How to Choose the Perfect Compact Family Hatchback

2013 SEAT Leon 1 photo
Photo: SEAT
Christmas is over and I'm willing to bet Santa did not leave a Jaguar F-Type under your tree. I know that every hot blooded man wants to experience what it's like to own a sportscar like the Jag, or an Alfa Romeo at least once in his life. Unfortunately, Santa doesn't know how to build a V8, so most folks who live in the real world have to get a bank loan and make due with an average family car.
The good news is if you're looking for a compact family hatchback, you're pretty much spoiled for choice… No, that's the wrong word for it. What I mean to say is that there are a lot of excellent car that can make you happy. Not happy in the way a Jaguar could, but still… sort of happy.

We've spent a whole year sipping petrol and burning low rolling resistance 185/44R16 rubber just so we can help you pick out the best family compact hatchback. Somebody please hand my my golden envelope! Not so fast…

We're going to need a shortlist before I can reveal some of our favorite and not so favorite cars in this all important class. 6 family hatches stood head over shoulders in 2013: Honda Civic, Hyundai i30, Mazda3 , SEAT Leon 3 and the Volkswagen Golf. All have their strengths and weaknesses, so picking a winner is like deciding between a Jaguar E-Type and an Aston Martin DB5.

Hyundai's i30
is a good car for those who don't suffer from badge snobbery. Like all Korean cars nowadays, it's really well equipped and boldly designed. It's like an appeal to common sense that has made many European buyers content if not happy. Don't read into claims of amazing fuel economy though, as Hyundai's l/100km numbers are as exaggerated as the mpg in the US.

Hyundai's engineers are actually stationed in Frankfurt, not Seoul, and they have copied Opel and VW way to much. The one time place where they tried to be innovative is where the i30's biggest problem lies. The flex steering system is either numb, numb with a brick attached or numb with an anvil that pulls it to center. The pedals have decent feel though. To get a Hyundai i30 that makes you happy, get all the toys you want, but avoid the fake leather.

The Mazda3 is, like most of the cars on this list, a brand new car for 2013, yet it's not the perfect family hatchback. However, I think the design is masculine and cool while all the leather and materials used very good. It doesn't feel as special as a Mercedes A-Class, but that's what you're reminded off by the tablet-style navigation and infotainment, the rotary control by the gearshift or the instrument cluster.

A head-up display, supportive seats and keen drive make this the driver's car in the family hatchback segment. It's roomy as well, and the company says this is because it's got the biggest wheelbase in its class at 2.6 meters. But it's not just that. Headroom is also good because the seats are placed down in the body. The 3 is not a city car, it's good company on trips around the country. Its suspension leaves you wondering how they can make it firm yet compliant over bumps.

A super-tech platform that supposedly helps it lose weight, a bunch of new and efficient engines and the latest in German safety tech make the Volkswagen Golf a clear favorite with European buyers.

Just how good is Europe's best selling car that's now in its seventh generation? Very, but not for reasons that can be explained in numbers.
First the negatives, which are few but polarizing. The handling is the biggest one, since the steering rack is precise but lacks the feedback of a Ford Focus. It's also not cheap or that good looking. Now come the good points: the interior is as good as an Audi A3, the seats are comfortable, it's well equipped, well damped, has superb sound-proofing and can be equipped with sensors that stop you from crashing.

But while the Golf is definitely the only car you will ever need, it's by no means the last car you will ever want. "Build quality" sounds (and is) as old fashioned as an 18th century piece of furniture in a way that's totally opposite to the classic and timeless excitement of the Jag. This is where our last two cars come in, delivering a minute but effective 5% injection of fake sportscar. First, there's the SEAT Leon. It doesn't have the hidden door handles of the old Leon 2 and yet its sharpness makes the old car look like a wobbly sausage.

If Alfa Romeo put its badges on this car and called it a Giulietta, I would totally believe them – it's that cool. Two things stood out when we tested the car: the awesome 1.4 TSI engine which pulled well and had Eco and Sport setups and the LED headlights, both of which we'd recommend if you want to buy the Leon. Peugeot says its 308 has premium LED lights as well, but in person the Spanish car is much better than the French rival.

Yet the Leon is not a perfect car. I'd only recommend it to a younger buyer, since perceived built quality kind of leaves you depressed. Plastics are hard and interior design is unimaginative. But, you can't get any more latin zest for the money, not from any French or Italian carmaker.

The new Honda Civic suffers no such problems with lack of imagination inside the cabin, yet once again it's a car best enjoyed by younger buyers. It's been designed to look like a coupe and suffers from quite a few problems. The boot is one of the biggest but there's a lip and you can't see out the back window. Speaking of boot space, the rear seats not only fold down but the bottom lifts up like on some minivans. This creates an ideal storage space that's unique in the segment.

Also, you can't really see the back pillars in your side mirrors, so parking is tricky, while the 1.8 VTEC engine is from the stone age. Sure, it feels sporty and zesty, but efficiency and actual performance don't back it up. Diesels are more efficient but that kind of ruins the car in some ways. A good downsized petrol engine with turbocharging and direct injection would be great to have on this otherwise interesting but flawed car. Did I mention it's got the biggest boost in its class?

So there you go. If you want excitement behind the wheel, get the Ford. Want to be moved by emotional design, get the SEAT Leon. And if you want a car that makes life a little bit easier, get the VW. There is no perfect family hatch, just the one that's perfect for you. However, if I were to suddenly need one for my 1.5 newborn kids, the a red SEAT Leon with a 2-liter TDI with DSG would probably be sitting in my driveway in 2014.
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About the author: Mihnea Radu
Mihnea Radu profile photo

Mihnea's favorite cars have already been built, the so-called modern classics from the '80s and '90s. He also loves local car culture from all over the world, so don't be surprised to see him getting excited about weird Japanese imports, low-rider VWs out of Germany, replicas from Russia or LS swaps down in Florida.
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