New Golf plays new Focus. On the face of it, both family hatch favourites have quite similar external change notes. Reskin the non-structural sheet metal, leave the roof and glazing untouched – check. Redesign the door mirrors, bumpers, grille, head and taillights – check.
All good so far, however that’s pretty much where the similarities end. While Ford is happy to classify their new Focus as nothing more than a substantial facelift, Volkswagen deems its offering worthy of being called a new generation vehicle. So Golf 5 becomes Golf 6, a step change they usually reserve for an all-new car.
The last time Golf met Focus in a Topcar comparison test, the Ford just shaded it. Can the new Golf reverse that decision? Is the sober suit sufficiently different from the old car? Will a revamped interior suffice? Are the many internal, unseen changes really that noticeable? And finally, does a downsized 1.4-litre engine stand a chance against Ford’s upsized 1.8? On paper at least, this looks a close call.
These new, South African-assembled Focus models, developed for the Africa and Pacific regions, have not received all the sheetmetal updates that our German-built ST versions boast. European cars feature the ST’s shapelier doors and fenders right across the range. Rather bizarrely, our doors benefit from restyled, more useful interior door trim that the Euro cars do without. Ford probably reckoned most SA buyers wouldn’t notice the missing swage line along the flanks as they’d be too busy staring at the seriously ‘kinetic’ new front end with its swept back, kinked headlights and huge trapezoidal lower airdam. They’re right, it’s a bold treatment that gives the Focus much more personality, while simultaneously closing the DNA rift to the ultra funky new Fiesta.
As for the Golf, from certain angles it’s like trying to tell the Olsen twins apart. A Golf 5 owner on our test team ‘lost’ it in the car park. Thankfully the chiselled new front end is distinctive and handsome, by far the most successful aspect of a conservative exterior makeover. Obviously engineering constraints prevailed, but we do wish Golf 6 had more of the Scirocco’s sultry allure.
Behind the scenes
Spend some time in the new Golf and you’ll think the Wolfsburg engineers have been taking night classes over at Ingolstadt, the Audi influence is that tangible. Quality abounds in the materials, the tactile elements, the build and the ergonomics. Main instrument gauges, Dynaudio infotainment and ventilation controls are all borrowed from the considerably more expensive Passat CC coupaloon, then set in squishy textured plastic. It’s an interior that shames the efforts of many of the world’s so-called luxury brands.
Both our test cars arrived liveried in optional leather. The Volksie’s front chairs offer excellent thigh and shoulder support for a family spec car, the Focus merely offers comfort, lateral support being AWOL. The aesthetics of the Ford’s dash design have not met with universal acclaim, but you do get a hefty slab of soft-touch plastic, new instrument gauges, Sony audio equipment and a redesigned centre console with a glossy dot inlay that just looks … well, dotty. Plain piano black would suffice. 1.8 Si models benefit from a moveable armrest and a chunky, three-spoke, leather-wrapped steering wheel, similar to that of the ST. Yes, that does mean the remote volume buttons are still column mounted. You pay extra for a multifunction steering wheel in the Golf, but the well-positioned and wonderfully tactile buttons are well worth it. Both cars have standard auxiliary audio input, plus the Ford has a USB port.
Back seat passengers will feel happier in the Focus as its larger external dimensions and 62mm longer wheelbase translate into slightly more legroom.
A charged atmosphere
Most South Africans have an American streak when it comes to engine capacities – no replacement for displacement has held sway for years. So telling them that the 1400 Golf and 1800 Ford’s engine power outputs are similar won’t dispel any scepticism. Instead, we’d like to point out that the Golf has 20 percent more torque (200Nm vs 166Nm) 2500rpm earlier, and that’s just at the coast. Then we’d say it’s a second quicker to 100kph and two seconds quicker in fourth gear overtaking tests. Its 90kW, high tech, direct-injection turbocharged and intercooled engine trumps the bigger capacity 92kW motor in the heavier Focus, delivering more initial thrust and palpably better mid-range response. The Ford loses out on fuel economy too, despite the best efforts of its longer-geared five-speed box. VW claims 6.2 litres/100km to Ford’s 7.0.
The main performance
It’s a good thing I drove the Focus first. It gave me some time to appreciate what is actually a very accomplished car, apart from a five-speed box that forces thrashy third gear hillclimbs more often than you’d like. The gearchange action is precise and satisfying, the steering fast and accurate, ride comfort excellent and the handling more fluid and flattering than anything else in this class. Then you drive the Golf and your perceptions shift. For starters, the steering wheel turns with a glassy smoothness last felt on Merc’s best offerings. The gearbox is even slicker than the Ford’s and the extra cog indispensable on motorways, making fourth gear a far better match for overtaking. The ride is just as comfortable and equally composed, and what you cannot fail to hear is the relative silence. In motion, the Focus keeps talking to you, a slight rattle here and a vibration there, accompanied (on our test car) by an annoyingly squeaky driver’s seat. By comparison, the Golf’s a mute. New lightweight sound deadening material, redesigned rain channels, quieter Passat CC-style side mirrors, sound-damping film on the windscreen and 10 percent thicker side windows work wonders at isolating occupants from the mechanical jazz generated by a car on the move. There are no fundamental changes to the Golf 5’s monocoque, floorpan and suspension, but 6 feels like an all-new car.
In the real world, it’s a match for the Focus in the handling department too. You have to get onto a racing track or a very fast back road to appreciate the finer differences. Basically, the Golf turns in slightly later and will understeer sooner, but in degrees that won’t make the slightest difference to 99 percent of Comfortline buyers.
On paper, this decision should have come down to a game of rock, paper, scissors, or possibly a subjective viewpoint lording it over empirical data. Instead, the Golf wins by a country mile. It’s not that the Focus does anything badly, in fact it’s a good car that will please many. But the game has moved on and it’s the Golf that’s leading the charge. And no, those 70-odd thousand Rand’s worth of extras have nothing to do with it. Satnav, parking sensors and an electric sunroof are not the things that impress. What does is the paradigm-shifting powertrain, mechanical refinement, interior ambience and build quality, and they’re all standard. Apart from its unexpected performance advantage, something happens to your brain that should not happen in a 1.4-litre Golf. I can only equate it to driving a compact executive saloon from either of Germany’s premium three, so well judged are the changes from Mk5 to Mk6. It’s rapid, quiet, rewarding and more refined than any car in this class has a right to be. Seems harsh, but the freshly revised Focus is already playing catch-up to the new class king.