JOHANNESBURG - As part of our Best Buys awards for 2019, Drive360 and IOL Motoring has named our top three cars in five different categories.

These are the three compact vehicles that continue to impress us for their value for money, segment-defining characteristics and overall pleasure to live with and experience. 

Our top 3 lists are based on our experience with the cars, and our team’s interactions with one another based on these experiences, which might come in handy as you go tyre-kicking this holiday season.

KIA Picanto still a crowd pleaser

The first time I saw a KIA Picanto in its current guise I stopped, took a breath and looked again. I couldn't believe that the Korean company that brought us cars like the original googly-eyed Shuma and portly Magentis could actually produce such a good-looking compact vehicle.

That was nearly half a decade ago, and to date, I still love the Picanto and rate it very highly as an entry-level choice, particularly for first-time new-car buyers or people looking to scale back from a C-segment vehicle into something more manageable on the pocket from a running cost perspective.

Because it's been around for a little while, Kia's regularly tweaked and updated the range to keep it relevant from a spec-for-rand point of view, and while it can be argued that the higher up the spec-list you go, the pricier they become compared to other cars in this market, there's just a sharpness to the Picanto that makes it a hoot to drive.

At the very start of the range, you have the appropriately titled 1.0-litre five-speed manual START (R162 995) derivative. Basic, but built solidly with a decent touch in the cabin, you don't feel like this version of the Picanto is cheapened too much to save on cost. Yes, alloy wheels would be nice as standard here, but why not negotiate with the dealer to sweeten the deal?

With 49kW and 95Nm on tap, you will need to work the transmission to make haste, but you don't feel any kind of strain in the drive-train when driving it out. It's light on petrol and cheap to insure too.

My favourite Picanto is the most expensive one in the line-up, the 1.2-litre SMART automatic (R232 995) version. It offers so much "car" in such a small package, including high-end smartphone integration, a decent safety package and sporty yet comfy road manners. It's near-perfect for the day-to-day, even at power-sapping Gauteng altitudes. Nevertheless, the 1.2 SMART auto makes 61kW and 122Nm.

Both models feature front-wheel-drive and come with a superb five-year unlimited kilometre warranty, and a two-year/30 000km service plan to help with the cash flow on your end for the first two years of ownership. - Pritesh Ruthun

Spunky Suzuki Ignis will keep you smiling

Suzuki's Ignis was the overall winner of our 2017 competition, and the cheeky little crossover hatch still holds its head up high among newer rivals in the budget car market.

We use the word budget, because the Ignis is still among the more affordable options on the local market. Prices range from R177 900 to R215 900, with good spec levels to boot.

With its spunky styling inside and out, the Ignis adds some much-needed colour to the entry level segment, and there’s no way you're going to mistake it for anything else.

It's got the charm, but that doesn't come at the expense of sensible stuff like cabin space and overall user-friendliness.

In fact, one of the most impressive things about this car is its packaging. It’s small on the outside, measuring just 3700mm in length, but truly big on the inside, with rear occupants getting a surprising amount of stretching space. Boot space is a bit limited, with just 260 litres when the rear seats are in place.

Like many of the modern Suzukis that are based around the Japanese company's Heartect platform, the Ignis is an unexpected nod to Colin Chapman’s philosophy of adding speed by adding lightness.

The car weighs just 850kg, meaning the 1.2litre normally aspirated engine, with 61kW and 113Nm, can deliver perky performance. We were also impressed by the engine's overall smoothness and low-down torque.

But the big bonus is how light it is on fuel, with the car that we tested averaging just 5.8 litres per 100km in mixed conditions.

Not only is the Ignis practical, efficient and easy to drive, but there is also no compromising on comfort features, even if you go for the base model.

Opt for the flagship GLX and you get high-end items like automatic climate control, park distance control and a touch-screen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. Range-wide safety comes in the form of dual front airbags and ABS brakes.

The Ignis, with its off-beat styling, is a great all-rounder once you factor in the practicality and efficiency. - Jason Woosey

VW Polo Vivo best-seller story rocks on

The numbers don't lie when it comes to Volkswagen's Polo Vivo.

There's a reason why it's consistently South Africa's best-selling passenger model and it’s not only because they’re relatively affordable, ranging from R195 300 for the 1.4 Trendline to R267 400 for the top-of-the-range 1.0 TSI GT.

Reliability, ease of maintenance and driving fun play a large part in its success, as does the fact that it retains its value very well when it comes to selling.

Almost everyone has a VW story in their family and the Polo Vivo is the ideal introduction to the brand.

It's large enough to carry four people comfortably, which makes it ideal as a home-work-home car, carting kids to and from school and then heading out of town for a holiday or a long weekend away.

With flash red, white, reflex silver, reef blue, limestone grey and deep black the colours reflect a cheerful car that's popular across all age segments.

While the design has pretty much stayed the same over the year, the recent update to the front and back adds to its appeal.

Inside, the instrument cluster is easy to read and typically VW. There’s enough storage space and ergonomically everything is easy to get to. For its category it's a premium feel inside the cockpit but for some, it might be bit a bit bland.

It’s the ride quality that sets it apart from the competition. It feels solidly planted, well balanced and doesn't mind being thrown into corners and exits without any excessive body roll.

The suspension irons out most of the road imperfections while the steering has a positive feel to it and responds well to driver inputs.

As an overall package there’s not much to beat the VW Polo Vivo in the compact vehicle category, the only gripe is that, like with all VWs, some of the nice-to- haves are optional, including floor mats for the front and rear. - Willem van de Putte

Drive360