Stylish, well equipped and with an engine to suit every requirement, family hatchbacks remain an important sector of the market. But which ones make our top 10? Share Open gallery
Close Share story News by Autocar 9 mins read 20 January 2021 Follow @@autocar
The conventional family hatchback segment might not be the market’s fastest-growing, but it remains one of the most crucial and hotly contested. WIthin it, class stalwarts are reinventing themselves all the time, while brand-new entrants come along with regularity, each intended to break through and take the market by the scruff of the neck.
The traditional family hatchback as we once knew it no longer really exists. Once humble day-to-day hauler of people and their luggage, these cars have been transformed into often quite striking five-door aspiration machines that offer something for everyone, whether you’re looking for a frugal diesel, a peppy small turbocharged petrol engine, bargain transport or something with an upmarket flavour or a sporty lilt.
Here are our top 10 family hatchbacks currently on sale.
1. Volkswagen Golf
With the launch of the Mk8 Golf, Volkswagen has reclaimed what many would consider its rightful spot at the top of the family hatchback class. Mechanically speaking, the updates introduced on the latest Golf are relatively light: it still sits on the same MQB platform as its predecessor and, save for the introduction of 48V mild-hybrid technology, uses largely the same engine line-up.
But the sum of all these minor tweaks is a seriously impressive car. As far as ride refinement, handling balance and performance are all concerned, the Golf maintains its identity as the standout all-rounder in the class — and does so despite a slightly stiffer suspension set-up that would now dissuade us from opting for torsion-beam-equipped models. Interior space has been improved, too, and an even more high-tech infotainment offering will appeal to many. That said, not everyone will be convinced by its new exterior, and the cabin doesn’t quite promote the levels of material plushness we were used to in previous Golfs.
The latest GTI version has proved to be an effective and engaging hot hatch, but with a sharper, more focused set-up than ever before, it has lost some of the effortless everyday usability that so successfully marked out its predecessors. The GTE version, meanwhile, is considerably punchier, too, and now feels more like a bona fide plug-in hot hatch than ever before. And while we’re yet to sample the 315bhp R in the UK, early drives of VW’s latest all-paw mega-hatch are very promising indeed. It could well be the best all-round performance hatch on the market.
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2. Ford Focus
Ford’s new Focus might have lost its spot at the top of the Autocar family hatchback pile to the newer Mk8 Golf, but its outstanding handling and superbly pliant, well-resolved ride means it’s still one of the best. Having arguably been in a slight decline since the death of the Focus Mk1, the best-handling family hatchback in history is undoubtedly back to its very best on driver appeal.
There’s plenty of space inside, while a completely new platform and exterior have given the Ford a new lease of life. Its cabin still doesn’t quite offer the same levels of fit and finish as a Golf or Seat Leon, though.
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This fourth-generation model is available with both petrol and diesel engines, while base models make use of a torsion beam rear suspension configuration and passive dampers instead of the multi-link arrangement, partnered optionally with adaptive dampers, of more powerful models. Even the lower-end and less sporty configurations of the car stand clear of their rivals for handling dynamism, though.
The excellent 2.3-litre ST represents the sportiest offering in the line-up. Somewhat unfortunately, Ford has ruled out a full-bore RS for this model generation.
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3. Seat Leon
Seat’s fourth-generation Leon remains as closely related to the class-leading Golf as ever, being based on the same MQB platform and effectively making use of the same engine line-up.
This latest Leon perhaps isn’t quite as visually alluring as its immediate predecessor was and that perhaps erodes part of its identity in comparison with its Golf and Skoda Octavia relations. Be that as it may, though, it undoubtedly remains the sharpest and most entertaining family hatch in the VW Group portfolio — even if it doesn’t quite match the Focus for handling zest. Its interior is closely related to that of the Golf, looks smart and offers a level of space and practicality that is among the best in class.
The Leon’s lower price point is another advantage it has over the Golf, although it’s worth pointing out that 148bhp models don’t come with the more sophisticated rear suspension you get in the Golf. Nevertheless, the latest Leon remains a perfectly recommendable hatch.
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With the arrival of a plug-in hybrid model, tax-conscious business users can now get into a Leon that slots into the 6% benefit-in-kind bracket, too. Meanwhile, the sportier Cupra model is also available in plug-in guise and will be joined by traditional petrol models in due course.
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4. Audi A3 Sportback
The fourth-generation version the Audi A3 builds on the traits that has historically made it such a success in the family hatchback market: it’s posh, refined, comfortable, good to look at and hugely secure and stable in its handling. It represents a calculated, sensible evolution of the existing formula rather than dramatic revolution — and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
Like its Seat, Volkswagen and Skoda siblings, the latest A3 is based on an evolved version of the VW Group’s MQB architecture, with these changes being introduced to make way for a more diverse powertrain line-up that includes both mild-hybrid and plug-in variants. For now, the all-wheel-drive 306bhp S3 crowns the range but an all-new 396bhp RS3 is due to arrive later in 2021 and will take the fight to the Mercedes-AMG A45 S when it does.
