Best cars for P-platers
Buying your first car is a big deal but one that can be a daunting experience. You want to get something that suits your lifestyle but also meets the approval of your friends and family.
While some may be tempted by the lure of a luxury badge, for this list of the best cars for P-platers we’ve stuck to more affordable cars and SUVs that are typically at the smaller end of the scale. The emphasis is on value, reliability and safety, something all P-platers should have high on their list.
The CX-3 may be compact but it lacks nothing for choice. Mazda ensured all bases were covered with its entry-level SUV, giving buyers the option of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive layouts and even throwing a diesel engine into the mix. It was an instant hit and remains popular today, so there’s usually plenty of CX-3s swirling around in used car land.
Engines and key design elements are shared with the Mazda2 and Mazda3, although the CX-3 is closer in interior space to the 2. That means there’s not a whole lot of boot space and your friends will have to be equally compact if you’re popping them in the back. Up front, however, there’s loads of space. The CX-3 also drives nicely with some much appreciated zippiness, but also the sort of maturity that makes Mazdas so appealing.
While no longer found in Honda showrooms in Australia, the Jazz has long provided a spacious city hatchback option in a market segment where interior space often ranks second. The tall-ish five-door has loads of head room front and rear as well as something Honda calls “magic seats”. They won’t go disappearing, but they do neatly fold in various configurations to make loading push bikes, pot plants and the latest Ikea splurge that little bit easier. Or you can just take your friends!
Jazzes with the 1.5-litre engine have more zip and an efficient CVT (continuously variable transmission) auto makes the most of it. All of which adds up to a clever and styling five-door that makes a great P-plater ride.
The Focus has never had the appeal in Australia of rivals such as the Toyota Corolla or Mazda3. Yet it’s always been a solid small hatchback that is one of the best on the market to drive. The Focus’ European heritage ensures terrific handling that makes it one of the more enjoyable hatches to drive. A choice of 1.5-litre or 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinders ensure there’s no shortage of grunt with the Focus. And later models get a surprisingly good 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo. As a P-plate car you could do a heck of a lot worse than a Focus.
Holden is known for its Australian-made vehicles, but it is imported vehicles such as the Trax that helped define the brand in its later years before it was discontinued altogether in 2020. The Trax is a small SUV that doesn’t have the cabin panache of some rivals (the fake leather seats aren’t particularly classy, but at least they’re easy to clean!), but it makes up for it with generous interior space. The updated model from 2016 also has a more aggressive look and additional features, including being an early adopter of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity. The 1.4-litre turbo is a sweeter engine with more pull than the non-turbo 1.8.
Want to spoil yourself with some SUV style and functionality? The C-HR is a great option. While Toyota has plenty of great P-plate choices – including the Yaris and Corolla – it’s the C-HR we’ve chosen here for its fresh style and excellent safety credentials. The compact SUV trades on good looks, which come from some aggressive angles and details and rear door handles that are cleverly disguised. A tiny 1.2-litre engine gets help from a turbocharger or there’s a more efficient hybrid system. In either version you’ll be getting a car that’s fun to drive but also comfortable and practical. it’s a sensible size for singles and couples, too, adding to its P-plate appeal.
Want some luxury in your P-plater world? The Lexus CT200h is a good place to start. It shares its mechanical components with the Toyota Prius hybrid, bringing a fuel efficient hybrid drivetrain to the mix. But with Lexus styling and additional attention to detail in the cabin it’s a more fashionable prospect. The 1.8-litre four-cylinder and electric drive system has modest performance that works fine around town and will easily hold its own on a freeway. The five-door hatch is a practical layout, while Toyota reliability should ensure plenty of trouble-free kilometres for cars that have been well maintained.
Want a sports car but don’t want sports car insurance premiums? The Veloster finds a nice middle ground. Utilising the mechanical parts of the i30 hatchback, the Veloster skins them in a unique design that’s more sports coupe. Look closely, though, and you’ll notice there are two doors on the passenger side and a larger single door on the driver’s side. It’s about having that sporty look but still allowing practicality for loading passengers. A 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo is the pick of the engines for driving excitement, but the non-turbo version will prove friendlier on the novice driver insurance premiums.
There’s nothing particularly exciting about Kia’s sub-$20K city car. Instead, the emphasis is on value, something the Rio does beautifully. Available as a three-door hatch and four-door sedan early in its life, it’s the five-door hatch the Rio is best known for. Despite its diminutive price tag the Rio is stylish inside and out. If the budget stretches to the GT-Line you get some sporty design touches that include red highlights. The 1.4-litre engine isn’t particularly powerful but will be fine for the suburbs – and reliable. If the car you’re looking at is less than seven years old it’ll also include the remainder of Kia’s seven-year factory warranty.
Owned by Volkswagen, Skoda has long pitched itself as the clever alternative. Umbrella holders in the doors and clever storage options throughout reinforce that thinking. Plus, the sensibly-sized Fabia – which was even available as a wagon for those who wanted more load space than was available in the hatch – has a nicely presented cabin. Solid dynamics add to its driving nous and bring some European flavour. While a 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbo was previously available, the 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo that became a more recent Fabia staple is a terrific little engine that blends character with everyday flexibility.
The Impreza has a big point of difference that makes it the logical choice for young drivers planning to explore: it drives all four wheels. The all-wheel drive system not only aids traction in everyday driving – it’s most advantageous on wet roads – but also adds confidence when travelling to the snow or driving on gravel. Elsewhere the Impreza is very practical for a small car; the sedan has a big boot but the five-door hatch is more practical. A CVT automatic makes the most out of the 2.0-litre four-cylinder horizontally-opposed (or boxer) engine and the Impreza delivers a nice blend of comfort and practicality.