If you have a family and love to drive, we have you covered.
No matter how avid a gearhead you are, there comes a time when you’ve got to trade the JDM coupe for something practical, reliable, and affordable. Modern compact, and even sub-compact hatches and sedans offer surprising space and versatility, making them ideal for the modern family. But within these segments, there are vehicles that still offer driving enjoyment. Every vehicle on this list has at least 4 seats and 4 doors but also a level of involvement and fun that ensures having a family doesn’t mean giving up the joy of the drive.
Spanning 7 generations and more than 4 decades, the Volkswagen Golf is a compact hatchback that has always been iconic in its segment. Big on practicality, big on style, it’s the ideal all-rounder. But beneath the stylish exterior, the VW Golf is also a somewhat endearing driver’s car. Though the latest generation’s MQB chassis is a little inert, dig a little deeper and it offers a thoroughly enjoyable driving experience. For those that lust after speed, VW’s Golf R and iconic Golf GTI perfectly combine practicality and enjoyment.
For a front wheel drive compact car, the Honda Civic completely defies the notion that practical means boring. Forget the garishly styled Civic Type R, for those to whom performance means everything; the regular Honda Civic sedan and hatchback are endearing in their own ways. The Honda Civic offers a pliant ride, a talkative chassis, and masses of front end grip – more so than many a hot hatch on the market. With direct steering and keen responses, any driving enthusiast will find the Civic more than enjoyable, with more than enough space for the husband or wife, and the kids in the back.
The current generation Ford Focus is now a somewhat well-aged compact car – due for replacement within the next two years. As such, it’s fallen behind competitors in quality when it comes to interior materials, fit and finish, and overall premium feel. But, the one thing the Ford Focus has never lost is a chassis aimed at those who like to drive and be involved in the process. Though endowed with an electronic power assisted steering setup, the Focus offers some of the most communicative feedback of any compact vehicle, with keen turn in and energetic responses.
The suspension errs on the side of firm, but the chassis feels alive, and is one of the few that will allow the driver to easily indulge in lift-off oversteer at will. Of course those wanting more can always opt for the hot Focus ST or even hotter Focus RS.
The first generation Chevrolet Cruze was hardly an involving driver’s car. But with the second generation, Chevrolet has developed the Cruze into a machine with a dual personality – one that provides comfortable family transport with a pleasant demeanor and an abundance of space, but another that offers a fairly impressive driving experience if you’re willing to dig a little deeper beneath the surface. The chassis offers good levels of grip, impressive neutrality, and more feedback the more you push. You may not get a true hot hatch experience from the Cruze, but you won’t be disappointed after carving up a mountain pass either.
While we await a new Mazdaspeed3, Mazda is keeping driving enthusiasts happy. Of all the ‘commuter-spec’ compact cars on this list, the Mazda 3 is the only one that gets close to the Honda Civic for driver enjoyment and a keen chassis – the latter of which is stable at speed, but lively through the corners, and offers plenty of grip. Naturally aspirated engines aren’t common affairs these days, but the Mazda’s powerplant offers an old-school experience of seeking the sweet spot at the top of the rev-range, making you feel like a hero when you get things right. Of course a spacious, quality interior is standard, and comfort is of a truly premium nature.
Hyundai aren’t typically known for building driver’s cars, though the Veloster N may change that. The Hyundai Accent has always been a true commuter machine but the sub-compact is evolving with the times, offering a more premium interior paired with a stylish exterior, and a surprisingly commodious cabin. But there’s a surprise lurking beneath the exterior – a chassis that responds rapidly to driver inputs paired with a suspension setup that’s as tenacious as it is pliant. Levels of feedback aren’t the highest, meaning you have to drive with a certain level of trust; but the Accent rewards the driver with an honest to goodness experience.
Arguably the least practical model on this list, but with 4 seats we can make an exception. It’s the only coupe here, but it’s also the only RWD car. A potent turbocharged 6 cylinder in the M240i is exceptional, but the 230i with a lighter 4 cylinder up front provides robust performance, while reducing weight over the front axle. This makes the BMW 2 Series nimbler and more eager to change direction, while the rear-drive layout (AWD optional) adds neutrality and the ability to dance with the 2 Series when the opportunity arises. Of course those with deeper pockets can always opt for the M2 – arguably one of the most enjoyable M-cars this century.
The latest Hyundai Elantra has moved up-market, offering a premium looking package inside and out. The cabin is one of the most spacious in the compact segment, with a large trunk and generous rear seat area. But the family Elantra has a sportier side too – especially in top Sport trim that equips the compact with independent multi-link rear suspension and bigger 12-inch brakes. Importantly, the Elantra has inherent talent in its DNA, sharing a platform with the recently unveiled Hyundai Veloster N. It’s no Honda Civic Si, but there’s a layer of engagement to the Hyundai Elantra Sport that means you don’t have to give up driver enjoyment for family practicality.
With the latest generation, the Mini Clubman has gained an extra set of doors to make it a practical family hatch/wagon. But the underpinnings remain the exceptional front-wheel drive chassis engineered by BMW. Go-kart handling may be a marketing over-exaggeration, but the Clubman offers lots of grip, lots of engagement, and plenty of fun through the corners. Cooper S and JCW variants offer firmer suspension setups, more power, and in the latter, All4 all-wheel drive.
The smallest vehicle here and a close rival to the BMW for least practical, but it has 4 doors and 4 seats, with a decently usable trunk. Though it might be a crossover, the ride height is still more hatch than SUV, giving it pleasing driving dynamics. However, much like the larger Mazda 3, the Mazda CX-3 is a thoroughly enjoyable driver’s hatch/crossover. Small, nimble, and with an abundance of front-end grip, the CX-3 is an agile and involving commuter crossover with an honest, happy personality. There’s a keen front end, but there’s also a potent, rev-happy naturally aspirated engine to be wrung out for maximum performance.