Ford Focus VS Volkswagen Passat
- Great chassis
- Surprising engine
- Optional advanced safety
- Better tyres would be nice
- Too many optional colours
- Awesome fun
- Wagon practicality
- Feature laden
- Not cheap
- Interior a little dated
- Destined to be underappreciated
Ford's small hatch, the Focus, is criminally under-bought in Australia. The latest model is one of the best hatchbacks on the road and when you chuck in the decent price, impressive equipment and absurdly powerful engine for its size, it's a winner.
But you lot? You don't buy it in nearly the kinds of numbers it deserves. Partly because there isn't a bait-and-upsell boggo model to lure you in, partly because it's got a badge that is not exciting Australians any more and partly because it's not a compact SUV.
Or is(n't) it? Because alongside the ST-Line warm hatch is the identically priced and therefore technically a co-entry level model; the Focus Active. Slightly higher, with plastic cladding, drive modes and a conspicuous L on the transmission shifter, it's a little bit SUV, right?
|Engine Type||1.5L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Regular Unleaded Petrol|
Is life prying a hot hatch from your cold, dead hands? The story haunts car enthusiasts and echoes through time.
Family life has come knocking, so the go-fast hatchback must go, ultimately to be replaced by something more ‘sensible.’
Don’t worry, though, life isn’t over yet, you don’t have to kick around a dealership letting the depression sink in as you stare at SUV after SUV in a vain hope for something with a bit of spirit.
Volkswagen, the brand which likely gave you the hot hatch problem in the first place with its legendary Golf GTI and R, has the answer. While the word ‘Passat’ might not ring with much force in the minds of enthusiasts, this latest iteration, the 206TSI R-Line might just be the 'sensible family car' solution you’re searching for, and VW’s best kept secret.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
Ten years ago, the idea that the higher-riding version of a hatchback would be a good city car would have been laughable. The Focus Active is pitched as a kind of SUV with its different low-grip driving modes, which you'll never touch if you stick to the city.
The Ford Focus is genuinely a brilliant car, no matter where you take it. The Active takes a terrific chassis, tweaks it for comfort but, ironically, doesn't lose much of the speed.
Dear former hot-hatch owner and wagon appreciator. The search is over. This is the anti-SUV your heart desires at a fraction of the cost of Audi’s S4, or bahn-storming RS4. It’s as comfortable as it is fun, with subtle looks to boot, just don’t expect it to knock your socks off in quite the same way as a Golf R. You’ll have passengers to think about, after all.
For a fairly conservative hatchback, the Focus came under fire for what some termed its derivative styling. I quite like it, and not just because the styling work was led by an Australian. The front end is very much family Ford, as long as it's the European arm of the family, fitting in with its smaller sibling, the Fiesta. The Active scores the usual black cladding, higher ride height and smaller diameter wheels, in exchange for more compliant, higher-profile tyres. All of that takes nothing away from a design that I think looks pretty good.
The cabin is well put together, with just that oddly angled touchscreen causing me a bit of a twitch. The design is a fairly steady Ford interior with a lot of switchgear shared with the Fiesta, but it's all quite nice. The materials feel mostly pleasant and the hardwearing fabric on the seats feels right for this kind of car.
The Passat is attractive but understated. Not a head-turner, but the kind of car which needs to be properly looked at to be appreciated.
In the case of the R-Line, VW has gone to lengths to toughen it up with its sleek bodykit. The 'Lapiz Blue' signature colour aligns it with performance heroes in the VW range like the Golf R, and the mean looking gunmetal wheels and slim rubber is enough to get those in the know rubbernecking at it.
It’s the market’s latest quiet performer, epitomising the ‘sleeper wagon’ vibe, evoking echoes of legends past like the Volvo V70 R without being as loud as Audi’s RS4. A car that's seen, but not looked at.
The interior continues this theme with a simple but attractive design adorned with LED lighting, highlight strips across the dash, and quality trims in the doors.
The Passat has been augmented with today’s expected digital features, including VW’s stellar digital cockpit and classy 9.2-inch multimedia screen.
Volkswagen’s Audi-descended digital features are some of the smoothest and best looking on the market, and the multimedia suite slots nicely into its gloss surroundings.
The interior is well built and inoffensive, but in terms of its design I cant help but notice the Passat is starting to feel a little old, especially compared to the new-generation Golf and its more revolutionary interior design which also arrived this year.
While it’s nice the Passat scores the brand’s new steering wheel and logo, areas like the centre console, shifter, and some trim surrounds are just starting to feel a bit dated.
The Focus is quite roomy compared to other cars in its class. The rear seat has good leg and headroom, with the feeling of space accentuated by large windows. Annoyingly, though, all that work put into making the rear a nice place to be is ruined by a lack of amenities like cupholders, USB ports or an armrest.
Front-seat passengers fare better with two cupholders, a roomy space at the base of the console for a phone and a wireless-charging pad. The front seats are very comfortable, too.
The boot starts at a fairly average 375 litres - clearly sacrificed for rear-seat space - and maxes out at 1320 litres with the seats down. While you have to lift things over the loading lip and down into the boot, it's one of the more sensibly shaped load areas, with straight up and down sides. Ironically, the smaller Puma has a noticeably larger boot.
