The Ford Focus has recently been updated, and the 2015 changes are more comprehensive than just a restyled set of headlights. We pitch it against two of the cars it has to beat to be considered the best in its class - the Skoda Octavia and the Volkswagen Golf.**
Ford Focus 1.5 TDCi 120 Zetec
A new engine, a revised chassis and a more upmarket interior boost the Ford’s appeal.
Skoda Octavia 1.6 TDI 110 Greenline SE Business
The best space, equipment and emissions, but can the Octavia beat the Focus as an all-rounder?
Volkswagen Golf 1.6 TDI 105 S 5dr
Great resale values and all the appeal of the VW badge, but the entry-level Golf is sparsely kitted.
Pay attention, company car drivers. These three low-emissions hatchbacks are likely to make up the core options on your firm’s next fleet list.
The Ford Focus is the big news. Heavily facelifted to offer a more upmarket cabin and new 1.5-litre diesel engine, this well-priced and frugal mid-spec Zetec model will be hugely popular for fleet providers, and even a tempting proposition for high-mileage private buyers.
The question is, is it better than its arch rivals, the Skoda Octavia and Volkswagen Golf? The Golf is
at a disadvantage because even in entry-level S trim it’s the most expensive of the trio and isn’t over-endowed with equipment, although for many its image will still count in its favour.
The Octavia, meanwhile, is the most efficient, spacious and generously equipped of the three. As a result, the new Focus will have to be seriously good to win this contest.
What are they like to drive?
The Ford is the quickest of the three, and its 1.5-litre, 118bhp diesel engine is also smoother revving and more willing to pick up from low revs than the 1.6-litre diesels in the Skoda and VW. You don’t need to change gear all that often around town as a result.
The longer-geared Skoda isn’t far off the Focus for outright pace, but its 109bhp engine needs more revs before it starts to get going, so the Octavia never feels quite as nippy.
The Golf, despite having only five forward gears (its rivals both have six), never feels too short of puff. However, around town you’ll be changing down regularly to keep the engine in its sweet spot. The VW could also do with a leggier top gear for motorway cruising; at 70mph the engine is spinning around 200rpm higher than the others.
It’s the way the Focus handles that really impresses. There’s loads of grip and the steering is quick and accurate enough for committed country road driving, without making the car feel nervous on the motorway. That said, the steering could do with a bit more weight to add some reassurance when cornering at higher speeds.
The Golf isn’t as nimble as the Focus, but it turns in more sharply than the Octavia and feels lighter and more agile. Despite the benefit of a heavier sports setting for the steering, the Skoda doesn’t corner as deftly as the Golf, mostly because there’s more body lean. Simply put, both the VW and Skoda are stable and relaxing, but they aren’t as entertaining as the Focus.
This is even more of an achievement when you consider the Ford is the most comfortable of the three. It soaks up low-speed bumps with little fluster and is a settled cruiser. In the Golf you feel more of bumps, although it betters the Skoda, which shimmies more over scruffy urban roads.
The Skoda’s engine is the noisiest overall, followed by the Golf’s (which is a slightly less green/tweaked version of the Skoda’s unit) and then the Focus’s; the VW is quieter than the Skoda, despite generating noticeable wind noise on the motorway.
The Octavia’s noisy suspension also irritates, especially around town, while you feel a bit too much vibration through the Focus’s steering wheel at low revs. However, the Ford suffers from less vibration through its pedals than the Golf, and the Focus and Octavia have more positive gearshifts.
What are they like inside?
All of these cars have good driving positions, with seats that offer plenty of adjustment and well-positioned pedals. The Focus has the most comfortable driver’s seat; it has plenty of side support to hold you in place round corners and – as with the Skoda – standard adjustable lumbar support.
The Golf’s poor lower back support may annoy some (adjustable lumbar support improves the situation and doesn't cost much), but the standard seats are comfortable enough on long journeys, and the VW’s boxy body shape lends it the best all-round visibility of the trio.
