Think Small

FORD Focus Trend HOLDEN Astra R HONDA Civic VTi-S HYUNDAI Elantra Active KIA Cerato S Premium MAZDA Maxx PEUGEOT 308 Active RENAULT Megane Zen SKODA Octavia Ambition SUBARU Impreza 2.0i-L TOYOTA Corolla Ascent Sport VOLKSWAGEN Golf 92TSI

WORDS NATHAN PONCHARD, TONY OíKANE, RYAN LEWIS, STUART WEST PHOTOS CRISTIAN BRUNELLI

DESPITE what urban myth might suggest, small cars are Aussiesí bread and butter. Have been since 2005, when total small-car sales outstripped what was once the bedrock of our car culture Ė the large-car class Ė for the first time. And the fight continues against the inexorable rise of the fast-approaching medium-SUV category.

Itís a vicious battle for a slice of small-car glory.

And it involves some of the best-known names in the business, spanning 14 separate models in this Megatestís $23-28K auto hatch/sedan discipline. Only two failed to make the starting grid Ė Mitsubishiís decade-old Lancer GSR Sportback ($24,000) and Nissanís depressing Pulsar ST-L sedan ($24,790), each tied to CVTs. Given the fall from grace of these former Japanese superstars, it wouldíve been a battle for 14th place, with the Ďwinnerí scoring 13thÖ

This field overflows with fresh talent: Holdenís all-new Astra R hatch (wearing a super-competitive $24,190 sticker), Subaruís fifth-generation Impreza hatch in 2.0i-L form (again, for a razor-sharp $24,690), and Renaultís fourth-generation Megane, represented here in Zen specification ($27,490) because the $24,990 Life was still on the boat. Three new-from-theground- up heavy-hitters ready to make life difficult for the class benchmarks.

Thereís been lots of other new-model action, too.

Like Hyundaiís AD Elantra Active sedan ($24,250), underpinned by a next-generation platform, as well as its DNA relative, the updated Kia Cerato S Premium sedan ($24,990). At a similar price point is Hondaís comeback car, the new-gen Civic VTi-S sedan ($24,490) and Mazdaís evergreen 3 Maxx sedan ($24,890), now with G-Vectoring Control and other sweeteners.

Our price-point leader, Toyotaís hugely popular Corolla Ascent Sport hatch ($23,250) was given a dose of sex appeal in 2015 with a sharper look and sweeter handling, while Fordís third-gen Focus (here in $24,390 Trend hatch form) copped a boost at the same time, plus a bolder front end and freshened interior.

Finally, to Volkswagenís benchmark Golf 92TSI hatch ($25,340) and its size-matters Czech cousin, the re-stocked Octavia 110TSI Ambition ($25,290), each proving Europe is back in a big way in the small-car class. Likewise Peugeotís excellent 308 Active hatch, now in MY17 form with a reversing camera and other niceties, topping our 12-strong field at $27,990.

There isnít a bad car here. But it takes a serious all-rounder to stand out in a crew as cut-throat as this.

12th

Kia Cerato S Premium

KOREA CHANGE BACK TO THE OLD DAYS

; ITíS BEEN many years since we stopped advising against South Korean cars on principle. These days, the likes of Hyundai and Kia have their acts well and truly together, and the seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty on the latter helps make that point. That said, thereís no denying the frantic pace being set in the global small hatchback/sedan segment and, well, the four-year-old Cerato is looking and feeling a bit left behind by some newer designs in this cut-throat segment.

It starts from the moment you step into the cabin and discover mis-matching textures, plasti-chrome chintz and a slippery-rimmed steering wheel that looks like a crying emoji. The radioís graphics are equally cheap, though nice touches such as a digital speedo and decent front seats help balance the ledger. But we still canít figure out why taller drivers canít seem to get far enough away from the Ceratoís pedals, even with the adjustable steering column fully extended.

In the back, the space is about par for the course (if a tad tighter on headroom than some) and, while there are no seat pockets (just the same plastic seat-back shells as the Elantra), the S Premiumís centre-rear armrest is the most comfortable of the lot. The rear cushion also scores well, but toe room isnít generous and the Ceratoís rising waistline could make vision difficult for kids just out of child restraints.

Power comes from a 2.0-litre port-injected atmo four (shared with Elantra) that offers precisely nil in the way of surprises. Or delights, for that matter. It does the job, but thatís about it, and even then you need to keep the tacho needle below 5000rpm to avoid the unit becoming shrill. There isnít an abundance of acceleration, either, and Ceratoís 80-120km/h rollingstart figure is distinctly underwhelming. Furthermore, producing those numbers means revving it up and that equals instant decibels inside the cabin, and vibes up through its controls. Like the urge, fuel economy is also mid-pack with an on-test figure of 9.1L/100km.

Up to this point, though, the ageing Kia is holding its own, even if itís not wowing anybody, but the plot starts to unravel when you point it at a corner.

Even at conservative urban speeds, the Cerato doesnít feel keen to change direction. It feels reluctant to turn in, and its steering has a particularly artificial feel to the way it wants to self-centre. Itís also inert and lifeless, and that doesnít change even once youíve wound an armful of lock on. And steering response isnít linear, making it difficult to judge what effect a certain amount of wheel input is likely to yield.

Ceratoís suspension tune feels similarly unsophisticated. Despite local input into spring and damper tuning, it feels pattery over small-amplitude bumps, and thatís despite the 55-series tyres on our test car. As well as tending to skip about a little, the Kia also feels as though it lacks a little rebound damping, judging by the way the front wheels slam into potholes and snag on broken edges.

If you push deep into the Ceratoís dynamic reserves itíll eventually involve its rear-end in the action, but it never feels encouraging like its Elantra cousin does.

Again, weíre long past advising against a Korean car on the basis of its country of origin, but the real movers and shakers in this segment have had a growth spurt. And that leaves the dated Cerato resting on the laurels of its market-leading warranty. SW

5.0SCORE

SPECS

$24,990 Engine 1999cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v Power 112kW @ 6200rpm Torque 192Nm @ 4000rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4460/1780/1435/2700mm Weight 1332kg Cargo capacity 482 litres Tyres Nexen N-blue HD 205/55R16 91H Test fuel cons 9.1L/100km 0-60km/h 4.2sec 0-100km/h 9.1sec 80-120km/h 6.8sec 3yr resale 58.5% . Solid performance; brilliant warranty; space . Dated cabin; engine vibes disconnected dynamics

Aussie input

Much has been made of Kiaís local suspension development team, but what really went into the Aussie Cerato that the rest of the world doesnít get? When you break it down, the changes amount to traditional (yet still utterly relevant) methods of improving a carís behaviour. The first thing was to fit stiffer front springs and then back that up by re-valving the dampers with different pistons and, therefore, different rates. Less-traditional was the move to a smarter ECU and an upgraded electric motor to deliver the powerassistance to the Kiaís steering. Even the steering column shaft was swapped for a stiffer unit.

