Buying your first car is a big deal, and there’s certainly a lot to think about – particularly if the budget stretches to brand new. Beyond good looks and a great price, there’s other important considerations like running costs, safety, connectivity and roominess to keep in mind. It can all be a bit daunting, and with so many terrific new models available for less than $20,000, we’re really quite spoilt for choice. But like any new-car segment, there are shades of great, which is where the carsales Best First Car Award can help. Here our expert team assesses the best first cars on the market and chooses a winner. This annual award combines everything a first-car buyer should consider in the one, easy-to-understand guide. Well, what are you waiting for…
Introducing the carsales Best First Car Award
For most first car buyers, if not drivers, this time of year means study is over and it’s time to start car shopping. It’s an exciting time. But it’s also one that, ironically, requires you to do a bit of homework.
With your hard-earned money saved and your licence fresh in hand, the desire to get into a showroom and out on the road can be overwhelming. After all, school’s out and summer lies ahead.
So, which First Car is the best?
Aren’t they all good now? And shouldn’t I just buy the one I like the most?
Ask any ‘proper’ car guy or girl and the answer is ‘no’.
Like all major purchases there are a lot to consider – especially when you are confronted with the wide array of functions a first car must deliver. carsales’ expert judges say a first car should not only be safe and reliable, it should also tick a number of other boxes that perhaps you haven’t considered.
Here, we look at seven of the best first cars available to see how they stack up against all that important stuff. All of our shortlist are five-door hatches and all feature an automatic transmission. In alphabetical order they are:
Honda Jazz VTi-S
Kia Rio S
Mazda 2 Neo
Skoda Fabia 81TSI
Suzuki Swift GL Navigator
Toyota Yaris SX
Volkswagen Polo 70TSI Trendline
Please note: we also included the MG 3 and Renault Clio in our shortlist and invited them to participate in this award, but neither MG or Renault were able to provide a vehicle for testing. Perhaps in 2020…
First car cabin and cargo space
Space is one thing we sometimes don’t consider until after we’ve got that new car home. All of the vehicles gathered here sit in the Light Car segment meaning they need to make the most of what they have, being both flexible and clever inside the cabin.
To that end, most offer seating for five. Realistically, however, they’re best thought of as four-seater hatchbacks with a spare seat for those times you really need to squeeze someone else in.
Measuring against the tape, the Honda Jazz offers the most front-seat legroom (1055mm) while the Suzuki Swift delivers the best headroom (1025mm) for front-seat passengers. Shoulder-room here is a three-way tie between the Honda Jazz, Kia Rio and Volkswagen Polo, all with 1390mm.
In the back seat, and with the front seats positioned for a driver of average height, the Volkswagen Polo provides the most legroom (990mm). Headroom is most plentiful in the Skoda Fabia (946mm) while the Kia Rio is the widest from door to door (1370mm).
The oddment storage game is strongest in the Skoda Fabia with generous door pockets, plentiful cup-holders and handy cubbyholes located throughout the cabin and cargo bay.
Boot space is equally important when it comes to a First Car. The brochures tell us it’s the Honda Jazz VTi-S (351 litres) and Volkswagen Polo 70TSI Trendline (354 litres) that offer the biggest boots with the back seats in place -- both are perfect for that weekend road trip.
Flip the seats flat and the Honda’s Magic Seat provides a level of flexibility and space the others simply can’t match. With 1314 litres of space all told, the Jazz VTi-S is exceptionally practical, eclipsing the Skoda Fabia 81TSI and Volkswagen Polo 70TSI Trendline by around 200 litres and the Toyota Yaris SX by an incredible 546 litres.
“In a super-hero leap over all its light car competitors, the minuscule Honda Jazz leverages ultra-clever packaging to reveal unbeatable load-swallowing abilities,” said carsales Senior Contributor, Tim Britten.
“Honda’s Magic Seats work a treat by folding to reveal big, unexpected storage areas such as the deep well behind the front seats and a superlative 1314 litres of maximum, seats-down load space. There’s also remarkable room for passengers, meaning the Honda Jazz is cram-packed with cleverness when it comes to cabin and cargo space.”
Driving performance and safety
We think your first car should be fun to drive. It’s an important part of what helps us form an attachment with our four-wheeled companion.
The carsales road test team also says that a first car should be predictable, confident and stable on the road, and have an engine that combines smooth, zippy performance with thrifty fuel economy.
In that respect, the Volkswagen Polo, Skoda Fabia, Kia Rio and Mazda2 were the pick of the bunch, while the Toyota Yaris, Honda Jazz and Suzuki Swift lacked the same level of dynamic polish and refinement.
