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$30k Family Car mega test

While the car industry seems intent on reinventing and cross-pollinating shapes, sizes and themes to create a different family vehicle, equally families who buy and use such vehicles can be incredibly diverse in terms of needs and wants.

SUVs are increasingly perceived as the most pragmatic solution for the task of shifting loved ones from A to B, but even within this ever-greyer motoring format, choice is already bewildering and isn’t likely to find more streamlined clarity any time soon.

Frankly, the more restrictive the household budget, the more critical and discerning the decision-making process needs to be to ensure the right vehicle not only suits particular family needs in terms of size and practicality but, in a penny-pinching one-car household, the device ideally fits many other lifestyle requirements.

Enter the $30k Family Car Mega Test: a comparison with a twist or two. Rather than picking a vehicle segment and a price point and letting the available range of competitors have at it, we’ve set about getting as many different types of family-friendly vehicles as possible for a given budget.

But where this test differs mostly significantly from most other CarAdvice comparisons is that the intention is not to rank winners through to losers, but instead to try to marry up the complex family unit to the right vehicle type.

Why thirty grand? While markedly less outlay will buy you family friendly motoring in one shape or another, $30,000 is the tipping point that opens up serious choice across a great many segments.

Importantly, it’s with this level of outlay where you begin to indulge in wants – extra equipment, more safety, powertrain and drive choice, even styling and design whims – in a trade-off for other aspects and features you don’t actually need. Happy to forego luggage space for better infotainment? Or vice versa? Around $30k is where choice begins.

Needless to say, in selecting competitors there’s a not so much trend a but a rule of thumb: the less space you opt for, the more niceties and gear on offer.

And while we’re at it, our chosen recommended retail price parameter is ‘for $30k’ and not ‘under $30k,’ mainly because a strict pricing cap would’ve knocked out some key segments where the most affordable options crept above the fiscal threshold.


The Competitors

The selection premise was simple: pick one available example from as many different family-suitable segments as possible and, if practicable, only one competitor per marque. Easy in theory, surprisingly difficult to execute in practice.

Given that SUVs have become the default go-to family-mobile option, let’s begin with the largest example we have here on test, a gold standard bearer for Medium SUV goodness and fitting anchor point for the premise of the test: the Mazda CX-5 Maxx 2WD petrol automatic ($30,690).

It’s both critically acclaimed and popular with Aussie buyers, though we could’ve easily opted instead for the excellent entry-level Hyundai Tucson Active petrol, easily hitting budget in manual form ($28,590) if a little too expensive as an auto ($31,590) disregarding drive-away deals. Besides, we need the Korean marque to fill another competitive segment’s shoes…

Downsizing to a Small SUV, offered plenty of choice of maker and model variant, but we simply opted for one of the freshest, most highly-rated in review and downright funkiest of its ilk: the Toyota CH-R, ours a base manual version ($26,990), but also available in CVT automatic form still well within budget ($28,990).

Why? We wanted one competitor that looked to be downright fun to drive and also to prove that being on a budget doesn’t mean you’re forced to endure biscuit-bland styling.

Trading soft-roading pretensions for sheer people-swallowing capacity is the MPV set, represented here by the Kia Rondo S automatic petrol ($26,990). In terms of popularity and choice, MPVs play a quiet second fiddle to the dominant SUV format and it’s the Korean five-seater’s role here to question why. We’d have desperately loved to have had the seven-seater Si though its list price ($31,490) was slightly too rich.

On paper, a Small Hatchback shouldn’t be ideal family-moving fodder, though the Subaru Impreza 2.0i-S petrol CVT ($29,190) makes for a left-field, if inspired, choice not merely because we’ve found it to be larger and roomier than expected in reviews past but also because, as a flagship ‘S’ variant loaded with equipment and safety features, it’s a competitive outlier here on test.

Buyer choice of a Small Wagon is somewhat limited in Oz, though the segment has one torchbearer offering an inspired alternative to SUV convention: the Skoda Octavia 110TSI petrol DSG ($27,690).

A consistent high achiever in CarAdvice reviews for all-round goodness and value, it’d make the grade here solely to prove that you can buy family friendliness with a European badge on a relatively shoestring budget.

Up a segment size and into Medium Sedan territory lands the Hyundai Sonata 2.4 Active automatic ($30,590), a device lacking the sexiness and bells and whistles of some of the competition but a car we’ve long maintained covers off essentials generously.

Matching the Sonata for size and body style is the Toyota Camry Altise Hybrid automatic ($30,490), though that it’s the only circa-$30k Hybrid Vehicle the Aussie peso can buy not only justifies its inclusion, but effectively creates the unavoidable situation that has two Toyotas on test.

Given that the humble ute currently sits as the biggest-selling vehicle in Australia right now, frankly, we really needed a Dual-Cab Ute as a great many are being roped into family-transporting duty.

