Volkswagen Golf v Ford Focus v Vauxhall Astra
Find out which of these three impressive family hatchbacks comes out on top in our test
The small family hatchback class (also known as the ‘C-segment’ of the car market) is a particularly popular one. This has led to manufacturers releasing increasingly accomplished cars in the quest to capture market share. That means it’s now difficult to choose between the class leaders, because they’re all so good.
There are some subtle differences between the Golf, Focus and Astra, even putting personal styling and brand preferences aside. We’ve compared the credentials of these three models across all our review categories to help you decide which would be the best choice for you.
The Golf, Focus and Astra are available with plenty of different engines and power outputs in order to satisfy their broad customer base. However, if you’re looking for the cheapest to run, the most efficient model of each car is a diesel. All three are very close when it comes to their headline economy figures and they all qualify for road-tax exemption. The same is roughly true when looking at the most economical petrols in each range, but with one crucial difference: the Focus is the only one where you have to pay £20-a-year road tax.
The Volkswagen ‘Dieselgate’ scandal has dented consumer confidence in the economy figures published by manufacturers – particularly those published by VW. The Golf has previously used engines implicated in the scandal, but if you’re buying a brand-new one, you can be confident that the engine will be free of software that broke US emissions regulations.
The most efficient model in the Golf line-up is the 108bhp 1.6-litre diesel BlueMotion model, which claims 88.3mpg economy and 85g/km CO2 emissions. The Vauxhall Astra in 1.6-litre CDTi ecoFLEX form is capable of 85.6mpg, with CO2 emissions of 88g/km, while the Ford Focus in 1.5-litre TDCi ECOnectic guise isn’t far behind, with figures of 83.1mpg and the same CO2 output (88g/km) as the Astra.
When shopping for the cheapest versions of these three cars to run in petrol form, buyers have a choice between the 1.0-litre BlueMotion Golf, which returns 65.7mpg and 99g/km of CO2, the 1.0-litre EcoBoost Focus (61.4mpg and 105g/km) and the 1.0-litre ecoFLEX Astra (67.3mpg and 96g/km).
The Golf is traditionally considered the most desirable of the three cars, which means it costs slightly more to buy and is likely to be slightly more costly to insure, too.
Engines, drive and performance
Happily for buyers in this class, the margins between the leaders in terms of drive and performance are finer than ever. That means the Golf, Focus and Astra are now very evenly matched and all very good to drive.
For several years, the Ford Focus has been the best of the three in this regard and it remains the most engaging; if you’re a driving enthusiast you’re most likely to enjoy the Focus. The Golf and Astra are very difficult to separate on this score and you’re likely to find reasons elsewhere to help you decide which you prefer, as they’re both very accomplished on the road.
In a similar vein, all three have strong engine ranges. The entry-level petrols are worth avoiding in all three cars, as they feel sluggish, but otherwise both the petrols and diesels are refined and offer sufficient punch. The Focus’ 123bhp 1.0-litre EcoBoost is an impressive performer, as are the 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel in the Golf and the 148bhp 1.4-litre turbo petrol in the Astra.
Interior and comfort
While the Golf, Focus and Astra are hard to separate in some areas, the VW is the obvious winner when it comes to interior quality and finish. The materials used for the Golf’s interior are very high quality, feel nice to touch and continue throughout the cabin, not just where they’re most on show. Not only does the Golf look and feel nice inside, but it also boasts comfortable seats and an excellent driving position.
The latest Astra boasts one of Vauxhall’s best-ever interiors, with a design that’s arguably more stylish than that of the Focus. There’s a classy piano-black finish to some areas of the dashboard, as well as chrome-effect trim and soft-touch plastics, plus an uncluttered centre console.
Though the Ford Focus interior feels well built, it does look a bit drab when you hop in from a Golf or Astra and some of the materials can feel a little cheap in comparison, too. The Focus is comfortable, if not on the same level as the Golf, but the interior is one area where lags behind the best in class.
Practicality and boot space
The latest Golf and Astra models both offer more legroom to rear-seat passengers than the previous versions. This, combined with the cars’ cabin design, makes them feel more spacious inside than the Focus.
Both have bigger boots, too, with the Golf offering 380 litres of space (1,270 with the rear seats folded) and the Astra 370 (1,210) compared to the 316 litres you get in the Focus.
Cabin storage isn’t as good in the Focus as it is in the Astra or Golf, either, with the Volkswagen providing plenty of space to keep all your bits and pieces.
Reliability and safety
Of the three cars, the Golf is the one with the strongest reputation for build quality and reliability. Although it was the highest overall finisher of the three in the 2015 Driver Power survey, where it came 30th, it was actually beaten in the reliability category by the Focus, which came 56th compared to the Golf’s 75th-place finish.
The Golf did, however, finish 39th for build quality against Focus’ 137th place. The Astra is the newest of the three cars and hasn’t been on the market long enough to feature in the Driver Power survey, so it’s hard to give a definitive answer about how it compares to the Volkswagen and Ford. However, recent Vauxhall models have tended to be reliable.
All three cars were awarded the full five stars when crash-tested by Euro NCAP, so you can rest assured that whichever you buy, you’ll be getting a very safe car. They all have plenty of safety systems available, such as lane-departure warning, in addition to all the expected kit like airbags, anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control.
Vauxhall also offers its OnStar system on the Astra. This can automatically alert the emergency services if it senses the car has been in a crash.
Winner - Volkswagen Golf
It's a tribute to the increasing quality of new cars nowadays that these three class rivals are all so impressive and evenly matched. Picking a winner is not an easy task, particularly given how much Vauxhall has improved the Astra with its latest model. The Golf wins because it's just such an excellent all-rounder. Not only that but it oozes class and is better to drive than ever.
Both the Astra and the Focus are less expensive than the Golf, and the Ford is the most fun to drive out of the three, but we still think the Golf is the best of the bunch.
For more information on these cars, read our comprehensive reviews of the Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra.
Car dashboard warning lights: the complete guide
New 2021 Audi Q4 e-tron: prices, specs and release date
Best new car deals 2021