The Toyota Yaris – a popular choice among all light car buyers – scored worst, thanks to (in part) an ancient four-speed automatic, floaty ride and a languid, noisy engine. The brake pedal also felt inconsistent.
The Honda Jazz and the Suzuki Swift were marginally better, with a more resolved ride and dynamics, but were again let down by finer details.
The Mazda 2, despite its seemingly last-generation cabin, felt good on the road. The 2 impresses with a fun chassis and nimble and agile dynamics.
The Kia Rio, on the other hand, was the real surprise packet. Kia’s Australian suspension tuning program is quite evident in practice with the car’s handling of pockmarked roads. Equally, the steering, brakes and body control are well resolved and the engine was fuss-free and relatively efficient.
Nevertheless, in this company the Skoda Fabia and Volkswagen Polo were a level better again. This was particularly the case with the Volkswagen Polo, which offered superior steering feel, weighting and feedback, excellent body control, and a quieter cabin.
“Of the first cars on offer here, the Volkswagen Polo stands head and shoulders above the pack in terms of driver enjoyment,” said carsales News Editor, Sam Charlwood.
“It feels polished, with meaningful feel and feedback from the steering, excellent body control, a quiet cabin and a spritely three-cylinder engine that offers equal parts efficiency and character. The general level of driver safety aids [stability control, antilock brakes, etc] is quite impressive at this price point (too).”
Price and running costs
This part of the carsales Best First Car Award is probably the most boring, but conversely one of the most important. Remember, even when you’re not driving your car it’s costing you money.
Petrol, insurance, tyres and even finance payments can make car ownership an expensive proposition. So, to take out the guess work, we’ve ranked our seven first car combatants against a detailed list of ‘value’ criteria with the help of redbook.com.au.
Beside the purchase price, we’ve looked into warranty and service provisions, tyre and other running costs, resale value and depreciation to see which car offers the best value for money. After all, who doesn’t love a bargain?
Retail pricing (or the advertised price before on-road costs ) for our seven contenders ranges from $17,570 for the Mazda 2 Neo through to $21,490 driveaway for the Volkswagen Polo 70TSI Trendline. Yes, that means the Volkswagen is slightly over our $20K cut-off (factoring in ORCs), but we felt this representative example was worth including.
In terms of upfront costs, that means the Mazda 2 Neo is the most affordable car here. It was also one of the cheapest cars to buy replacement tyres for and scored well where depreciation and running costs were concerned.
The Skoda Fabia 81TSI performed well when it came to fuel and running costs, while the Kia Rio S and Toyota Yaris SX were the cheapest to insure.
But when we factored all the costs involved in running a first car it was the Suzuki Swift GL Navigator that leapt ahead. Over three years, the Swift is the cheapest car to run and the second cheapest to insure. It’s also frugal when it comes to buying replacement tyres and has very good resale value.
“What makes the Swift such a strong contender is Suzuki’s amazing ability to deliver the core comfort and safety consumers demand, but with reliability and low running costs equally important factors during the model development program,” said carsales Technical Editor, Ken Gratton.
“The Suzuki Swift GL Navigator scores highly because it’s priced very competitively in the first place, and its cause is helped by its excellent fuel economy. Running costs are generally lower than the Swift’s rivals, and when it comes time to sell, it retains a sizeable slice of its new-car purchase price.”
Styling and X-factor
It’s no surprise that many of us buy a car based on its looks – and we shouldn’t feel bad for that. If all cars looked the same, life simply wouldn’t be any fun. In addition, a car says a lot about its driver, so in this part of the test we look at how a car’s style plays into the buying decision – and importantly, how well our best First Car Award contenders are screwed together.
The Toyota Yaris felt cheap inside with monotone hard plastics throughout. Its cheap-looking wheels and low-rent materials felt out of step with most of the competitors on test.
That said, the Toyota was only narrowly behind the Mazda 2 in this company. On the plus side, the Mazda 2 did show a level of thought to its design, but major touch-points were a letdown in being hard to, well, the touch.
For the Honda Jazz, our judges felt the lack of cohesion and ‘function over form’ design style was a major turn-off for first car buyers. This sentiment was reversed in the next-placed Suzuki Swift and Kia Rio, which brought an interesting mix of visuals and textures to the light car cabin.
