Volvo V40 hatchback

£18,995 - £31,700

The Volvo V40 is a sleek and classy medium-sized family hatchback – the brand's answer to upmarket rivals such as the BMW 1 Series, Audi A3 and Mercedes A-Class. The Volkswagen Golf is a close competitor, too, although the cheapest version undercuts the least expensive V40 by more than £2,000.

The V40 is an impressively safe car. In 2012, crash safety body Euro NCAP named it the safest small family car on sale, and it was one of the first models to come with autonomous braking – a system that can detect an obstacle ahead and apply the brakes to avoid a collision. Even after several years of increasingly stringent testing, the V40 still retains the highest ever score in a Euro NCAP crash test.

But the V40 has other virtues beyond safety, including a smart interior with very comfortable seats. This makes it a great car for travelling long distances in, although the ride in some versions is a little too firm. The handling is good, but refinement could be better, with road noise and a notchy gearshift being particularly notable.

Depending on which trim level you choose, the V40 can be super-economical (the D2 diesel returns 83.1mpg and tax-free CO2 emissions) or sporty (the 149mph T5 petrol). Petrol versions are badged T and diesels D. The latter provide an impressive blend of power and fuel economy – the entry-level 1.6-litre especially so.

Standard equipment is impressive, although with prices starting at around £17,000, that's no more than you’d expect. There's a bewildering range of specifications to choose from, rising from ES, through SE (the best value) and on to the sporty R-Design with its aggressive looks and sharper handling. There are also numerous option packs, which make more sense than buying extras separately.