Our segment representative is the Great Wall Steed Diesel 4×4 ($29,990), perhaps the most controversial inclusion in test because; a) its lack of rear child seat anchor points; and b) the petrol 4×2 version of the Steed is currently listed as a two-star ANCAP proposition. If proper, high-riding off-road-ability and ute flexibility are absolute purchasing essentials, and your kids are old enough not to need car seats, then our sole Chinese entrant is an option.

We tried sourcing a Navara Dual-Cab Pick-Up DX 4×2 petrol ($26,490 man, $28,990 auto) to give Nissan a gurnsey but no test vehicle was available. Ditto a Toyota HiLux Workmate Double 4×2 petrol manual ($30,690), though this would’ve missed the cut by way of ‘too many Toyotas’.

In fact, a few segments are left unrepresented here purely due to a lack of available test cars. Holden couldn’t supply a Large SUV in its Holden Captiva 7 LS 2WD petrol automatic ($30,490). We tried to secure an LDV G10 7-Seater petrol automatic ($29,990) as our Large Seven-Seat Van, and the funky Citroen C4 Cactus diesel ($29,990) fitting the frugal Euro Diesel SUV brief is being phased out in oiler form.

The two chances to showcase Volkswagen were scuppered when a Caddy Maxi Crew ($30,090) couldn’t be sourced for Small Van and, given testing pre-dated the Golf 7.5 update, none of the new 110TSI Trendline wagons ($29,990) were as yet available.

Worth noting, too, is that to get into yesteryear’s ‘family car standard’, the Large Sedan and Wagon, is too expensive for our test’s budget constraints (Holden Commodore Evoke is $35,490 sedan, $37,490 wagon).


Testing criteria

We’ll put the field through five different testing criterion. Features and Equipment needs little explanation though it will be interesting to see if, or by what degree, the amount of sheer kit on offer counterbalances Occupant Friendliness – in other words roominess, access, if basic conveniences are covered and how cleverly packaged the interior is.

Given the diversity of body styles on show, Luggage/Cargo Area deserves separate analyses from cabin space, factoring in volume, flexibility, ease of access and even security.

On Road covers powertrain, ride comfort, ease of drivability, visibility and fuel consumption, though the emphasis is on the quality of the experience for all occupants, not merely the driver.

Finally, Value for Money aims to take into consideration the balance of features and occupant friendliness, and considers overall cost of ownership against the quality for each vehicle’s overall family car fitness.

By the end of test process, the judging team of Matt Campbell, Tegan Lawson, Tony Crawford and yours truly hope to marry up the right vehicle for particular family requirement.


Features and Equipment

When you group together such a disparate group of vehicles, they skew the focus of their talents in myriad different directions, is it any surprise that features lists can differ wildly in length and emphasis? But, boy, were there some surprises.

Possibly the shortest list of goodies belongs to the Kia Rondo. Essentials such as a rear-view camera, rear parking sensors, cruise control and hill-start assist are the notable items but you know it’s slim pickings when ‘16-inch steel wheels (with hub caps)’ gets a specific mention under the subject of features.

The Camry Hybrid gets more visual joy inside thanks to a modest (6.1-inch) infotainment screen and (4.2-inch) driver’s screen jam-packed with colourful hybrid powertrain animation. But, with its features list stretching little farther than covering rear-view camera, 16-inch alloy wheels and climate control, there’s not a lot separating this mid-sized sedan from the taxi rank in terms of joy and spoils, nor much in the way of forward thinking safety system. No rear parking sensors at this price point is a bit stiff…

Vastly higher on the bells and whistles count is the Great Wall Steed. Outside it gets lashings of chrome, and stainless steel sports bar, 16-inch alloys, sidesteps, auto headlights and LED running lights.

Meanwhile, inside the faux leather seats get heating and electric adjustment, auto wipers, an auto-dimming mirror and leather on the door trims and the multifunction wheel. But while cruise control, rear parking sensors and Bluetooth phone and audio streaming start to lift the ‘electronic’ credentials, the Chinese ute suddenly stops dead in its tracks: if you want an infotainment touchscreen, a rear-view camera or sat-nav of any type, it’ll cost an extra $1000.

Well-rounded in spec is the Hyundai Sonata – not lacking, but nothing too flash – with a solid foundation of (small 5.0-inch) touchscreen infotainment, rear-view camera and rear sensors, cruise control and OLED driver’s centre screen given a nice boost with dusk-sensing headlights, LED DLRs and mirror repeaters, 17-inch alloys and keyless entry. No sign of active safety features, though…

The Mazda CX-5 fits steel 17-inch wheels (in lieu of the fitted optional alloys) but, elsewhere, marks the tip-in point for indulgence. LED headlights, powered mirrors, a proper 7.0-inch full-colour touchscreen with separate infotainment controller, rear-view camera/sensors, DAB+ radio and other techy knick-knacks such as internet radio compatibility are augmented with autonomous emergency braking (AEB) support, rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot monitoring smarts. Impressive for an entry-level variant.