At this point, there was a clear step from the remainder of the pack to the Skoda Fabia and Volkswagen Polo. The fit and finish level, and choice of quality materials, in this pair were leagues ahead of the others. Both the Skoda and the VW offered a more premium look, according to our judges, and had better integration of key touch-points.
“The Volkswagen Polo set a premium tone that no other contender could rival,” said carsales Consumer Editor, Nadine Armstrong.
“Quality materials and tactile surfaces combine with a sophisticated infotainment screen that is brought together by a cohesive design aesthetic that flows throughout the whole cabin.
“There’s a definite sense of surprise and wow-factor upon entering the Polo. You expect compromises and less finesse at this price point, but the VW earned a near-perfect score in this part of the assessment.”
Technology and connectivity
In a world where our phone is an extension of ourselves, the ability to seamlessly transfer that technology on to the road is an important factor in selecting a winner of the carsales First Car Award.
From the need to keep in touch with friends and family to streaming our favourite music – or simply finding where you need to go – the infotainment and connectivity features of our cars are now as important as the safety systems we take for granted.
The Toyota Yaris didn’t score well in this part of the test. Its touchscreen took too long to respond to commands, and while there was good sound from the speakers, the system felt dated and ‘cheap’ when compared to others on test.
And that was a similar theme with the Mazda 2: a car past its ‘best by’ date. The technology offerings are basic in the Neo model grade and the lack of reversing camera is an obvious issue for first car buyers.
Our judges also felt the Honda Jazz lagged behind in the technology stakes with no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto connectivity, and a screen that was difficult to see on bright, sunny days. It was a similar story with the Suzuki Swift, though the model on test did come with satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto which were nice little bonuses.
The top three was a little hard to differentiate given the models on test were fitted with some optional equipment.
As tested, the Skoda Fabia had the best Technology and Connectivity offering with digital (DAB) radio and climate control joining the long list of infotainment equipment. Indeed, both the Skoda Fabia and Volkswagen Polo were among the most intuitive tech offerings on test.
The Kia Rio scored points in this company too, for its user-friendly interface, logical controls and switchgear and simple dashboard design.
“The Toyota Yaris, Honda Jazz and Mazda 2 all scored poorly in the tech department for several reasons -- which is a bit of a shame considering how popular these models are with younger, tech-savvy buyers,” said carsales Journalist, Alexandra Lawrence.
“If feeling connected in terms of technology is important to you, the Toyota, Mazda and Honda aren’t the best options here. We recommend looking to the Skoda, Volkswagen or Kia if you value an up-to-date and feature-packed first car.”
And the First Car winner is…
Balancing the mixed and varied needs of a first car buyer is a tricky exercise. It’s a given that we all want different things from our cars, but it’s pretty safe to say we also want it all.
For that reason our judges decided to allocate a ‘weighting’ to the categories above that considers those factors in the same way a First Car buyer would.
Scoring allocated a maximum possible 20 points each to the Cabin and Cargo Space and Technology and Connectivity fields, a maximum possible 15 points each to the Styling and X-Factor and Driving Performance and Safety categories and a maximum possible 30 points to the Price and Running Cost group.
Expectedly, different vehicles showed strengths in different areas, which meant aggregating a score from a possible total of 100 points was the fairest way to determine the winner of the 2019 carsales Best First Car Award.
As you’ve no doubt noticed from the break-down above, each of the categories placed a different winner on the top rung.
For Cabin and Cargo Space it was the Honda Jazz that topped the pack, narrowly beating the Volkswagen Golf and Skoda Fabia. In the Price and Running Costs it was the Suzuki Swift that took a clear lead over the Kia Rio and Toyota Yaris.
Stepping over to the Technology and Connectivity section and it was the Skoda Fabia that led the pack, ahead of the Kia Rio and Volkswagen Polo. The Volkswagen Polo took line honours in the Styling and X-Factor category, winning the division over the Skoda Fabia and Kia Rio respectively.
It was a similar story in the Driving Performance and Safety field where the Volkswagen Polo took the blue ribbon ahead of a tied Skoda Fabia and Mazda 2 in second place, and Kia Rio in third.
But in tallying the final scores it was the plucky Skoda Fabia that took the outright win to beat the Volkswagen Polo and Kia Rio.
The Skoda Fabia represents solid value for money, is a safe and predictable drive and a car that also offers an outstanding level of technology at its price. With a sound after-sales and warranty program and good resale value, the Skoda Fabia is also a car that won’t unexpectedly hurt your hip pocket.
In a word, it is perfect for the first car buyer that wants it all.
Congratulation Skoda Fabia, the 2019 carsales Best First Car Award winner.
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