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This is the Top Gear hatchback megatest

  1. In the EU as a whole, one in every three cars sold is a family hatch. In 2013, UK sales totalled over half a million (588,000). Which is a lot. Manufacturers might be pushing cute little baby crossovers - no fewer than six of the swollen superminis were launched last year - but don’t be fooled. Despite those mini-SUVs’ in-yer-face styling and brightly coloured, lifestyle marketing campaigns, it’s still the humble family hatch that dominates Europe’s car market.

    No two ways about it, though, these are not what you might call glamorous cars. This is the hard graft of the motoring world, the blindside flanker and the central defender, the unsung hero where utility is key. A to B via football practice and the supermarket, without fuss. It’s a balancing act for the makers, as their cars still need a character, but they also have to fit within a uniform, one-size-fits-all blueprint - no sliding-door trickery or coupe-style enchantment here. So does anyone manage interesting and practical? Time to find out…

    Pictures: Lee Brimble

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. Our first contender is the Peugeot 308, a car from a manufacturer whose most recent trait in this sector has been simple mediocrity. The Peugeot range in general has been pummelled by cheaper rivals from below and kicked by more upmarket rivals from above, and the French firm has suffered - not helped by the fact that the 307 and previous-generation 308 were such insipid cars. Peugeot hopes that the solution is this new 308 that, despite the shared name, is an entirely fresh car. Gone are the gurning face and flabby-looking body, to be replaced by a vehicle a massive 140kg lighter than before (down to 1,375kg), and genuinely a good-looking thing.

    We are testing it here with the four-pot 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine, producing 156bhp and 177lb ft, managing 0-62mph in 8.4 seconds, with claimed economy figures running to 48.7mpg and 134g/km CO2. All this is wrapped up in a package costing £21,350 in top-whack Feline trim. So far, so good.

  3. The other all-new car here is the Mazda3, and it’s gone down a slightly different route. Despite this £21,620 Sport Nav having similar power and pace - with 163bhp, 155lb ft and 0-62mph in 8.2 seconds - the 3 doesn’t have a turbo; instead, it’s got a larger 2.0-litre 4cyl petrol. Mazda reasons that in the real world, a strategy of a lightweight chassis and high-compression, naturally aspirated engine is more effective and fuel-efficient than a downsized turbo motor.

    And Mazda has taken this diet to the extremes - no quick-fix Atkins here - because the weight loss has extended as far as eliminating weld flanges, on the basis that they add grammes. It all adds up to a family hatch weighing just 1,280kg. Lightness breeds efficiency: the 3 claims 48.7mpg and 135g/km CO2, just a single carbon away from the 308’s 1.6.

  4. But this pair of newbies is up against some hefty rivals. The first, the Volkswagen Golf, is ubiquity itself - ever since the first one was launched in 1974, the answer to almost every car-related question has always been “A Golf.”

    Like the Pug and Mazda, the German has been on a diet (100kg lighter than before), and we’re testing it with the high-tech 1.4-litre ACT petrol - a turbo lump that uses cylinder shut-off tech for extra mpg. The trickery, combined with a relatively small displacement, means that the Golf claims to be the most efficient of our group (at 58.9mpg and 112g/km CO2), but with 138bhp, it’s also the least powerful. Fortunately, 184lb ft of torque manages to drag it back to respectability, with 0-62mph in 8.4 seconds, and it’s also the most expensive of the foursome, at £23,570.

  5. At the other end of the scale is the Ford Focus. It’s the oldest car here and also the cheapest, coming in at £20,600 for this top-spec Titanium trim. It’s got a turbocharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, producing 148bhp and 162lb ft, which is good enough for 0-62mph in 8.6 seconds - a fag paper’s difference from the competition. Which leaves us with four contenders, all of which are pretty evenly matched.

    Or so you might think. The reality is that the Focus’s chassis outclasses everything here. There’s a precision and control that no family hatch has a right to have - turn in, and the nose sniffs out the corner like a bloodhound on the scent, and it’s easy to feel where the grip is. Or isn’t.

    There’s a sound symposer in the exhaust, so as you accelerate hard the engine note plays a little melody, transitioning through various inflections, and these elements translate into a car that gives something back, makes it feel like you haven’t just plumped for a boring hatch. Even though you have. Fun, in other words.

  6. The problem with the Ford is that underneath that frisson of dynamic amusement, the interior is disappointing, and definitely last-generation - hopefully the upcoming facelift will fix this. At the moment, the dashboard layout is dated and the sneezed-placement buttons on the centre console don’t help matters.

    It’s a criticism you cannot level at the Golf. With its pleasing mix of a large touchscreen and ergonomic controls, the Volkswagen has the balance between clarity and functionality spot-on. It oozes class, with such a job-done attitude - no fripperies, no fancy graphics. If a knob says volume, it means volume.

