SINCE Opel’s Kadett/Astra range began its gradual decline in popularity in South Africa, Volkswagen’s Golf has found itself without a natural rival. Sort of like Lex Luther disappearing from Superman’s life. In the meantime, there have been several competitors challenging for leadership of the “Golf class”, as it has become known, including the likes of Honda’s radical Civic and Toyota’s Auris. Several have tried but none has yet quite managed to knock the VW from its perch. This once humble hatchback from Wolfsburg has maintained its sales leadership position and continues to be as popular among South African buyers as it has for over three decades. Its popularity also makes it a desirable used car buy, something that pushes up residuals. The most recent challenger to the VW’s pre-eminent position has been the Ford Focus. Focus has been one of the real turnaround models for the Blue Oval: along with excellent cars such as the Fiesta, it has helped propel Ford back into the mainstream. Recently, Ford’s challenger was given a mid-life facelift, so, fresh from the operating room, we pit it against the newly-launched Golf 6.
DESIGN AND PACKAGING: VW Golf: 17/20 Ford Focus:15/20
Initial reaction to the design of Golf 6 is that it is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Changes seem subtle and, to the untrained eye at least, there is little to differentiate the fi fth generation from its successor. However, park the new model next to a Golf 5 and the transformation is far more marked. Version 6 is sharper, leaner and more angular. Gone is the bulbous appearance of its predecessor, especially at the rear, which is now more upright and “blocky” in nature. The biggest change has taken place up front, where the trapezoidal headlamp design and gloss black grille take their cues from the stylish Scirocco. It may not be particularly striking, but it will probably age a lot more gracefully than a quirkier design would. Attention to interior detail and an increase in passenger space are definite plus points. Golf 6 has an extremely good (read: expensive) feel about it. All contact surfaces are soft to the touch, and even the harder plastics have a satin feel. As promised by VW, this car really does feel as though it belongs in a “class above”. Instruments are stylish and logical, and ergonomics are top drawer. There really is a sense of premium quality about the cabin. We hope that this perceived quality continues through the vehicle’s life… Rear passengers benefi t from plenty of leg- and headroom. Boot space seems to be the only area that has been compromised – as it is fi tted with a full size spare wheel, the Highline model has to make do with just 208 dm3 of boot space. Alongside the Golf, Ford’s Focus seems a little dated. It is not that it is an unattractive design, the Golf just seems a lot edgier and more “new age”. But the facelift mentioned earlier has helped to add some “menace” to the front. Swept-back headlamps and a revised bumper with 74 CAR July 2009 imposing lower air dam are the most noticeable revisions. Enlarged side mirrors house new, integrated indicator repeaters. The wheelarches are reprofi led and a roof spoiler is new. Stacked tail-lamps were once a clever design trait, but now look a little passé: for this improved model, they now feature clear lenses. As an aside, in a brighter colour the Focus may appear more appealing, as the dark metallic grey of the test unit certainly does not fl atter. Inside, the reworked Focus almost seems to have taken a step back. The soft touch materials are good, as is the basic design, but one feels that the Ford is trying too hard to be upmarket. The trippy, Andy Warhol-esque “pop-art” pattern surrounding the audio system is a perfect example of how NOT to look stylish. From an ergonomic point of view, the interior works well, but it all feels a little unsophisticated and less luxurious when compared with the Volkswagen. But it does feel properly screwed together, and is likely to age well. By virtue of its longer wheelbase, Focus has the Golf beaten in terms of interior space. Rear legroom is better as is luggage volume – 328 dm3. Both cars feature folding rear seats, which increases load volume signifi cantly: 1 008 dm3 for the Golf and 1 104 for Focus.
