models also have a lane tracing assistant
Toyota equips the Corolla with a full-size spare wheel on non-hybrid models and the car has seven airbags.
If you want a bit more luxury and convenience, you could purchase a ZR Corolla. It'll cost more, at $34,164. However, Toyota includes a number of styling extras like 18" alloys. The interior has a premium fit-out, with leather upholstery and heated front seats. You also get a heads-up display that shows your current speed, compass heading and navigation directions. The audio system is upgraded with an eight-speaker JBL set-up that has DAB.
It's not the cheapest small car you can buy, but Toyota has a reputation for building solid and reliable cars. The 2019 model is really attractively styled and it's also nice to have the option of a hybrid engine. Some of the negative points the automotive media picked up on include a lack of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as an average amount of space for rear passengers.
Hyundai's i30 is another top-three car by sales, but it has also won numerous awards internationally. Owners leaving comments online seem very happy with their i30s including one Hyundai technician who was so taken with the i30 that they rushed out to buy one.
There are six models in the i30 range, from the wallet-friendly Go trim to the hot hatch i30 N. An i30 Go starts from $20,990. Buyers have the choice of a 2.0-litre petrol or a 1.6-litre diesel. To bring the drive-away price down, Hyundai bolts on 16" steel wheels with plastic wheel trims. The seats are covered in cloth. Like the Toyota Corolla, you get an eight-inch infotainment touchscreen, but unlike the Corolla, it has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Hyundai outfits i30 Go models with LED daytime running lights and there's also a tyre pressure monitoring system. The budget model has a keyless entry system and a six-speaker sound system. Exterior mirrors are heated and electrically adjustable.
Like the Corolla and Mazda3, there's cruise control and steering-wheel-mounted controls for your phone and audio. Responding to its nearest rivals, the Hyundai i30 also features a number of safety assists:
- Brake assist system
- Electronic brake-force distribution
- Hill-start assist control
- Traction control system
- Vehicle stability management
- Emergency stop signals
- Rear-view camera with dynamic guidelines
- Tyre pressure monitoring system
In addition, buyers of the i30 Go automatic can order the optional Hyundai SmartSense suite which warns the driver of possible blind-spot collisions, monitors the driver's attention and incorporates a forward collision avoidance system. The active safety suite also keeps the car in lanes, sounds rear cross traffic warnings and has a smart cruise feature.
If you're willing to spend more, you can go for the top-of-the-range N-Line Premium model. This i30 has a 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine that turns out a solid 150kW of power. Hyundai bolts on a set of 18" alloy wheels with Michelin Sport tyres. The model has sat nav, wireless smartphone charging, a leather interior and the Hyundai SmartSense safety suite with a seven-speed automatic gearbox. The seats are clad in leather and the front seats can be heated or ventilated. There are front and rear parking sensors, as well as a panoramic sunroof. For this particular spec, Hyundai charges $39,425.30.
The i30 has a large model range and reviewers commended Hyundai for the excellent value package. The only area the i30 falls down, according to motoring journalists, is the fact the diesel-engine cars are heavy and sluggish.
The Kia Cerato is closely related to the Hyundai I30, both in its intended target market and components. That's because Hyundai has a large share in Kia and vice versa, so both cars run on the same platform and were styled by the same car designer.
The Cerato is an excellent value car to purchase. Entry-grade S models cost $24,567 drive-away, but at the moment, Kia is running an offer that slashes the price to $19,990, $1,000 less than its Hyundai-badged sibling.
What do you get for your money with the Cerato S? Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, a glaring omission on the Toyota Corolla. Kia also equips the base model Cerato with a party of smart driving assists including:
- Autonomous emergency braking with forward collision warning system
- Lane keep assist
- Front/rear parking sensors
- Rear-view camera with dynamic parking guidelines
- Daytime running lights
- Cruise control with steering wheel function buttons
The wheels are 16" in diameter and made from steel. There are electric windows in the front and rear, as well as a manual air-conditioning system. The infotainment system is kitted out with a sizeable eight-inch touchscreen for infotainment and DAB, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, an iPod-compatible USB input and Bluetooth connectivity. There are controls for the audio integrated into the steering wheel. For the money, it has a lot of features.
