ADVICE: What's the best first car

Few things are more exciting than buying your first car. Here is some simple advice that can help you pick the right one

As maybe the second-biggest investment you are ever likely to make, it’s also probably one of the deepest commitments you’ll enter into. So it’s important you get it right.

The truth of the matter is that, while there is some reassurance in the knowledge that your first-time driver’s licence is only obtained after an appropriate period of learning and training, this is not necessarily much comfort when the new driver comes to choosing his or her first car.

Setting a wheel on the road for the first time as a solo, albeit licenced driver without an experienced person sitting next to you is a harrowing experience. Despite the hours you’ve already spent learning the intricacies of being a safe, responsible driver, mixing it solo with other road users is something else again.

Getting on board safely

There’s only so much pre-knowledge that a rookie driver can take on board: the unpredictable behaviour of other drivers, changing road conditions and their effect on car behaviour.

This is all the more reason to know that the car you’re driving is working for you – not challenging your nascent abilities as a road user.

Fortunately, in today’s automotive environment, any new car introduced to the market faces ever-tightening strictures determining its road-fitness. Things have moved on, at an increasing pace, from 1970 when the state of Victoria became the first place in the Western world to legislate for compulsory passenger-car seatbelts.

Now, the dazzling pace of safety-system development embraces the entire new-car market, even at the humble entry level, where such technology as autonomous emergency braking (AEB) – on top of other things – is to be an essential requirement for gaining a full five-star safety rating from the Australian New Car Assessment Programme (ANCAP).

Remember the hidden costs

As well as determining safety, the first-time buyer, probably more than any other demographic, needs to look not just at the purchase price that tends to dictate the type of vehicle you are able to buy anyway, but also at running costs: Fuel bills, servicing costs, insurance premiums and retained value.

First-time buyers are unlikely to be happy if they look back at their first 12 months of ownership and discover the car has all-but kept them broke.

With these criteria in mind, the matter of choosing a new car follows a logical process of elimination. Excluding numerous genres from our selection process – such as heavy-duty 4WDs, people movers and high-performance cars that can be legally driven by a newly-licensed driver – we have compiled a list of new cars we consider to be at the top of the tree.

Sheerly for affordability, we have kept our budget to a little over $20,000 before on-road costs. We have looked at ANCAP ratings – four-star cars are included – and we have kept to sedans, hatchbacks and (some) SUVs, generally favouring those that offer a decent amount of passenger and luggage space, and are not hugely performance-compromised.

We tend to favour cars with more substance to make them generally safer in any type of collision, with the proviso that bigger is not necessarily better. While the belief has some substance, in a general rule-of thumb-way, there are some really small cars that are able to perform surprisingly well in crash testing.

Everything you need to know in our ultimate first car buyers guide

Is bigger better?

As a guide as to how far pricing can stretch in some cases, we have listed the highest and lowest prices applicable to each vehicle.

Some don’t span a wide pricing spectrum, others do. For example the price differences between the cheapest and most expensive Mitsubishi Mirage models is just $2500, while in the case of Hyundai’s i30, which sneaks in just over $21,000, it is also possible to spend as much as $39,990 (on the high-performance i30 “N” version which is hardly appropriate in this context).

We have also, when quoting prices, settled on the cheapest model in the range.

The size index is a rule of thumb giving you some idea of how big a car is. For example the Kia Cerato and Haval H2 SUV, as (marginally) the biggest vehicles here, get a score of 100, while the rest range downwards to the smallest, the Fiat 500, which scores 84 – meaning it’s about 84 per cent the size of the Baleno.

We have looked at fuel economy, retained value after three years and first-year insurance costs. As the demographic more or less dictates, our insurance calculations are based on 18 year-old drivers. Clearly, at this part of someone’s driving life, the premiums are high – quite a bit more, for example, than they would be for a 21 year-old. The figures are based on those quoted by a major insurer, for a vehicle kept in an outer Melbourne seaside suburb.

The cost of filling the tank comes from figures calculated by Redbook and takes into account the size of the tank, the type of fuel required and the average cost per litre at the time the calculations were made. The approximate cost for travelling 1000km is calculated using official combined average fuel consumption figures. Note that the step up from regular unleaded to premium fuel adds significantly to the costs.

Redbook provided the figures on residual value after three years – a period in which it is common for an owner to look at stepping into another vehicle.

We have listed the percentage of the new price that a particular car will typically attract after three years – if maintained correctly and kept in good condition – as well as the actual price three years down the track.

The inevitable variables

All this of course is subject to variables: Most car-makers for instance indulge in a bit of price-cutting, or other sweetening deals on a regular basis, indicating that a bit of shopping around by the potential buyer is in order. And insurers keen for business tend to do the same.

It should also be noted that a five-star ANCAP rating achieved a few years ago is not the same as one acquired more recently: Ongoing changes to the rating criteria – for example the upcoming inclusion of autonomous emergency braking as a requirement for a full five-star rating – indicate that a car rated today is safer than one rated in 2011.