COMFORT AND FEATURES VW Golf 17/20 Ford Focus 15/20
From the moment you slide into the Golf’s driver’s seat, you feel at ease. Both front seats are height adjustable with plenty of travel, and the driver’s chair also features lumbar support. The shape and size of the seats, and their Alcantara inserts, make them snug. Aided by a rake- and reach-adjustable steering wheel, all our testers easily found a comfortable driving position. In Highline trim specification, standard features abound. The list includes air-conditioning, cruise control, a CD player with MP3 – although the test car was fitted with an optional touchscreen navigation system that adds significantly to the price – and electric windows all round, among other features. One item that did leave us wondering was the manual mirror dimming function. Surely a car costing this much should have an automatic anti-dazzle function… There is plenty of oddment space and a fair number of storage bins and nooks for small items such as keys and cellphones. In every Focus we have experienced, the driver’s seat adjustment just does not allow the cushion to go low enough, which does not (er…) sit well with tall or short drivers. And shorter testers also found that the long seat cushion got in the way when trying to depress the clutch fully. Seat width is also a problem for some, as the usable space is quite narrow. One tester had to remove items from his pants pockets so as not to have the seat impinge. And the patterned fabric is not a match for the Golf’s in quality. The steering wheel is adjustable for rake and reach, but is far stiffer to adjust than the Golf’s. As in the VW, standard specification is good, so the Focus does not lack for much – there’s a CD player with MP3/USB capability, and its steering-mounted satellite controls are standard, unlike the Golf, for which a multi-function steering wheel is optional. The Focus also has electric windows all around and, in addition to the usual array of oddment areas, it has a cavernous glovebox.
RIDE, HANDLING AND BRAKING VW Golf 17/20 Ford Focus 15/20
The Golf rides on 17-inch alloys shod with 45-profile rubber, which means that the worst road imperfections are felt by the occupants. However, for the most part, the MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension soaks up bumps with zero fuss. Golfs have a reputation for excelling in the handling department. This car may not be as entertaining as previous generations, but it is still fun and handling is surefooted and near idiot-proof. Even at high speeds it remains agile and composed, and there’s a standard ESP system should you overcook it. But steering feedback is numb thanks to electric assistance. The gearshift is quite slick, and gear engagement is positive – something that has become a VW trait of late – though the clutch action does feel a little spring-loaded. During our gruelling braking test from 100 km/h to rest, the Golf was near metronomic in its performance: the spread of times was a scant 0,12 seconds over ten stops. Average stopping time was an excellent 2,74 seconds, and the best time was a sportscar-rivalling 2,66 seconds. Braking feel is strong and progressive across the pedal travel, and remained so after testing. The Focus has a very compliant ride, especially at day to day speeds. It also utilises Mac- Pherson struts for the front wheels and a fully independent rear arrangement. Larger road imperfections make themselves heard within the cabin, which is never an ideal characteristic. Of these two cars, the Focus has the more entertaining handling. It is livelier than the Golf. There is also notceably more body roll than there is in the VW. However, this is only apparent at faster cornering speeds – higher than most will drive at. Should you get a little too enthusiastic, there is no electronic safety net to rein you in, though – in fact, there isn’t even traction control. It must be said that the steering remains disconcertingly light at speed. Gearchange action was described by testers as “typically Ford”, with a strong sense of mechanical integrity, but it is definitely less slick than Golf’s shifter. Several testers managed to miss third gear when shifting up from second on a few occasions. Despite having a similar mass and brake set-up – large discs modulated by ABS on all corners – the Focus did not get close to the Golf’s braking performance. In fact, at 2,88 seconds, its best stopping time was slower than the Golf’s worst. The overall average time was a good 2,97, however.