11th

Hyundai Elantra Active

STILL CHEERFUL, BUT JUST NOT CHEAP ENOUGH

BRAND Korea has fortified its market position over the years by being tenaciously cheap and cheerful. Valuefor- money covers a multitude of dynamic sins in the eyes of many a shopper who, at this end of the market, often buy on spec rather than ability. But the value equation starts to get a bit harder to rationalise when once bargain-basement cars become more expensive relative to the competition.

Such is the fate of the Hyundai Elantra Active. At $24,250 with an automatic, the entry-level Elantra sits in the thick of these affordable heavy-hitters. The rest of the kids have come to play in its sandbox.

Outwardly, Elantra does a decent job of looking the money. Its coupe-styled roofline, large hexagonal grille and slim headlights do their bit to eschew a pseudopremium aesthetic, and as a base model it benefits from a sprinkling of nice-to-haves including LED daytime running lights, alloy wheels and fog lights.

Thereís no such justification inside, where even the country that can turn cabbage into kimchi hasnít worked out how to spice up vast expanses of plastic.

The Elantraís steering wheel Ė the first tactile experience and the single most-used control Ė is bare urethane. Of these cars, only the Astra shares this plight, though the Holdenís wheel isnít as hard or Fisher-Price as the tiller in the Hyundai.

Thereís a smattering of mod-cons like Apple CarPlay, auto headlights/wipers, and a reversing camera with sensors. Itís not bare-bones but Elantra Active is only on par with most others, and is thoroughly outgunned by cars like the $24,690 Impreza 2.0i-L, which has standard sat-nav, climate control and active safety systems.

In a surprise turn, itís the oldest elements of the car that go some way to redeeming it. The ironically named ĎNuí 2.0-litre MPi four is a bit like grandpaís axe, yet paired with a conventional six-speed auto itís competitively quick and economical, and sounds less buzzy than it does in the older Cerato.

The platform Elantra rides on is meant to be a next-generation version of the one still underpinning the Kia. And the Hyundai is clearly more mature and refined, yet it feels like an evolution rather than the all-new platform it was billed to be.

Steering is improved from the over-light systems of old. Elantraís body tips over the front wheels on initial turn-in, and it needs a quarter turn of lock before thereís any discernible connection, but once rotating and pointed in, thereís grip to be found.

What it lacks is refinement at the end of its short suspension travel. The Elantra is repelled by deep culverts, which affect a kiss of the bump-stops and an abrupt ricochet upwards. Hyundaiís local engineers did their best reworking the suspension tune for Aussie roads, which goes to show thereís only so much that can be done with existing hard points.

On the plus side, cabin comfort and space enhance the overall user-friendliness that has become the Elantraís forte. Its front seats have decent lateral support, rear legroom is good, boot space is generous and thereís a full-size spare under its floor.

Thereís nothing fundamentally flawed or evil about the Elantra. But it suffers in this Megatest now that the base level at this price point has come so far, wielding so much equipment and all-round ability. RL

5.5SCORE

SPECS

$24,250 Engine: 1999cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v Power 112kW @ 6200rpm Torque 192Nm @ 4000rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4570/1800/1440/2700mm Weight 1275kg Cargo capacity 458 litres Tyres Kumho EcoWing ES01 205/55R16 91H Test fuel cons. 8.5L/100km 0-60km/h 4.2sec 0-100km/h 9.0sec 80-120km/h 6.5sec 3yr resale 51.5% . Decent driveability; user-friendliness; space . Plasticky cabin; pattery ride; short suspension travel

Group therapy?

If Hyundai grouped its Elantra sedan and i30 hatch under the same name it would have the best-selling model in Australia. Month to month the i30 sits at the pointy end of standings on its own, but is usually beaten to top honours by the Toyota Corolla, where sedan and hatch variants share a badge, as does the Mazda 3. The Elantra tested here previews the next-gen i30, which is due to arrive in April sharing the same platform and drivetrains. The refreshed range will include Elantra SRís turbo donk and IRS, in a much funkier, more Euroflavoured hatchback body, unveiled last year at Paris.

10th

Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport

PROOF THAT BUYERS ARENíT ALWAYS THE BEST JUDGES

ďAS LONG as youíre not looking for much, it has plenty,Ē quipped Stuart West, and right there is Toyotaís ever-popular Corolla in a nutshell.

Built on a heritage spanning half a century and 11 generations, Toyotaís reputation for building indestructible Corollas exists for a reason. And the current Corolla is definitely one of the better ones.

But how does Ďgood for a Corollaí fare in an era of innovation and all-round excellence? Better than we expected, as it turns out, though the 2016 Ascent Sport remains a deeply conservative car at its core.

Headlining the Toyotaís steady-as-she-goes approach is its 1.8-litre atmo engine, now 15 years old and surely overdue for a rethink. In reality, it tries hard and makes a more likeable noise than the Korean pairís 2.0-litre.

Where the Toyota stumbles, just like the Honda, is with its CVT transmission. And mainly because itís such a slug off the line. Pile four adults into an auto Corolla and itís a moving roadblock until 40km/h, when the CVT finally finds a workable rev point and lifts its game.

Once rolling, the transmission is actually quite decisive, though it suffers the odd hiccup, and in Sport mode the CVTís artificially stepped ratios prove counter-productive to hastening the Corollaís gait. In Drive, the Toyota managed a mediocre 7.0sec from 80-120km/h, but in Sport, it couldnít beat 7.3sec. Besides providing engine braking, thereís really no point.

The other contentious issue is the Corollaís interior.

Broad yet well-bolstered front seats put the Korean pews in the shade, but itís that cliff-face of a dashboard that rubs us the wrong way. Crudely styled and featuring naff faux-stitched Ďseamsí in its polymer skin, the winner of the Ďmost offensiveí award goes to the Ascent Sportís vast plastic insert trim covered in graduated technical-print.

At least the Ascent Sport gets a substantial leather wheel rim and soft-touch plastics on the upper portion of its front doors, though the rear doors are hard plastic.

And while its rear seat is mounted high, delivering a theatre-style view and legs-down packaging efficiency, the seat cushion is short and lacking in under-thigh support, and its backrest is flat and overly reclined. A reasonable 360-litre boot, though, with a full-size steel spare hidden beneath.

Opinions about the exterior styling are mixed Ė sharpish front, frumpy back end was the general consensus Ė but everyone was pleasantly surprised by the Corollaís enthusiasm for corners. While we miss out on the multi-link IRS of the Auris-badged Euro version, the torsion-beam version delivers unexpected adjustability from its rear-end and is far more chuckable than youíd think.

