You’ll fall for the Focus, but it may not be love at first sight
An ordinary car with extraordinary driver appeal, can the Ford Focus reclaim its stranglehold on the family hatchback market? We pit the new one against eight rivals eager to thwart it
Ten years. That’s how long it’s been since the Ford Focus was Britain’s biggest-selling car over a full calendar year. That, to me at least, seems like ‘blink and you’ll miss a decade’ territory.
It seems like just a moment ago that Ford so memorably imposed such a reassuring state of order on the UK car market, at least to road testers like me – one that lasted a full decade. The Blue Oval created a family hatchback that was a much better drive than anything else like it: the original 1998 Focus. Britain had some of the best roads in Europe on which to demonstrate its qualities. And, sure enough, Britons responded. The Focus became this country’s biggest-selling car.
And still, even though for every calendar year since 2008 the car has been beaten by its little brother the Fiesta (and increasingly by one or two other big-hitters) in the UK’s annual registration charts, the launch of a new-generation Focus – this the fourth of them – feels like a big occasion.
So we’ve convened a welcoming committee: not quite every family hatchback in the class – just the ones from well-known volume brands that we believe could give it some serious competition. We’ve left out the ‘compact premium’ players, on the basis that doing so ought to make for a simpler, closer and more interesting contest. But among the cars we have included is the recently introduced Kia Ceed, fresh from an encouraging endorsement in the Autocar road test, albeit in diesel-engined form.
When gathered around a common £22,000 price point, then, and propelled by similarly powerful petrol engines, which is 2018’s best new family hatchback?
Missing the cut:
9th Peugeot 308: Given that this field might have swollen to something approaching 20 cars if we’d included every family hatchback on the market, ninth place isn’t such a terrible result for Peugeot’s four-year-old 308.
It made it into the starting blocks on the basis that’s it’s a handsome and desirable hatchback with a characterful engine and a pleasant, quietly ritzy interior, facts that none of our testing confounded.
So what damned this former European Car of the Year? The answers, simply put, are disappointing practicality, average real-world economy and soft, uninspiring handling.
The 308 has the least spacious second row of all the cars here; its boot may be of a good size, but the sense that the former has been sacrificed for the benefit of the latter is a compromise that none of the rest of our field asks you to accept.
This is a classic European-sized hatchback, however, and as such offers a compactness that you won’t find everywhere else in this group. Ought that to translate as greater handling nimbleness than the car actually has, though? We think so, because distinguishing agility is only present in the 308 driving experience up to a fairly superficial level.
Although Peugeot’s downsized steering wheel makes the car flit around car parks and busy junctions quite easily, when you corner at higher speeds you must contend with muted, over-assisted steering, and discouraging amounts of body roll that are enough to blunt the handling balance the chassis might otherwise have, and also to make the 308 understeer quite untidily at the limit of grip.
The standard sport suspension and bigger wheels of a higher trim level might have made for a more convincing dynamic showing here – but, as it was, we could rank the 308 no higher.
8th Vauxhall Astra: The Astra is the quickest-accelerating car in this test on paper. That’s not something you were expecting to read about a mid-range Vauxhall, I dare say. It’s roomy and well-equipped, too, and specialises in the sort of unambiguous value for money that Vauxhall appears to be claiming as its specialty, at least for its more conventional hatchbacks and saloons.
But none of that will prevent you from noting the distinctly unlovely rental-car vibe conjured by the car’s cheaper cabin materials (of which there are plenty), or the relative lack of dynamic finish that’s evident in the way it drives. The clutch pedal action feels woolly and imprecise, ride quality is slightly hollow and excitable in its shortage of wheel control, and steering is light and can be pendulous as you add lock, giving you very little impression at all of how hard the car’s front wheels are working.
The Astra’s 1.4-litre engine is quiet at cruising crankspeeds and makes decent torque, but it doesn’t feel like the most potent or vigorous motor here due to its gathering coarseness and breathlessness at high revs.
But for a shortness of footspace in the second row, there are few reasons to complain about practicality. Yet overall, having been presented with at least a glimmer of visual interest by the car’s exterior styling, you’re left with very few reasons to really want this Astra when all is said and done. And meat and potatoes, however competently cooked, can only take Vauxhall so far.
7th Seat Leon: Wondering if a bottom-half ranking looks a bit tough on the Seat Leon, a car that we’ve consistently rated highly in this model generation?
It was an unavoidable quirk of timing that this test had to happen just after Seat switched production of its hatchback into 2019-model-year specification – and from the Volkswagen Group’s 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engines to its newer, WLTP-emissions-compliant 1.5s.
The 1.5-litre motors powering the Golf and Octavia in this test only got added at Seat’s Martorell factory on 31 July; not soon enough, regrettably, for demonstrators to have arrived at Seat UK in time to be included here. So this slightly lowly ranking for the Leon is as much about the engine as the car.
This was an opportunity, …read more