  7. Even better at night, thanks to sharp white lights that cut like lightning bolts across an exceptionally well-made cabin. In fact, the comforting VeeDub quality is very much on display, with a defined absence of nascent squeaks or rattles. The only odd thing is the road noise - compared with the others, the Golf is noisy on the motorway. Most un-Golf-like. Refinement generally is top-drawer, though, because the Golf drives as if everything is softly oiled.

    There’s a quality to the VW that’s missing from the others, a last little drop of damping excellence that means vicious potholes don’t affect the Golf as much as the competition. There’s also the way the engine punches up through the revs - the turbo kicks in slightly earlier, and it’s smoother. Simply put, there aren’t many foibles here.

  8. The Mazda, on the other hand, is foible-tastic, mainly thanks to the lack of a torque-swelling turbo. Much as we love natural-aspiration, the truth is that in this class, a turbo four is preferable for its low-down punch and real-world power when you need it. A family hatch isn’t the kind of car that you thrill from revving to the maximum, and the Mazda doesn’t have the effortless get-up-and-go of the others.

    On the plus side, Mazda’s big-engine policy doesn’t seem to have hammered the fuel economy as much as you’d expect - the 3’s test economy (34.8mpg) was the best of the group. Which means that Mazda’s SkyActive attitude to efficiency works, if not in the most appropriate of ways for the sector.

    The handling is also tidied up by Mazda’s commitment to body control. It gets closest to the Ford’s dynamics, and all the major controls feel light and precise - even the gearbox snicks between the cogs nicely. In fact, the 3 feels deft and runs the Focus close for overall attitude.

  9. But it’s a mixed bag. The dual controls of the touchscreen and ‘rotary commander’ work well, the latter is so intuitive that you never need to control any of the systems via the screen. Yet it looks a bit late-Nineties in the cabin - step from the Mazda into either the Golf or 308, and it feels like you’ve been teleported forward a decade. There’s good space front and rear, and the 3’s major touch points all feel expensive, but start wobbling bits, like the plastics around the gearbox, and mouldings move in directions they simply shouldn’t.
    Plainly, it just doesn’t feel as robust as the other cars we have on test here.

    The 308 is a bit of a surprise, if we’re honest. A good one. There’s a sense of renewed vigour and identity here, with an excellently calm but punchy engine (it’s by far the best motorway workhorse), and a relaxed ambience. It’s not perfect: the ride is, on the whole, comfy, but every so often there’s a weird wobble from the back end, and Peugeot’s touchscreen might look fancy - elegantly clearing virtually all the buttons off the dash - but when the system throws a wobbly and crashes (as it did on our test), it leaves you floundering.

  10. Nothing serious, but noteworthy. And the steering is also a little too sharp: whether the tiny steering wheel is to blame, or the actual rack itself is too sensitive, it’s difficult to tell, but the Peugeot requires a bit of learning before you can go hurtling down back roads. Relax, go slower, flow with the car, and it’s better. But none of these things should put you off the little Pug, because it has a tidy ability to be a little bubble of Zen on the daily grind, the dash layout is clean to the point of being sparse, and the way it wafts along a nice loping A-road or motorway reminds us of French cars of old. Well done, Peugeot.

    So, to the final reckoning. First, we should point out that none of these is a disappointing car, which sounds like a TopGear-straddles-fence shocker, but in reality there’s no other way to put it. No extreme duds here, nothing jars to the point of instant exclusion from the shortlist.

    But the Mazda finishes last, and mainly because the engine just isn’t as effortless as the others. The Japanese firm’s weight saving and attitude are admirable, but the others make daily life easier to bear, and so it’s an easy choice for fourth place.

  11. The battle for third is closer. It’s the 308 that falls first, mainly because it can’t match the Ford’s chassis, and if you’re reading, you probably care slightly more about having some measure of fun behind the wheel. It is worth pointing out, though, how much of an improvement the 308 is over previous efforts. Time will tell if the build quality stands up to thousands of miles of family life, but it certainly feels robust, is well priced, has a decent selection of refined engines and looks good. Reassuringly, the clichés of old seem to have disappeared - the 308 is a car you could recommend. Given Peugeot’s recent history, that’s a hefty compliment. If we were awarding a prize for Most Improved, it’d go to the Peugeot.

    But the Ford just nips the runner-up spot. It’s not the most efficient - although we really hope you’ll get more miles out of the fuel tank than our leaden feet managed - and its interior design is starting to look very dated, but you can’t put a price on a smile. The biggest problem is that the Ford’s dated cabin means come the end of the day, it is eclipsed by the mighty Golf.

  12. It’s a lot closer than we imagined, mainly because the VW is pricey in this company, and the refinement isn’t quite where it might be. But what it does have is a brilliantly consistent range of talents across the spectrum: no USP as such, but there’s a relentlessness to the competence. You simply can’t beat that Golf feeling, that smug sense that you know you’ve bought a car that’s brilliantly evolved. In 2114, people will still be aiming at mid-sized VW hatchbacks, albeit powered by tiny nuclear reactors. And even then, as it turns out, the answer to most motoring queries will still be “A Golf.”

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