Decent grip from its Bridgestone tyres helps, as does relatively accurate (if rather artificial and feeldeprived) steering, and the Corolla is definitely more dynamically up for it than the Megane. Its ride treads a similarly safe but satisfying path, being neither plush nor punishing, with respectable damping control and a middling level of tyre noise.

Which sums up the Corolla Ascent Sport perfectly.

With little to offend, but also little to excite, it continues to tread a safe, middle ground, like the majority of its predecessors. But the real takeaway from the Corollaís performance here is that Japanís largest automaker definitely needs to try harder. NP/TOK

6.0SCORE

SPECS

$23,250 Engine 1798cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v Power 103kW @ 6400rpm Torque 173Nm @ 4000rpm Transmission CVT automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4330/1760/1473/2600mm Weight 1290kg Cargo capacity 360 litres Tyres Bridgestone Turanza ER300 205/55R16 91V Test fuel cons. 9.2L/100km 0-60km/h 4.6sec 0-100km/h 9.5sec 80-120km/h 7.0sec 3yr resale 63% . Price; reliability; honesty; more fun than the Koreans . Cheap interior; below-par infotainment; short rear seat

Lacking connection

ĎSmartphone mirroringí might sound like something only an eight-year-old would care about, but in this budgetsensitive segment itís an easy way for manufacturers to save some money by allowing their customers to bring their own navigation instead. Toyota sees things differently Ė at least for the Corolla Ascent and Ascent Sport.

Rather than buy in to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, the Ascent Sportís full-colour touchscreen instead only offers rudimentary audio and Bluetooth telephony functions. Another example of Toyotaís conservative approach harming the product.

9th

Renault Megane Zen

ALL-NEW, YET LACKS ALLROUND ABILITY, LEAVING US ALL A BIT NONPLUSSED

6.5SCORE

FRENCH flair seems to be an on-again, off-again phenomenon at Renault. Over the past two decades, its small-car staple Ė the Megane Ė has oscillated between conventional and challenging with each generation, meaning we were overdue for something with a bit more spunk this time around. Thankfully, Megane IV introduces a design theme that is subtly avant-garde, rather than wilfully polarising.

This $27,490 Zen variant might be only one level up from base (see sidebar), wearing fairly understated 16-inch alloys, but it steals the show with LED running lights at both ends. The dominating, claw-shaped front pair subscribe to the theory that you can never have too much running-light bling, yet itís the tasteful red glow of the horizontal-strip rear LEDs that mark the Megane Zen as high-tech and sharply suited.

But does all that styling sparkle promise a level of polish the Megane isnít quite capable of delivering?

First impressions are positive, starting with generously proportioned and supportive front seats trimmed in Euro-chic cloth, ably supported by the unexpected verve of Renaultís 1.2-litre turbo four tied to a new seven-speed dual-clutch.

Gone is the frustrating off-the-line tardiness of the six-speed dual-clutch in the Clio, replaced by an effervescent keenness that transforms the Meganeís launch feel, no doubt due to the seven-speederís incredibly low gearing (maxing out at just 34km/h in first, 54 in second, 84 in third and 120 in fourth).

The 1.2-litre Megane easily beats its CVT rivals off the line and is only a fraction behind the 2.0-litre Mazda 3, Elantra and Cerato to 60km/h, giving an impression of unexpected muscle. But the reality is a more modest performer at higher speeds, backed by what sounds like a synthesised induction note zinging through the stereo speakers. But isnít, apparently.

Itís when you more closely analyse the Megane Zen that cracks begin to show. For all the front seatsí goodness (including a height-adjustable passenger pew), the Renault fumbles its rear section with a weirdly convex and unnatural backrest shape that squanders the cushionís impressive bolstering. At least kids in booster seats will appreciate the rear air vents, auto up/down windows and overall vision.

Dynamically, the most damning thing you can say about the Megane is that itís no Clio IV. In isolation, it grips quite well and can be moderately entertaining if you set it up properly for a corner, but it lacks both cohesion and finesse. Itíll understeer at times, or occasionally smack its bump-stops over larger road scars, and thereís a busyness to its (mostly quiet) ride that jostles passengers around more than weíd like.

Safe and competent it may be, but the Megane lacks the steering crispness and dynamic sweetness of its best rivals. Even its brakes lack bite. Compared to Peugeotís 308, the Renault feels almost baggy.

The Megane canít match the 308ís interior class, either, despite a terrific leather-bound steering wheel and loads of electronic goodies (including front/rear parking sensors, keyless entry/start, an auto park brake, tyre-pressure monitors and auto lights/wipers).

But it misses out on AEB and, while the Zenís 7.0-inch touchscreen looks techy, it carries over much of the unintuitive functionality of the previous set-up. And letís not forget Renaultís bulky, plasticky new Ďkeyí design that looks like the mouse from an old iMac. Itís different, but definitely not better.

Attractive and amply equipped as it is, thereís a disconnect with the Renault. It might be a brand-new car, with a brand-new look, but it doesnít necessarily feel it. Alongside its more entertaining, more polished and more premium Peugeot 308 compatriot, the Megane Zen is, dare we say it, a bit too Nissan. And that smarts. NP

SPECS

$27,490 Engine 1197cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo Power 97kW @ 4500rpm Torque 205Nm @ 2000rpm Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4359/1814/1438/2670mm Weight 1265kg Cargo capacity 434 litres Tyres Goodyear Efficient Grip 205/55R16 91H Test fuel cons. 9.8L/100km 0-60km/h 4.3sec 0-100km/h 9.5sec 80-120km/h 6.2sec 3yr resale 54% . Perky drivetrain; funky details; front seats . Uninvolving dynamics; flawed rear seat

The good Life

The ideal Megane for this test wouldíve been the entry-level Life, at $24,990 for the seven-speed EDC version. It loses the Zenís alloy wheels (for 16-inch steelies), front parking sensors, R-Link system y with sat-nav and electric park brake, but boasts the same handsome trim, enthusiastic drivetrain and loads of convenience features. Keyless entry, reversing camera with sensors, eight-speaker audio, leather wheel and gearknob, auto wipers and lights, dualzone climate, and front and rear DRLs prove it is no stripped-out price leader. g zone strip

8th

Skoda Octavia 110TSI Ambition

PLAYING GOLF IN JEANS AND A PLAIN T-SHIRT

MORE metal for the money may as well be Skodaís credo. Octavia is the largest car in our 12-deep field, and its raw square-footage is the Czechís strongest asset. Itís a highlights package of clever design, but is it the full quid?