Glance at the Toyota C-HR’s features list and it’s easy to see why this newcomer to the small SUV set is so well regarded. Even this base model gets 17-inch alloys, LED DLRs (if mere halogen headlights), power folding and heated wing mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, auto dimming interior mirror, 6.1-inch touchscreen infotainment, 4.2-inch colour driver’s screen, proprietary sat-nav, and rear-view camera with sensors.

But, cloth trim apart, it’s brimming with upmarket gear, including active cruise control, AEB, lane departure alert with steering assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and neat tech such as Sway Warning and Trailer Sway control. From automatic power windows to the ‘C-HR’ puddle lamps, neat touches abound.

The Impreza, though, is a fully-fledged flagship: 8.0-inch infotainment with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto as well as dedicated sat-nav, 18-inch alloy wheels, full leather trim, automatic LED headlights, auto wipers… right up to the standard-fitment electric sunroof.

Subaru’s acclaimed EyeSight camera-based tech adds smarts such as radar cruise control, lane departure warning and pre-collision braking, while the Vision Assist suite adds blind-spot, lane-change and rear cross-traffic assistance. Strangely though, like the Camry, it’s not fitted with parking sensors.

If there is one car in the pack that makes forward progress in testing slightly difficult it’s the Octavia wagon. As an un-optioned sub-$28k prospect, it looks very fit indeed: 17-inch alloys, 8.0-inch infotainment with full smartphone connectivity, dual-zone climate control, auto dimming rear mirror, rear-view camera with multiple views, adaptive cruise control… a solid pitch indeed.

But what muddied the equipment waters was $11,800 worth of options (excluding added-cost paint), bundling up a Tech Pack, a Luxury Pack, larger 18-inch wheels, a panoramic glass roof and powered tailgate options, some of it easily ignorable in the tests that follow, some of which – the leather trim, the 9.2-inch high-spec infotainment, the ride quality of the larger wheels – will indelibly impact appraisal. Unavoidable, if ever-present in judgement, was that we had one almost $40k competitor amongst a group of $30k-somethings.

In terms of airbag count, the Rondo, Steed, CX-5 and Sonata number six apiece, while the Octavia, C-HR, Impreza and Camry each get a superior seven. Bar the Steed, all other competitors get tether points and ISOFIX mounts for child seats in their second rows.

Meanwhile, for overall safety, every competitor bar the Great Wall has been rated five stars by ANCAP.


Occupant Friendliness

Size matters, though only if you need it. And we’d decided at the outset that if you’re shopping for genuine five-adult capacity, you might well struggle with any of these competitors and, frankly, you’ll need to shop in categorically large segments for comfortable returns.

That said, when measuring cabin space across the field, ‘five up’ in a parked test could best illustrate the differences in accommodation.

For passenger space, we loaded up three blokes and two ladies into each vehicle, maintaining the same positions, with the driver’s seat adjusted to suit his (aka my) whims. Here’s how they stacked up, from the roomiest to the tightest squeeze: Rondo, Camry, Sonata, CX-5, Octavia, Subaru, Great Wall and, finally, the C-HR.

There are results here that raised a few eyebrows with the test crew. The first is the largest SUV on test – the vehicle you might reasonably presume to be the spatial dominator – was merely fourth for outright, real-world cabin space. The second is the small hatchback and small wagon both offered measurably more generous accommodation than the dual-cab ute.

In its company, the Rondo is a packaging masterwork of maximizing cabin space. It’s not simply cavernous inside, but amazingly so in relation to it exterior dimensions.

Up front, the small and simple infotainment screen and basic appointments were offset by a neat, upmarket design, with soft touch elbow rests and an excellent multifunction wheel. But it’s the car-like driver ergonomics, deep dash top and generous glass which presents a sense of airiness twinned with superb outward visibility – both key to a sense of comfort.

Rear vents, rear grab handles, map pockets, bottle holders in the doors, a 12V outlet – basic rear passenger needs are covered off. But, again, smart design impressed, with stadium-style seating for excellent visibility for children, a flat rear floor for ample foot space, and it’s the only car of the eight that splits the rear seat in three, each section offering slide adjustment to facilitate legroom where needed.

Together with the Kia, it was only really the Camry and Sonata mid-sedans that felt to handle a five-adult challenge with room to breathe.

In the second row, the Camry has more glass area than the comparatively more claustrophobic feeling Sonata, though the Korean car is a more shapely, comfy rear-seater and nicer, with more upmarket trim. The Sonata brought central cupholders and a 12V to the mid-sedan party, though both, thankfully, get rear air vents for rear occupant comfort.

