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Used test: Ford Focus vs Seat Leon vs Volkswagen Golf interiors
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?...
Driving position, visibility, build quality, practicality
All three have neatly aligned pedals, steering wheels and driver’s seats, allowing you to sit in a natural position – although you're further from the road in the Ford Focus than the other two.
Each car also has a centre armrest to lean on and a comfy seat with oodles of adjustment, including for height and lumbar support. The main difference is that in the Seat Leon and Volkswagen Golf it’s all done manually, whereas the Focus’s seat is powered.
So, the chances are you’ll be sitting comfortably when you come to operate the controls. The Focus makes this easy by taking an old-school approach, with big, easy-to-find buttons, plus real knobs for the climate control and headlights – and it works well.
For more contemporary glamour, the Leon and Golf have small, touch-sensitive pads instead of physical controls, including for the temperature settings. There are a few proper buttons on the steering wheel, but only for controlling a few functions, including the cruise control, trip computer and sound system volume.
What’s the problem with touch-sensitive buttons? You can’t find them by feel, so you have to look away from the road to check you’re not just pressing a random bit of the dashboard. That’s distracting at 30mph, let alone 70mph, and even then they don’t always register inputs. Compounding matters, the rest of their climate controls are buried in the infotainment touchscreens.
The Golf's infotainment screen is is one of the biggest in the class, but the software seems to have been designed primarily to look good. It doesn’t work very well, and occasionally crashes and reboots itself.
The Leon’s screen is the same size as the Golf’s, but its software is different, and we much prefer it. The unconventional menus seem a bit confusing at first, but soon make sense. The Focus has the smallest screen and the least detailed graphics of the bunch. Some of the icons are quite small too. Fortunately, its menus are mainly easy to understand.
All three have reasonably thin windscreen pillars, so forward visibility is fine – but the Golf is the easiest car to reverse in because it has slimmer rear pillars than its rivals. What you can’t see will be announced audibly by front and rear parking sensors, which are standard on all three cars from new. A reversing camera would have cost its original owner extra on the Focus and Golf, and you can’t have one on the Leon.
Interior quality is an area where, once upon a time, the Golf would have easily beaten the Focus and Leon – but not now. And not just because its two rivals have raised their game. It’s also because the latest Golf has gone backwards, and feels slightly less plush than its predecessor. It does just about enough to be the best of this trinity though, and has some nice metal trim highlights and decent fit and finish.
All three rivals have soft-touch surfaces on the tops of their dashboards and front doors, and the Focus has stitched pads on its centre console, where your knee naturally rests. It feels the least robust inside, though, and its plastics feel the least upmarket. The Leon drops points to the Golf with its slightly low-rent door pulls, but it’s a close-run thing.
Front space is fine in all three, and rear seat space is where the real differences are. The current Golf isn’t much different to the previous model, with enough rear head and leg room for anyone around six feet tall but not a lot of the latter to spare.
The Focus and Leon have plenty left over – even if you’re tall and sitting behind someone who has slid their seat back, your knees will have loads of clearance. Those two are also far more accommodating when you need to carry a third adult in the back. Anyone sitting in the middle rear seat of the Golf will really struggle for leg room.
To make matters worse, getting into the Golf’s middle seat to start with is also trickiest, especially if you have big feet. It would be easy to kick (and damage) any cables plugged into the awkwardly positioned USB sockets. The Focus doesn’t have the high central floor hump of the Leon and Golf, so it has the most foot room for a middle rear passenger.
The Focus and Leon have above-average-sized boots for the family car class, taking six carry-on suitcases below the parcel shelf with room left over. The Golf? Well, it managed just five cases.
On the plus side, the Golf is the only one with a height-adjustable boot floor that creates a separate compartment below it when it’s raised to its highest position. Doing this also reduces the size of the lip at the boot entrance – handy if you’re heaving heavy items in or out. In the Focus and Leon, there’s a substantial drop down to the boot floor.
When you drop the rear seatbacks in the Focus and Leon (all three cars have a 60/40 split), you’re left with a step in the floor of the extended load bay. That’s something else the Golf’s height-adjustable floor can sort out: it creates a flat floor all the way to the front seats, so you can slide long loads in more easily. Speaking of long loads, the Leon and Golf also have a ski hatch, which adds a bit more flexibility.
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