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Used test: Ford Focus vs Seat Leon vs Volkswagen Golf

These are three of the best family hatchbacks on sale, and you can save a sizeable sum on each of them by buying at a couple of years old. But which is best?...

Ford Focus vs Seat Leon vs Volkswagen Golf

The contenders

Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI 130 Style

List price when new £25,495
Price today £21,000*
Available from 2020-present

The latest Golf retains its jack-of-all-trades status, despite being more modern and sophisticated than ever.


Seat Leon 1.5 TSI 150 Evo FR

List price when new £24,805
Price today £19,500
Available from 2020-present

Even with its sporty edge, the sharply styled Leon is the most affordable car here. 


Ford Focus 1.0 Ecoboost Hybrid 125 Titanium X Edition

List price £25,190
Price today £21,000
Available from 2018-present

The hatchback to beat for handling, but can the Focus compete with the more recent competition?

*Price today is based on a 2020 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing


When you have the formula for a hole in one, why mess around with it? That mentality definitely applied during the creation of the current Volkswagen Golf – it follows in the previous-generation Golf's footsteps, rather than trying to change the game. The versatile family car champion has been brought up to date though, and is now ripe for used buyers. 

Ford Focus 2021 front cornering

The Golf isn't in a league of its own, of course. Within the class, it's had the Ford Focus to compete with since 1998. The Focus is now in its fourth generation, and is not going to let up. With a keen eye for engaging driving dynamics and efficient engines, it promises (and delivers) great things from behind the wheel. 

If you want more for less, the capable Seat Leon is a strong contender too. The example we're testing is more powerful than its two rivals, yet cheaper to buy. Speaking of money, all three of our used hatchbacks offer a saving of around £5000 off new, making them look like equally compelling buys on paper.

So which is best – the Focus, Leon or Golf? Well, let's start at hole one... 

Seat Leon 2020 RHD front right tracking

Driving

Performance, ride, handling, refinement

Look for these letters with the Focus: MHEV. They denote that it has mild-hybrid electrical assistance to improve fuel economy and performance. That said, you get the same 123bhp 1.0-litre petrol unit that's been available without any MHEV technology in the past. 

We appreciate this addition. It becomes the cherry on top of what had previously been an average package in terms of performance and economy. With it, the Focus gets a small but welcome increase in oomph when you put your foot down (we'll get to the fuel efficiency side of things later on).

2020 Volkswagen Golf front action

The Golf and Leon feel quicker still. Their larger engines provide swifter acceleration, with the slightly more powerful Golf capable of hitting 60mph from rest more than a second faster than the Focus. The Leon has the most horses, though, and it managed to sprint from 0-60mph in just 7.7sec. That's impressive for something that isn't a hot hatch.

More of a surprise is the fact that the Leon’s engine is 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 the Golf's 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 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.

Ford Focus 2021 rear cornering

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.

2020 Seat Leon rear action

Brakes aside, the Leon is a joy to drive. It changes direction eagerly, grips hard and stays neatly balanced through fast corners, never feeling unruly or unpredictable. In fact, it is even better here than the Focus – previously the class benchmark for driving fun. Yes, the Focus is a little more playful when pushed to its limits, but its steering feels unnaturally weighted, and is too keen to return to centre in your hands.

If you switch from the Leon to the Golf, 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.

2020 Volkswagen Golf rear action

And in any case, surely the Golf is the best for ride comfort? Well, yes – although not by as much as you might imagine. Whereas previous versions – including the Mk7 (2013-2020) Golf – had class-leading bump-smothering abilities, this new one isn’t quite as good.

You’re jostled around a bit on most roads, and on a 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 our third rival, though. The Focus 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.