Both drew praise for sheer legroom – the Sonata’s possibly the lengthiest of the entre field – prompting one judge to describe both has having “limo-like room compared with the SUVs,” though when it came to materials and design the word “taxi” would bounce around the Camry’s cabin more than once over the testing regime.

Toyota’s ‘make-do’ approach was conspicuous from the “super plasticky if hardy trim,” said one judge, to a sheer lack of proprietary features in the infotainment system that looks neat but had “nothing in it”. There’s also no digital speedo, though air con is properly dual zone.

The Sonata, too, is a bit “old looking” in design, and the sheer amount of “blank space” on the dash fascia makes the info screen look tiny. You do sit very low in the front row, which drew mixed reactions from the panel. It’s nice for a sense of driving purpose, but not so great for visibility for shorter occupants. The front seats also copped a judgmental hit: “they’re a real issue as it’s so hard to get comfortable – you could never ‘Uber’ in it.”

Mazda certainly knows how to present nicely on a budget, and the base CX-5 “feels like proper luxury for a used-car upgrader” remarked one of the crew. The infotainment screen is large and clear, the plastics look (though don’t quite feel) expensive and it’s amazing the ambient lift soft touch points and a lick of silver finish gives to the feel-good factor. Case in point is the dramatic contrast between the tactile, sporty, quality steering wheel in the CX-5 versus the terrible unit Toyota fits to Camry.

But despite the lovely headlining, the wide opening doors for easy access and ‘auto down’ power windows all round, and ample USB/12V connectivity – all smart little details – the CX-5 does fall down in places in the intimate experience.

It’s a shallow cabin with very limited rear legroom, be it by mega test or mid-SUV segment measures, and the seats draw criticism for a lack of support or body hugging contour. The rear seat belts “hang around your neck,” says one judge, there’s no rear fold-down armrest and – gasp – no rear air vents in this variant for its basic air con system. “Imagine that in Boggabri in the summer,” one of the crew observed.

The Octavia’s cabin presents splendidly though, as mentioned, much of the effect in materials and tech come down to this example’s five-figure cost options. Tough to judge those areas, then, so the jury remains firmly out.

What’s evident, though, is the sense of quality and finish in core areas – a genuine Euro vibe, if not quite emphatically ‘premium’. The digital driver’s screen is excellent (with speedo readout), the door bins are flocked to reduce noise from rattling objects, you get an umbrella and luggage netting in the boot, and it’s the only vehicle here with a ski port.

The cabin clarity and spaciousness, unsurprisingly, is oh-so VW Golf-like, so categorically small car done smart and roomy. There’s decent rear legroom, but by most other measures it’s clearly a smaller device than those listed above.

Still, ensuring rear passengers are catered for with dual USB ports, individual reading lights, bottle holders, decent rear glass areas and – hooray – air vents, anchors the impression that comfort for all occupants has been considered. That said, we’re now in two-toddler or two-teen territory as realistic daily transport. Five-up is a real squeeze.

The Impreza lays on the multi-screen and leather-dipped extravagance. “Nice stitching, soft touch points and good materials all round,” says one judge, and it’s easy to see how Subaru’s mid-sizer, especially in hatch form and in flagship ‘S’ trim such as this, wins a great many Aussie buyers over. The sheer array of different materials suggests effort to the point of almost over-styling, and one of the crew did note that rear door trims aren’t quite to the presentation of the fronts.

Disappointing, though, are the seats. They’re quite flat, with no lumbar adjustment and not enough under-thigh support for the long-legged in either row. “The seat backs feel like they’re made from Masonite,” says one judge and a lack of bolstering and contour provides precious little upper body support.

The standard fitment sunroof impacts headroom noticeably in both rows, while in the rear there are no air vents, no charging points and the huge transmission tunnel inhibits foot room. The cabin does feel narrow, though legroom is easily superior to either of the SUVs on test. A plus, though, is excellent outward vision so even small kids can see the world whisking by outside the (heavily tinted) rear glass.

The C-HR is a deceptive little car, partly through visual (design) trickery because you don’t realise how large its dimensions are until parked up in its current company.

Sure enough, when you climb into the second row, there’s more space than you initially expect. Easily the narrowest cabin in test, though, it’s very lengthy for a small SUV. Dimensionally, it’s a good fit for four adults, but shoehorning three bodies across the back seat is nothing short of pure shoulder-squashing comedy.

Less humorous is the claustrophobia. The rear window line is so high that it’s a permanently dark and dingy abode. Adults struggle to see through the rear “prison windows,” as one judge calls them, so imagine how bored kids might be on long trips with nothing to look at except cabin trim work and not much else. There are no rear vents, no map pockets, no grab handles or coat hooks. Those high-mounted exterior rear door handles, too, will cause many children serious frustration.

