Drive Car Of The Year

Best Small Car

Australia's small car segment continues to cater, and cater well, for buyers not tempted by high-riding SUVs, dual-cab utes or even large family sedans.

If we consider that SUVs and dual-cab utes are not ‘cars’ in the traditional sense, then the small car category is Australia’s number one ‘car’ segment.

Although sales in the category were down almost 20 per cent year-on-year, Australians still bought small cars – hatchbacks and sedans and sometimes even station wagons – in big numbers.

Of the almost 80,000 cars sold in the segment, two models – Toyota Corolla and Hyundai i30 – accounted for over half.

But, sales success doesn't always translate to best-in-class, and while the Toyota Corolla again made the shortlist for this year’s Drive Car of the Year Best Small Car, with no significant updates to the car we pitted against its rivals 12 months ago, the Hyundai i30 missed out.

Newcomers to this segment included the all-new Peugeot 308, the equally new Honda Civic and a revamped Skoda Fabia. They faced off against the incumbent champion, Volkswagen Golf, as well as a refreshed Toyota Corolla.

Winner: Volkswagen Golf


Volkswagen Golf

Volkswagen Golf

8 variants available

$ 35,190 - $ 69,990* MRLP

What we love

  • -Punchy performance
  • -Classy interior 
  • -Slick eight-speed auto

What we don't

  • -Second-row comfort could be better
  • -A lack of physical buttons and dials grate
  • -Price increases take some of the gloss

With small car size and large car polish, the new Volkswagen Golf is the full package.

Last year’s champion has again come out on top, despite not undergoing any significant changes in the intervening 12 months, albeit with some improvements to safety inclusions. But, as Drive Car of the Year rules dictate, any segment champion is invited back the following year to defend its crown. And the Volkswagen Golf mounted a compelling defence.

A year is a long time in the automotive world, but it’s done little to dull the shine the Golf wears with surety.

From its minimalist (some would argue, too minimalist) and elegant cabin to its excellent engine and transmission combinations, the Volkswagen Golf again demonstrated just why it’s one of the world’s best-selling cars.

Pricing has crept up in the intervening 12 months, the range now starting at $39,702 drive-away for the entry-level 110TSI and topping out at $45,229 for the 110TSI R Line (using Melbourne pricing as a base, all prices correct at time of testing). Of course, the hot Golf GTI and the even hotter Golf R command premiums.

Volkswagen submitted the entry-level 110TSI for this year’s Drive Car of the Year judging. And yet, despite wearing the ‘entry-level’ tag, the Golf continued to shine in a competitive field.

Last year, the judges praised VW for ditching the sometimes laggy dual-clutch 'DSG' transmission in the Golf for a conventional eight-speed automatic. And that change held up again this year, the automatic at once slick and intuitive, no matter the driving style.

Although not the fastest of this year’s finalists, the Golf still feels plenty quick enough for most needs. A tested 0–100km/h time of 8.9 seconds places it midfield in terms of pure acceleration. Similarly, its braking performance from 100km/h to standstill stopped the tape at 37.4 metres, again mid-pack.

But raw numbers don’t tell the whole story. The Golf is the most composed on the road, with agile handling and a drivability that stands taller than the rest.

Throw in that its fuel consumption came in at just 6.0 litres per 100km on test, second only to the Toyota Corolla hybrid’s 5.0L/100km, and the arguments for its second straight Drive Car of the Year Best Small Car success start to stack up.

But, like most things in life, the Golf isn’t perfect. Its second row is a touch on the cramped side, and that minimalist interior is starting to look a little underdone in the face of new rivals from Peugeot and Honda.

These are minor gripes, though, and ultimately weren’t enough to topple the reigning champ. Easy to drive when you need it to be and fun to hustle when you want, the Golf continues to set the benchmark of what a small car should be.

And that’s why it’s our 2023 Drive Car of the Year Best Small Car.

Runner-up: Peugeot 308


Peugeot 308

Peugeot 308

4 variants available

$ 43,990 - $ 64,990* MRLP

What we love

  • -Beautiful exterior styling...
  • -... matched by a superb interior
  • -Composed ride

What we don't

  • -An expensive option in the small car arena
  • -Lacklustre performance
  • -Thirsty on fuel

If the Volkswagen Golf were going to be dethroned for top honours, then the Peugeot 308 shaped up as the car most likely to do so.

The all-new hatchback from the French carmaker came out of the blocks looking like a million bucks. An undeniably stylish exterior was matched inside by an avant-garde cabin lifted straight out of the pages of an architectural magazine.

It’s not the most affordable of this competitive set, though, with a starting price of $48,866 drive-away (in Melbourne) for the entry-level GT hatchback variant. That made it the most expensive car in this field, something not lost on the judges.

The 308 goes some way to justifying its hefty price tag with a premium offering and decent equipment levels even in its most affordable guise, while under the bonnet, a characterful 1.2-litre turbo three-cylinder offers a pleasing engine note but has to be worked hard to extract the most from it. As one judge said, “the engine is a tad underdone, especially when compared to the Golf, though the mid-range is good with the turbo spooled up”.

And that’s a valid point. The 308 certainly feels punchy on the move. A composed and comfortable ride also impressed, while it was arguably the most engaging through some twisty stuff even if, as our testing revealed, it was the slowest of this set to 100km/h, stopping the clock at 10.6 seconds. It was also the thirstiest at 8.2L/100km, symptomatic of having to be driven harder to extract the best from it.

