Choosing to spend your hard-earned money on a small, affordable car makes a lot of sense in Australia. Small cars are easier to park, cheaper to run and maintain, more maneuverable and offer better fuel economy than larger vehicles. And because there are so many quality brands to choose from these days, you just need to do a little research to find the model that suits you best.
Our recommendations for ‘best small cars under $20,000 in Australia’ are based on Canstar’s most recent customer satisfaction survey (Sept. 2019). This survey compares some of the most popular small-car brands based on overall satisfaction, car servicing, driving experience, value for money, point-of-sale service, after-sale service and reliability.
We’ve divided these best-in-their-class vehicles into two types:
So let’s take a quick look and see what the best cars in each of these categories have to offer:
Best light cars under 20k
The ‘light’ or subcompact car really came into its own in the last twenty years, when consumer demand for fuel-efficient vehicles made choices like the Hyundai Accent, Ford Fiesta, Suzuki Swift, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Micra and many others a popular option for budget-conscious car buyers.
Here are the best light cars available for under $20,000 in Australia:
#1. Mazda 2
Prices start from $14,999
Australians love their Mazzies, and the Mazda 2 has certainly shown its worth over the years as a solid choice for cost-conscious city drivers who value comfort, safety and fuel economy.
Standard features in both the hatchback and sedan versions include cruise control, push-button start, hill launch assist, rear parking sensors, autonomous emergency braking, electronic stability control, six airbags and much more. The Mazda 2 looks great, feels comfy and strikes a nice balance between fuel economy and engine power. All versions are powered by a 1.5-litre, naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine.[i]
- Extremely high safety rating – Mazda continues to lead the way in safety features
- Although small, the Mazda 2 can handle a surprising amount of cargo
- Fun to drive, sharp-looking and easy on fuel
- Excellent steering response
- Five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty
- Some models have either been discontinued or raised in price for 2020
- Tyre noise is a bit more noticeable than in some other small cars
- The tachometer is quite tiny
#2. Toyota Yaris
Prices start from $13,490
The Yaris has been going strong in Australia since its arrival in 2005, providing practicality and affordability at around the $18,000 mark. It may not be the most exciting, luxurious or macho vehicle on the road, but its hard-working engine will get you from A to B while providing all the basics you’ve come to expect from a light car: safety, comfort and good fuel economy.
One of the best things about the Yaris is how easily it nips into parking spaces, especially with the reversing camera to help you out. You’ll find yourself doing more U-turns than 3-point turns in a Yaris because it’s so maneuverable. Young families will like the seven airbags and abundant tether points for kid’s car seats, which come as standard.[ii] [iii]
- Agile handling thanks to a quality suspension and responsive steering
- Impressive fuel efficiency even for a subcompact car
- Complete suite of advanced safety features
- 7-inch touch-screen multimedia system includes Bluetooth and voice recognition
- Lackluster acceleration – it lacks the ‘oomph’ found in other vehicles of similar size
- Interior space for both passengers and cargo is limited
#3. Honda Jazz
Prices start from $15,490
The Jazz boasts a good-looking exterior, a roomier back seat than in similar-sized vehicles and a surprisingly large 354-litre boot. The practical interior design includes a feature that more cars should incorporate: an extra cup holder on the driver’s side dash. The four-cylinder, 1.5-litre engine will get you around town without complaint and its compact dimensions and light, direct steering make moving through narrow streets and tight car parks a breeze.
The Jazz lacks some of the driver-assistance features that are increasingly common in cars at this end of the market, such as blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control and a lane-keep system – but it’s hard to quibble when you’re zipping around in a cute little car that handles well and provides great fuel economy.[iv] [v]
- Above-average interior comfort and design
- Exceptional boot space (even better than some small SUVs)
- Good interior space for a light car, especially in the back seats
- Features driver and front passenger airbags and side curtain airbags extending to the back seat row
- Lags a bit behind in some newer safety features
- No ISOFIX points (a more secure way to install children’s car seats than top-tether only)
- No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto support
#4. Volkswagen Polo
Prices start from $15,490
The entry-level Polo has a lot going for it: cruise control, driver fatigue detection, rear view camera, multi-function steering wheel, low tyre pressure indicator and a split/folding rear seat, just for starters. There’s also an 8-inch infotainment system with Apple CarPlay, App-connect, Android Auto, two USB ports and Bluetooth connectivity, making it one of the more tech-savvy cars in its class.