At $25,290 for the dual-clutch version, the base Octavia Ambition might be just $50 cheaper than the most affordable VW Golf, but it gets the more powerful 110kW/250Nm 1.4 turbo from the up-spec Golf Highline. The two cars share closely related interpretations of VWís MQB architecture, so at face value youíd be right to think of the almost mediumsized Skoda as something of a bargain. Delve deeper, however, and the smattering of Skoda distinction never quite does enough to surpass the underlying impression that the Octavia has been deliberately de-contented to be not as good as a Golf.

This latest iteration ups the ante over the previous Ambition, which was a true poverty pack. Plastic still dominates interior surfaces, but itís blended with unusually upmarket inclusions like radar cruise control, AEB and idle-stop, plus Skodaís requisite surprise-and-delight by way of a chilled glovebox, a moveable wastebin in the driverís door pocket and the latest smartphone connectivity. It has also gained a reversing camera.

Itís a similar story with the back-seat package.

There is acres of legroom and headroom, map lights, rear air vents, cavernous storage and rear side airbags Ė taking the Skodaís airbag tally to nine Ė but it doesnít get a centre-rear armrest.

From the outside, itís a fairly austere thing (though an optional $3400 Sports Pack makes a big difference). Octaviaís proportions are inherently handsome and robust, but youíre unlikely to catch anybody admiring it in a car park.

Once in the hot seat, Octaviaís dynamic ability is best described as adequate. It rarely puts a foot wrong, but lacks the Golfís involvement and balance. Its ride is busy and unsettled, as though itís constantly jostling with irregularities that cars like the Civic easily iron out.

Steering is lifeless at straight ahead and thereís little connection between the dull front-end and torsion-beam rear. It doesnít encourage you to push on in the same way the Golf does, thanks in part to the VWís more sophisticated, more capable multi-link tail.

Step-off lag hampers the seven-speed DSG gearbox, but once slotted in, thereís enough turbo torque to light up the traction control, and occasionally provoke Superb-style axle tramp. Itís quick, and on the move the drivetrain is effortless.

Brisk as it is, the Octavia is also exceptionally fuel-efficient and, despite requiring premium fuel, should cost as little to run as it does to own. Yet itís a shame Skoda hasnít been able to go the whole hog and challenge the status quo. Unlike the rapid and rewarding Octavia RS, this entry-level variant seems destined to forever feel like a cheaper version of somebody elseís stuff. It canít match the detail refinement of a Golf VII.

Still, the mix of class-beating practicality and relatively generous level of spec best embodies Skodaís no-nonsense, utilitarian character. The Octavia Ambition is plain, but it feels bombproof and will appeal to pragmatists who simply want space, economy and the sense of strength that Skoda champions. RL

7.0SCORE

SPECS

$25,290 Engine 1395cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo Power 110kW @ 6000rpm Torque 250Nm @ 1500-3500rpm Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4659/1814/1461/2686mm Weight 1260kg Cargo capacity 568 litres Tyres Bridgestone Turanza ER300 225/45R17 Test fuel cons. 6.8L/100km 0-60km/h 3.9sec 0-100km/h 8.3sec 80-120km/h 5.7sec 3yr resale 50% . Room to graze cattle; brilliant economy; torque . Dull steering; de-contented cabin; lacks Golfís polish

Copping a bootful

Octavia boasts, by far, the biggest cargo area of our small-car dozen. The sedanís bootlid hinges from the top of the rear glass, like a liftback, to create an enormous aperture to load through.

Beneath its luggage cover thereís 568 litres to work with, even when all seats are in play. Dropping the 60/40 split-fold rear backrests delivers 1558L of space, which rivals small wagons. The Skoda brand name is synonymous with smart storage, and that alone has attracted loyal customers who have resisted the lure of bigger cars and SUVs.

7th

Honda Civic VTi-S

ANY SHOT AT A RETURN TO GLORY IS LOST IN TRANSMISSION

A CHAIN is only as strong as its weakest link, and sadly the Civic VTi-S sedanís many virtues are compromised by one crucial weakness Ė its transmission. And thatís a tremendous shame because the 10th-generation Civic sedan comes so achingly close to returning Honda to its 1980s heyday, when cutting-edge VTEC engines, meticulous interiors and sophisticated suspensions were the norm.

Dual camshafts are still missing from the spec sheet of the Civic VTi-S, but it is real-world performance, not box-ticking technology, that matters most. And, unfortunately for Honda, itís the mediocrity of the base Civicís carry-over drivetrain that prevents its promising return-to-form from truly materialising.

Rather than employ a traditional torque-converter automatic, Honda has followed the lead of Toyota, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Subaru in opting for a CVT.

And only a CVT.

To its credit, the Hondaís transmission anticipates sporty driving behaviour when accelerating or braking heavily in Sport mode, and will swing its tacho needle more quickly to its 6400rpm power point to improve responsiveness.

Granted, not everyone (in fact, barely anyone) will drive the Civic VTi-S like Fernando Alonso. But what canít be overlooked is the volume of noise from its engine bay when asked to perform, or its mushy throttle response when slotted into ĎDí. Not only is the Hondaís step-off languid, but accelerating from a rolling start doesnít save its CVTís reputation, either. At 7.3sec from 80-120km/h, the Civic VTi-S is the slowest of the group by some margin. And it also irritatingly hangs onto revs for a split second after you lift the throttle.

Given a competitive transmission Ė even one of Hondaís dated five-speed autos Ė the Civic VTi-S would be much more appealing. Equipment levels are healthy, with smartphone mirroring, a kerbside camera view, climate control, front and rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, keyless entry/start and a slick electronic instrument panel. And the Hondaís cabin has a cohesive, high-quality feel that elevates it far beyond rivals like the patchy Corolla.

Cabin comfort is just as generous, with a huge amount of rear legroom and deep-set, welcoming seats making the Civic feel like a mini-limo.

Thoughtful touches such as coat hooks mounted on the B-pillar and a vast centre-console box help offset the absence of rear face-level vents and the somewhat ridiculous and difficult to access doubledeck lower console trays.

But itís chassis dynamics that shine brightest in the new Civic, thanks to steering thatís initially light but progressively weighted and incredibly incisive, an eager front-end, supple damping and excellent grip from 215-section tyres. The new-gen Honda feels wonderfully light on its feet compared to many others in the group, and has a degree of fluency and poise that are hard to beat.

Whatís more, the Civicís handling nous isnít the result of rock-hard spring rates and aggressive damper settings. It rides comfortably and quietly over bumps and corrugations that would see some of the others kiss their bump-stops.

Combined with its terrific seating and space, thereís so much goodness to be had in the new Civic.

