Golf vs Focus vs Astra
Which is best, though? As these models have strived to be all things to all buyers, so their model ranges and engine line-ups have expanded and become increasingly complex. Luckily we've tested all of the versions that matter – so here are our views on which ones should be on your shortlist.
What are the Golf, Focus and Astra like to drive?
All VW Golfs (petrol and diesel) are turbocharged, and the range starts with a 1.2 developing either 84bhp or 103bhp. There are also two strong 1.4 petrols, with either 120bhp or 138bhp, and the more powerful of the two shuts off half of its cylinders when possible to save fuel. The diesel options are a 1.6 with 103bhp, which will be enough for most buyers, and a 148bhp unit that feels appropriately punchy.
The Ford Focus's key petrol engine is a 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged unit, called Ecoboost and available with either 99bhp or 123bhp. The lower-powered version is smooth and strong enough around town, but we'd look to the 123bhp variant if you use motorways regularly. The cheapest diesels get 1.6-litre engines, and the 113bhp version offers a good blend of pace and price. There are two 2.0-litre diesels too, and both feel impressively strong – but it's hard to justify the extra cost for the 161bhp model.
The Vauxhall Astra's entry-level 1.4 petrol engines, with 86bhp or 99bhp, are a bit out of their depth, but the turbocharged 138bhp is reasonably quick. Other petrol options include a 113bhp normally aspirated 1.6 petrol that's smooth but slow, and a 178bhp 1.6-litre petrol that has plenty of zip. The diesel range includes a slow 94bhp 1.3, two flexible 1.7-litre units with 108bhp or 128bhp, and torquey 2.0-litre motors with 163bhp or 192bhp.
The Focus is the most rewarding of the three cars to drive, with direct steering that's nicely weighted, and excellent body control through corners. The ride is pretty comfortable too, although it's not quite as soothing as the Golf's. VW has clearly set its car up with comfort in mind, but that doesn't mean it feels sloppy in corners; think of its compromise as only slightly less sharp than the Ford's, but with a little more cushioning on rough surfaces. The steering feels well weighted and accurate.
Cheaper versions of the Golf (1.2 petrols and the 1.6 diesel) get less sophisticated rear suspension, but even that can't spoil the package; it doesn't ride quite so serenely, true, but it's still more than comfortable enough.
The Astra, meanwhile, offers a smooth ride on its standard suspension – but the price you pay for this is too much body roll in corners. The steering is lethargic too. SRi-spec Astras get sports suspension, which improves body control, and maintains a healthy level of comfort.
The Astra's rolling refinement is sound enough – you won't hear a peep out of the suspension over bumps, and road noise is also well suppressed. However, wind noise becomes noticeable at motorway speeds, and some of the engines can be quite boomy; in fact, the Vauxhall diesels are among the most unrefined on the market these days. You can occasionally feel vibrations through the pedals, too.
The Focus's petrol motors are also more refined than their diesel stablemates, although excellent isolation of road noise does make the car a fine high-mileage cruiser, regardless of engine. Only wind noise intrudes at motorway speeds.
The Golf offers the best refinement here; there's very little noise from the suspension, road or wind, and the petrol engines are exceptionally smooth and quiet. One of the 1.4s even switches off half of its cylinders to save fuel, and it manages to do it without noticeable judder. The VW's 2.0- and 1.6-litre diesel engines are both refined too; the smaller unit has a little more noise, but it's still hushed in comparison with the class average.
Can I get the Golf, Focus and Astra as an automatic?
The Focus and Golf are both available with dual-clutch transmissions that operate like automatics, but without so much of the resulting penalty in fuel efficiency. Ford offers this gearbox, which it calls Powershift, as a six-speed unit with the 1.6 petrol and both versions of its 2.0 diesel.
On the VW the set-up is called DSG, and it's available on every engine (six-speed on the 2.0-litre TDI diesel, seven-speed on all other motors).
Vauxhall, meanwhile, has only a regular six-speed automatic on the Astra; it's available with two engines, the 1.6-litre 113bhp petrol and the 2.0-litre 163bhp turbodiesel.
