Ron Weir owns a 2002 model Vauxhall Astra five-door hatchback, petrol driven with a manual gearbox. He is thinking about changing it for a more up to date model. He would like to know which car is the best to replace it with. It needs to be obtainable via the Motability system because his wife is disabled. The length of his garage is 427cm (width is no problem) but apparently the new Astra is longer than the current one. He would also like to know if there is a better, comfortable, stylish vehicle in the same price range. He would like power steering, electric windows, a decent radio and manual drive.

Ron should not panic too much. The new Vauxhall Astra is certainly bigger at 425cm than the current model's 411cm but it should squeeze into his garage. Cars are getting bigger mainly because we are. But manufacturers still have to leave space for the modern extended family, their luggage and extra equipment such as air conditioning, soundproofing and structural safety.

The good news is that the large majority of state-of-the-art family hatchbacks will fit into Ron's garage. Not only that, they should all be eligible under the Motability scheme because there are more than 2,000 models that are. I'm sure that Ron knows how the scheme operates but all he has to do is call the Motability hotline on 0845 456 4566 and they will send a detailed price guide which includes a helpline number for the 25 participating manufacturers. Ron is lucky to be looking for a car in this category because there are a number of excellent models in the market especially in the 1.6 litre category.

A car for the head

First the bad news. The low-priced, well equipped and nice to drive Mazda 3 is too big. It costs just £12,800 for the 1.6 TS model but measures up at 442cm. Ron could go for the Ford Focus 1.6 LX. At 415cm it would fit his garage and costing just £13,150 it is a contemporary of his current Astra. It, too, is due for replacement and should only be bought with a sizeable discount.

There is, however, a thoroughly modern hatchback that deserves Ron's attention: the Toyota Corolla. The T3 1.6 costs just £12,913 and is the first Corolla to have some real character. Inside it is very spacious, especially in the back, and there is a good sized boot. The interior uses high quality materials and it feels very solid. Indeed one of the very best reasons for buying any Toyota is that it will be utterly reliable. The Corolla is very refined and there is not a lot of road noise so it is quiet and comfortable inside. The T3 has a CD player and air conditioning. Only the looks are a little drab but then Ron's old Astra was no looker either.

A car for the heart

I know that Ron has read our road test feature on the new Astra and it is a very good car and a huge improvement on the old one. At the moment, though, the class leader, with the Astra a close second according to the current issue of What Car?, is the new Golf. This model has for the last 30 years defined a type of vehicle. It is bigger than before and many believe it has less personality than ever, but it is still built with one purpose in mind, to be the best small hatchback on the market.

Trouble is the Golf falls behind its rivals in two key areas: price and standard equipment. The 1.6 FSI S costs £14,200 which makes it more than £700 more than an Astra. Air conditioning is an extra £500. The only good news is that there are some good discounts of up to 10 per cent through brokers. These factors should not put Ron off test driving a Golf, but it could send him back to the Vauxhall dealer. However, the Golf is a quality product, is very nice to drive and it will hold its value better than any other hatchback.

*CAR CHOICE: Please write to Car Choice, Features, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or e-mail James Ruppert at carchoice@independent.co.uk giving your age, address and contact number, and details of the type of vehicle you are interested in.

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