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. And now, slowly, we're seeing more viably-priced all-electric options force their way in amongst the combustion-engined cars and hybrids.
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 cheaper, torsion-beam-equipped models. Interior space has been improved, too, and an even more high-tech infotainment offering will appeal to many, although it isn't the most intuitive touchscreen system to use.
Not everyone will be convinced by the Golf's new exterior look, and its 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 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, and it isn't the most engaging car in its class either.
The plug-in hybrid GTE version, though, now feels more like a bona fide plug-in hot hatch than ever before; and the range-topping Golf R has both the pace and technical specification to really get your attention - although it comes at a high price. The Golf continues to have almost all hatchback tastes and requirements well covered.
2. Ford Focus
Ford’s latest 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 pliant, well-resolved ride means it's still one of the best - and also still clearly the outstanding driver's car in its class. 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 best.
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 quality or material richness as rivals in this list, though.
This fourth-generation model is available with both petrol and diesel engines, with modern hybridised Ecoboost petrols now being the default choice. 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 Focus ST represents the sportiest offering in the line-up. Somewhat unfortunately, Ford has ruled out a full-bore RS for this model generation, but the warbling ST will be more than enough fun for a great many people.
3. Peugeot 308
It’s been a case of evolution not revolution with the latest Peugeot 308, which despite its ‘all-new’ claims actually uses much of its predecessor’s underpinnings. That said, it’s a little longer and wider than before, while the smartly styled exterior is handsome, well-proportioned and kitted out with distinctive daytime running lights.
It’s perhaps not as roomy as the class leaders, with those in the rear getting a little less leg and headroom than they would in a VW Golf, let alone a Skoda Octavia. But the interior looks the part, with slick design and a material quality that finally does justice to Peugeot’s posturing that it’s now a premium player. As ever, the small-wheel and high-set instrument cluster of the i-Cockpit layout will please as many as it frustrates.
Under the bonnet there’s a range of turbocharged petrol and diesel engines, plus a pair of plug-in hybrids that offer either 178bhp or 222bhp. Both, however, will crack a claimed 40 miles in EV mode, qualifying them for a more attractive 8% BiK rate. Regardless of motive power, the 308 handles with a fluidity that nimbleness that used to be a Frech car calling card, while a composed ride and decent refinement that make it an easy-going companion when you just want to get to your destination.
4. VW ID 3
No other ordinary family hatchback has come along and presented a more convincing argument to ditch fossil fuel than the VW ID 3. Based on a dedicated electric-car platform, powered by a rear-mounted drive motor, and reaping all of the rewards that electric power offers in terms of cabin packaging and handling manoeuvrability, this car delivers real advantages to its owners. It's available with a range of battery options, but the smallest still gives the car a near-200-mile range (enough to beat an equivalent Nissan Leaf), and it's available for less than £29,000 after the government's 'PiCG' EV purchase incentive, making it a viable alternative on cost to owning and running a petrol-powered equivalent.
The ID3 is pretty diminutive-looking, and it doesn't have the biggest boot, but cabin space is on a par with many of the other cars in this list thanks to the way the car is designed. With no motor in the front to get in the way in most versions, the car's turning circle is also improved, allowing it an impressively tight turning circle and good low-speed manoeuvrability.
The cabin is laid out pretty sparsely, and without VW's traditional attention-to-detail on material quality in some respects - and the touchscreen infotainment system isn't everyone's cup of tea. Even so, there are few better hatchback-sized routes into EV ownership than this one right now.
5. 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 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.
With the arrival of a plug-in hybrid model, tax-conscious business users can now get into a Leon that slots into the 8% 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.
6. Toyota Corolla
Toyota has sold a staggering 50 million Corollas since the 1960s. This is one of the very best-selling cars that the planet has ever known. While it's been a permanent fixture of Toyota's model range in other markets, it replaced Europe's unlovely Auris hatchback with the introduction of the current twelfth-generation version in 2018, and caused a stir in the process by showing that Toyota could produce a family hatchback with strong interior quality and practicality, and really creditable driving dynamics too.
The Corolla was introduced with the choice of a conventional 1.2-litre turbocharged petrol engine, or one of two petrol-electric 'self-charging' hybrids - although the car's entry-level petrol option has since been discontinued. That means this car is a little pricier to buy than some of its rivals, and it also means that there's no way to avoid Toyota's modern hybrid-car driving experience with it; not that you need be worried about it.
The regular 1.8-litre option is still a little slow in outright terms, but it's certainly efficient, and more responsive and refined than it used to be. But the upper-level 2.0-litre hybrid powertrain gives the Corolla plenty of performance and good accessible torque, and also puts near-50mpg efficiency within easy reach.
This car now has a chassis good enough to demand the respect of any European car-maker, and at least one powertrain strong enough to give it some useful exercise - and Toyota still hasn't ruled out a full-fat GR performance version.
7. 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. There are all-wheel-drive performance versions of the car in the shape of the 306bhp Audi S3 and the 394bhp Audi Audi RS3, the latter taking the fight to the Mercedes A45 S super hatch.
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.
8. Vauxhall Astra
The first Astra to appear since automotive colossus Stellantis subsumed Vauxhall, this eighth generation machine as a lot riding on its shoulders. Thankfully it looks the part, successfully integrating the fim’s latest ‘Vizor’ design language to deliver some serious kerb appeal to the family hatch class. It looks and feels equally good inside, with strong material quality and more slick-looking digital screens than you could shake a semi-conductor at
Under its sharply defined skin, the Astra shares pretty much all its oily and electrical bits with the equally box fresh Peugeot 308, which means you get the same smooth plug-in petrol-electric powertrains that will make a fleet managers budget sheet sing (Vauxhall is claiming at least 40 miles of EV running, so expect 8% BiK bills), as well as some eager three-cylinder turbocharged petrol and frugal four-cylinder diesels.
Rolling refinement is an Astra highlight, as is a supple and controlled ride, making this a great choice for hard-working, motorway munching types. It’s not exactly a laugh on your favourte stretch of twisty Tarmac, but the steering is accurate and the handling is poised and predictable, with the smaller engined three-cylinder petrols feeling the lighter on their feet. This is arguably the best Astra in a while, and while it’s not top of the class, it certainly deserves your consideration.
9. BMW 1 Series
Cracking into this list at all, in a very crowded hatchback market, 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, but still only broadly class-competitive.
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 strong challenger to the Mk8 Golf GTI, while the recently tweaked all-wheel-drive M135i finally lives up to the promise of its desirable specification while delivering serious all-weather pace.
10. 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.
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 Octavia vRS models - which are available in petrol, diesel and plug-in guise - all go a long way to rectifying such complaints, though.