The 308 fared better in our 100km/h-zero brake test, clocking the shortest distance of all five finalists at 35.1 metres.

While it remained a strong contender for overall honours, its hefty starting price and slightly underdone performance counted against it in the final reckoning.

But, as a generously equipped style statement, the Peugeot 308 deserves its place on this list.

Finalist: Toyota Corolla


Toyota Corolla

Toyota Corolla

13 variants available

$ 28,630 - $ 62,300* MRLP

What we love

  • -Fuel economy
  • -New infotainment set-up is a big improvement
  • -Affordable entry into the range

What we don't

  • -Tiny boot
  • -Tight second row
  • -Uninspiring driving experience

The best-seller in the small car segment was the beneficiary of some decent updates last year, addressing some of the concerns raised the previous year and ensuring the world’s best-selling car was once again in contention for Drive Car of the Year Best Small Car honours.

Tech upgrades brought a much needed new operating system to the Corolla’s infotainment set-up and a digital instrument cluster in higher-specified cars, while the entire Corolla range scored an improved hybrid system with a new electric motor and battery.

The Corolla’s party trick is that hybrid powertrain which ensures the lowest fuel consumption in this company; the perennial favourite using just 5.0 litres per 100km over the duration of judging.

Judges praised its “light steering” and easy drivability too, the Corolla feeling punchy off the line with the hybrid system providing some extra push.

And its status as the most affordable of our finalists – the range starts at $32,248 drive-away (in Melbourne) for the non-hybrid Ascent Sport variant – gave the Corolla a push towards the top of the tree.

But, like last year, a cramped second row married to the smallest boot (as little as just 217L) in popular hatchback models counted against it in the final reckoning.

Finalist: Honda Civic


Honda Civic

Honda Civic

3 variants available

$ 47,200 - $ 72,600* MRLP

What we love

  • -Sleek design
  • -Stylish and ergonomically sound cabin
  • -Punchy engine, but...

What we don't

  • -... let down by elastic CVT
  • -Expensive and fixed pricing a turn-off
  • -Jittery ride

There’s a lot to like about the all-new Honda Civic, not least its sleek exterior design. That initial impression is only enhanced once you slide inside the cabin, a stylish and modern ambience greeting occupants.

The second row was easily the most spacious of the finalists, thanks to the Civic being the largest car here, some 18cm longer than the next best, the Toyota Corolla.

That extra length plays out in the boot too, the Civic’s 449L eclipsing its rivals by a decent margin. Although the profile may not suggest so, the Civic retains hatchback versatility, albeit with a sedan-style profile.

While the Civic featured the most powerful engine of the five finalists, with its 1.5-litre turbocharged four making 131kW and 240Nm, that didn’t necessarily translate to the driving experience.

Yes, the Civic felt punchy from standstill (0–100km/h in 8.2sec), but the overall experience was let down by an elastic continuously variable transmission (CVT) that made a lot of noise for little reward, especially when accelerating on the move.

As one judge noted, “the engine is potent enough but it's let down by a groany, elastic CVT that's slow to respond”, while another added, “It’s certainly a stylish small car both inside and out. A case of too much style over substance?”.

On the road, the Civic felt a little jittery over some of the coarser surfaces of our test loop and lacking some of the composure of its rivals.

While the Civic is certainly a looker from any angle, a national entry price of $47,200 drive-away and an underwhelming drive experience let it down in the final reckoning.

Finalist: Skoda Fabia




1 variant available

$ 38,590* MRLP

What we love

  • -Warm hatch performance
  • -Youthful and edgy interior
  • -Excellent technology

What we don't

  • -Lacks some basic amenities
  • -Firm ride tailored towards sporty
  • -Slight DSG hesitation from standstill

The all-new Skoda Fabia entered the Drive Car of the Year Best Small Car ring as a firm underdog, the city car-sized hatchback moving up a weight division in this year’s contest.

Significantly smaller than its rivals, the Skoda Fabia came out of the blocks with a bang, recording the fastest 0–100km/h acceleration time (8.1 seconds) of all the finalists. That shine took a little dulling thanks to a hesitant dual-clutch automatic transmission that proved laggy at times.

The news inside is good, though, with a quirkily designed interior targeted, no doubt, to appeal to a younger urban demographic. The Fabia wears that costume well.

Key to that youthful bent is the Skoda Fabia’s infotainment set-up comprising a 9.2-inch touchscreen alongside a 10.25-inch fully configurable driver display, and it is ideally suited for its intended audience with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as satellite navigation as standard.

Despite the Fabia technically sitting a class below the small car segment, interior comfort was pretty decent, long a Skoda trait. But the letdowns came in the form of some minor practical touches, such as a lack of cupholders in both the front and second rows.

It clawed back points, though, by offering decent boot space, measured at 380L, despite being the smallest car here.

On the road, the Skoda Fabia’s ride is arguably the firmest of the field, a touch brittle over the Drive Car of the Year test route where others offered more compliance.

As good as Skoda’s warm hatchback is, in this company it was outgunned.

You can read about all the other 2023 Drive Car of the Year categories and winners here:
Drive Car of the Year categories and winners

Note: All vehicle specifications pertain to variants tested as part of DCOTY assessment program.

Other Award Categories

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