A family seeking a practical, sensible hatchback may be excused for wondering whether it’s worth spending time working out the differences between the Volkswagen Golf and the Ford Focus – they both seem to fit the practical, sensible criteria perfectly.
But there is definitely a good argument for spending some time choosing wisely – there’s a noticeable price gap across the ranges and those swayed by the slightly more stylish Focus and the promise of a brilliant driving experience may not yet know about the vast number of models and options available with the VW.
Some may have a personal preference for the premium image attached to the VW – Fords have never really been touted as such and the Focus tends to be regarded as the trusty family workhorse rather than a treasured family member like a Golf might be. To help you decide, we’ve pulled together everything you need to know about the two cars, and put them up against each other.
There’s no doubt the Mk7 VW Golf has a much easier family tree to trace all the way back to the Giugiaro-designed Mk1. In fact, if you took one of each generation and parked them in a row, one can’t help but notice the distinctive family DNA running through each incarnation.
This consistency and “Golfness” appeals to some buyers. All of these arguments can also swing the other way, though, and others may consider the Golf a little dull. It may have sharp lines and look smart but for those who want to glance back at it in admiration as they walk away after parking it may feel a little unsatisfied by how well it blends in.
It mustn’t be forgotten that when the Mk1 Focus was released in the late 1990s it was seen as quite an unusual and attractive design, and Ford may not have managed to make critics make similar comments with the newest Focus, but it does sport the rather attractive front grille that can now be found on most new Fords.
Of course, nowadays the Ford Focus can also be accused of being similarly capable of passing by unnoticed, but at least when tracing the Focus back to its original you see some variation. For those seeking a fresher look, the Focus may be the way forwards, but the Golf does exude certain style and class simply by being rather conservative in appearance.
Interior and practicality
Each Golf is larger than the last, and the experts have been quick in reporting positively on how the Mk7 is capable of transporting four adults in comfort, as well as their luggage in a generous 380-litre boot.
The VW’s interior has also seen improvements from model to model, and there’s little in here to offend, but little to really excite either. The materials are soft-to-touch as you would expect, and the buttons and controls are laid out in a pleasingly functional and logical way.
There’s no doubting the overall high quality finish in the Golf but reviewers have noted that there’s not really been a noticeable change over the Mk6. The Focus offers similarly decent interior space for four adults, even if the rear seats feel a little cocooned thanks to a sloping window line.
But from there on out the Focus falls short of the Golf – the quality of the materials is lower, and the design may be quite funky to some, but critics say that it’s rather button heavy and not particularly friendly for a driver to use on the move.
Boot space is where the Focus really struggles to make a case for itself, somewhat surprisingly. It has a rather meagre 316 litres of luggage space, significantly less than the Golf and less even than the previous generation of Ford Focus, so for those prioritising practicality and quality, the Golf is likely to tick the most boxes for you.
If the Golf trumps the Focus inside the cabin, out on the road the Focus continues to prove itself the driver’s car of choice.
The Focus is actually touted by experts as providing less involvement for a keen driver than previous models, mostly thanks to its electric power steering, but this doesn’t stop it being a responsive and entertaining drive. It also rides well and despite a sporty set-up for a family hatchback it can cope well with regular bumps and road imperfections and remains refined whatever the road surface.
It must be said, though, that testers do say that one of the only cars to offer a similar driving experience in this class is the VW Golf. Refinement across the entire range is still very good, although lower-end models use a cheaper and less sophisticated suspension set-up, and this does affect the ride quality.
The Focus has an edge over the Golf for driver engagement and copes very well in every scenario, and if your commute is down twisty B-roads the Focus is more likely to deliver you to your workplace with a grin on your face. If it’s a motorway commute, however, you may wish to consider the Golf’s superior overall refinement.
The VW Golf has perhaps one of the most comprehensive engine ranges of any family hatchback, and the critics say that every engine is good – it’s virtually impossible to find a need that isn’t filled.
The mainstream engines available with the Golf include the very frugal 1.6-litre and more potent 2.0-litre diesel units, as well the nippy 1.2-litre and 1.4-litre petrol options – you can specify cylinder deactivation technology on certain 1.4-litre choices, which disables half the engine when cruising to save fuel.
These powerplants can come coupled to a six-speed manual or a seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission – both are praised by critics. The Focus has a similar 1.6-litre diesel engine option but also has a party piece – the incredibly refined 1.0-litre Ecoboost petrol unit, producing a remarkable 123hp.
The Golf will be able to take you further than the Focus on a tank of fuel whether you opt for the regular 1.6-litre diesel or the super-frugal BlueMotion model with the same engine – VW’s 88.3 mpg for the latter tops the 83 mpg that Ford’s Econetic 1.6-diesel models top out at.
In reality, these figures may be a little difficult to achieve and it’s likely the difference between these two options will be rather negligible – both engines are rated favourably but critics point out that the larger and more powerful petrol and diesel engines take better advantage of the Focus’ superb chassis.
VW will soon offer a plug-in hybrid variant by way of the Golf GTE (we’ve already driven a prototype) with an impressive 204hp and official MPG in the 188 mpg range – Ford also has an “Electric” model producing 140hp and offering a 100 mile range.
Value for money and running costs
The Golf is established as a premium car, and the prices reflect this, but it’s fair to say that the price is adequately reflected in what you get for your money.
A basic Focus can be had for just under £14,000 – although a basic Focus isn’t as desirable as a basic Golf – but the prices represent good value even when you climb to the mid-range levels.
Higher-spec Focuses quickly become expensive however – a Focus 2.0-litre TDCi in Zetec S spec will set you back £21,745, and cost £110 to tax for a year, and a Golf 2.0-litre TDI in SE Edition spec costs £21,340 and costs £100 less to tax a year, with no massive sacrifice in performance and significantly better fuel consumption.
For the performance models, the Golf R comes in at close to £30,000, nearly £4,000 more than it’s slightly tamer GTI sibling and some £7,000 dearer than the Focus ST. Both the Focus and the Golf are well equipped as standard, and both suffer from lengthy and expensive options list that can bump the prices up significantly.
The Focus has a lower starting point in most cases, but given the Golf’s better residual values and the sheer number of engine choices and specs available in its range, the extra money will feel like it goes a long way.
There’s not much in it if you simply take an average from the what the experts say about both cars – the wowscore for the Golf is 8.8 and the Focus is 8.1. It’s clear that even though the Focus appears to disappoint in some areas, it excels enough in others to make a case for itself as a serious alternative to a Golf.
The reasons for choosing one or the other won’t necessarily be subjective – the Focus and the Golf differ in ways that could prove pivotal in the decision making process for some people. A reasonable argument could certainly be made for choosing a Focus ST over a Golf R – it offers high performance in a practical body and is cheap to buy.
But outside of that niche market the average buyer is likely to be looking for a sensible, practical family hatchback first and foremost, so it’s hard to recommend the Focus’ disappointingly small boot and cheaper-feeling interior. The Golf’s bigger boot, classier interior, and wide choice of extremely frugal engines go some way to justify the higher asking price, and makes it a more sensible choice for those in the market for a family-friendly hatchback.