Subaru XV 2020 review: Hybrid
The Subaru XV Hybrid might not be quite what you're expecting - best to read...
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There's more to hatches than price — the VW, Peugeot and Ford five-doors pack comfort and cachet.
Japanese and Korean small cars rule the roost in Australia but in Europe it's the Volkswagen Golf first, daylight second and then Ford Focus.
The Golf is starting to make waves here, too. It is the fourth-best selling small car behind the Toyota Corolla, Mazda3 and Hyundai i30. In contrast Focus sales are down by almost 60 per cent this year.
Ford has reacted to the drop in sales by making the cheapest Focus more than $3000 dearer. The controversial strategy is designed to move the car upmarket to compete with European brands.
If it can compete with Golf in Europe, the logic goes, it can do it here. History says no, but we've decided to test the updated Golf and Focus on their merits rather than market positioning. And we've thrown in the 2014 European Car of the Year, the Peugeot 308.
The Focus is the cheapest here, with the auto starting at $23,390 plus on roads. At the moment, Ford has a drive away deal for $25,490. That compares with $29,990 drive-away for the 308 Active auto and $28,990 drive-away for the Golf Comfortline.
The Trend model is reasonably well equipped with standard satnav, rear parking sensors, rear camera, daytime running lights and alloy wheels. Unlike the other two, it has a full-size spare.
The new model's useful technology includes MyKey, which allows parents to limit the car's top speed and audio volume, as well as ensuring driver aids aren't turned off. It will also contact emergency services if it detects you've had an accident.
But crash avoidance tech that's available on some other small cars is standard only on the more expensive variants.
The cabin now has fewer buttons and a more cohesive design. The multimedia setup is among the best, with a clear, logical screen layout and voice-activated controls.
As with the Golf, the satnav instructions appear in the instrument panel as well as on the centre screen. Cheaper-looking finishes make the cabin the least appealing of the three.
The headline act for the updated Focus is a new 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo that provides unparalleled bang for the bucks in the segment. Its 132kW puts the Golf's 92kW and Peugeot's 96kW to shame.
Performance is dulled slightly by the fact that it is a heavier car, but it was still a second quicker than the Golf and two seconds quicker than the 308 in our timed 0-100km/h runs. It is also the noisiest on this test and uses more fuel.
Tweaking of the suspension and steering delivers mixed results. The Focus still feels wonderfully planted through the corners but the steering has lost some of its feel.
It's still a solid performer, though, with great poise through corners and a comfortable, composed ride both around town and on the open road.
Europe's most celebrated car journalists can't be wrong — or can they? Often a car that stars on European roads is found wanting over here.
The 308's initial problem was its price tag but it no longer asks crazy money and sales are picking up strongly, albeit from a lower base.
The 308 still misses out on gear. There is no satnav and no reversing camera. It also doesn't have the accident avoidance technology available (as an option) on the Golf.
It gets a safety tick as the only one here that has seat belt reminders for the rear seats, so the littlies can't slip out unnoticed.
The cabin mixes classy, minimalist design with infuriating foibles. There are no knobs for the aircon, which means you have to navigate a touchscreen to change the temperature, and the steering wheel gets in the way of the speedo, which is in odd-numbered increments. For good measure, the tacho needle spins anticlockwise.
That said, the Peugeot is comfortable to drive, with supportive seats and leather-trimmed, flat- bottomed steering wheel that feels great in the hands.
It's a load of fun to drive through a set of twisty corners. Much lighter than the Focus, it turns in sharply and sits flat through the bends. It's not perfect, though, and can squirm a little on the absolute limit. The ride is cushy and unflustered over bumps, while the little 1.2-litre three-cylinder is great — quiet and refined and surprisingly punchy for its size, matched with an intuitive auto.
Rear legroom is tighter than the others but the load area is generous.
The Golf is where Focus wants to be. It has European cachet, outsells the Ford three-to-one... but does it have the substance to back up the sex appeal?
The answer comes the second you slip behind the wheel. It has the most up-market cockpit of the three, with tasteful faux-chrome highlights and leather-trimmed gear knob and steering wheel.
It is also the most practical, with more rear leg and headroom than the others and a boot with a wider opening for bigger loads. It doesn't skimp on equipment — satnav is standard, as are dual-zone climate control aircon, driver fatigue detection and reversing camera.
You can add safety options. A $1500 driver assistance package includes adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring with rear traffic alert, automated emergency braking and automatic parking.
Choose the safety pack and you also get "driving profile selection", enabling sportier throttle and gearshift settings.
On the road, the Golf loses nothing of its shine. Electronics mimic an old-fashioned diff lock, giving the car more drive out of corners, while the punchy engine and slick-shifting, quick-witted transmission make progress appear more rapid than the stopwatch suggests.
It grips impressively through corners and the steering is precise, while the suspension is a good compromise between comfort and composure over bigger bumps. The ride may not be quite as plush as the Peugeot but it does a good job of isolating occupants from all but the sharpest bumps.
The Peugeot matches entertaining driving dynamics with a great little engine but it is still overpriced and underdone for equipment. That leaves the updated Focus and Golf.
The Golf is a better designed and engineered car. It delivers driving thrills, comfort and quality at a level the others can't match. At its current drive-away price of $28,990 — available until the end of the year — it is a clear winner.
But at normal RRPs (where the Ford is $3500 cheaper) the Focus is the better buy with its sizeable power and torque advantage and comparable feature list.