Up front, the C-HR is much friendlier. The driving ergonomics are excellent, the materials are quality to touch and downright funky in appearance, and the seats, while offering less cushioning than the CX-5, have the type of support you’d expect from proper sports seats. From the ornate headlining to the digital speedometer – “Toyota finally gets it!” remarks one judge – the crew agrees the C-HR feels much like a “quirkily specified European.”

For all-round accommodation, cabin space and comfort, the Great Wall suffers wooden spoon ignominy. The front row, ergonomically, isn’t terrible and visibility is quite good, though the cost cutting is obvious despite some efforts to disguise the fact.

But the pain in the back, literally, is the second-row seating. The seat back is terribly upright, the positioning so uncomfortable, and the cabin depth so limited that it welds even shorter adults in place, knees up.

Nobody on the crew could imagine spending any more than the shortest trips without serious protest and, until an update arrives fitting child seat anchor points, you won’t be putting babies or toddlers in there either. Short doors make it tough to get in or out, particularly if you have big feet, while there aren’t as much as door bins in the rear.

Of course, what you lose in dual-cab ute cabin space you trade for with payload volume and capacity. But the Steed throws out the question of whether you’d realistically choose a ute primarily as a family hauler or whether it merely makes for a conditional and occasional Plan B.


Luggage/Cargo space

Of course, the Steed offers specific utility of the type none of the rest of the field can match: 1545mm of length and 1460mm of width available for up to 1020kg of payload. That said, at 980mm between the wheel arches, you can’t actually fit an standard Aussie pallet.

Still, it’s plenty handy for lugging stuff around, though there is one major downside to using this ute to cart around your family valuables in that there’s no way to keep them safe and secure… unless you spend extra on a lockable tonneau cover.

Of the remaining seven competitors, here’s how they stack up for luggage space, from largest to smallest while keeping the second row seating in play because, well, you can’t forget to load the kids. And if you think you might guess the volumetric pecking order by body style or segment size, you might be in for a shock…

The order is: Octavia (588 litres), Rondo (536L), Sonata (462L), CX-5 (442L), Camry (421L), C-HR (377L) and Impreza (340L). Of seven vehicles, the larger SUV is only fourth in luggage space, with the smaller SUV second last.

The Octavia’s bootspace is humongous, rivaling the volume of large SUVs, and 588 litres is astonishing given the Skoda’s categorically small segment size. And it’s no less impressive with the rear seats folded, its maker claiming an incredible 1718L that, again, tops the list cargo-swallowing capabilities of this $30k field.

It’s smartly packaged, too, with netted side bins and a floor-mounted luggage net handy for securing groceries and smaller items. It’s a nice, square load space between the wheel arches, too, and remote latches are located at both sides of the boot space to remotely drop the rear seat backs. And it’s all topped off with a neat retractable scrim, if one that’s a bit bulky to stow once it’s disconnected.

Further to Rondo’s interior packaging smarts is that the enormous cabin space doesn’t comes at a trade-off for luggage space. Better still, that the clever 35:30:35 split-fold second-row seating is on sliders allows the user to adjust space between the cabin and boot to suit whatever whim.

The Kia’s large, square load space also includes luggage net hooks in the floor, while under the floor there’s a sizeable and purposeful storage area. With a generous 1694 litres of storage with the second row folded, it converts into a handy van when need be.

The notion that a sedan can beat out two SUVs and a hatchback in boot space seems unlikely. That is until the moment you pop the Sonata’s rear lid and marvel at just how deep the luggage compartment is. It mightn’t fit bulky shaped objects like the Skoda and Kia can, but it’ll take a fairly lavish spend at Toyworld or the local sports store to fill its 462-litre capacity.

The CX-5, perhaps surprisingly, plays fourth fiddle at the load-lugging concert, with 442 litres with all seats in play. However, it does have a nifty and clever 40:20:40 split-fold rear seat design that allows some of the second-row seating to remain in play when long objects are loaded into the rear. Converted into a two-seater, the effective floor is reasonably flat, though the width between the inner wheel arches and the tailgate aperture are hardly segment leading in size.

We’ve praised the Camry’s bootspace in the past and, indeed, its 421-litre space is large enough for two large suitcases and all manner of child-friendly addenda though, in this company, it starts to look decidedly middling.

It’s only once you get down to the C-HR’s decidedly modest 377-litre capacity that the shortcomings really being to emerge. You sense designers focused more on creating crossover appeal rather than considerations of space maximisation, and the Toyota’s stylised roofline and sloping tailgate clearly limit what, and how much, you can load into the rear. For a car the might otherwise favour transport for toddlers and babies, it might be a struggle to fit a pram plus other essentials little ones require in this day and age.

Of our two small cars on test, the relatively tiny 340-litre Impreza boot couldn’t strike a larger contrast to that of the Skoda. While it’s certainly usable to a point, you might have to think long and hard before packing for a weekend away with two adults and two kids in transit.

