Small family car contenders

* 17 categories of awards * All the winning models featured here * What Car? Car of the Year 2011 revealed...

Small family car contenders

What Car? Awards 2012 website

Best buy less than 15,000
Skoda Octavia 1.2 TSI SE
List price 14,865
Target Price 12,678

We've always been huge fans of the Skoda Octavia. After all, whats not to like when it provides family car space and quality for the price of a top-end supermini?

What gave the Octavia the edge over its rivals this year, though, was the introduction of the brilliant new 1.2 TSI petrol engine.

You need to experience it to believe just how smooth and flexible it is. Theres also the lure of a diesel-rivalling 49.6mpg.

As ever, the Octavia is great to drive, well made and more practical than any of its rivals. SE trim includes alloy wheels, air-conditioning and four electric windows, but you need to pay extra for stability control and curtain airbags.

Those come as standard with the Hyundai i30 1.4 Comfort, which has been our recommendation here for the past three years. It still represents outstanding value for money with more kit than the Octavia at a lower price and comes with a five-year, unlimited-mileage warranty.

It was a tough call, but the Octavias superb engine and extra space were just enough to push it to the top spot.

Skoda Octavia review

0-62mph 10.8 seconds Top speed 119mph
Running costs
Economy 49.6mpgCO2 134g/km
Insurance group 16
Best buy 15,000-20,000
Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI 122 Match 5dr
List price 18,910
Target Price 17,636

A third consequtive victory in the mid-price category suggests that the Volkswagen Golf's position here is set in stone.

Far from it. This year in particular it faced a strong challenge from the new Ford Focus, which gave it a real fright thanks to its sensational handling, keen prices and excellent refinement. The Alfa Romeo Giuliettas beguiling blend of style and value ruffled a few feathers, too.

Once again, though, the Golfs exceptional all-round abilities were enough to keep it at number one. Where some rivals are brilliant in a couple of areas and so-so in others, the Golf is outstanding in every single one.

No rival strikes such a sweet balance between driver appeal and comfort, or is as impressively refined. Then theres the Golfs cabin, which is simple to use and oozes class.

Add to that a punchy, silky-smooth engine and low ownership costs, and the VWs position here is thoroughly deserved. True, its rather pricey to buy, but Match trim provides lots of kit and the Golf holds its value well.

Volkswagen Golf review

0-62mph 13.3 seconds Top speed 104mph
Running costs
Economy 45.6mpgCO2 144g/km
Insurance group 16
Best buy more than 20,000
Toyota Prius 1.8 VVT-i T3
List price 20,695
Target Price 19,448

At this price, a small family car needs to do something a bit special to justify a pricetag thats on a par with many bigger, more versatile alternatives.

How special do CO2 emissions of just 89g/km sound? Or an average of 72.4mpg? They come courtesy of a hybrid petrol/electric powertrain that allows the Toyota Prius to run on battery power alone at low speeds.

As well as the obvious environmental benefits, the Prius is cheap to run, thanks to low fuel, company car and road tax bills.

The Toyotas green credentials would mean little if it wasnt accomplished in other areas. The good news is that it is. Its a fine family car, with a practical cabin, strong performance and a generally comfortable ride.

Only the Priuss slippery shape and futuristic dash give the game away that its anything more, but at least people can see youre doing your bit.

If the Priuss price looks high, bear in mind that it holds its value well, the T3 trim includes all the kit youre likely to need and you get Toyotas five-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

Toyota Prius review

0-62mph 10.4 seconds Top speed 112mph
Running costs
Economy 72.4mpgCO2 89g/km
Insurance group 15
Tester's view
When people find out what I do for a living, their first question is usually whats the best car youve ever driven?

Being a bit of a show-off, I usually tell them the Ferrari this or the Porsche that, but the truth is that if were talking about the best all-rounder, its probably a model from the small family car class.

Established favourites such as the Volkswagen Golf feel perfectly at home whether the journey is a cross-town schlep, a marathon motorway cruise or a B-road blast. Whats more, theyre practical enough to make family life a cinch, as classy as a night at the opera and affordable for both private and company buyers.

If youre looking for something that can meet all of your motoring needs, theyre guaranteed to impress.
Steve Huntingford Road tester