But until Honda sees fit to invest in higher-quality drivetrains Ė yes, we just said that about a Honda Ė then the promising Civic is destined to flounder mid-pack, unable to realise the potential of its fantastic handling and ride. TOK

7.0SCORE

SPECS

$24,490 Engine 1799cc 4cyl, sohc, 16v Power 104kW @ 6500rpm Torque 174Nm @ 4300rpm Transmission CVT automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4644/1799/1416/2700mm Weight 1261kg Cargo capacity 519 litres Tyres Dunlop Enasave EC300 215/55R16 Test fuel cons 8.4L/100km 0-60km/h 4.7sec 0-100km/h 9.2sec 80-120km/h 7.3sec 3yr resale 63.5% . Vast cabin; supple ride; excellent handling . Off-the-line lethargy; lumpy CVT; ageing engine

Growth strategy

While the Civic name was originally applied to a range of dainty cars that make a current Jazz look big, the 10th-generation Civic sedan is properly huge. For a small car, it offers a cabin that challenges some midsize and large cars for space and comfort, and its 519-litre boot is bigger than a VF Commodoreís. Just how much has it grown over the years?

The first-generation Civic sedan was more than one metre shorter, and the new Civic is longer, wider and taller than a 1990 Mitsubishi Magna.

6th

Ford Focus Trend

SHOWING ITS AGE, BUT STILL WITH AMPLE DRIVER APPEAL

FORD may have gradually toned down the scalpelsharp dynamics of its era-defining small car over the years, but the Ecoboost-powered Focus Trend proves that keen driving spirit remains a touchstone for the Blue Oval brand.

Introduced here in mid-2015, this major facelift of the third-generation Focus debuted a brand new 132kW 1.5-litre turbo-petrol engine Ė replacing the torqueless old 2.0-litre GDi donk Ė as well as a revised chassis with a stiffer front-end, re-tuned dampers and a new electric-steering calibration to significantly enhance its driver appeal.

But there has also been a tangible increase in the perceived value of the Focus. With the povvo-spec Ambiente relegated to history, the entry-level Trend treads a similar path to Holdenís Astra R in that it conceals the fact you could only afford the cheap seats. Front fog lights, attractive 16-inch wheels, (non-LED) daytime running lights and a handsome, gender-neutral appearance give the ageing Ford surprising driveway cred.

Itís reasonably well-equipped, too, with most of the fundamentals receiving a tick. A leather-bound steering wheel, dual front lumbar adjustment, idlestop system, reversing camera with parking sensors and a new 8.0-inch centre touchscreen featuring sat-nav and emergency assistance bring this affordable Ford up to par, though its new centre-stack switchgear doesnít look too special, including basic push-button air-con, and AEB is only available on the $32K Titanium.

But, unlike the Astra, the Focusís cabin ambience betrays its price. Coal-mine grey with very firm seats and lots of plastic, it doesnít make a great first impression. Same goes for the rear seatís lack of overhead grab handles, air vents, a centre armrest or adequate door bins. But if you can get past the visual austerity, thereís much to like in its overall seat support, decent driving position, new steering wheel (with weirdly coarse covering) and space.

Focusís main drawcard, however, is its ability to please. With newfound urge from the feisty turbo 1.5, the Focus Trend finally has the grunt to flatter its dynamic fluency, despite a Sport transmission mode

7.5SCORE

that isnít particularly sporty (and a horrendous tipshift toggle on the side of the gearlever for manual inputs). Thereís enough torque to compensate most of the time, backed by a subtle induction rasp, but the Focus is all about the delicious nuance of its independent rear-end. The way it pivots the car into a corner has Focus DNA written all over it, and while the revised steering isnít as incisive as the Civicís, or as quick as the Fordís eager chassis deserves, thereís a level of communication thatís both encouraging and confidence-inspiring.

Focusís ride is on the firm side, if beautifully controlled, but in combination with those unyielding seats and a fair amount of road noise, itís starting to become obvious that Fordís small-car mainstay is rapidly approaching retirement age.

Just have a look at its weight. An old-fashioned 1393kg of lard doesnít affect its dynamic verve, but it sure is noticeable at the pump. The Trendís official figure is 6.2L/100km, though real-world testing says it demands a gentle touch to hit that mark.

As in our December 2015 comparo (against Golf and Corolla), the Focus Trend was the thirstiest car on test, nudged into last place by the low-mileage Astra.

But itís also among the quickest cars in its class, with an engaging aural personality and delightful dynamic proficiency. In a nondescript, workmanlike auto hatch, thatís an ability we value immensely. NP

SPECS

$24,390* Engine 1499cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo Power 132kW @ 6000rpm Torque 240Nm @ 1600-5000rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4358/1823/1484/2648mm Weight 1393kg Cargo capacity 316 litres Tyres Goodyear Assurance 205/60R16 92V Test fuel cons. 10.5L/100km 0-60km/h 3.5sec 0-100km/h 8.3sec 80-120km/h 5.7sec 3yr resale 54.5% . Performance; steering and handling; plenty of room . Dour cabin; hard-driven thirst; average refinement

Behind the scene

Despite claiming a not-so-vast 316 litres of luggage space, thereís ample practicality hiding in the Focus hatchís hindquarters, starting with a full-size 16-inch spare wheel beneath the boot floor. The Trend also features four Ďtakeawayí hooks to hang stuff from, plus a double-folding rear seat. Weirdly, though, only the backrests are split 60/40. You can fold them forward while leaving the cushion in place, though they donít go flat. If a nearhorizontal floor is your aim, youíll need to flip the cushion first, yet itís only a one-piece unit.

Besides a flatter floor, an added benefit is a barrier between rear cargo and front passengers.

5th

Mazda 3 Maxx

LARGELY COMPLETE PACKAGE THAT HAS THE MAXX FACTOR

MAZDAíS successful 3 line-up kicks off with the Neo base model, but itís the $24,890 Maxx that looks like the value-for-money sweet spot. That said, you donít get frills like keyless entry or climate control but, like interior presentation that seems a bit plain yet has quality where it counts, you do get sat-nav and a leather-clad steering wheel. The rotary controller for the menu-driven MZD Connect system works well, too.

The Mazda also has great seats in the front, with plenty of bolstering, and even the rear bench is sculpted to give passengers a dash of lateral support, even though it makes the rear-centre position more of a perch. Rear knee-room is a bit tight, however, and weíre tempted to point the finger at Mazdaís current cab-rearward design language as the culprit. That said, headroom in the back is plentiful.

The 3ís safety credentials start with a reversing camera as standard in the Maxx and extend to forward collision warning, rear parking sensors, smart citybraking and rear cross-traffic alert.

Mazdaís policy of sticking with high-compression atmo engines rather than smaller-capacity turbo motors is all about saving fuel, yet on test the Mazdaís 8.7L/100km lagged behind its best boosted rivals. And while its 2.0-litre engine is smooth, it doesnít have the punch of a good modern turbo unit and feels like itís missing a good dollop of torque in the mid-range. It needs 4000rpm on board to really perform, but itís keen to get there, and even sounds a bit rorty.