If you wish to spend more, there are several different grade Ceratos for sale. The top-of-the-range GT model swaps the 2.0-litre petrol engine from the rest of the range and instead uses a sporty 1.6-litre turbocharged engine. Kia swaps out the six-speed manual gearbox or automatic box from other trims and drops in a seven-speed dual clutch automatic.
Spending more will net you a Cerato GT which has 18" alloy wheels and Michelin Sport tyres, with a GT body kit. In addition to the safety features of the base model, you'll also get things like an auto dimming rear-view mirror, blind spot detection, rear cross traffic alerts and autonomous emergency braking that detects pedestrians and cyclists. The headlights are now energy-efficient, bright LED types. Cloth upholstery becomes sports trim leather and the driver's seat can be adjusted electrically in eight ways.
Cerato GTs boast an uprated eight-speaker sound system from JBL. You'll also receive sat nav with traffic information and dual-zone climate control. Rear passengers now have air vents and the front seats can keep occupants more thermally comfortable, thanks to heating and cooling elements. This sporty Cerato will set you back $36,927.70, but is on offer at the moment for $31,990.
The automotive media loved the Cerato's keen pricing, practicality and seven-year warranty. Quibbles they had with the car were mainly limited to resale value and the steering wheel responsiveness.
The VW Golf is often regarded as the benchmark for small cars. It's an icon that has earned itself a reputation for being well made, precise handling and lasting a long time. Unfortunately, once something makes a name for itself, prices can often begin to rise.
The VW Golf range starts from $28,993 drive-away and that's quite a lot more than the other bestselling small cars. What do you get for your money?
A 110kW, 1.4-litre, petrol-engined Trendline Golf. This particular model has Volkswagen's fuel-saving BlueMotion technology. The entry model has a six-speed manual gearbox, eight speakers (two more than most rivals by default), 16" alloys (again most rivals install steel wheels to their lowest cost trim), Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror (only included on higher spec competitors), cruise control, front and rear parking sensors, rain sensing wipers, a rear-view camera and a selection of smart driving assists like:
- Driver fatigue detection
- Front assist with city emergency brake function
The base-spec European styled and built Golf would sit higher up if it were included in its rivals' line-up, both in terms of price and features. If you want a little more comfort and equipment, you could look into the Highline Golf, which has a drive-away price of $40,529. This premium model has a seven-speed automatic gearbox, satellite navigation, adaptive cruise control, dual-zone climate control, 17" alloy wheels, ambient interior lighting, a panoramic sunroof, parking assist and Vienna leather upholstery.
VW also sells hot hatch versions. The originator of the hot hatch, the GTI, has a more powerful 2.0-litre petrol engine, or for those who desire more, there's the even more powerful R edition Golf.
Why would you pick a Golf? Car reviewers wax lyrical about its excellent handling, infotainment system, interior space and general build quality. They weren't so keen on the pricing of higher-end models and the auto-only option for top-spec Golfs.
Other small cars to check out
The small car category is highly competitive, in fact, there are literally dozens of different makes to choose from. Here are a few more small cars you should look at:
The Honda Civic is a striking small car. It has a similar specs sheet to the VW Golf, with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, an eight-speaker system, LED DRLs and climate control. And that's on a base VTi spec Civic, costing $24,990 drive-away.
Critics praised the Civic's steering, dramatic styling and powerful turbo engine. They felt it suffered from obstructed rear vision (a common problem with many of the small cars, thanks to rollover safety standards and styling conventions) and a slightly noisy engine.
The Holden Astra is another small car you should at least try out. Reviewers found this car handled well and is built to a decent standard. The Astra can be specced out with a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine, or a larger displacement 1.6-litre power plant. Drive-away pricing starts from $21,990 for a 2018 plate model.
The Ford Focus has a number of different body styles, with prices starting at $29,700. The small Ford is available as a hatch or wagon model. There's even a cross-country model that has 30mm extra ground clearance, taller tyres and tough plastic body protectors.