One saving grace is that with three onboard, either side of the 40:60 split-fold rear seat can be dropped to liberate considerably more space. In the give and take of interior packaging, it seems luggage space lost out to roominess inside the cabin.


On Road

Where we loaded five adults into the cabins in order to shake out the field’s accommodation prowess, we opted for four adults for our combined urban and highway road test.

Why? Because it’s an unreasonable ask for small and medium segment vehicles to expect to perform the job intended for large vehicles. Call it a test of fitness for purpose, then.

There was no hard corning involved either, though our test loop included a lot of stop-starts, a variety of speed humps, both rough and smooth surfaces and, crucially, a pass through one of Sydney most notoriously challenging multi-story shopping centre carparks, to measure maneuverability and reverse parking prowess. Because, of course, that’s a key natural family car hunting ground.

Frankly, sorting the standouts from the sub-standards on road was really, really difficult. This is partly because of the diversity of the field where almost everything shone in one measure only to fade in another. And also because our appraisal primarily focused on the ‘whole family experience’, as to not divide the driver and passenger measures too consciously.

To provide an objective pecking order, then, here’s how they fared on fuel economy, measured predominantly during highway driving: Octavia (6.1L), Camry (6.4L), C-HR (6.4L), CX-5 (6.8L), Impreza (7.1L), Sonata (8.4L), Steed (8.9L) and Rondo (9.2L).

Worth noting, none of these figures, apart from the Rondo’s (+2.3L), deviated much from their makers’ combined-cycle claims… despite being measured mostly at a cruise. And given the different engine types, sizes and body styles, the overall variation, too, shouldn’t come as shock.

But the fact the hybrid and turbo-petrol Toyotas returned exactly the same consumption raised an eyebrow or two, as did the fact that the sole diesel was almost the thirstiest vehicle on test.

At just 85kW/185Nm, the CH-R’s outputs are low, but it’s a small vehicle and, tied to a conventional (six-speed) manual here, it’s easy to keep the little 1.2-litreb turbo four on the boil. Even four-up it makes it up hills without too much sweating, and some natural engagement – plus nifty rev-matching on downshifts – allows it to slice through the burbs easily. It’s solid, well planted, super easy to manoeuvre and has a tight turning circle, though a lack of downhill engine braking is annoying.

The little SUV’s sporty nature suits its persona though, as we’ve found in comparisons past. Its ride and handling balance for its segment is impressive. Here, though, it was found to have a more pliant ride than the field’s other SUV, the CX-5, around town, yet it’s slightly terse at highway speeds. Rearward vision isn’t great, though, and without active rear-view camera guidelines, it can be tricky to park.

The Steed’s 2.0-litre diesel four makes 110kW/310Nm and is only available as a six-speed manual, which is surely a deal-breaker for some family car buyers. True to form in reviews past, it’s not terribly eager down low, has a very narrow useable torque band and feels a bit breathless. It demands a lot of driver effort to make hasty progress. Up hills it’s a chore on take-off and encountering inclines on the move often demands a downshift to maintain decent forward motion.

Ride quality can be terribly abrupt, though it’s the firmness of the rear axle that really punishes – be it speed humps or square-edge road warts – and it’s the rear occupants who suffer most. Loading the tub up with weight might settle things, though that’s a terribly counterproductive method of curing its general discomfort.

Clearly, opting for the all-rounder utility route comes with not insignificant compromises in comfort and ease of use for all aboard. Of course, the pay-off for its compromised on-road nature is proper off-road capability and the Steed has proven in tests past to be rather handy in rough stuff. Its two-tonne tow rating might certainly be handy for some family tasks, though it is light on in outright diesel ute terms.

Of equal power, if vastly different complexion, is the Octavia’s on-road persona, which produces 110kW/250Nm from a 1.4-litre turbo four backed by a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. And, frankly, we expected a little more than the experience it provided.

No gripes from the engine’s energy or its impressive 6.1L/100km frugality, but that DSG is foiled by abrupt upchanges and some shifting hesitation, and the powertrain is prone to lagginess and, surprisingly, axle-tramping wheel spin. With four adults aboard and hills to contend with, the Skoda can be grumpier than we’d ever anticipated.

Ride, too, wasn’t as polished as we’d hoped, those large 18-inch wheels not able to tame its jittery nature over bumps though, naturally, transit settled down as road speed rose, where we found the cabin to become boomy and noisy like, one judge noted, “a big, old tin amplifier”. Over speed humps, the suspension had to double its attempts to settle the rear end if loaded with four adults.

The CX-5’s 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four makes a workmanlike 114kW and 200Nm, which can feel underpowered a little when pushed, and can be noisy, but is twinned well to a six-speed automatic. Besides the occasional hunting for the right forward ratio, it’s a smooth and effective powertrain combination.

