New Volkswagen Golf and Seat Leon vs Ford Focus
We pit the all-new Volkswagen Golf and Seat Leon against the big-selling Ford Focus to see which is the best family hatchback on sale today...
NEW Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI 130 Style
List price £25,495
Target Price £24,382
An all-new Golf is always big news and, like the Leon, this one arrives carrying lots of new technology.
NEW Seat Leon 1.5 TSI 150 Evo FR
List price £24,805
Target Price £22,941
The first of our all-new contenders comes with the most powerful engine here and in a sporty trim.
Ford Focus 1.0 Ecoboost Hybrid 125 Titanium X Edition
List price £25,190
Target Price £23,694
The hatchback to beat for handling, and now with updated trims and engines to keep it fresh.
Sequels are rarely better than the original, are they? And when you string an idea out for a third or fourth instalment, let alone an eighth, it’s often a sign of a once-grand idea that’s long past its sell-by date.
Well, Volkswagen certainly hopes that isn’t the case here, because while its upcoming ID.3 electric car is hogging most of the headlines, the new but far more traditional Golf Mk8 is still very much part of the German brand’s business plan. To find out whether the Golf is still a great buy almost half a century after it first appeared, we’re pitting it against the closely related – and equally fresh – Seat Leon.
Given that the new Leon is available with exactly the same 128bhp 1.5-litre petrol engine as our chosen Golf, you might assume that’s what we’ve lined up here. And that, dear reader, was indeed the plan. What turned up, though, due to a mix-up at Seat HQ, was a more powerful 1.5 TSI 150 model – something we only discovered when we questioned why it was unexpectedly nippy (more on that later).
But far from being a disaster, this has actually created a great opportunity for the Leon’s supposedly sporty character to really shine – something it has no excuses for not doing, given its extra power and the stiffer suspension that FR trim brings.
It’ll need to really impress on the road to better the Ford Focus, though. This huge-selling hatchback has long been the keen driver’s choice in this class, and the latest version is anything but a one-trick pony
Performance, ride, handling, refinement
Ford recently announced some changes to the Focus’s engine line-up. The same 123bhp 1.0-litre petrol unit that we have here will still be available, but if you’re placing a factory order rather than buying from existing stock, it will come with mild hybrid electrical assistance to improve fuel economy and performance.
That’s a good thing, because without it the Focus doesn’t impress in either of those areas. We’ll deal with real-world economy later, but performance is probably best described as ‘acceptable’. That’s to say, you won’t struggle to get up steep hills or keep up with traffic on the motorway, and there’s enough pull from low revs to avoid the need to thrash the engine hard. However, we’ve already tried the new mild hybrid system in the Puma SUV, and it should give the Focus a small but noticeable increase in oomph when you put your foot down.
Even if Ford had been able to supply a mild hybrid Focus in time for this test, though, it would still probably have been the slowcoach of this particular trio. The larger engines in the Golf and Leon offer much quicker acceleration, with even the Golf capable of hitting 60mph from rest more than a second quicker than the Focus.
Given our test car’s extra power, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the Leon is quickest. You don’t really notice any extra punch at low revs, partly because it has longer gearing than its two rivals, but let the revs build and its acceleration advantage over the Golf is as great as the Golf’s is over the Focus. It managed to sprint from 0-60mph in just 7.7sec.
More of a surprise is the fact that the Leon’s engine is also more refined than that of the Golf – which is traditionally a cut above its mainstream peers in this respect. You feel a surprising amount of buzz through its pedals and the engine sounds coarse when it’s revved hard. Plus, when you lift off the accelerator and two of the cylinders automatically shut down – to save fuel – it sounds as though a Chinook helicopter is hovering somewhere in the distance.
This happens in the Leon too, but it’s less obvious, and the engine is smoother and quieter the rest of the time. Whether this is due to the power difference or because Seat’s engineers have done a better job of isolating the engine from the interior, we won’t be able to say until we’ve sampled more variants of both cars.
Sadly, in other respects, the Leon isn’t particularly hushed. There’s a constant drone from the tyres on the motorway and you can hear the wind whooshing over the windscreen. It isn’t exactly rowdy, but if you like a quiet life or you’ve got a long motorway journey ahead of you, you’ll appreciate the Golf’s better cruising manners.
Overall, though, it's the Focus that's the most refined at 70mph, mainly due to the fact that very little road noise reaches your ears. It also has the quietest engine, despite the offbeat three-cylinder thrum it pipes out.
On the other hand, the Focus has a slightly rubbery gearshift (the Leon’s is most satisfying) and an overly sharp brake pedal. By contrast, the Leon’s brakes are rather spongy, with the first inch or so of pedal travel doing nothing to slow the car. The Golf’s? Well, they're just about perfectly judged.
Brakes aside, the Leon is a joyful thing to drive. It changes direction eagerly, grips hard and stays neatly balanced through fast corners, never feeling unruly or unpredictable. In fact, it betters even the Focus, the hitherto class benchmark for driving fun. Yes, the Focus is a little more playful when pushed to its limits, but its steering feels unnaturally weighted, being too keen to return to centre in your hands.
Switch to the Golf from the Leon and it’s obvious that they’re closely related, in part because their steering responds at the same speed. Beyond that, though, there are some big differences. Without the sports suspension that’s fitted to FR versions of the Leon, the Golf leans more through corners – the most of all three cars, in fact – and is the least composed when asked to change direction quickly. Unless driving thrills are high on your list of priorities, though, you really won’t complain.
And in any case, surely it’s the best for ride comfort? Well, yes – although not by as much as you might imagine. Whereas recent versions of the Golf, including the previous Mk7, had class-leading bump-smothering abilities, this new one isn’t quite as good. Along most roads, you’re jostled around a little, and on the motorway you might actually prefer the Leon’s more tightly tied-down manners. However, there’s no doubt that the Leon is more jarring over ridges, expansion joints and broken surfaces – especially around town.
The Leon is still more agreeable along most roads than the Focus, though. The latter isn’t downright uncomfortable, but it always transmits bumps to your backside in the most abrupt fashion. If comfort is high on your list of priorities, it’s the one to avoid.
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