What are the Golf, Focus and Astra like inside?
The Golf is the class act when it comes to quality; its fascia is made of dense, soft-touch materials, and most of the controls and switches are nicely damped. The Focus's dashboard design is arguably more funky, but some of the plastics on the centre fascia and central partition are harder and less plush – and by the time you reach the footwells or boot, they look downright cheap.
The Golf's cabin can seat four six-footers in comfort and five in emergencies, and its boot features an adjustable floor, which lets you divide the luggage space in two and reduces the load lip when it's in its higher position.
The Astra's dashboard finish is no worse than the Ford's, with a smart-looking design and slick switches. However, there are far too many buttons on the fascia, and they're small and poorly marked.
The Astra scores more strongly on practicality, though. Head- and legroom are generous in both the front and the back of the Vauxhall, and a wide cabin means decent shoulder-room, too. Its boot is bigger than the Focus's with the rear seats up (351 litres versus 316 litres) and down (1216 litres versus 1101 litres). Those capacities are no match for the Golf's, though; it offers 380 litres with the rear seats up, and 1270 litres with them lowered.
All three of these cars can cope with luggage for two adults and a child, although coping with a second nipper's clutter could test them all on boot space.
Equally, all of the cars should be decent at protecting their occupants; they all score the maximum five stars in the EuroNCAP safety tests, and they all get stability control as standard. The Astra gets front, side and curtain airbags, while the Golf adds a driver's knee airbag to that tally. All Focuses get a passenger airbag, side airbags, driver's airbag and curtain airbag as standard SE-spec Golfs and above also get a City Emergency Braking system as standard; it automatically applies the brakes if it detects an imminent front collision at speeds below 19mph.
How much with the Golf, Focus and Astra cost to own?
None of the Golfs looks cheap to buy, and some – the 1.4 petrol with cylinder deactivation in particular – look positively pricey. However, all of the models are impressively clean and efficient (a 99g/km 1.6 diesel is the star performer on that score) and the Golf's strong resale values make it an affordable long-term proposition.
At least the standard equipment list is reasonably generous; every model gets a DAB radio, Bluetooth and some form of air-conditioning.
The Focus's 113bhp 1.6 diesel and 1.0-litre Ecoboost petrols score well with company car drivers, but while you can haggle some useful discounts as a private buyer, weak resale values mean the car will cost you more than an equivalent Golf over three years. It's also worth noting that we've been disappointed by the Ecoboost engines' real-world economy in our True MPG tests. Air-conditioning is also standard across the Focus range, but you have to step up to a Zetec to get a DAB radio.
The Astra's level of discounting is even higher than the Focus's, but remember that it won't hold its value particularly, well either. Its fuel economy, CO2 emissions and leasing rates can't match the Golf's either – but at least insurance costs should be comparatively low.
All of the Astra models have air-conditioning as standard, along with electric front windows and remote central locking.
Which one should I buy?
The VW Golf we'd opt for is the 1.4 TSI 122 SE 5dr. Its turbocharged petrol engine has punchy performance, solid fuel efficiency and excellent refinement, and while all Golfs get DAB radio, Bluetooth and some form of air-conditioning, SE spec adds alloy wheels, adaptive cruise control, City Emergency Braking, and automatic lights and wipers.
Our favourite Ford Focus is the 1.0 Ecoboost 125 Zetec, which mixes strong, refined petrol performance with a reasonably generous standard equipment list (you'll get air-con, Bluetooth, DAB radio and a heated windscreen).
The pick of the Vauxhall Astra range is the 1.6i VVT Tech Line, which offers the car's smoother petrol engine along with alloy wheels, sat-nav, Bluetooth and DAB radio – yet mysteriously costs less than trims with less kit.
Of the three cars, we'd choose the VW Golf if you're looking for a great all-rounder that can offer strong performance, a comfortable drive and enough practicality to cope with a small family. It might cost you more to buy in the first place, but remember that it should also retain more of that price when you come to sell it on.
By John McIlroy