“Easy to drive, steers well” came the plaudits though, famously, Mazda has traded some comfort for extra engagement in its mid-SUV, though those high-profile tyres do temper the ride quality compared with more upmarket, larger-wheeled CX-5 variants.

Compared with this field, however, the Mazda was still deemed “a little terse” and “not overly cushy” over bumps and lumps. The overly sensitive blind-spot monitoring caused some debate amongst the crew, some charging it “cries wolf” to the point of annoyance and distrust, others claiming it’s “better to have than to have not”.

Almost identical in outputs is the Impreza’s 115kW/196Nm un-boosted 2.0-litre four, which was slightly thirstier than the Mazda and yet lacked a little of its Japanese contemporary’s urgency. And much like the Skoda’s performance, the Subaru didn’t quite deliver in the on-road experience of what were clearly higher expectations.

On cold start-up, the four-cylinder buzzes furiously at 2000rpm. Once warmed, its lacklustre mid-range makes (four-up) swift progress a noisy, strained affair. The CVT auto the engine is tied to ‘fakes’ upshifted gears convincingly enough, though the transmission maintains a strange vibrating sensation throughout much of the on-road experience. “Sounds gross,” remarks one judge. “Soundtrack by Dyson,” says another.

Everyone who drove it remarked on how overly weighty the steering is low speed, how airy it can become on a swift move. But the biggest eye-opener is how the suspension coped with speed humps – a generally soft and pliant ride quality on the move went south in dramatic fashion as the chassis crashes against the bump stops. It’s as if the suspension was tuned to carry two adults maximum, completely struggles with an extra pair of adults sat in the rear seats. Not great.

The Rondo’s road loop performance was markedly different. Without any ‘sport utility vehicle’ pretensions to live up to, Kia’s engineers have imbued it with genuinely car-like driving characteristics. And, as an overall, a well sorted car at that.

Its ride and handling balance isn’t a world away from the CX-5’s – firm if reasonably compliant – though it’s patently quieter than its SUV competition. Despite some fidgetiness across its rear axle, it’s an impressively comfortable yet planted and surefooted experience for all aboard.

And its narrow external dimensions paired with excellent visibility makes it easy to place and park in tight situations, though the tiny rear-view camera wasn’t the most generous help.

Its 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four is a little gruff but feels more willing than its 122kW/213Nm suggests, though it does come with that penalty of thirst.

The six-speed auto is also impressively co-operative and intuitive with its ratio changes. That it was once of the nicest drives of the bunch came as some surprise and passengers enjoyed it too, naming the Rondo among the top three in the field for genuine long-haul comfort, up there with the two mid-sized sedans.

The Sonata ups outputs to a formidable 138kW/241Nm – with a thirst to match – from its ‘big’ 2.4-litre four, but halfway through the road loop the clearly ageing competitor from the untrendy family car segment stole the mantle as the field favourite “should we keep driving for another 500 kays or more”.

Hefty steering and tendency to light a front tyre up notwithstanding, here is a commanding blend of around-town effortless, of low noise penetration, of far from intrusive road noise and of quality of ride comfort that “pleasantly wafts along”.

Compared with most of its competitors, the on-the-move experience the Kia delivers is nigh on limousine like. And with its rear-view camera’s active guidelines, sensors and clear screen, it’s one of the easiest to park backwards into a tight spot.

Topping the output chart is the Camry, its petrol 2.5-litre four cranking out 133kW/231Nm, lifting combined power to a heady 151kW once the 105kW/270Nm electric motor silently weighs in.

So while Toyota’s mid-sedan hybrid merely matches the company’s small SUV’s 6.4L/100km consumption figure on test, the petrol engine is twice the capacity and the hybrid system is approaching double the power. Favour low-speed urban driving (where the electric motor operates frequently) rather than highway work (mostly petrol power) used for our fuel test loop, and consumption will undoubtedly drop further.

The sheer gutsiness of the hybrid system pays handsome dividends not merely in performance but in effortlessness. The Camry hauls four adults without stress, without fuss, and it was judged to be the quietest operator of the field.

Letting the team down somewhat is ride quality as impacts can be sharply felt through the cabin at times. Also, the “funky and wooden” brake pedal feel, part and parcel of the energy regeneration technology at play, takes some getting used to. Another annoyance is the fish-eyed rear-view camera that, without the aid of reversing sensors, makes parking backwards more of a guessing game than it should be.


Value and ownership

Knocking the ownership ball out of the park is the Rondo, which comes with Kia’s ever-stunning seven-year warranty with seven years of capped-priced servicing – the only competitor with such lengthy surety – at a fairly standard 12-month/15,000km intervals. It also comes with seven years of roadside assist.

The Sonata matches the servicing frequency of the Rondo, though the warranty period is a shorter, if still enticing, five-year span without any kilometre limit. Servicing costs can be fixed with pre-paid schedules of between three and five years, while roadside assist is offered at “up to 10 years” depending on the program a buyer chooses.