The Focus is the worst in that respect – particularly when you’re looking over your shoulder when reversing. Both the Golf and Octavia have logical and user-friendly dashboard layouts, and they also share the same solid build quality, well-damped switches and mostly high-end feeling materials.
The Focus Zetec’s dashboard (not the more expensive setup shown here) isn’t as easy to get to grips with. Despite having straightforward air-con controls and fewer buttons than in the previous Focus, it can still be hard to figure out what each button does, especially when you’re trying to operate the infotainment.
While there’s plenty of space up front for a tall driver to get comfortable, the Focus has the least leg room in the back and the central seat squab is narrow and uncomfortable.
The Golf betters the Focus for rear space, but the Skoda is easily the roomiest with masses of
leg and head room. Predictably the Octavia also has the biggest boot by a mile, even though the space isn’t particularly clever.
Both the Focus and Golf have decent-sized boots that will be adequate for most families’ motoring needs, although the Golf’s is best; it’s bigger and has a useful variable-height boot floor.
What will they cost?
The Octavia is the undisputed king for company car drivers. Not only does it have the lowest tax costs and best real-world fuel economy, it’s also the most generously equipped. Sat-nav, rear parking sensors, climate and cruise controls all come as standard, and it would cost a substantial chunk more to spec the other two cars to a similar level.
Not that the Focus or Golf are expensive company cars; both offer relatively cheap tax bills, and the Ford is likely to be the cheapest of the trio to lease. The Focus is also reasonably well equipped, with alloy wheels and electric windows all-round, on top of the air-con and remote central locking all these cars get.
By contrast, a glance at the Golf’s standard equipment list is enough to leave you feeling pretty glum, with 15in steel wheels and manual rear windows being the low points. Standard paint options are limited to a sombre navy blue on the Octavia, red for the Focus and black, red and grey on the Golf.
High-mileage private buyers are also likely to be tempted by these models, all of which qualify for free VED and come with a three-year/ 60,000-mile warranty. The Focus is the cheapest to buy, thanks to the big discounts that Ford dealers are prepared to offer. Despite this, though, it’s the slow-depreciating Golf that will cost cash buyers the least to own, assuming they sell it on after three years.
If you’re considering any of these diesel hatchbacks the chances are you’re a company car driver, and on that basis the Octavia has to win. It’s the cheapest to tax, yet by far the roomiest of the three cars here and it comes with all the standard equipment you’ll need.
Yes, it’s the least refined of the trio, mainly because of its boomy suspension, and it doesn’t shrug off urban road imperfections quite as well as the Ford or VW. Nevertheless, the Skoda is comfortable enough and pleasant to drive, and it matches the Golf for interior quality.
The Focus finishes second. Its low contract hire costs will be a big deciding factor for many fleet providers, while big discounts and tempting PCP deals will sway a reasonable number of private buyers. It’s also the best of the three to drive, thanks to its sweet handling and controlled ride.
Despite its strong resale values the VW has to finish last. The miserly standard kit you get with this entry-level S model is the main problem, but even if you manage to resist adding options such as alloy wheels, the Golf will still cost you the most to run as a company car.
Of course, it’s still a very fine thing, with sorted dynamics, a practical cabin, an excellent driving position and a high-quality interior. It’s even the cheapest of the three to own privately. Equally, though, it disappoints with the worst real-world fuel economy here and a five-speed gearbox that’s less enjoyable to use than the six speed ’boxes in its rivals.
Skoda Octavia 1.6 TDI Greenline SE Business
For Masses of space; great economy and tax costs; loads of kit
Against Irritating suspension noise; so-so town ride; contract hire costs
Verdict Not perfect, but the best compromise of cost and ability2nd
Ford Focus 1.5 TDCi 120 Zetec
For Low contract hire; big discounts; great to drive
Against Not as practical or as nice inside as the others
Verdict A good all-rounder, but not without flaws
Volkswagen Golf 1.6 TDI 105 S 5dr
For Best visibility; strong resale values; sense of quality
Against Not enough standard kit; five-speed gearbox
Verdict A great hatch, but poorly equipped