BMW 116d Efficient Dynamics
List price when new £20,885
Price today £9000
Available from 2011-present
The 1 Series has always been fun to drive, and this version is extremely economical, too
Lexus CT200h SE-I
List price when new £23,786
Price today £10,000
Available from 2011-present
The petrol hybrid CT200h could be a compelling alternative if diesel falls from favour
Volkswagen Golf 1.6 TDI Bluemotion 5dr
List price when new £20,015
Price today £7500
Available from 2008-2013
The Golf is a great family car, but is it upmarket enough to stand up in this company?
Volvo V40 1.6 D2 ES
List price when new £19,745
Price today £7000
Available from 2012-present
At these prices, the V40’s stylish lines make it a very appealing proposition.
Price today is based on a model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing
Buying a used family car doesn’t have to mean succumbing to a bland hatchback that places practicality above all else. In fact, thanks to the rise of the premium family hatchback in the last decade, the used market is now rife with examples of this breed – cars that purport to combine the usability of a regular family car with the class and quality of an executive saloon.
The BMW 1 Series is a prime mover and shaker in this neck of the market. With that all-important blue-and-white badge on its nose, it’s one of the most upmarket hatchbacks around – and with rear-wheel drive and BMW’s famed handling prowess behind it, it should be great to drive, too.
The Lexus CT200h is an alternative take on the upmarket hatchback, but as with all Lexus models, it promises high technology, left-field styling, and unimpeachable reliability. However, the most notable thing which sets it apart is its powertrain – it’s a petrol-electric hybrid, and in this regard, it benefits from parent company Toyota’s lengthy experience in the field.
We’ve also included the Volkswagen Golf. While to many it might fit the exact description of the average family car, it’s still one of the classiest of the breed, and its slick interior and impressive blend of all-round talents make it worthy of inclusion in this test. What’s more, in this Bluemotion form, its sporty styling makes this particular Golf a little more extrovert than the rest.
Finally, there’s the Volvo V40. It’s doubtless a handsome beast, with suave lines that echo Volvo’s sweet little 480 coupe, from days gone by. It gets an efficient engine, too, and yet it’s sometimes a bit forgotten by premium hatchback buyers chasing cars with more obviously upmarket badges. Deservedly so? That’s what we’re here to find out.
Despite the fact that the fuel is fast going out of fashion on cars of this size, we’re testing all of our contenders in diesel form, simply because the diesel versions are the most widely available and, therefore, the easiest to buy. The notable exception is the Lexus, which is, as we’ve already mentioned, only available as a petrol hybrid.
What are they like to drive?
The BMW is ultimately the fastest car here from 0-60mph and has the highest top speed, but a combination of tall gearing and an engine that doesn’t deliver its best until it’s revving fairly highly means it has that performance advantage only when you really thrash it. Not ideal in an economy-focused diesel hatchback.
That’s why it’s a good thing that the Volvo sacrifices outright pace for better in-gear flexibility. It can pull its higher gears from low revs quite happily, so in most driving situations it’s the best performer here. The only real let-down is the spongy clutch pedal.
The VW has only five gears (the BMW and Volvo both have six), so there’s a relatively big jump between some of the ratios. Luckily, the Golf’s engine is fairly flexible, pulling strongly from just 1500rpm. Ultimately, though, the VW is neither as flexible as the Volvo nor as fast as the BMW.
The Lexus is the slowest. The initial pick-up is almost instantaneous because the electric motor delivers its maximum torque the moment you hit the accelerator pedal. However, after that there’s a lengthy pause before the 1.8-litre petrol engine kicks in, the revs soar and you feel that extra surge driving you forward.
These diesel hatchbacks are as likely to be used for slogging up and down the motorway as for pottering into town for the weekly shop, so they need to be able to handle any type of driving on any type of road.
That’s why it’s surprising that the V40 has such a taut suspension set-up. This helps keep the car upright through tight turns, but it makes the ride unsettled, especially below 60mph. The Volvo’s steering isn’t ideal, either. It’s light enough for effortless low-speed manoeuvres and weights up well enough as you turn into a bend, but it is very vague.
The BMW’s quicker steering makes it feel altogether sportier than the other three cars as it darts eagerly into bends. Such aggressive steering makes the 1 Series feel nervous on the motorway, though; you really have to concentrate to stay in the centre of your lane.
On the plus side, the BMW’s rear-drive layout gives it more a neutral handling balance than the other cars here, and the 1 Series soaks up bumps and potholes surprisingly well. The low-rolling-resistance tyres don’t provide a great deal of grip, though.
We normally heap praise on the Golf for its near-perfect blend of comfort and control. However, this Bluemotion version isn’t quite so brilliantly judged. Its lower-than-normal ride height makes for a firm low-speed ride. That said, the VW rides more smoothly than the Volvo at higher speeds, there’s plenty of cornering grip and the steering weights up nicely as you turn into a bend. Don’t expect hot hatch thrills, but the Golf is entertaining enough for most drivers.
The Lexus is utterly embarrassed here. Its firm suspension means you feel every little blemish through your backside; big bumps are downright jarring, and even small ripples in the road cause the CT200h to fidget nervously.
The steering is also very light – useful when parking, but disconcerting elsewhere, particularly on a twisty country road. Only the CT200h’s relatively tight turning circle impresses.
The bad news for the Lexus doesn’t end there, because while it can run on battery power alone at low speeds, when it’s whisper-quiet, that’s the only time the CT200h is even remotely hushed. Once its petrol engine kicks in, it becomes downright noisy inside. If you need a burst of acceleration, the revs soar and stay there until you’re up to speed, but even maintaining a steady pace on the motorway causes the petrol engine to drone away loudly. Factor in the near-deafening amount of tyre roar and the Lexus is the loudest cruiser here, by a mile.
The V40 is something of a mixed bag in terms of quietness. Volvo has done a great job of insulating the interior from engine noise and vibration; things are hushed even when you put your foot down fully. But the Volvo disappoints elsewhere. There’s too much tyre noise at motorway speeds – particularly over coarse surfaces – and you hear the wind whistling along the flanks of the car.
Get up to motorway speeds and the 1 Series kicks up less tyre noise than the Lexus or the Volvo, and its long gearing means the engine is spinning slower than the other three cars’ at motorway speeds, which helps to reduce the din. However, there’s a bit of wind noise around the door mirrors. The BMW’s power delivery is silky smooth, though, and its occupants are fairly well isolated from engine noise, if not quite as well as in the other diesel cars here.
The Golf’s diesel engine isn’t quite as hushed as the V40’s, but it is quieter than the BMW’s and stays impressively cultured even when worked hard. The Golf also generates less road and wind noise than the other cars here.
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