The CX-5 has a shorter, rudimentary three-year warranty but, like the Koreans, there’s no kilometre limit, though the caveat in ownership is a shorter 10,000km servicing interval cap. Mazda charges for roadside assist per year in a variety of offers.

The three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty is also attached to the Octavia with a servicing schedule of 12 months or 15,000kms, with one year of complimentary roadside assist.

Both the C-HR and Camry come with a rudimentary three-year/100,000km warranty with 12-month/15,000km servicing intervals, the small SUV offering the benefit of fours years of capped price servicing. A variety of roadside assist offers are available at a cost.

Meanwhile, the Steed is covered by the same three-year/100,000km warranty conditions and roadside assist coverage can be purchased to match these durations. Great Wall currently has no servicing price cap.

The Impreza has warranty coverage for three years/100,000kms, with servicing intervals, at 12,500kms, that are shorter than the Skoda and Toyotas, if longer than the Mazda. “Eligible customers” with motoring club membership may have access to 12 months of roadside assistance for free at the time of vehicle purchase.


Verdict

The point of gathering eight diverse family car choices for around $30k in this test isn’t to find a winner amongst the losers. Or to ranking the field first through last.

It’s to demonstrate that with not an extravagant outlay there is much more choice than many buyers might imagine. The tricky part is finding the ‘right’ car to suit your family.

Starting with what many consider the default choice for moving the loved ones, the Mazda CX-5 proves to be Mister Consistency across a range of family-oriented criteria. That it doesn’t really benchmark in any particular area might surprise but it shouldn’t. There’s certainly a balance of goodness on offer without a major shortcoming or deal-breaker in sight.

No wonder the mid-sized SUV, and indeed this Mazda version, is safe and popular territory for so many buyers. Urban or regional, children large or small, it covers more diverse family requirements than other segments do at this price point.

There’s more compromise at play with the C-HR small SUV. Its inherent positives tend to favour the front row passengers than those in the rear and is perhaps more centred on driver whims than any other occupant. More the lifestyle crossover than perhaps a true SUV in practical terms, it’s ideal for the urban confines where you’re not subjecting the kids to long trips. It’s perhaps our pick for the single Mum or Dad. Its small boot may limit its realistic usefulness in hauling the addenda of babies and toddlers.

Families with three kids or adult-sized teens shouldn’t part with $30-large for anything without first checking out the Rondo. With such a spacious cabin and generous luggage area, it offers an amazing degree of flexibility, be it for Mums or Dads who coach the local under-12s on weekends or when you need a surrogate delivery van for the IKEA run. But while it’s a lot of metal for your money, the MPV isn’t terribly cool and you’ll have to make do without much in the way of creature comforts.

The Steed tries in vain to pile on the niceties yet struggles to fit the family car mould moreso than any of its test rivals. But it does specifically cater to the needs of more than few. For regional families who live on the farm and who encounter challenging terrain as a daily way of life will find its off-road capabilities not merely handy, but downright indispensable.

Working the land? Double-duty as a workday truck? There’s much to like. That said, the poor comfort levels for long hauling suggests that country owners clocking big distances might want to look elsewhere.

Both the Sonata and the Camry go a long way to proving that just because the spacious sedan has fallen out of vogue as Australia’s family car of choice, they shouldn’t be ignored as a pragmatic option when viewing the realities of moving loved ones. The perception is they’re old hat, yet they still stack up impressively, especially in blending comfort and space. Got two big kids and need to cover big distances regularly? The mid-sedan is still a worth consideration.

While the Impreza’s suspension struggled with a full family load, it’s not without its sweet spot, particularly for those who rarely need to haul four adults and who hold advanced safety features as a high priority. For Nan or Pop tasked with the grandchildren school run, it’s ideal. Equally, those who live in Australia’s colder climes – from the bottom of Tassie to the top of the Snowy Mountains – may considered the Subaru’s all-wheel drive an essential ally.

The Octavia wagon not only brings Euro flair to buyers who consider that a priority, but it’s an incredibly smart package that pushes small-car practicality to the extreme. Often overlooked is that small wagons make for exceptionally good – and secure – workaday runabouts for the tradie or small business owner.

Lastly, if the budget is tight and you need that one do-all vehicle, always check for offers at around the $30k price point. For instance, Camry is about to be replaced by a new generation while Sonata is due a major update soon. Shop around, especially with entry-level variants, and you might find more on offer than what you bargained and budgeted for.

Click on the Photos tab for more images by Sam Venn.

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About Mysterious Everythings

Le Minh Hieu is a national-level weightlifter and a Singapore Weightlifting sports performance coach. Hieu's biggest passion is helping everyone find confidence, happiness, and health through fitness.