What saves the 3ís driveability is its six-speed automatic, though thereís a sense of needing to feed in a fair bit of throttle to keep it on the boil, making the gearbox seem a little too eager to kick down at times. The other gearbox foible is that it wonít select sixth (top) gear when the car is in Sport mode. You can manually select sixth (using steering-wheel paddles that are standard on the Maxx) and force the issue, but it means youíre less likely to use that Sport mode, which is a shame as it also sharpens the throttle response and makes the 3 feel perkier.

The Mazdaís dynamic highlight is without doubt its beautiful chassis balance and accurate but never busy steering feedback. It has a very natural, flowing feel as you guide it through a series of corners, and even though the ride feels like the chassis could be a bit soft at the limit, it isnít. In fact, thatís quite a trick; making a car ride so well Ė and quieter than it used to Ė that it comes as a surprise when it also corners sharply.

Only a slightly wooden brake pedal spoils the polished feel on the open road; that and the fact that the brake pedal itself is placed too far to the right for comfortable left-foot braking. But thereís no doubting the fact that the 2.0-litre auto Maxx is the 3 at its finest.

The more you ask from it, the better it gets. And the harder you drive it, the greater its involvement.

The Maxx is really only let down by its dark and relatively spartan interior, but if itís sparkle you want, then grab its great new steering wheel and head for the hills. Or the shops. This is an all-rounder that works on every level. SW

7.5SCORE

SPECS

$24,890 Engine 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v Power 114kW @ 6000rpm Torque 200Nm @ 4000rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4580/1795/1450/2700mm Weight 1291kg Cargo capacity 408 litres Tyres Toyo Nano Energy R38 205/60R16 92V Test fuel cons. 8.7L/100km 0-60km/h 4.2 sec 0-100km/h 9.1 sec 80-120km/h 6.0 sec 3yr resale 66% . Dynamically adept; wonít scare the horses; 3 at its best . More thrust wouldnít hurt; rear-seat vision

Sky has a limit

Much has been made of Mazdaís ĎSkyActiví engine tech that places high-compression ratios and clever cam timing ahead of forced induction. And thereís nothing wrong with the theory. Mazdaís multi-hole injectors, squirting directly into the combustion chamber, are another piece of the puzzle, as is the 4-2-1 exhaust system.

Unfortunately, weíre not getting the full effect of SkyActiv because Oz-spec engines feature a 13.0:1 compression ratio (still sky-high in a broad sense) rather than the 14.0:1 of other markets.

Why? Simple; our 91RON petrol is rubbish and wonít support the higher compression.

4th

Subaru Impreza 2.0i-L

FINALLY, A RETURN TO BEING WORTHY OF OUR AFFECTION

PEOPLE want to like the Subaru Impreza. Itís one of those slightly oddball, endearingly reliable cars that marches to the beat of its own boxer engine, without ever quite upsetting the small-car status quo by being really bloody good. But this fifth-generation model has given it a red-hot go.

Based on brand-new Subaru Global Platform architecture, this box-fresh Impreza is the first non- WRX model in more than a decade to offer genuine driver appeal. And itís the first Impreza since the nameplateís 1992 inception to offer rear-seat room thatís borderline class-leading. Lounging room, even.

With airy spaciousness in all directions and stadium-style seating delivering a superb view, about the only black mark against the Imprezaís back section is a lack of air vents. And, if youíre a pedant, mismatching carbonfibre-esque door inserts.

Thankfully, the dash-mounted vents sit high and proud, filtering dual-zone, climate-controlled freshness in typically chilled Subaru fashion. And while thereís definitely an aura of familiarity in the new Imprezaís interior, this is next-level stuff for a brand that has failed to repeat the cabin high-point of the 2003 Liberty. Even on this $24K variant, you get loads of classy exposed stitching, a lovely dashboard finish and a bunch of different info screens no longer fighting over whose fonts are worst.

The driving position doesnít quite equal its palatial rear, owing to that long-held Japanese bugbear of inadequate seating adjustment (cue an approximate level-adjust backrest). But its chunky leather-bound steering wheel and neat new switchgear imbue it with a level of class beyond its relatively meagre price point. And thereís the bonus of Subaruís full suite of ĎEyesightí driver-assist tech, including lanekeep assist, adaptive cruise control and AEB.

The biggest sweetener with the new Impreza, however, is the way it drives. Itís goodbye soggy stodge and hello crisp suppleness. Thereís genuine poise to the Subaruís all-wheel-drive chassis, and the more you throw it around the greater your respect for its abilities. It uses its double-wishbone IRS to really drive the nose into a corner (though not to quite the same extent as the top-spec 2.0i-S with its torquevectoring rear-end) and thereís a fluidity that feels polished and sophisticated.

Beyond some low-speed busyness, the Imprezaís quiet ride quality is mostly supple and controlled, though it isnít as well-damped as the sporty Astra or Mazda 3, and it occasionally lets bumps hit home that donít faze its best rivals. Yet this mild lack of damping finesse never fazes the prodigious purchase of its all-paw chassis.

What it does do, however, is expose the need for greater front-seat bolstering, and the obvious potential afforded by another 500cc of engine capacity (or a low-blow turbo set-up). Smooth and tractable as the Imprezaís CVT-harnessed directinjection flat-four is, its performance ability sits well below the capability of its chassis. And while thereís acceptable shove on the move, as well as a surprisingly effective manual mode for proper engine-braking, for all its muted flat-four character, the Subaruís drivetrain works best when operating unobtrusively in its mid-range.

Thereís some chain-driven CVT whine in hard driving and, at the other extreme, an unusual pulsing under very light throttle when surfing the engineís modest torque that feels a bit like Ďcabbie footí.

Itís only noticeable on really smooth roads, but itís definitely a flaw of the CVT transmission. Oh, for a modern eight-speed automaticÖ Yet the new-gen Impreza is a sizeable leap forward for Subaru, offering an intelligently packaged, rewarding drive, as well as serious value for money.

And it continues to offer something different from the norm, which, in a world of homogeneity, is something we like very much indeed. NP

7.5SCORE

SPECS

$24,690 Engine 1995cc flat 4, dohc, 16v Power 115kW @ 6000rpm Torque 196Nm @ 4000rpm Transmission CVT automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4460/1775/1480/2670mm Weight 1417kg Cargo capacity 345 litres Tyres Bridgestone Turanza T001 205/50R17 89V Test fuel cons. 9.1L/100km 0-60km/h 4.9sec 0-100km/h 9.9sec 80-120km/h 6.9sec 3yr resale 68% . Vast rear seat; capable chassis; equipment . Deserves more grunt; some CVT foibles; still not sexy

Booting the boxer

Joining the fifth-generation Impreza hatch in Subaru showrooms from December will be a four-door sedan variant, mirroring the hatchís four-model line-up (2.0i, 2.0i-L, 2.0i-Premium, 2.0i-S) and CVT-only transmission status, but with a $200 saving. As with the hatch, the base 2.0i ($22,400) brings a shedload of kit, including Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, climate control, cruise control, 17-inch alloys, rear privacy glass, idle-stop and all-wheel drive with four-wheel disc brakes.