Its three-cylinder engine cranks the Polo up to 100 km/h in just 10.8 seconds and works well with the 7-speed DSG transmission, providing a smooth ride. The steering is light and responsive and the fuel economy will bring a smile to your face: you should have little problem getting more than 700 kilometres out of a tank of fuel.[vi]
- 5-star ANCAP safety rating and a solid range of safety gear
- Reliable for consistent around-town use
- Exceptional fuel economy
- Good internal space for its class
- Compliant suspension makes for a comfy ride, even on bumpy roads
- Could use an imbedded satellite navigation system
- Interior is practical but a bit bland
- Driver assist packages are only available on the upper spec models
#5. Kia Rio
Prices start from $15,490
If you place a high priority on value for money, you’ll find the Kia Rio a hard car to beat. The base-model S and the Sport variant both come in at less than $20,000 and include standard features such as 15-inch steel wheels, a reversing camera with rear parking sensors, halogen headlights (with auto function) and a 7-inch multimedia touch-screen with support for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
The 1.4-litre petrol engine provides fuel efficiency at around 6.2L/100km and the car’s interior is stylish and ergonomic, from the steering wheel to the spiffy-looking dash. It’s unusual to find so much back-seat legroom in a car this size and the boot space is nothing to sneeze at either: a respectable 325 litres, maxing out at 980 litres when you fold the rear seats flat.[vii]
- Superior design, inside and out – a great-looking vehicle
- Quality multimedia
- Surprising amount of internal space, especially passenger legroom
- 7-year, unlimited-km warranty – the best warranty in this class
- The automatic transmission is lackluster but you still pay extra for it
- The cheaper S and Sport versions lack newer active safety features
- Servicing costs tend to be a little higher than in similar models
Best small cars for around 20k
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the three biggest factors people consider when buying a new vehicle are (a) purchase cost, (b) fuel economy/running costs and (c) vehicle size – with reliability and safety coming in close behind.[viii] Perhaps that’s why small cars are so popular – they tick all the right boxes for affordability, maneuverability, fuel economy and ease of maintenance.
Let’s take a look at the best small cars for around $20,000 in Australia:
#1. Mazda 3
Prices start from $20,490
The Mazda 3 continues to be one of the most sought-after small cars in Australia. It boasts proven reliability, elegant style, a comfortable ride and a level of technical refinement that often leaves its competitors trying to play catch-up. Mazda isn’t a company that rests on its laurels, either: they’re constantly adding improvements to every aspect of vehicle performance so you get maximum bang for your buck.
The Mazda 3’s 2-litre engine copes quite well with long road trips and city driving and the steering response is well above average, effectively managing both slow-speed maneuvers and high speed handling with ease. Safety-wise, it’s a gem, with all the ‘mod cons’ you need to ensure a safe journey.[ix]
- Huge range of high-quality, up-to-date safety features as standard
- Vast improvement in noise reduction compared to earlier models
- Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control provides more fluid steering wheel response
- 8-inch multimedia screen and top-notch digital connectivity
- One of the most comfortable and thoughtfully-designed cars in its class
- Takes up more garage space than the previous model but with no extra interior room
- Passengers in the rear seats may complain about a lack of air vents and USB ports
#2. Hyundai i30
Prices start from $19,990
The well-equipped i30 fully deserves its place amongst the most popular small cars in Australia, thanks to its generous range of user-friendly features including cruise control, steering wheel adjustment, reversing camera, automatic headlights that switch on when it’s dark, built-in tyre pressure monitor, seven airbags, electronic stability control, impressive digital connectivity/Smartphone integration and a whole lot more. The cheapest model is the i30 Go.