Car reviewers rate the Ford Focus highly, which has one of the best infotainment systems on the market, active safety equipment, a comfortable ride and solid after-sales. It was knocked down a little for lacking some of the variations that European models receive and the cabin plastics were said to be hard in places.
The Suzuki Swift is widely thought to be one of the most fun small cars to drive and is often likened to the original Mini. The Swift is cheap, starting at $16,990 for a 3-door GL Navigator. For the money, you get an infotainment system with a sat nav, reversing camera and smartphone connectivity.
It also has cruise control, privacy glass and 16" alloys. That makes the Swift one of the best value propositions in our guide. Compared with other small cars, this one is pretty small and is classified as a light car. If you plan on using your car for a lot of driving around town and don't need to carry a lot of stuff, this is a great little car to own.
What to look for in a small car
Research shows in this segment of the car market, price is the key deciding factor for purchasing a car. With so many different models to choose from that's fair enough. There are no total lemon models out there, but remember some are better than others. For example, one car might be extremely fuel-efficient, but not have so much space in the rear for passengers. For another, the reverse could be true.
Generally, small cars are pretty cost-effective and because there are so many, there will always be a dealer somewhere doing an offer on a model, meaning you can get a bargain.
Running costs and fuel usage
Generally speaking, small cars are light and have lower displacement engines, returning favourable fuel economy. Opting for a model with eco-technologies like Volkswagen's Bluemotion-equipped Golf will help you save even more fuel at the pumps.
According to the RACQ, the Kia Cerato S hatch with a 2.0-litre engine will lighten your wallet the least over five years. This car also had the lowest running costs per km in cents at only 44.57.
For the most economical fuel user, look to the Hyundai i30 Active with the 1.6-litre diesel. This model costs just 6.40 cents per km in fuel. The fastest depreciating model is Toyota's Prius, which sheds on average $90.40 per week in value when covering 15,000kms per year.
One other thing to note, generally, the higher-spec you go, the more a car weighs. That can result in a lower fuel economy for the top-spec models, though this isn't always the case.
Smart driving assists
Cars are getting smarter with each model and yearly revision. The latest technology allows cars to monitor your attention levels, assist you in braking, avoid accidents, help to keep you in your lane and even maintain a safe distance to the car in front while in cruise. These nifty features can help reduce fatigue on longer journeys and make your car that little bit safer.
Once upon a time, you were set for in-car entertainment if you had a tape player. Then it became a CD player. Nowadays, you can get infotainment systems that sync with apps from your smartphone, playing music via Bluetooth, all on a large tablet-esque screen. A few even have wireless charging for compatible smartphones.
Car seats have also progressed, with integrated heating and cooling, plus if you carry your kids in the back frequently, you'll want a model that has rear A/C vents and privacy glass.
Because there are so many models on the market, you can be quite discerning and hold out for cars that have well-designed and well-equipped interiors to suit your needs.
Almost every carmaker in our guide produces sports and performance versions of these small cars. So if you'd like that bit extra oomph, sharp exterior styling and a contoured, purposeful interior, have a look at a performance model. This way, you'll have an ideal daily driver for commuting and shopping, but at the weekend you have a car you can take to a track day or just go for a blip down a winding coastal road.
Just because a car is small, doesn't mean it can't be practical. If you need to carry more, the majority of car makers offer a variation of body styles. There's the ubiquitous hatch, perfect for city dwellers and multi-storey car parks, or you could go for a sedan or wagon if you need to lug around more stuff.
In some of these cars, carrying five adult passengers may be a tall ask, so viewing them as a four-seater with an occasional spare seat will go a long way. Something else to bear in mind is many motoring journalists found the rear c-pillars on modern hatches can be quite chunky and impinge rearward vision.
Compare car loan options for small cars
Recent car reviews
- SUV reviews
- Mazda MX-5 RF GT: Hands-on review
- Toyota 86 GTS with performance pack: Hands-on review
- Nissan Pathfinder Review
- Best utes for tradies
Image source: Vehicle manufacturers
Ben Gribbin is an experienced automotive writer and life-long car enthusiast with a passion for restoring classic vehicles. He brings many years of experience working with and writing about cars to Finder.
Ask an Expert