A new-gen, jacked-up XV will arrive towards the end of June, while Impreza-based WRX, STi and Levorg models wonít land until 2018. ch top w-ill nd eza-nd

3rd

Peugeot 308 Active

FRENCH FLAIR MEETS PRAGMATIC PERFORMANCE

TWO YEARS ago the Peugeot 308 wowed Wheels Car of the Year, placing as a finalist amid staunch competition. Going into this Megatest, there was mild concern it may not have held up well enough to tangle with the top contenders. Shame on us. If anything, the 308 Active is now a more persuasive value proposition than it was then, despite the $27,990 outlay making it the priciest here.

For MY17, Peugeot has ditched the price-leading Access variant and added gear to the now basemodel 308 Active. Itís a fully featured ensemble that extends Peugeotís resurgence by nailing down the practical necessities in an elegant hatchback thatís truly entertaining to drive.

The most convincing element of the package is the 1.2-litre turbo triple. Numbers of 96kW and 230Nm are easily dismissed on paper, but they say nothing about its tractable, effervescent nature. It has the most character of the dozen engines here. Much of that charm comes from its rorty induction note and power delivery, which is as smooth as Sinatraís velvety timbre.

Peugeot deserves serious plaudits for its PureTech engine family. The petite petrol three-pot hums away happily in the lightweight 308, sipping premium unleaded at a lesser rate than everything bar the hyper-frugal Skoda. And the six-speed automatic from Japanese outfit Aisin has well-judged ratios and a spot-on Sport calibration, making it straightforward to explore the 308ís satisfying torque reserve without over-egged urgency.

At a moderate clip the 308 feels compact and easy to place. Its small, egg-shaped steering wheel suits the pointy front-end. Itís a natural steerer that tucks into corners eagerly and precisely, working with the road to simplify the task of tracing an arc through a curve. Itís as alert and incisive as the Mazda 3, but has a calmer, more impervious ride. Peugeot has made a torsion-beam rear-end that works. The 308 is communicative, and effortless to drive neatly.

If you canít be in the driverís seat, be good at calling shotgun. The 308ís second row is one of the smallest here. At least the seats themselves are good, and low seatbacks in the front affect an elevated, theatre-style view from the rear, offering expansive outward visibility ideal for kids. Boot space is above average, though in-car storage isnít.

Snug front seats overlook an architecturally sculpted dashboard where minimalism rules. There are no controls on the centre console except demister buttons and a metal volume knob that could share its part number with a high-end stereo. Everything else is accessed through the touchscreen, which can be exasperating at times. The interior styling is typical Peugeot conservative in its shades of black, but the longer you look at it, the greater your appreciation.

To offset the higher point of entry to 308, Peugeot has added sat-nav and a reversing camera with sensors to the Activeís already extensive equipment list. It has climate control, height and lumbar adjustable front seats, auto windows front and back, and auto headlights and wipers. It feels premium and suave Ė more so than its French counterpart, the Renault Megane.

Ultimately, the 308 falls short of the Golfís universal appeal, its back-seat space and outright functionality. And though the 308 doesnít want for power, itís beaten by the Astraís superior performance and keener price.

What the 308 does best is wrap itself around its driver. Itís a far more cohesive and engaging experience than its matter-of-fact competitors. RL

8.0SCORE

SPECS

106 $27,990 Engine 1199cc 3cyl, dohc, 12v, turbo Power 96kW @ 5500rpm Torque 230Nm @ 1750rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4253/1804/1457/2620mm Weight 1150kg Cargo capacity 435 litres Tyres Goodyear Efficient Grip 205/55R16 91V Test fuel cons. 7.6L/100km 0-60km/h 3.8sec 0-100km/h 8.9sec 80-120km/h 6.3sec 3yr resale 47.5% . Personality; sophistication; efficiency; dynamics . Limited rear-seat legroom; minimal cabin storage

KISS and we tell

In an effort to consolidate its 308 range for MY17, Peugeot has reduced 17 variants to just six. The base Access and topspec Allure Premium are no more. The 308 Active becomes the starting point, and MY17 Allure picks up features from the old Allure Premium such as blind-spot monitoring, active cruise, pre-collision alert, city self-park and a panoramic glass roof. The 110kW/240Nm 1.6-litre turbo-petrol four-pot is gone from the 308 hatch, replaced by the brilliant 1.2-litre three-pot. Thereís little downside other than marginally more expensive capped-price service costs: $2930 for the 1.2 over five years and $2865 for the 1.6.

2nd

Holden Astra R

WHY THIS BASE PLAYER IS PART OF THE BEST SMALL-HOLDEN BAND IN YEARS

8.5SCORE

ONE OF the new Astraís biggest selling points is likely to be the fact that, based on appearance and equipment levels, youíd never pick it as the entrylevel version. The smooth, Euro lines stamp it as one of the better-looking hatches around at any price, and the standard kit leans towards the upper end of things. Okay, you donít get keyless anything and thereís no sat-nav or climate control, but with a starting price of $24,190 for the 1.4 auto, that shouldnít play against the Astra too much.

Holden is clearly playing on the fact that, long after youíve tired of the gadgets, that high-end ambience will still be making you smile. So will the standard digital radio, which boasts the most dropout- free reception weíve encountered. Bar none. The front seats also lead this pack for their support and comfort, while rear-seat accommodation features plenty of foot-room, adequate headroom and kneeroom, and the only rear bench of this lot to offer even a smidgeon of under-thigh support. So Holden has spent the money in the right places then? Well, apart from the neatly shaped steering wheel, which in the Astra R is plastic. This car deserves better.

More importantly, the Astra R scores well in terms of dynamics and driveability as well as being the hatchback here that is most obviously aimed at a sporty type of driver. The new-gen 1.4-litre engine is revvy yet refined, and even though thereís a bit of that Hoover-whoosh through the turbo fourís tailpipe, itís always an entertaining unit. It delivers in this company, too, with a seamless idle-stop system and sufficient grunt to put it at the pointy end of the rankings in acceleration testing.