The i30 is essentially a hatchback version of the Hyundai Elantra, but with a much nicer feel and improved interior features. All versions are rather good at keeping wind noise to a minimum and are a pleasure to drive.[x]
- Attractive appearance, inside and out
- Generous safety features, good audio system and a stylish cabin
- Infotainment system is well-equipped and easy to use
- Decent boot space with a full-sized spare
- Doesn’t come with a Sat-Nav
- Fairly average, unexciting engine
- No USB ports or rear vents in the back
#3. Toyota Corolla
Prices start from $21,340
There’s nothing wrong with owning the most popular car on earth (now sold across 140 countries) – and the well-travelled Corolla has proven its worth for more than fifty years as a dependable vehicle suited for Aussie driving conditions. All the ingredients for a reliable ride are there in an increasingly stylish package.
The newest versions have more high-tech features than the old late-60s models could ever dream of, including speed-sign recognition, reversing camera, 8-inch touch-screen with voice recognition, Smartphone pairing, auto high-beam LED headlights, electronic stability control and seven airbags, just to name a few.[xi]
- Supportive seats and plenty of space for all occupants, front and back
- User-friendly voice controls
- Massive front and rear windshields and slender roof pillars offer great all-round visibility
- 2019 model is the sportiest-looking yet
- Engine performance is just average and hasn’t really changed in a decade
- Interior design doesn’t feel contemporary – a little too much hard plastic
#4. Honda Civic
Prices start from $22,390
Available as a hatchback or sedan, the Civic is a well-styled vehicle that’s surprisingly roomy for a car of its class, and offers a turbocharged engine that’s both spirited and fuel-efficient. It’s not quite as compact as it used to be, but still squeezes into normal-sized parking spaces quite well. Responsive handling and interior comfort make it a pleasure to drive, and its safety features stack up nicely against its competitors.
Standard goodies include a reversing camera, cruise control, height/reach adjustment for the steering wheel, hill-start assist, long-life LED daytime running lights, an awesome sound system and six airbags. One of its more interesting safety features is torque vectoring, which limits wheel spin during fast turns by braking the inside front wheel, helping draw the car into the turn.[xii]
- Above-average steering and handling – it really holds the road
- Smooth, comfy ride that feels roomy
- Plenty of turbo engine power for reliable acceleration
- Better-than-average sound system and Smartphone connectivity
- Rain can blot out the reversing camera image pretty easily
- Rear vision is somewhat constrained
- Engine is fairly noisy
#5. Volkswagen Golf
Prices start from $24,990
If you’re a car buyer who values European design, a 5-star safety rating and decent fuel economy, the well-crafted VW Golf should be high on your list. The Golf arrived in Australia in 1976, replacing the classic VW Beetle. Since then, it has found a solid home in the Aussie family car market.
The various Golf versions offer a generous range of standard features including driver fatigue alert, support for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, cruise control (with a speed limiter to help avoid those pesky speeding fines), anti-theft wheel bolts, seven airbags and electronic stability control – which can help in recovery from a skid.[xiii] [xiv]
- Well-designed, independent rear suspension
- Top-of-the-line safety features
- Cutting edge technology and digital connectivity
- Good fuel economy for its class
- Advanced rearview camera with extra-wide lens
- Back seats are a little low
- Only one USB port
Picking just the right car for your needs is all about diligent research – and this list of Australia’s best light and small cars will get you started on the right track. Best-selling brands are popular for a number of reasons, so take the time to work out which vehicle ticks the most important boxes for you and your family – and then enjoy your choice!
Disclaimer: Data on this website was sourced from Canstar in September 2019 from their latest available data. Auto & General Services Pty Ltd does not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the data and accepts no liability whatsoever arising from or connected in any way to the use or reliance upon this data.
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