The Porsche Boxster sets the standard in the small roadster class, as it's sharper and more enjoyable to drive than rivals such as the BMW Z4, Mercedes SLK and Nissan 370Z. The powerful flat-six-cylinder engines are mid-mounted, which makes the handling sharp, while the interior –inspired by the largerPorsche 911 – is modern, upmarket and thoughtfully laid out. This entry point to Porsche ownership is arguably the best all-rounder in Porsche's range, and is available in standard 2.7-litre Boxster and 3.4-litre Boxster S guises. The fabric roof folds down in nine seconds, while a pair of luggage areas in the front and rear make it pretty practical for a sports car. Roof up, the interior is quiet, but the stiff suspension reminds you that you're driving a pure sports car.
Competition in the eco car segment is hotting up, and the Vauxhall Ampera is a real contender. Its CO2 emissions are lower than any efficient diesel or hybrid currently on the market. That means there's no road tax to pay, and it's exempt from the London Congestion Charge, too. The Ampera can be plugged into the mains to charge up the batteries (a process which takes around four hours) and can run on electricity alone for around 50 miles, so you shouldn’t need a drop of petrol for most journeys. And even when you do need to travel a bit further, economy is so good that you will rarely have to visit a petrol station. But for all of its green credentials, the Ampera offers strong performance. It's fast, features sporty looks and an attractive high-spec interior. All this comes at a price though, as the Ampera is more expensive than its hybrid and all-electric competitors.
The all-new Ford Focus ST is a performance-oriented version of the Focus, but is built with an eye on everyday usability as well. As a result it's not only blisteringly quick in a straight line but it's also comfortable and refined too. The suspension strikes a great balance between ensuring sharp handling and softly sprung comfort, while the engine sounds quiet below 3500rpm. Unlike the old Focus ST, the current model is only available as a five-door and it now comes as an estate model too, which means it's more of a family car than ever before.. It also starts at a price-tag that greatly undercuts its main rivals.
The Audi A3 was the original posh hatchback, swiftly followed by the Mercedes A-Class and the BMW 1 Series. More recently it's been attacked by ever-higher-quality Volkswagen Golfs and Ford Focuses, but the latest A3 moves the game on significantly. It's now the most premium of premium hatchbacks, with the familiar Audi head-turning looks but a new sense of style inside. It's a gadget lovers delight, with lots of hi-tech equipment. There's a range of advanced, efficient petrol and diesel engines, while a greater emphasis on ride quality makes it more comfortable, although there's still some work to do in the sportier models. There's more space inside than in the mark twoA3 and the current model has a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating. Offered initially as a three-door, the five-door Sportback and a convertible will join the lineup in 2013, with the first ever A3 saloon appearing soon after. This is a crucial car for Audi, designed to appeal to ambitious young professionals.
The Mazda3 MPS is the high-performance version of the excellent Mazda3 hatchback. Powered by a 256bhp turbocharged 2.3-litre engine and featuring a wild-looking bodykit and upgraded suspension, the 3 MPS has been designed to rival the Ford Focus ST and VW Golf GTI. A great-value price and plenty of standard equipment means the Mazda represents excellent value for money. However, it's not as fun to drive as the Ford, while high running costs offset the attractive price.