The only real black eye comes in the form of fuel consumption; with a Megatest figure of 10.2L/100km, itís all but the thirstiest of the lot. That said, our test car had yet to tick over its first 800km, so weíd need to test a more fully run-in example before condemning it as a guzzler. And, driven without using the extra performance the Astra offers, the respective consumption figures might just even up. But thatís just not our style.

Another big part of the Astraís charm is its six-speed automatic that, apart from being slightly slow to kick down at times, keeps the turbo engine on the boil. You wonít mistake the gearbox for one of those voguish dual-clutch units, but only true die-hards will feel the need to tick the six-speed manual íbox when ordering their Astra. Even with the automatic, you still get the sportiest feel in this field, including steering that is very natural and allows the car to shrink around you at speed. Why, then, given this level of ability, has GM laid out the up-down manual tip-shift backwards?

On the safety side of things, the Astra scores okay for a base model, with a reversing camera as standard, but if you want AEB, lane-assist and forward collision alert, you need to spend $1000 for a safety pack thatís standard on upper models.

Overall, the Astraís driving experience lacks the outright playful charm of the Peugeot, but the Holdenís limits are ultimately higher. And even though it still uses a torsion-beam rear-end (as opposed to a fully independent set-up), it does feature a Watts link to locate the axle laterally. And thatís probably a metaphor for the whole Astra, really.

While it doesnít have some of the latest trendy tech, the commendable core engineering makes up for that to a large degree while still allowing Holden to offer the car at a bargain price. SW

SPECS

$24,190 Engine 1399cc 4cyl, dohc, turbo Power 110kW @ 5000-5600rpm Torque 240Nm @ 2000-4000rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4386/1809/1485/2662mm Weight 1304kg Cargo capacity 360 litres Tyres Michelin Primacy 3 225/45R17 91W Test fuel cons. 10.2L/100km 0-60km/h 3.6sec 0-100km/h 8.1sec 80-120km/h 5.9sec 3yr resale 52% . Sporty feel; great seats; styling; performance; value . Thirsty if driven hard; firm ride; no leather wheel

Whatís in a name?

In a Holden Astra, more than you might think. You see, the Astra badge is really the only thing the various generations of Astras have shared in this country as the model has been sourced from one GM brand and then another or even model-shared. The Aussie Astra thing all started back in 1984 with a couple of generations of Nissan Pulsars badged as Astras as part of the Button Plan. The badge disappeared in 1989 (replaced by the Toyota-built Nova), then reappeared in 1996 as the Vauxhall-made TR model. From there, the Opel-made ( Belgium) Astra appeared in 1998 and ran through until 2009 when the Cruze replaced it. And now here it is againÖ Toyot 1 m a t h

1st

Volkswagen Golf 92TSI

ER, STOP US IF YOUíVE HEARD THIS ONE BEFOREÖ

WHENEVER the Mk7 Volkswagen Golf is thrown into a comparo, we have lofty expectations of it.

And for good reason; itís a former COTY champion and happens to win a hell of a lot. Why? Because when it comes to small cars that offer driveability, efficiency, comfort, luxury and quality in near-perfect equilibrium, thereís no vehicle thatís more complete than a Golf. Especially the brilliant base model.

The 92TSIís performance in this Megatest only serves to reinforce that notion. Sure, its 1.4-litre turbo-petrol four may have been eclipsed by the Astraís similarly sized engine for smoothness and quietness, but the Volkswagen unit continues to prove exceptionally fuel efficient (averaging 7.7L/100km on this test), and it torques out more than enough performance.

Impressive as the new Astra is, though, it canít quite match the Teflon-coated slickness and all-round excellence that continues to make the base Golf shine four years after its international launch. It remains the benchmark when it comes to interior finish, overall refinement and packaging efficiency in this segment.

The Volksyís foibles are few, limited to 15-inch ecobiased tyres that donít grip as well as they ought, some dual-clutch snatchiness at low speeds and a price tag thatís at the upper end of the spectrum Ė topped only by the more heavily featured Peugeot.

The base Golfís 6.5-inch touchscreen isnít the biggest here and thereís no sat-nav, but it does at least compensate with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. It also comes with AEB, as well as a heap of surprise-anddelight features that none of its rivals can defeat. Cue its brilliant height- and length-adjustable front-centre armrest (no one does it better) and its dual-level boot floor that can stow the parcel beneath it.

some Golfís interior may be the ultimate expression of German conservatism, but for tactility and function, itís incredibly hard to fault. Front seat comfort is excellent for a wide range of body types (even the passenger gets a height-adjustable seat squab), the glasshouse is expansive, the view outside unencumbered by thick pillars, and the slick switchgear is worlds apart from the plasticky buttons and insubstantial stalks found in some other cars here.

And it gets better in the back. Sculpted seatbacks on all three positions of the rear bench mean the Golf can legitimately carry three abreast in roughly equal comfort Ė provided theyíre either kids or relatively slim-hipped adults.

Rear air vents are a rarity at the lower end of the small-car hierarchy, but Volkswagen has prioritised them over a fold-down centre-rear armrest or seatback map pockets. Seems that even VW has to keep costs down somehow, as the neatly stitched vinyl backs of the Golfís front seats attest.

Finally, thereís the driving experience. The Golfís effortless, torque-rich drivetrain combines beautifully with its supple, fluid and calm road manners to make this feel like a proper little luxury hatch.

It doesnít have anything like the tyre grip of most rivals, but the Golf 92TSI has a lovely adjustability to it, utilising its sophisticated rear-end to maintain its balance and adhesion in virtually all situations. And it still feels impervious, like no distance or surface challenge can shake it.

While its rivals are catching it and thereís no doubt the humble Golf is starting to age, it remains the best allrounder of this dozen-strong field. If you arenít put off by the conservatism of its styling, youíll love the flair in this carís engineering. TOK

8.5SCORE

SPECS

$25,340 Engine 1395cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo Power 92kW @ 5000-6000 Torque 200Nm @ 1400-4000rpm Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4349/1799/1491/2620mm Weight 1229kg Cargo capacity 380 litres Tyres Continental ContiEcoContact 5 195/65R15 91H Test fuel cons. 7.7L/100km 0-60km/h 4.1sec 0-100km/h 8.8sec 80-120km/h 6.2sec 3yr resale 59% . Exceptional fit and finish; ride; packaging; efficiency . Dearer than most rivals; DSGís low-speed refinement

The little things, and counting

Things like coat hooks on the B-pillars and shopping bag hooks in the boot area are evidence of Volkswagenís attention to detail with the Golf.

And things that set it apart from the pack as the more premium choice. There are also ingenious spring-loaded tabs that secure the bootís false floor in the raised position when you need to access the spare wheel, and every door bin is lined with carpet to stop your bits and bobs from sliding and rattling. For a mainstream hatch Ė especially one priced at $25K Ė they are neat touches.