‘Too close to call’ is a phrase that I’ll keep in the first sentence of this comparison test rather than use as a cop-out verdict at the end.
It’s the arrival of the latest Focus on these shores that brings this test together. When we had the chance exactly two years ago to drive an early left-hand-drive version of the latest Golf and put it up against its rivals, the VW saw off all comers, including the Focus – just – and went straight to the top of the class.
So with the opportunity to have an early go in a left-hand-drive Focus this time around, we want to find out if the deep-running changes allow the Ford to usurp the Golf as class leader.
No other rivals are needed here. Although there’s real strength and depth in the class, with the likes of the Audi A3, Mazda 3 and a revised version of the Volvo V40, to name just three, none would trouble the top two here.
What’s new with the Focus, then? You’ll have already spotted the obvious visual differences, chiefly its exterior reskin. That ‘Aston Martin grille for the people’ finds its way on to the Focus as part of a new front end, and there are detail exterior changes elsewhere.
But visually, the most significant changes come inside, where the switchgear is significantly pared back. The fussy interior was always a big weak point for this generation of the Focus, and we’ll come back to whether or not this rationalisation of the controls, done in conjunction with a leap in quality and extra cubbyholes, works in practice.
Chassis tweaks also feature on the Focus. An overhaul of the suspension system is said to reduce chassis flex and in turn allow the steering to be tuned to reduce the amount of effort needed while maintaining the precision. Which all sounds okay in theory, so long as the changes do indeed maintain and even enhance the Focus’s position as the driver’s car of choice in the class.
Under the bonnet, there’s the usual array of fleet-friendly diesels, now downsized from 1.6 to 1.5 litres in various outputs, plus a range-topping 2.0-litre version.
However, it’s the petrol versions that still intrigue most private buyers, and there’s a new 1.5-litre EcoBoost in place of the previous 1.6, plus that firm favourite, the three-cylinder, 1.0-litre EcoBoost, in various flavours, including the 123bhp version fitted to our test car. Our example is a plush and extremely well equipped £22,295 Titanium X version, with almost another £3000 in options on top, pushing it into premium money at £25,775 all in.
The Golf here is a 120bhp 1.4 TSI petrol-powered mid-range Match model. You won’t be wanting for much equipment, our £21,700 test car (£20,335 base price plus £1365 worth of options) coming with the likes of touchscreen infotainment and adaptive cruise control.
On the spec sheet, this Golf gives away 3bhp to the Focus but has identical peak torque of 148lb ft (the Ford’s maximum figure achieved on overboost). The Focus, on paper, has an economy advantage, though. Its combined figure of 60.1mpg eclipses the Golf’s 53.3mpg, and its CO2 emissions of 108g/km also comfortably beat the Golf’s 123g/km.
I jump in the Golf first, to refamiliarise myself with the class’s benchmark. To get the subjective stuff out the way first, I think that it’s still the classiest-looking car in its sector.