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Used test: Ford Focus vs Skoda Scala vs Vauxhall Astra
These second-hand family hatchbacks are all cheap to buy and run, but which is the best buy?...
Ford Focus 1.5 Ecoblue 120 ST-Line
List price when new £23,095
Price today £14,837*
Available from 2018-present
Sporty looks and sparkling handling mark the Focus out as the keen driver’s choice
Skoda Scala 1.6 TDI SE L
List price when new £22,065
Price today £17,636*
Available from 2019-present
This super-sensible Czech has beaten the Focus as a petrol. Will the diesel impress as much?
Vauxhall Astra 1.5 Turbo D 122 SRi
List price when new £23,340
Price today £14,373*
Available from 2015-present
It may be the oldest design here, but this revised Astra is still great value as a used buy
*Prices today are based on a 2019 model with average mileage and full service history according to the What Car? Valuation service, correct at time of writing
Raising a family can be an expensive business. Not only are there the basics to provide for and pocket money to dispense, but nowadays with homeschooling and working from your sofa, electric bills are soaring, everyone needs their own laptop, and a basic Internet package is no longer good enough to cope with all the streaming and uploading we're doing.
With all of these worries, spending your hard-earned on a used car has never been subject to greater scrutiny. So, to help you out, we've selected a range of affordable diesel family hatchbacks to grace your driveway that won’t burn through fuel like Apollo 11.
The Vauxhall Astra is the most affordable, even though it was facelifted in 2019 and received a brand new 1.5-litre three-cylinder diesel engine. It also got an updated infotainment system, along with suspension alterations for an improved ride and handling.
However, the Ford Focus is the driving benchmark in the entire class and offers a super-efficient 1.5-litre diesel engine of its own – with an extra cylinder, too.
And then there’s the Skoda Scala, a spacious all-rounder that has already impressed us greatly in turbo petrol form. Will the 1.6-litre diesel prove just as recommendable?
Performance, ride, handling, refinement
These cars may be frugal, but that doesn’t make them slow; all three kept below the 10.0sec mark when racing from 0-60mph in our tests. The Focus proved the quickest and the Astra the slowest, albeit with just 0.4sec splitting them. Accelerate from 30-70mph through the gears – as you would when joining a motorway – and they’re just as closely matched, but this time with the Scala proving the strongest performer.
However, the numbers don’t tell the whole story, because although the Astra performed admirably on our test track, its engine needs the most revs to get going and its power tails off the earliest. This narrow power band makes it surprisingly easy to stall and means there’s more chance you’ll need to grab a higher gear halfway through an A-road overtake.
Not only are the Scala and especially the Focus nippier in most situations, but their engines are smoother, too; the Astra’s sends a lot of vibrations through the steering and pedals.
The Vauxhall engine sounds coarser as well, and this, combined with plenty of road roar and wind noise at higher speeds, means the Astra is the rowdiest when cruising on the motorway – far from ideal when you consider the hours that most company car drivers will spend doing just that. The Scala is a bit quieter, but it’s the Focus that’s the easiest on the ears by far.
The Focus has the most satisfyingly mechanical feel to its manual gearbox, although we appreciate the Scala’s light, precise shifter as well. The Astra’s is the least pleasant to use, with a long and vague action.
You’re most aware of the road’s topography in the Focus, although the stiffer suspension fitted to sporty ST-Line models still takes the sting out of nasty bumps while controlling body movements the most tightly. Indeed, despite its firmness, the Focus’s ride never becomes jarring or uncomfortable.
The Astra is softer and initially seems more cosseting, but sudden shocks to the suspension shatter the calm. It’s also the most prone to wallowing on undulating roads.
Meanwhile, the Scala impresses the most with its comfort. Its ride can be a little floaty over dips and crests, but it never feels too bouncy and it smooths over all surfaces the most convincingly.
Unsurprisingly, the Focus corners the most sweetly. Although its steering is relatively light, it’s also fantastically accurate and tells you the most about the front tyres’ activities, so you can enjoy scything from corner to corner on a fast, flowing road, marvelling at the way the nose tucks in upon entry.
The Scala leans more through tight twists and turns but still handles very tidily, while its steering gives you the confidence to drive briskly. The Astra, however, isn’t a car that enjoys being hustled; its steering is overly light, it runs out of grip at the front far earlier through corners than the others, and it suffers from the most body lean.
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