PERFORMANCE VW Golf 18/20 Ford Focus 16/20
The Golf 1,4 TSI Highline is powered by a “twin-charged” in-line four that we first experienced in the Tiguan last year. It may displace just 1 390 cm3 but it utilises two modes of forced induction to produce a not insubstantial 118 kW at 5 800 r/min. More impressively, 240 N.m of torque is on tap from a lowly 1 500 r/min. The force-fed set-up uses a super- and turbocharger to increase power and torque from the relatively low displacement four. Basically, the crank-driven supercharger is in place to overcome the lag inherent in turbocharged set-ups. Once the engine is up to speed and there is enough exhaust gas volume to spin the turbocharger to full efficiency, a magnetic clutch decouples the supercharger. From that point the turbocharger works in isolation. The switchover comes at roughly 3 500 r/min, when one can hear the supercharger whine abate. The whole shebang is computercontrolled, and even though it all sounds a little complicated in operation, it is seamless and very few drivers will be able to detect that the engine is turbocharged, such is the power delivery. Using a small boosted powerplant does have its advantages. Reduced fuel consumption, especially when not using all the available power, is one and, naturally, lower exhaust emissions is another. At idle, the Golf’s engine is hardly perceptible, registering a whisper-quiet 37 dB. In fact, one has to look at the rev-counter to ensure the engine is actually running… Mating the engine with a sixspeed gearbox allows plenty of opportunity to exploit the fat torque curve, which makes for quick, safe overtaking. A sixth ratio also allows for longer overall gearing – the 1,4 TSI is geared at 44 km/h per 1 000 r/min in top, which makes for fuel efficient and low-noise cruising. A mere 2 500 r/min shows on the tacho when cruising at the legal limit. On our test strip the 1,4 TSI performed admirably, returning figures very close to the manufacturer’s claims. We recorded a best zero to 100 km/h time of 8,54 seconds, and an average of 215 km/h was achieved from our two-way averaged top speed runs. The one kilometre sprint was completed in under 30 seconds at a speed of 182 km/h. The Focus 2,0 Si uses a far more conventional engine arrangement, a 2,0-litre in-line four featuring twin overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. Maximum power of the Duratec engine is 107 kW at 6 000 r/min, and torque output peaks at 185 N.m with the engine spinning at a relatively high 4 500 r/min. The unit revs to the red line without any fuss of the vocal or mechanical variety. The Focus idles at 40 dB, which does not seem signifi cantly noisier than the silky Golf until you take into account that sound is measured on a log scale. Just like the Golf, the Focus’ engine drives its front wheels, but it uses a fi ve-speed manual gearbox. The Ford is also geared much shorter at 33 km/h per 1 000 r/min in top gear. On the open road, the engine is spinning at about 3 500 r/min at an indicated 120 km/h. That partly explains why the Focus is noisier than Golf at the national limit: the two models recorded 70 and 66 dB respectively on our Dawe sound meter. With lower power and torque outputs and a similar mass to the Golf, the Focus was always going to be at a disadvantage on our test strip. In the benchmark acceleration test, the Ford managed a best time of 10,05 seconds, only fractionally slower than claimed. Top speed was a respectable 197 km/h, though in all fairness the Ford had covered a relatively low mileage, so performance is likely to improve. The Focus needed 31,18 seconds to complete the one kilometre standing start sprint, and was doing 168 km/h when it passed the marker. In all aspects of performance testing, Golf wins hands down. And more signifi cantly, it does so with a smaller (albeit boosted), more fuel-effi cient engine, as we shall see…
FUEL ECONOMY VW Golf 18/20 Ford Focus 16/20
It stands to reason that the 1,4-litre Golf would be the more fuel effi cient of these two rivals. This is borne out by our fuel index for the Golf, which works out at 7,56 litres/100 km. Factorin the 55-litre fuel tank, and you could travel near-on 730 km before the tank runs dry. With its 2,0-litre engine the Ford’s fuel index is 9,0 litres/ 100 km, so, from a similarlysized fuel tank you can expect just over 600 km on a full tank. Spank the Golf’s force-fed engine, though, and figures are likely to escalate far more scarily than when you thrash the Ford.
VALUE FOR MONEY VW Golf 15/20 Ford Focus 17/20
At over R230 000, and in the case of the Golf well over R270 000 (R300 000 for the specific car featured here), these are not hatchbacks that are within easy reach of Everyman. Several members of the public were surprised (read: horrified) that a humble little VW should cost near-on R300 000. Golf 6 is all-new and, as stated before, is an extremely refined package. Focus is the better buy on paper, coming in several tens of thousands more wallet friendly than the VW. And mild revisions have helped it remain fresh, even though it is a few years older than the Golf. In terms of ownership and running costs there is very little to differentiate the two over the first few years. Both cars include a five years/90 000 km service plan in the list price. And warranty periods are identical, too.
VERDICT VW Golf 18/20 Ford Focus 15/20
One did not have to pay really careful attention to proceedings to realise that the Ford was outdone from the word go. It may have the lower price tag, but that is unlikely to sway many buyers in its favour. It is an older product that has come up against a formidable opponent. Not that the Ford Focus 2,0 Si is a bad car, it’s just that the Golf 1,4 TSI Highline is a much better one. As promised by Volkswagen, Golf 6 has taken the game one step further. We see very few cars within its own class that stand the chance of dethroning it as the leader of the “Golf class”. It has certainly grown up, to the point where VW seems to be aiming slightly higher than before – in fact, Audi’s A3 had better be looking over its shoulder very carefully…