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Vauxhall Astra vs Ford Focus vs Skoda Octavia

The SUV might be on the rise, but the traditional hatchback has plenty of life left in it. We try three tempting alternatives

Words ByWhat Car? Staff

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With a seemingly endless stream of small SUVs hogging the limelight, it’d be easy to overlook the traditional family hatchback. In fact, cars like the Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra, together with their peers, still account for a quarter of all new cars sold in Britain.

These less adventurous-looking models might not stand out as boldly in the office car park, but they’re often better to drive and cheaper to buy than their more fashionable equivalents.

The latter is especially true of the all-new Astra, which undercuts its key rivals on price and promises a much more entertaining drive than its predecessor. That’s on top of improved practicality and lots more high-tech gadgetry.

Can it see off the fun-driving Ford Focus and the uber-practical Skoda Octavia, though? We’ve rounded up tax-friendly 1.6-litre diesel versions of all three cars to find out.

The contenders

Vauxhall Astra 1.6 CDTi 136 Tech Line

The new Astra is lighter and more efficient than the old model, and offers more interior space

Ford Focus 1.5 TDCi 120 Zetec

The Focus is traditionally the one to choose for driver appeal, and it's a tough car to beat on price

Skoda Octavia 1.6 TDI 110 SE Business

The Octavia is the class leader for interior space, and it's the most well-equipped, too.

What are they like to drive?

The Astra is the most powerful, and the fastest to accelerate up to speed. That’s true no matter whether you’re working the engine hard or using its low-rev pulling power to build speed in the higher gears.

The other two are sluggish by comparison. The Skoda’s engine starts to pull from lower revs than the Ford’s, but because the Octavia has only five gears (its rivals have six) there’s a relatively big jump between each one. Around town, you often find yourself trundling along at a speed where neither second nor third gear feels right.

It’s a pity the Astra’s engine doesn’t marry its strong performance with impressive refinement. You feel some vibration through the controls when you put your foot down, and a typical diesel dirge fills the cabin when you accelerate hard. Mind you, the Skoda’s engine has an annoying resonance at low revs, and, while the Ford’s engine is quietest, it still isn’t as hushed as you might hope.

However, the Focus does stand out in other ways. It’s the most entertaining of the three, turning in to corners willingly and without too much body lean. Its steering has too strong a self-centering action, but is super-precise and provides you with a good sense of connection with the front wheels.

The Astra feels even more alert and willing to change direction, and there’s even less body lean during hard cornering. The Vauxhall’s steering could be better, though; it’s always a little too light and the weight doesn’t build quickly enough when you turn in to corners at faster speeds. At least the steering’s lightness makes the Astra easy to manoeuvre.

The Octavia feels altogether more cumbersome than its smaller rivals, although it still handles tidily enough and has plenty of grip. However, given that it isn’t really much fun to drive, it’s a shame the ride isn’t a little more settled around town.

We certainly don’t have many criticisms about the way the Ford rides. It manages to soak up all manner of road imperfections without fuss; the relatively small 16in wheels and high-walled tyres fitted to Zetec models helping here.

The Astra is altogether firmer – the optional 17in wheels fitted to our test car were no doubt partly to blame. However, while you’re certainly more aware of bumps as they pass beneath the car than in the Ford, things never become too jarring, even over badly eroded road surfaces.

What are they like inside?

Even tall drivers won’t struggle for space in any of these hatchbacks; all offer generous leg- and head room in the front, along with plenty of adjustment in the seat and steering wheel. The Focus’s seat holds you in position best through corners, but the Octavia’s benefits from a slightly more supportive base.

The Astra’s driver’s seat is comfortable enough, but it’s disappointing you have to pay (£250) extra for adjustable lumbar support, especially when both Ford and Skoda include this important feature as standard. On the plus side, paying that £250 also gets you adjustable thigh support for the seat base, which neither rival offers.

The Octavia sets the benchmark for interior quality, with its dense, soft-touch dashboard and solid, well-damped switchgear. However, the new Astra isn’t far behind for outright quality and the layout of its dashboard, while not quite as user-friendly as the Skoda’s, is logical and easy to get the hang of.

By contrast, the Ford’s interior feels a little cheap. The main surface of the dashboard is soft to the touch, but there are too many hard and unappealing plastics elsewhere in the cabin, and some of the silver plastics are unconvincing. Many of the buttons and switches also feel comparatively lightweight.

Few family cars can compete with the Octavia on rear space, but the Astra gives it a run for its money with an equal amount of leg room. True, the Skoda has a little more rear head room, but taller adults will be happy in both, and three sitting side-by-side will be much more comfortable in either of these cars than in the Ford.

The Octavia remains the benchmark for boot space, too. Its 590-litre capacity almost makes the Astra’s 370 and Focus’s 316 litres look stingy, although the high lip at the entrance and lack of a height-adjustable boot floor do count against the Skoda. The result of the latter is a large step up in the extended load bay when you fold down the rear seats.

