Perhaps you’ll recall the scene in The Shawshank Redemption where prison inmate Brooks is set free after two decades and is utterly bewildered by how life on the outside has changed since he was first incarcerated? Yup, same story with family cars. If someone scooped you off the pavement of your local main road a decade ago and plonked you back down today, the many shapes and shades of family motoring would be almost unrecognisable: the mass of Jukes, EcoSports and Capturs – all butch faux by fours with jolly two-toned paint jobs – gravy ladled upon unremarkable mashed potato. Thing is, the cars these bloated hatches are trying to usurp have something the newcomers don’t – well, not yet anyway – pedigree. Say Corolla, Jetta, Elantra, Focus and you’re talking about millions upon millions of cars sold worldwide – the very backbone of the motor industry for the past 50 years. Everyone has a story about growing up with one of these – but which of them has something new to tell us?
Toyota Corolla 1.8 Prestige
We know we shouldn’t be impressed by numbers alone, but when you’re after the best family car, you’d best join the biggest family out there. Dominating the C-segment market share for more than a decade now, eleven generations’ worth of refinement, and more than 1 million sold in SA alone, it’s no wonder the Corolla is, and probably always will be, the benchmark. Prospecton in Durban has enhanced it yet again with new head- and tail lights and re-sculpted bumpers, a superbly smooth ride quality, top-notch finishes on the inside and – most importantly for this slice of the market – aggressive pricing. We would’ve liked to see new engines, especially those downsized turbo units we keep hearing about, but for overall drivability, you can’t go wrong with the substantial 103 kW 1.8. Top buying tip, though: there’s even better value to be had in the Corolla Quest (from just R208 500) – a rebadged 10th-gen car that’s still flying the flag for truly affordable family motoring.
Another member of the family, such as your ouma in the granny flat out back
Sophistication to go with the reliability, and you’ll be smiling when the time comes to trade it in
Not so sure
Being mistaken for an Uber every time you pull up to the kerb
Ford Focus 1.5 EcoBoost Trend
Ford has redefined all the family segments it plays in with its efficient-yet-powerful EcoBoost technology. From a vigorous 1.0-litre triple to a more versatile 1.5-litre four-pot, it’s been the blessing in turbo downsizing Toyota only wishes it could have emulated. For a similar price to a 1.8 rev-hungry Corolla, the Focus brings its
132 kW 1.5 charger – and the efficiency and performance gains speak for themselves. That’s before you factor into the equation it’s actually a German-built car, with a solid list of specs such as Sync with Bluetooth and USB, park assist, lane-keeping aid –
assuming you choose the Trend option pack – and the fact it’s also got a clever multi-link rear suspension that endows it with dynamic ability beyond its peers.Come to think of it, you’ve got us asking why anyone wouldn’t reserve a spot in their driveway for one right here and now. Well, that’s because as a sedan, it’s got a whiff of rep-mobile about it. Thankfully, the regular hatch does not.
The all-rounder that doesn’t mind blending into a crowd
Hot-hatch performance, milk-float fuel economy
Not so sure
Will Ford provide good service while Kuga fires rage out of control?
Chevrolet Cruze 1.4T LS
Introduced by GM as a kind of budget alternative to the Opel Astra, the Cruze is distinct from its German sibling in that it was always a compact family sedan first, not a hatch with a boot welded to the rear end. This counts for a lot: it gives it longevity, quality and the sense that everything is in the correct place right from the off, and families will find life inside very comfortable as a result. That’s why Opel had to drop the Astra sedan: it simply couldn’t make inroads into Chev’s demarcated turf. And for less than R300k, with the competent 1.4 turbo (103 kW/200 Nm) petrol in attendance, can you blame it? A similar-spec Astra will cost you almost R60k more. Granted, there are newer offerings in showrooms, and the gearbox could be crisper and the suspension more cosseting, but if it’s a safe, roomy car that feels bigger than it is and won’t battle to get down the
road, then this Chevy is definitely worth taking a Cruze in…
Big families and large loads on long cross-country journeys
Willing engine, that sense you’re getting a lot for your money
Not so sure
Lacking the tech and premium lustre of its comrades
Hyundai Elantra 1.6 Executive
What a difference a few years make. One day, you’re front page news – the next, you’re fish-and-chips paper. That seems to be the sentiment, at least, with the award-winning Elantra, not just from consumers more interested nowadays in crossing over to high-riding CUVs, but from the Korean importers themselves. After winning big at the JD Power customer satisfaction awards and Wesbank/SAGMJ SA Car of the Year in 2012, Hyundai dropped the very 1.8-litre derivative that secured it victory, leaving only the 96 kW 1 600 to hold the fort. Nevertheless, it still ticks numerous boxes, with sleek aero-efficient styling, an involving drive, solid interior and loads of standard kit included for the asking price. A smart buy to this day, if a bit unloved.
A good all-rounder with an impressive trophy cabinet to boot
Korean industriousness at its best – arguably still their best import to date
Not so sure
No 1 800 model and getting on in years
Volkswagen Jetta TSI Trendline
Armed with roominess and an acclaimed reputation to take on the mighty Toyota Corolla (growing up, you were in either the Corolla or VW Jetta camp) there is unfortunately a very good reason the long-lived VeeDub appears lower down
on our list. As convincingly executed and solidly built as it’s always been, the ubiquitous 1.4 TSI in 92 kW tune is not a good unit (and neither is the downsized 1.2 TSI), and if you want a thrusting TDI, you’re going to have to part with yet more of your hard-earned coin for the Highline (nearly R400k) – which puts you on the doorstep of Passat territory. True, the Jetta is likely to reward with many decades of honest service, while retaining a high percentage of original value, but the steep initial layout and host of ever-improving rivals don’t make it the shoo-in it was once
able to claim.
A safe city runabout capable of many years of loyal service
Top-notch interior ergonomics, hugely practical
Not so sure
Lethargic engine, VW accountants have had a hand in speccing it
Our wooden-spooner has to be the Jetta – it’s simply too expensive for what’s on offer these days. The Elantra changed the game five years ago but since then, even Hyundai seems to have moved on. So who can blame buyers for doing the same? The Cruze has a modern turbo engine that’s on point and is affordably priced, but perhaps lacks the brand cache and outright quality of its competitors. That leaves the Focus and the Corolla, which should make anyone’s shortlist for their next family car. Both offer tried-and-tested packages that are good to drive, packed with mod cons you’ve come to expect in cars costing lots more, and offer splendid warranty and service plans. The Ford’s is undoubtedly the more sophisticated powerplant, but the sedan can’t shake its rep-mobile image easily, while the facelifted Toyota made a marked step-change in refinement and, as always, is likely to retain a higher percentage of its original value. Roll on the next million Corollas.