The best of the best
The small family car sector is a cut-throat place and as buyers continue to downsize manufacturers are going all out to do well in the market.
The Volkswagen Golf stands head and shoulders above the rest, however.
It's been our favourite small family car for three years on the trot, and is also our reigning Green Car of the Year.
It's almost perfect as cars go, very well built, excellent parts quality, outstanding ride and refinement and a highly enjoyable driving experience.
All but the least-powerful petrol version are fine options, while even the cheapest S specification includes air-conditioning, remote central locking and plenty of safety features.
Some rivals offer a little more space in the cabin and boot, but the Golf isn't small and is incredibly cost-efficient thanks to high-tech engines and very strong resale values.
Deservedly out in front, the Volkswagen Golf is the only small family car that wins the full five-star rating from us.
What Car? pick of the Volkswagen Golf range - 1.4 TSI 122 Match 5dr
The best of the rest
The Octavia offers absolutely tonnes of space for the money but that isn't all.
Since the Octavia also offers a great deal of comfort and, except in entry-level trim, very good equipment levels, it's second in our top five of small family cars.
It's not as fun to drive as the Golf, but it comes very close on running costs, particularly our preferred 1.2-litre petrol model. A 1.2-litre petrol? Yup, it does the business a lot better than you might think with enough power and torque o get the car around the place.
What Car? pick of the Skoda Octavia range - 1.2 TSI SE 5dr
It's nice to do your bit for the environment, but we know from our polls that it's pretty low down on people's priorities right now.
Thankfully the Prius not only treads lightly on the planet, it's also soft on your wallet with low running costs and strong residual values.
It's also smooth and comfortable – you certainly won’t be rouging it – and there's enough space inside for a family. Build quality feels very good, but some of the plastics could feel more upmarket, especially considering the asking price.
What Car? pick of the Toyota Prius range - 1.8 VVT-i T3 5dr
The Prius is pretty pricey, so if budgets are tight the i30 is a great option. Low prices don't automatically mean the Hyundai is tight on equipment levels, though, whether you're talking creature comforts or safety kit.
Running costs are good and low and there's also a five-year, unlimited-mileage warranty for a bit of extra peace of mind.
Ride, handling and refinement aren't bad, but they aren't a patch on the Golf's and some of the materials used could be nicer. At the price, though, the Hyundai is well worth a long look.
What Car? pick of the Hyundai i30 range - 1.4 Classic 5dr
For a bit of extra bite from your small family car the Mazda 3 is the obvious option.
It's really good fun to drive, although that does mean the ride is a little firm and the cabin is also noisier than the VW's.
Equipment levels are very good, and we'd strongly recommend the 1.6-litre diesel.
What Car? pick of the Mazda 3 range - 1.6D TS2 5dr
The Proton Gen-2 is the only one-star car in the class. While handling is quite good, refinement isn't. The Proton might be cheap, but it also has poor interior quality and a distinct shortage of safety equipment.
The Beetle looks pretty cool, even after all of these years, but interior space is particularly poor and it's not at all fun to drive. A new model arrives this year, and not a moment too soon.
The original two–seater Honda Insight coupe was a technological marvel. The current five-door small family car version is a long way off the Prius's mark with disappointing build, quality, ride, handling and refinement. CO2 emissions above 100g/km also mean it misses out on London congestion charge exemption.
Chevrolet's Lacetti doesn't cost much, and there's plenty of space inside, but that's not much of a reason to get one. Cabin plastics aren't nice and the ride is too jittery.
There's also lots of space and equipment in the Mitsubishi Lancer, but it isn't good to drive and is uncomfortable and noisy. Poor residual values also mean high running costs.
You can see all of our small family car reviews here.
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