Both of these issues also afflict the Astra, although the Vauxhall’s load bay is usefully square in shape and there’s plenty of space for a couple of suitcases or a huge weekly shop.

The Focus’s boot is relatively shallow, and the opening narrow. Annoyingly, too, you need to flip up the rear seatbases before the seatbacks fold down flat, although doing this does at least mean there’s no step in the floor of the extended load area.

What will they cost?

If you’re a company car driver the small differences between these three in benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax costs are unlikely to help you make your mind up. Yes, choosing the Vauxhall will require the lowest monthly salary sacrifice, but there’s only around £5 a month between all three cars, assuming you’re a 40% rate taxpayer.

However, if you’re leasing, the Ford and Vauxhall are cheaper options than the Skoda. Take out a 36-month contract with a 10,000-mile annual limit, and the Astra and Focus come in at £195 and £197 a month respectively while the Octavia will set you back a relatively hefty £265.

For private buyers, the big discounts offered by Ford dealers mean the Focus will cost you £911 less than the Astra over three years, and £750 less than the Octavia. All three cars will cost you a similar amount to service, come with three-year warranties and are expected to depreciate at roughly the same rate over the first three years.

All are reasonably economical, too, although the Skoda returned a slightly disappointing 51.3mpg in our real-world tests, compared with the Vauxhall’s 55.1mpg and the Ford’s 58.5mpg. However, the Astra’s more powerful engine does push up its insurance premiums.

All three cars come with air-conditioning, a multifunction steering wheel and electric windows front and rear, but the Skoda is the only one with climate control.

The Octavia is also the only one of the three with rear parking sensors, although, along with the Focus, it misses out on automatic headlights and LED daytime running lights, which the Astra gets as standard. The Focus also does without cruise control, which its rivals come with as standard.

A factory supply problem means Tech Line Astras built before January 2016 will have steel rims rather than alloy wheels. The Focus and the Octavia come with alloys.

Both Ford and Skoda offer only one solid paint colour as standard (red and dark blue); the Vauxhall is available with a choice of either of those at no extra charge.

Our verdict

The new Astra is hugely important for Vauxhall and happily it doesn’t disappoint. It’s easily the best car the company has produced in the past decade, and it deservedly (if only narrowly) beats the Skoda Octavia in this match-up. True, it isn’t as big as its Czech rival nor as classy inside, but it still impresses on both fronts while being faster, more fun to drive and cheaper to run as a company car – particularly if you’re leasing.

It must be said that there are better versions of the Octavia, so the Astra has more work ahead of it before it can be considered the overall class leader. However, at this price point, and among diesel hatchbacks, the Vauxhall is without equal, and only a few fixable flaws (a slightly firm ride, overly light steering and the absence of rear parking sensors and adjustable lumbar support from the equipment list) stand between it and our hallowed five-star rating. We hope we can recommend the rest of the Astra range as highly as we can this model.

The Focus is left languishing in last place. It’s undeniably a very fine thing to drive, balancing fun handling against a comfortable ride better than any of its rivals here. It’s also relatively refined and, if you’re buying privately, is available with some very attractive discounts.

Sadly, the Ford is badly let down by its cramped rear seats, comparatively pokey boot and low-rent interior. It’s also the least generously equipped, and the only one of the three that doesn’t come with sat-nav as standard.

1st

Vauxhall Astra 1.6 CDTi 136 Tech Line

ForStrong performance; good to drive; lots of infotainment kit; smart cabin; practical by class standards

Against Engine refinement; overly light steering; no lumbar support

Verdict At this price point, diesel hatchbacks don't get any better

2nd

Skoda Octavia 1.6 TDI 110 SE Business

For Class-leading space; lots of kit; high-quality cabin

Against Performance; contract hire rates; gearshift

Verdict Not the best Octavia, but still a fine choice

3rd

Ford Focus 1.5 TDCi 120 Zetec

For Great to drive; most refined; big discounts

Against Cramped, cheap-feeling interior; not much kit

Verdict Not rounded enough to challenge here

Vauxhall Astra

Engine size

1.6-litre diesel

Price from

£18,880 (list)

Power

134bhp

Torque

236lb ft

0-62mph

8.7 seconds

Top speed

127mph

Fuel economy

55.1mpg

CO2

99g/km

Skoda Octavia

Engine size

1.6-litre diesel

Price from

£19,650 (list)

Power

109bhp

Torque

184lb ft

0-62mph

10.6 seconds

Top speed

121mph

Fuel economy

51.3mpg

CO2

99g/km

Ford Focus

Engine size

1.5-litre petrol

Price from

£19,795 (list)

Power

118bhp

Torque

199lb ft

0-62mph

10.0 seconds

Top speed

120mph

Fuel economy

58.5mpg

CO2

98g/km