If you're in the market for a mainstream small car let's eliminate the crap and get you down to a manageable short list so you can go test driving with confidence this weekend.
- Chery J3 - nobody deserves that
- Proton Persona, Preve and Suprima S: all inferior.
- Skoda Rapid: clubbed with reliability deficiencies.
- Toyota Prius: a nice idea that still hasn't really caught on.
- Citroen C4 and DS4: irrelevant to mainstream buyers
- Kia Soul and Toyota Rukus: Ditto
- Peugeot 3008: What were they thinking?
- Renault's Fluence: never really got out of the blocks either.
- Alfa Romeo Guilietta: Too risky - like having a fling with the boss's PA, on the boardroom table.
Volkswagen Golf: Just gorgeous. In that minimalist, Teutonic way. And great to drive. What a pity Volkswagen still hasn't bothered to get its act together on reliability. Buying a Volkswagen Golf is like playing Russian roulette with reliability - and four of the chambers are loaded.
Holden Cruze Without doubt the Cruze is the worst mainstream small car on Australian roads today. The Cruze is a hand grenade with a loose pin, and Holden has managed to make the Cruze even uglier for 2015. That's a real achievement.
Honda Civic Honda was a great carmaker in the 1990s - the BMW of the Orient. But the Honda of today is just a shadow of its former self: smashed by the global financial crisis and washed up on the rocks after the terrible Tohoku tsunami. The Civic sedan today has been substantively unchanged since 2006. In human years, that makes it about 90 years old.
Mitsubishi Lancer I had hair when this platform was launched. This year marks the 10th year on sale for the current generation Honda Civic and Mitsubishi Lancer. If you want a brand new car that's essentially already a decade old, these are the two for you.
Nissan Pulsar Pretty new, but manuals aren't all that well sorted out and the auto is a CVT. Nissan is having a horror run with CVT reliability issues elsewhere in its inventory, and it's probably too risky to give the CVT in the Pulsar the benefit of the doubt.
Renault Megane and the Peugeot 308 have to go to that great parking garage in the sky, as well.
Ford Focus Frankly, here's a car with delusions of adequacy. It's pitched squarely at the Mazda3, but it really doesn't measure up. It's made in Thailand, which has had a free-trade agreement in place for donkey's years, and yet it's not cheaper than the Mazda3, which is made in Japan. The Focus powertrain's not as good as the Mazda: 1.6 and 2.0-litre petrol fours in the Focus are down on power and torque, as well as less fuel efficient than Mazda's 2.0 and 2.5-litre SKYACTIV petrol fours. The Focus has a hideous dual-clutch transmission that's just wrong for normal driving. And sales are in freefall. So, basically, if you want a car that costs the same as a Mazda3 but is less powerful, less efficient, worse at changing gear in traffic and the same price, your search is over. But I think the rest of us will move on.
THE SHORT LIST
So that leaves us with six very solid mainstream contenders for your cash: Hyundai Elantra and i30, Kia Cerato, Mazda3, Subaru Impreza and Toyota Corolla.
Toyota Corolla The smart conservative buy. It's not sporty. It's not especially engaging. It's comfortable. It's capable. It does what you tell it, and it never backchats. It's well adjusted. It's also the top-selling car in the country. If you want transport, and the car's essentially not an extension of your ego, Corolla is ideal.
Subaru Impreza It's on this short list because it's the only one with permanent all-wheel drive. It's a real asset for dynamic composure on wet bitumen and unsealed roads in particular. So if you're concerned about having to negotiate regularly a treacherous bit of road in the wet, perhaps with a baby on board, then Impreza is one car to test drive.
South Koreans The fundamental engineering underpinnings are common to all three. Elantra is essentially an i30 sedan. Cerato is available in sedan and hatch. i30 also comes in a neat wagon, and Cerato is also available as a coupe. The South Korean warranty is also very impressive: five years for the Hyundais; seven for the Kia - both with unlimited kilometres. Everything else on the short list: three years' warranty with 100,000 kilometres.
Mazda3 Brilliant to drive. Great on technology, but not quite as sharp on value or warranty as the South Koreans. Any Mazda3 with "SP25" in its name - straight SP25, SP25 GT or SP25 Astina - is the pick for anyone who loves driving. The 2.5-litre engine in these models is a serious upgrade on the 2.0-litre in lesser Mazda3s and they're very refined cars overall.