Ford's David has finally overcome VW's Goliath
No battle is closer to the hearts of Irish car buyers than that between the Golf and Focus, writes Shane O'Donoghue
IRELAND vs England; David vs Goliath; Pepsi vs Coca Cola; Ford Focus vs Volkswagen Golf. That's the enormity of the battle you see on this page.
A skim through the sales figures suggests that the Focus has outsold the Golf in Ireland for three of the past four years.
In 2010, the Volkswagen nosed ahead, perhaps as Ford buyers played the waiting game for the all-new model tested here. Saying that, the Focus is available as a four-door saloon and as an estate, neither of which Volkswagen offers with a Golf badge.
Picturing a black Golf with a Candy Red Focus was a little unfair on the former, but we're familiar enough with the Golf now not to be swayed by fancy launch colours.
Anyway, the new Ford doesn't need special paint to look good. The designers have done a fantastic job, endowing it with modernity without making it look futuristic. It's a shape we don't expect to age quickly. In this humble writer's opinion the four-door Focus saloon looks even better.
The diplomat in me would call the Golf understated, but parked next to the Focus it just looks ordinary.
While the Volkswagen's interior isn't exactly a flourish of colour and mad shapes, it is one of the best cabins in the class in terms of quality and tactility.
Every surface is squishy and every switch well damped -- and it's all logically laid out. It's cliched to say it, but I'm going to anyway: it's very German.
In contrast, the Focus's interior is a little overwhelming at first, especially if you're in the top-spec Titanium model. There are buttons of all shapes and sizes everywhere, including some strange new paddle switches on the steering wheel. Thankfully, it doesn't take too long to work out what's where.
More importantly, the quality is now on an equal footing with the Golf. Where Ford previously used hard-wearing plastics on its Focus are now much softer materials.
Who knows if they'll stand up to abuse as well? We can certainly tell you that they raise the ambience of the cabin.
A glance at the price lists for these cars shows that the Focus five-door hatchback (the three-door model has yet to be launched) ranges from €20,825 for the basic 1.6-litre petrol model to €29,425 for the Titanium spec with a 2.0-litre TDCi engine and 'Powershift' automatic gearbox.
In response, the five-door Golf starts at €19,895 (Trendline 1.2 TSI petrol) and, GT variants aside, rises to €29,395 for the Highline model powered by a 2.0-litre TDI engine linked to VW's DSG automatic gearbox.
In between, the Focus range is really all about the 1.6 TDCi turbodiesel. It's certain to be the best seller, with two power-output options, depending on your budget.
It's a willing partner for the Focus's talented chassis, though it can feel a bit flat if you let the revs drop too far.
Volkswagen has a 1.6-litre turbodiesel in its range too, with a slightly different choice of power outputs.
Starting price: €20,825
Tax band: A-B
Power output: 94-123bhp
We like: style, quality, driving
We don't like: fussy cabin
Starting price: €19,895
Tax band: A-C
Power output: 84-138bhp
We like: resale values,
We don't like: ordinary
There really isn't much to choose between them in terms of performance and they're all in Band A for the cheapest road tax.
So how do you decide between these two cars?
The original Focus was renowned for being great to drive and though many people don't knowingly choose a car because of how it feels on the road, I like to think that it has a large bearing on the decision making process.
It makes me feel better about waffling on about a car's road-holding ability when really you just want to know how often you'll need to fill it up and how much the annual road tax is.
Even five years ago, to me, one of the most important things about a car was how it handled. I still appreciate that in a car, but I wouldn't let my buying decisions be ruled by it -- not now I'm in my mid-thirties with two small kids and all their stuff in tow.
Thankfully, most car makers have really moved their game on in this respect and the two are not mutually exclusive.
First impressions suggest that the Focus has been set up much softer than its predecessor and that the steering is lighter, with less feedback. In fact, while doing the driving for this piece, the Golf initially nudged ahead in my affections.
However, a little more time in the Ford -- and a more varied test route -- revealed its true personality. In summary, keen drivers will like it as much as ever when they're pressing on, while most of the rest of us will appreciate the new-found comfort, refinement and stability. The Golf is almost as good, but the use of the word "almost" says it all.
While I acknowledge that each and every buyer has their own set of priorities, I don't want to sit on the fence here.
There are things about the Golf I prefer, such as the engine line-up, its rock solid resale value and the high quality interior.
However, I'm sold on the styling and driving experience of the Focus and it's the one I'd spend my own money on.
The Focus wins the championship, if not quite the Grand Slam. . .The wannabes
Buyers in the C-segment are spoiled for choice.
The Golf and Focus are the undisputed leaders, but the world would be very dull if everyone drove them. Here are a few other options.
Alfa Romeo Giulietta: It's Undeniably gorgeous inside and out, well priced and decent to drive.
Audi A3: A classy, understated car that is quite a comfortable drive.
BMW 1 Series: Lovely to drive and fantastically economical.
Citroen C4: Significantly better than its predecessor.
Fiat Bravo: Still a good-looking car, with great engines.
Honda Civic: World-class engines, distinctive looks.
Hyundai i30: An underrated, good value-for-money and comfortable car.
Kia cee'd: This car is much more than just good value for money.
Mazda3: Forward-looking style and driving experience.
Opel Astra: Competent in all areas.
Peugeot 308: Economical and comfortable.
Renault Megane: Great value and space.
SEAT Leon: The Golf's (cheaper) first cousin.
Skoda Octavia: More spacious than most other cars here.
Subaru Impreza: Very smooth 'boxer' diesel engine.
Toyota Auris: Bombproof reliability and really good residuals.
Sunday Independent Supplement