Small end of town

SUVs are flavour of the month but the hum­ble hatch is a bet­ter buy. We look at three of the best.

The Courier-Mail - Motoring - - Cover Story - RICHARD BLACK­BURN CARSGUIDE ED­I­TOR

THE reign of the hum­ble hatch­back is com­ing to a close.

It has been Aus­tralia’s favourite choice of wheels since top­pling the tra­di­tional big Aussie sedan five years ago.

But buy­ers are flocking to small SUVs and one-tonne utes and next year, SUVs are ex­pected to over­take con­ven­tional cars as the kings of the road.

That’s a shame be­cause hatch­backs are bet­ter value, bet­ter to drive and just as prac­ti­cal as sim­i­larly priced SUVs. Take the Mazda3, which costs the same as the com­pany’s CX-3 baby SUV but has more power and holds more lug­gage.

The hatch mar­ket has been spiced up in re­cent months with the re­turn of Holden’s pop­u­lar As­tra name­plate and an all-new Subaru Im­preza. In re­sponse Mazda has tweaked its 3 and added safety tech­nol­ogy. There’s a lot rid­ing on the new As­tra. The ad­ver­tis­ing pitch is pre­mium Euro and hi-tech and the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence lives up to that claim.

The As­tra has a punchy 1.4cylin­der turbo un­der the bon­net, while the sus­pen­sion has been tuned to pro­vide a sporty, en­gag­ing drive. The steer­ing is well-weighted and re­sponds ac­cu­rately to driver in­puts, while the driv­e­line is su­pe­rior to th­ese Ja­panese ri­vals.

On sec­ond-rate sur­faces, the ride isn’t as for­giv­ing as the other two but it’s a rea­son­able trade-off for the driv­ing dy­nam­ics.

That’s where the good news ends. The R is the cheap­est As­tra in the range, yet it costs the same money as more up­mar­ket ver­sions of the Im­preza and Mazda3.

Its en­try-level sta­tus shows in the cabin, both in the qual­ity of ma­te­ri­als used and the amount of equip­ment you get for the money.

The Mazda and Subaru have push-but­ton start but the As­tra needs a key. The Ja­panese ri­vals have leather-wrapped steer­ing wheels and gear shifters, the As­tra’s is a cheaper rub­ber job.

Same story in the rear seats, where the As­tra doesn’t get a rear arm­rest with cuphold­ers nor any bot­tle hold­ers in the doors. There are no fog lights, ei­ther.

The list goes on but prob­a­bly th the most glar­ing omis­sion is the la lack of driver safety aids. Both th the Ja­panese cars have the lat­est a au­to­mated emer­gency brak­ing te tech­nol­ogy but it’s not avail­able on the As­tra un­til April and will add $1000 when it ar­rives.

Off­set­ting that is the fact that the Holden is sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper to ser­vice than the Im­preza and Mazda.

TThe lat­est Mazda3 is roughly half­way through its life­span and it is age­ing re­mark­ably well. The en­gine can’t match the As­tra for low-down grunt but it revs sweetly.

Har­ness­ing the avail­able power well is a six-speed auto. In sport mode, it will pick a lower gear un­der brakes for more urge out of the cor­ner.

It’s not quite as sporty as the As­tra but it is still an en­ter­tain­ing drive on a wind­ing coun­try road, with ac­cu­rate steer­ing and good bal­ance through cor­ners.

In­side, it’s well put to­gether and the seat fab­rics and sur­face fin­ishes feel a step up from the As­tra, although the in­stru­ment read­outs are begin­ning to look a lit­tle dated. The qual­ity feel drops away in the rear seats too,

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