A ‘family car’ is not such a tangible thing nowadays. With more choice than ever and a broadening range of segments to choose from, families can opt for anything, from a run-of-the-mill hatchback to a 7-seat SUV.
Here, we’ll stick to the family hatchbacks and saloons. These are our favourites:
1. Ford Focus
The current Ford Focus is hard to fault. Its class-leading handling, low running costs and variety of capable engines all secure its place at the top of our used list. Headroom and legroom in the front are good and while rear legroom is generous enough for children and most adults, it isn’t outstanding for this class. The boot is a good size, though, at 316 litres with the rear seats up. Bluetooth and a DAB digital radio come as standard on all Focuses, but higher-end specs Titanium and Titanium X provide more toys, including a better stereo, hill-start assist and dual-zone climate control. Radio reception is a reported issue, so check this out when on a test drive. Ford has an excellent reputation for reliability and a five-star NCAP crash test rating gives you peace of mind, too. It was our Used Car of the Year 2014 for good reason.
Our pick: 1.6 Ecoboost Titanium
2. Volkswagen Golf
Just behind the Focus is the Volkswagen Golf, pipped to the post by the Ford’s more affordable used prices. The Golf has a classy, well built interior and is also very refined. The 1.4 TSI is the pick of the bunch because it offers a decent blend of low running costs, comfort and performance. A few problems have been reported. Look out for blocked particulate filters, illuminated warning lights, misaligned doors and rattles from the dashboard. Its staid appearance might not be to everyone’s taste, but the Golf’s overall quality, refinement and comfort could be.
Our pick: 1.4 TSI
3. Ford Mondeo
The second Ford in our top three is the Mondeo. Excellent practicality and generous standard kit – air-con, cruise control, electric front windows and a quick-clear windscreen – make for a good value used purchase. Check the bolsters of the seats, as these are prone to deteriorating quickly and some trim around the dashboard driver’s door can rattle. Petrol engines offered in the Mondeo are either underpowered or too thirsty to make sense economically so stick to diesel. The 2.0-litre unit is the one to go for, offering power and refinement in equal measure. Zetec spec is the best value across the range with alloy wheels, climate control and electric windows.
Our pick: 2.0 TDCi 140 Zetec
4. Volkswagen Passat
The Passat is an excellent car. In fact, it can practically compete with the more luxury rivals found in the class above. It’s stylish, practical and good to drive, plus there’s loads of room for passengers and luggage. Most Passats on the used market are diesel-powered and those are the ones we’d go for in mid-range SE trim level. There are few problems reported for this generation Passat, although it is worth checking that all the electricals work as they should.
Our pick: 2.0 TDI SE
5. Skoda Octavia
The Skoda Octavia is a favourite with What Car? readers. It’s solidly built, comfortable and cheap, and although it may be a little less charismatic than its sibling, the Volkswagen Golf, it’s also more practical. It has a big boot and comfortable seating for five. In SE trim it comes with climate control, alloy wheels and electric windows. The higher Elegance spec adds cruise control and parking sensors. The 1.6 FSI petrol is everything a family could need in a car and is a genuine lower-budget alternative to the Golf. Classic or S spec models are too basic, while the 1.4-litre petrol is underpowered, so avoid these and stick to mid-range models.
Our pick: 1.6 FSI SE
6. Vauxhall Astra
Poor residual values mean Vauxhall Astras are a bargain on the used market. They come with economical engines and all models get air-conditioning. Split-folding rear seats, a big boot and ample leg- and headroom front and rear means it’s on par with other choices for practicality. Check the cabin plastics for any damage, they’re better quality than those found in previous-generation cars but aren’t quite up to the same standards as some rivals’.
Our pick: 1.4T SRi
7. Skoda Superb
One of the most practical cars on the list is the Skoda Superb. The boot is huge and the tailgate provides easy access to it. Even in entry-level S trim, the Superb gets air-con, alloys, electric windows and MP3 compatibility, but the SE is where our money would go because it adds climate control, parking sensors, and a touch-screen stereo with six-CD multichanger. Avoid the thirsty V6 and the 1.9-litre diesel, instead spend a little more on the 2.0-litre diesel, which sips fuel at 48.7mpg. Insurance is fairly cheap for a car of the Superb’s size, too.
Our pick: 2.0 TDI SE
8. Honda Civic
The Honda Civic makes a decent used buy thanks to a large boot, economical engines and reputation for reliability. We’d choose the 138bhp 1.8-litre petrol engine which achieves between 44.1 and 42.8mpg with group nine or 10 insurance to boot. Although handling isn’t up there with the Focus, used prices undercut rivals. Rear headroom can be tight, but legroom is ample, front and back. Watch for rattles and squeaks from the interior on a test drive and be sure to check for condensation in the light clusters. If you’re looking for a diesel Civic, an oil check is imperative as they get through it quickly and there is no warning light.
Our pick: 1.8 i-VTEC SE
9. Kia Ceed
Kia’s Ceed is worth considering if you’re looking for a used family hatchback that’s still under warranty. All Ceeds come with a seven-year, fully transferable warranty that should offer you peace of mind. A large boot and plenty of space for four passengers mean the Ceed is practical, too. It might not be as good to drive as some rivals, but its practical cabin and low running costs make it worth considering.
Our pick: 1.6 CRDi 125 1 ISG 5dr
10. Mazda 6
If you’re after something that stands out from the crowd, it’s worth considering the Mazda 6. It’s good to drive and very reliable. It’s not as refined as others on this list but it’s still a relaxed cruiser. It’s got a good sized boot and legroom is decent all-round too, although headroom is a bit limited in the rear. The main cause of headaches for Mazda 6 owners are rattles from the dashboard – listen out for creaks from the centre console in particular.
Our pick: 2.2D 136 TS3
By Jimi Beckwith