1. FORD FOCUS
The Ford Focus is a practical, multi-skilled car that’s a good drive, thanks to its rigid body shell and tuned chassis. It is also comfortable with road and suspension noise suppressed, wind disturbance lower than average and smooth engines. It is well built, with a range of safety and security features as standard, and most models have a generous level of equipment including power steering and central locking. There is a wide choice of engines available in the range – from a 1.4-litre petrol to a 2.0-litre, via a couple of diesels. The smallest petrol unit is underpowered, but the rest deliver crisp performance. For a blend of pace, performance and fuel economy, the pick of the range is the 115bhp TDCi.
2. VAUXHALL ASTRA
After the Focus, the Astra is the next best-driving small hatch available. It is controlled and entertaining to drive, with a good suspension and nicely weighted steering. All the engines available offer good driving and fuel economy but the 1.8 petrol unit has excellent pace. Security equipment is lacking, with no etched windows, and a car in this class should have anti-lock brakes and side airbags as standard safety features.
3. FORD MONDEO
The Mondeo is excellent to drive with alert steering, well-controlled body movements and a comfortable, fluid ride. All engines perform well but the petrol units can feel laboured at low revs. The new diesels are very driveable. Inside the car there’s very little road or tyre noise but wind noise can be irritating. The Mondeo is well built, reliable and comes with an impressive array of safety features and a neat interior.
4. VAUXHALL CORSA
The Vauxhall Corsa is nippy through town and perfectly capable on motorways, but as the power comes high in the rev range a heavy foot is needed to get away quickly. However, fuel economy is impressive and the Lotus-adjusted suspension makes for a good ride. The steering often feels too light, especially at speed, but it does make parking in tight spots easy. The Corsa’s boot is spacious, but the cabin can feel cramped, particularly for taller drivers and when carrying four adults. In equipment terms, only the bare minimum is provided as standard, including safety features.
5. VAUXHALL VECTRA
The weight of this car hinders the performance of the smaller engines in the range, although most deal well with motorway cruising. The 3.2 litre V6 is best avoided by the frugally minded or company car drivers due to poor fuel consumption and high company car taxation. The new Vectra is much better to drive than its predecessor, soaking up the bumps well and with tighter body control. The absence of road and wind noise makes the cabin a calm and quiet place to be at most speeds. The controls are clear and logical, and with the exception of the gearlever, move with slick precision. The Vectra is also packed full of safety, security and general equipment.
6. RENAULT MEGANE
The new, distinctive-looking Megane is refined and comfortable to drive, with a choice of five engines available, ranging from 1.4 to 1.9 litres and 80bhp to 136bhp. The 1.6 petrol and the diesels offer a relaxing drive yet still provide good pace and cruising ability. The ride is supple but susceptible to potholes and can lean in tight corners. Inside, the Megane is bigger than its predecessor but can’t compete with many other cars in this class. Boot space is average and rear legroom is inadequate for adult passengers. However, all models are generously specced – only the base models go without air conditioning.
7. VOLKSWAGEN GOLF
The Golf is not an exciting drive and its smooth motorway ride degenerates into bounce, body roll and hesitant steering as soon as the road is uneven. However, exterior noises are well suppressed and the VW still has an air of class. The cabin oozes quality. The build and mechanicals are solid and reliable too. The Golf comes with plenty of safety and security features, but only half of the cars available in the range have air conditioning, and three models don’t even have central locking or electric windows.
8. RENAULT CLIO
The Clio is cheap to run and offers plenty of variety of price, character and performance. However, it is not as good as many of its rivals to drive, having too firm a ride and lacking agility in handling. The engines on offer are all fine units, but the nippy 1.2 is the best all-rounder. The diesels tend to be noisy, though. Inside, the car is pedestrian and not as spacious as others in this class, although it is reasonably well put together. Most trim levels come with a generous equipment list, but while the Clio has a proven safety record security is only adequately catered for.
9. PEUGEOT 206
A supple ride and agile chassis make the 206 great fun to drive, but it is let down by a poor driving position and dowdy interior. All but the 1.1-litre engine are punchy and refined, although they can be noisy, especially as a good dose of revs is needed to get the best out of them. Tyre noise and the air conditioning, where fitted, make a racket. The interior is spacious and the boot offers enough room for most people’s needs. Equipment, however, is not generous.
10. PEUGEOT 307
This is a well-made, spacious and stylish small hatch, but its weight hampers it. Road noise is kept out of the orderly cabin and there’s plenty of room for front-seat passengers. Visibility is hampered by a long dash and steep nose, and the sloping rear roofline means taller people will feel cramped. The 307 is well-equipped, though.
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