We hope this information provides a good starting point. As in every other aspect of retail negotiations, having a bit of intelligence stacked under your arm, from the moment you venture forth to seek out a deal, is an empowering thing.

(Scroll right to see table)

Type Size Index Price range ANCAP
test yr
L/100 fuel Co2 Servicing Km Insurance 18yo %resid3yr Value 3Yr Eng/kW Fill Fuel 1000km Warranty
Mitsubishi Mirage 5D hatch 88 $13,490-$15,990 5-2013 4.7 UL 109 12/15,000 $2227 37% $4550 1.2/57 $50 $67 5yr/100,000
Kia Picanto 5D hatch 86 $14,190-$17,290 4-2017 5.0 UL 117 12/15,000 $1879 42.2% $6000 1.2/62 $50 $71 7yr/unlimited
Holden Barina 5D hatch 93 $14,490-$20,390 5-2011 7.2 UL 168 9/15,000 $1956 38.1% 5700 1.6/85 $65 $102 5yr/unlimited
Honda Jazz 5D hatch 92 $14,990-$23,680 5-2014 6.5 UL 147 6/10,000 $2138 44.4% 6650 1.5/88 $57 $92 5yr/unlimited
Mazda2 4D sedan/5D hatch 92 $14,990-$23,680 5-2014 5.4 UL 126 12/10,000 $2,067 51.70% $7,750 1.5/79 $62 $77 5yr/unlimited
Toyota Yaris 5D hatch 91 $15,390-$22,570 5-2011 5.8 UL 134 6/10,000 $2,162 44.70% $6,900 1.3/63 $60 $82 3yr/100,000
Ford Fiesta 5D hatch 91 $15,825-$22,525 5-2009 5.8 UL 139 12/15,000 $2,241 38.40% $6,100 1.5/82 $60 $82 5yr/unlimited
Honda City 4D sedan 97 $15,990-$21,590 5-2014 5.9 UL 135 6/10,000 $2,283 49.00% $7,850 1.5/88 $57 $84 5yr/unlimited
MG MG3 5D hatch 92 $15,990-$17,990 Not Tested 6.7 UL 159 12/15,000 $2,139 33.00% $5,300 1.5/82 $64 $95 7yr/unlimited
Suzuki Swift 5D hatch 90 $15,990-$27,490 4-2017 4.6 UL 106 6/10,000 $2,208 51.3% $8,200 1.2/66 $53 $65 3yr/unlimited
Suzuki Baleno 5D hatch 91 $15,990-$21,990 Not Tested 5.1 UL 118 6/10,000 $2,207 41.90% $6,700 1.4/68 $53 $72 36/100,000
Suzuki Ignis 5D hatch 88 $15,990-$18,990 Not Tested 4.7 UL 107 6/10,000 $2,209 44.6% $7,150 1.2/66 $45 $67 3yr/100,000
Renault Clio 5D hatch 92 $16,990-$39,990 5-2013 4.8 PREM 110 12/30,000 $2,417 43.1% $8,200 0.9/66 $69 $74 5yr/unlimited
Skoda Fabia 5D hatch 91 $16,890-$25,140 5 4.5 PREM Not avail 12/15,000 $1,964 41.2% $6,950 1.0/70 $69 $69 5yr/unlimited
Kia Rio 5D hatch/td> 92 $16,990-$23,090 5-2017 5.6 UL 129 12/15,000 $1954 39.2% $6,650 1.4/74 $64 $80 5yr/unlimited
Fiat 500 3D hatch 84 $17,990-$23,490 5 4.9 PREM 115 12/15,000 $2490 40.6% $7,300 1.2/51 $54 $75 3yr/150,000
Volkswagen Polo 5D hatch 92 $17,990-$30,990 5-2017 4.7 PREM 106 12/15,000 $1,959 42% $7,550 1.0/70 $62 $72 3yr/unlimited
Haval H2 5D SUV 100 $19,990-$26,990 5-2017 8.2 PREM 194 12/10,000 $2,640 39.9% $8,000 1.5/110 $85 $126 5yr/100,000
Hyundai i30 5D hatch 96 $21,090-$39,990 5-2017 7.3 UL 170 12/15,000 $2,094 48.2% $10,150 2.0/120 $71 $104 5yr/unlimited
Kia Cerato 4D sedan 100 $20,990-$27,290 5-2014 7.6 UL 174 12/15,000 $1,987 43.1% $9,050 2.0/112 $71 $108 7yr/unlimited
Mazda CX-3 5D SUV 96 $21,790-$39,190 5-2015 6.6 UL Not avail 12/10,000 $2,189 57% $12,400 2.0/110 $68 $94 5yr/unlimited


  • U/L = unleaded fuel  Prem = 95 octane unleaded fuel
    Fuel cost calculations based on average Melbourne prices in November 2018
    ANCAP safety rating test year in brackets
    Residual and three-year values supplied by Redbook