The more sensible petrol and diesel versions of the A3 don’t quite handle with the same sense of zest and vigour as the likes of BMW’s 1 Series, but their superior refinement and performance all help make the A3 the slightly more appealing all-rounder. The cabin has lost some of the material wow factor of its immediate predecessor, but the A3 is nevertheless our pick of the premium-branded hatchback bunch. Advertisement Back to top
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5. BMW 1 Series
Cracking into the top half of this list is something of a result for BMW, whose 1 Series hatchback – famously the only car in the class to attempt to wield a rear-wheel-drive chassis in the modern era — has what we might call a dynamically troubled past.
Suffice to say that now it has adopted mechanical convention for engine layout and axle drive, the latest 1 Series has lost little and gained quite a lot. A front-wheel-drive layout (four-wheel-drive options are offered in tandem with the more powerful engines) serves the car well and handling is neat and secure, with body control and driver engagement good enough to distinguish the car against most of its rivals. Interior packaging, meanwhile, is much better than in the rear-driven predecessor, with second-row occupant space and luggage capacity both markedly improved.
A good choice of impressive petrol and diesel engines, mated for the most part to slick and efficient transmissions, and equally impressive on-board infotainment technology all make the 1 Series an easily recommended option in the hotly contested premium family hatch market. The new 128ti variant is shaping up to be a highly effective and exciting challenger to the Mk8 Golf GTI, and the all-wheel-drive M135i is a seriously effective all-weather hot hatch.
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Advertisement Back to top 6. Mazda 3
The fourth-generation Mazda 3 could well be the best-looking family hatch currently on sale. And, joy of joys, it retains all the qualities that made its predecessor such an appealing contender in this highly competitive class: strong value for money, spry handling and a choice of atmospheric petrol engines.
Inside, it’s more competitive with premium offerings in the hatchback class thanks to higher levels of perceived quality than before. It has Ford Focus-rivalling levels of driver appeal, too, courtesy of its quick, direct steering, a precise and slick-feeling manual gearbox and fine body control.
The car’s 2.0-litre SkyActiv-G petrol motor doesn’t quite provide enough punch to enable it to topple the best in class, but the new-generation SkyActiv-X alternative is more torquey and more efficient at a cruise. A slight reluctance to rev and a certain roughness under load are its only disappointments.
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7. Skoda Octavia
The latest Octavia remains true to its roots by sticking to its traditional strengths: practicality and affordability.
In estate guise, the Octavia simply outclasses all of its rivals for boot space, while the liftback version isn’t exactly short on space, either. To drive, it might not offer the sort of engagement you get from a Leon or the same levels of sophisticated ride refinement as the Golf, but it certainly isn’t far off. Advertisement Back to top
As ever, it remains the pragmatist’s choice among its VW Group siblings. Those simply looking for an affordable family runabout with acres of passenger and storage space will be seriously impressed by what’s on offer here. At the same time, anyone stepping out of a Focus might be a bit put off by its comparatively sedate character. The new vRS models — which are available in petrol, diesel and plug-in guise — all go a long way to rectifying such complaints, though.
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8. Kia Ceed
It’s third time lucky for the South Korean manufacturer, as this third-generation Ceed is the most convincing yet.
The handling and steering have found a greater level of sophistication than ever before and the cabin offers plenty of room for four adults, although it still lacks some of the classy material appeal of more upmarket contenders. Its diesel engines are smooth and refined and can deliver impressive economy.
The Ceed is still some way off the position of class leader but is nonetheless a worthy competitor in an incredibly competitive segment. Meanwhile, the Proceed compact shooting brake has design appeal, and no small amount of driver appeal, to augment Kia’s family hatchback range.
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Advertisement Back to top 9. Honda Civic
Over the course of 10 models, the Honda Civic has gone through a multitude of changes from the mundane to the divisive. This new-generation car is the biggest there has been so far and it is equally as striking as its predecessors to look at, albeit in a more conventional way. Dynamically, the car is better executed than before.
Honda’s new petrol engines are impressive, even if the triple isn’t quite able to match the 1.0-litre unit from Ford for high-revving driver engagement. The latest-generation Civic Type R hot hatchback version, meanwhile, is superb.
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10. Mercedes-Benz A-Class
Mercedes’ latest take on the compact family hatchback is a more conventional car than A-Class regulars may be used to, but in the ways that will count to most owners, it’s certainly none the worse for the trade.
Having grown significantly since the last-generation version, the A-Class is now among the bigger hatchbacks in the segment. A ritzy-looking, technology-rich interior is the car’s main selling point. It can be had, in more expensive trims, with a pair of widescreen instrument and infotainment displays and Merc’s latest MBUX voice recognition software, which works consistently well.
Interior packaging isn’t flawless, with oddly protruding interior door handles robbing knee space in both rows, but even so, there’s decent space on offer. Advertisement Back to top
The driving experience, meanwhile, is generally slick and quiet and can be fairly punchy, depending on which engine you choose. Mercedes’ more powerful options are worth the extra outlay; likewise the independent rear suspension of its more expensive derivatives, which makes the A-Class a dynamic match for most cars in the class. The plug-in A250e model, meanwhile, offers an electric range of more than 40 miles, allowing it to slot into the appealing 6% benefit-in-kind bracket.
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