Eighth time lucky? Well, no
The Focus is more fun to drive than any mainstream hatch since, well, the first Focus, and the Peugeot 205 before it. It’s the most affordable car of these three, the least pretentious, its engine is a peach, it’s practical and, for some, its incredibly fluid and adjustable handling make it the winner. But for the rest of us the Ford is lacking in this company; its interior feels a generation behind, and it’s short of the gotta-have-one appeal the Germans have bestowed upon their new-generation hatches.
The Golf is laudably ambitious, democratising the kind of design and technology previously reserved for cars four times its price. It is by some margin the most comfortable car here, and it drives beautifully – not as involving or lively as the 1-series or the Focus, sure, but with an endlessly pleasing balance of agility, composure and refinement.
But for the first time in ages there are a couple of reasons why you might not buy a Golf. One of them, paradoxically, is its show-stopping interior. It’s beautifully put together, stunning to behold and a timely reminder of the fundamentals the Golf has always got right: great visibility, superbly supportive seats with plenty of adjustment, and a sense of space at odds with the car’s size. But the new interface just isn’t intuitive enough. Even if you’re a digital native, fluency will take some soak time. Volkswagen should be applauded for taking a risk on the new Golf ’s cabin (particularly since the exterior is so safe) and, had it been more cautious, it would be weathering criticism for being dull. But the truth is the other cars are easier to gel with.
The other reason is the 1-series. It blends much of the fun of the Focus with the premium sheen of the Golf, and has a more memorable character than either. Its cabin is less attractive than the Volkswagen’s but more intuitive to operate, and more expressive than the Ford’s. In the BMW’s migration to a Golf-esque engineering layout, it’s a shame that the hatch world has lost one of its few iconoclasts in favour of a more homogenised design. But the reality is that going transverse and front-drive has made the 1-series a more well-rounded car than ever – just as a new Golf turns up hoping the BMW’s still brilliantly weird. It isn’t: now it’s just brilliant. And it wins.