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Family five-doors for the future

Most families overseas are perfectly happy with the idea of a compact five-door hatchback as primary transportation. Even rich and famous clans, like that of Formula One champ Michael Schumacher, get their groceries in a compact Fiat Bravo.

Most families overseas are perfectly happy with the idea of a compact five-door hatchback as primary transportation. Even rich and famous clans, like that of Formula One champ Michael Schumacher, get their groceries in a compact Fiat Bravo.

Therefore, as many economic soothsayers are predicting we North Americans are heading for a “European” economy (i.e. where gas is over a-toonie-a-litre and waiters become even ruder), it may be time to wean the family off the thirsty pickup, SUV, or not-so-minivan in the driveway.

To this end, here’s a trio of future-chic Continental-inspired front-wheel-drive five-doors (and their four-door sisters) to consider.

But which one best marries family responsibilities with driving fun?

THIRD PLACE:

VW City Golf

There’s a huge yin-and-yang factor to the City Golf; a continuation of a car that’s been hanging in there since 1999.

Despite its last millennium birth date, the Golf’s old-school Teutonic build quality is not only tighter and more solid than the competing Mazda3 or Astra, but also the newer/larger/pricier VW Rabbit. And VW’s four-year/80,000 km warranty is one year and 20k better than its rivals here.

“Stolidly Germanic” is also a good way to describe the Golf’s driving characteristics: weighty steering, subtly controlled ride and nimble – if not exactly crisp – handling.

But then there’s the aging Golf’s “yang.”

Its 2.0 L four-banger predates the car by 15 years, first seen in ’84. As such, with only 115 hp and 122 lb.-ft. of torque and a standard five-speed manual transmission, the venerable Golf is slowest to the 100 km sprint (10.4 seconds) and sucks the most fuel here (8.5 L/100 km.).

The Vee-Dub’s older architecture gives it the least amount of rear legroom and middling cargo room with the rear seats up.

Still, there’s the VW $15,300 price, right?

Oops. Match the Saturn and Mazda in airbag count – plus modern family must-haves like air conditioning, power windows and door locks, alloy wheels, plus freight and PDI – and the VW’s attractive $15,300 base price balloons to a more realistic $19,570.

WHY BUY? Marginally cheaper; Teutonic build quality and driving characteristics; warranty

WHY NOT? Slow; thirsty; tight rear seat

SEDAN ALTERNATIVE: VW City Jetta $16,900

SECOND PLACE:

Saturn Astra XE 5 Door

Little has been lost in the translation of the new-for-2008 Astra from European-Opel to North American-Saturn.

Its styling, cabin ergonomics, and ride and handling are such improvements, it’s almost unfair to mention the Saturn’s woebegotten predecessor in the same decade. (Okay, it was the Ion.)

Equally equipped, the $20,860 Astra XE splits the others in price. But the Saturn can’t beat the more accommodating Mazda, which has more rear leg and cargo room.

Plus, the Astra’s 1.8 L four-cylinder and five-speed manual combo (with 135 hp and 128 lb.-ft.) works hard to produce 0-to-100 km/h in 9.5 seconds. Quicker than the Golf, but not enough to beat the Mazda3.

It didn’t help that at 1,335 kg, the Astra was the porkiest compact here. Maybe that’s why at 7.5 L/100 km the Saturn only bettered the Mazda’s fuel rating by 0.25L.

WHY BUY? Nice balance between performance and economy; it’s not an Ion

WHY NOT? Power-to-weight ratio; cargo room

SEDAN ALTERNATIVE: Chevrolet Cobalt $15,175

FIRST PLACE:

Mazda3 Sport GX

Always wanted the five-door flexibility of the Mazda3 Sport, but couldn’t justify its over-$21k pricing or 156 hp 2.3 L four?

Then Mazda has finally built a car for you: the exclusive-to-Canada Mazda3 Sport GX. It adds the smaller (yet not much less powerful) 148 hp and 135 lb.-ft. 2.0 L found in the Mazda3 GX and GS sedans.

More important for budget-minded families, the GX is also $4,300 cheaper to get into.

Frankly, you won’t miss much in the GX. It starts with the same well-finished, roomy interior with a great driving position and the best rear legroom and cargo space. Not as soft as the Golf and better controlled than the Astra – from a ride and handling view, the Mazda3 offers the best compromise as well.

Also consider, with the lightest curb weight, the five-speed manual Mazda3 is the quickest from naught to 100 km: nearly two seconds faster than the Golf. And lest you think the Mazda is some kind of thirsty sports compact, it posted a very competitive 7.5 L/100 km.

Although it asks the least here for an optional automatic tranny (only $1,000), to match the VW and Saturn in kit, the Mazda ends up at $21,465 – $1,895 more than the bottom rung VW.

You and your wallet will have the final say. But we think the more mature and refined Mazda is worth it.

WHY BUY? Speedy and thrifty; lots of room; well built

WHY NOT? Pricey

SEDAN ALTERNATIVE: Mazda3 GX $16,895

Freelance auto reviewer John LeBlanc can be reached at editors@straight-six.com

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