The biggest surprise is the new Toyota Prius. The previous model would have struggled in this company because its low-emission mantra forced too many compromises compared with the best petrol and diesel cars. However, widespread improvements have brought the world’s best-selling hybrid much closer to mainstream rivals on driving dynamics and refinement; it’s better value than ever, too.
It offers big savings for private and company car buyers alike, and you get plenty of luxuries and safety kit. It still has flaws, such as grabby brakes and limited rear head room. What's more, the styling isn’t instantly lovable and it’s not rapid between corners, but it isn’t far from winning this contest. In fact, there are compelling reasons to choose it ahead of any other car in this class.
The Volkswagen Golf clinches victory, though. It’s easily the best to drive – even though other Golfs ride more smoothly – and it’s the most practical, most refined and the quickest. It also has the classiest interior and best infotainment system, which just about make up for its higher ownership costs. It’s just a shame VW doesn’t offer automatic emergency braking on this trim; it’s standard on most other Golfs.
The wooden spoon goes to the Mazda 3. With petrol and diesel similarly priced, its money-saving potential is much reduced over even the Golf; smaller discounts, higher company car tax and heavier depreciation work against it, too. The new diesel engine isn’t especially gutsy, either. The Mazda isn’t a bad car, but it’s the least recommendable here.
*1st – Volkswagen Golf
For Best to drive; surprisingly strong engine; most refined; classy and practical interior
Against Prius is considerably cheaper to own; no automatic emergency braking on this trim
Verdict Just edges the Prius thanks to its all-round skills
2nd – Toyota Prius
For Low tax bills; fuel economy; urban refinement
Against Sometimes booming engine; grabby brakes
Verdict Seriously cost-effective and decent to drive
3rd – Mazda 3
For Sharp looks; good body control; decent economy
Against Noisy; firm ride; comparatively pricey
Verdict Struggles to compete in this company
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