Even if you’ve got a significant other breathing down your neck, you can tell them the Passat is even more practical than its Tiguan sibling!
In the cockpit the usual quality Volkswagen ergonomics are present. The key for drivers will be the R-Line’s lovely bolstered seats, quality partial leather interior trims which extend into the doors for comfort, and the sporty low seating position.
Adjustability is excellent, and that new wheel feels great.
Unlike the Tiguan R-Line, the Passat doesn’t get the haptic-feedback touch panel wheel controls, but to be honest you don’t need them, the nice clicky buttons on this wheel are the best.
Unfortunately, this is where the collection of lovely clicky buttons ends. The multimedia and climate panels in the updated Passat have gone completely touch.
To be fair to VW here, it is one of the better executions of touch interfaces I’ve had the misfortune to be forced to use.
The shortcut buttons which flank the multimedia screen have nice big areas so you don’t fumble them, and the climate panel is remarkably easy to use, with tap, slide, and hold functions for shortcuts.
Still, what I wouldn’t give for a volume or fan-speed dial at the very least. It mightn’t look as slick but a dial is unbeatable for adjustment while you’re concentrating on the road.
The back seat in every Passat variant is superb. I have leagues of legroom back there behind my own (182cm/6'0" tall) seating position and there isn’t a single area where VW has skimped out on the quality trims which appear in the front seats.
Rear passengers even get their own climate zone with easy adjust buttons and directional air vents. There are large bottle holders in the doors and three more in the drop-down armrest.
Rear passengers also score pockets on the backs of the front seats (although they miss out on the triple pockets in the new Tiguan and Golf), and for ease of access (you know, for fitting that child seat) the rear doors are huge and open nice and wide. They even have built-in sunshades to protect little ones from the sun.
Boot space? Now, this is where a wagon shines. Despite all that cabin room, the Passat R-Line still manages to sport a gigantic 650-litre boot capacity, complete with tie-down nets, a luggage cover, and even a built-in retractable divider between the boot and cabin – great for if you have a larger dog, and safe if you need to carry around lots of luggage.
Price and features
The Focus Active wears a $30,990 sticker but the several people I know who bought one haven't paid that much, so Ford dealers are obviously keen to do deals. Even at that price, it's got a fair bit of stuff. The Active has 17-inch wheels, a six-speaker stereo, dual-zone climate control, reversing camera, keyless entry and start, front and rear parking sensors, cruise control, auto LED headlights, LED fog lights, sat nav, auto wipers, wireless hotspot, powered and heated folding door mirrors, wireless phone charging, a big safety package and a space-saver spare.
Ford's SYNC3 comes up on the 8.0-inch screen perched on the dashboard, which weirdly feels like it's facing away from you slightly. It has wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, sat nav, DAB+ and also looks after various functions in the car.
The panoramic sunroof is a stiff $2000 and includes an annoying perforated cover rather than a solid one.
Well, that depends on what you’re looking for in a wagon. If you could relate to my preamble you’re looking for the rush this car offers.
And if you were once willing to fork out the extra for a hot hatch, I’m willing to bet you’ll appreciate what the extra spend ($63,790, before on-road costs) gets you in the R-Line.
If not? You can save significant dollars looking to the stalwart Mazda6 wagon (even a top-spec Atenza will only set you back $51,390), Style-focused Peugeot 508 GT Sportwagon ($59,490), or the Skoda Octavia RS ($52,990), which is essentially a less powerful front-drive variation on the Passat theme.
Our Passat, though, while only just below the Luxury Car Tax (LCT) cut-off, is unique among its peers, offering Golf R levels of power as well as an all-wheel drive system to set it apart for keen drivers.
Standard equipment is good, as you’d expect at this price point, with the R-Line featuring 19-inch ‘Pretoria’ gunmetal alloy wheels to match its more aggressive stance and bodykit, 10.25-inch ‘Digital Cockpit Pro’ instrument cluster, 9.2-inch multimedia touchscreen with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, built-in sat-nav, 11-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, leather-appointed interior trim, sports seats with 14-way power adjust for the driver, heated front seats, full ‘Matrix’ LED headlight and tail-light clusters (with progressive LED indicators), and tri-zone climate (with a separate climate zone for the rear seats).
The R-Line also scores some bespoke interior trim items and a panoramic sunroof as standard.
That’s heaps of stuff, and while it’s still missing a holographic head-up display and wireless charging bay offered by rivals, it’s not too bad at the price offered.
Again, the engine and all-wheel drive system are what you’re really paying for here, as the lion’s share of gear is offered on more affordable versions in the Passat range.
Engine & trans
Ford does an excellent range of small turbo engines. The "normal" Focus range (such as it is, now the wagon has disappeared from the market) comes with a 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine. Bucking the SUV-this-size trend (yes, I know it's not really an SUV), this punchy little unit delivers an impressive 134kW and 240Nm. They're both very decent numbers for such a small engine.
The big numbers continue with the transmission boasting eight gears, a number you don't often find in a hatchback. It's a traditional torque-converter auto, too, so those of you who have bad memories of Ford's old PowerShift twin clutches should worry no more.
Power goes to the front wheels only and you'll get from 0 to 100km/h in 8.7 seconds.
The R-Line packs the good stuff here, a version of the brand’s renowned performance ‘EA888’ four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine which also appears in the Golf GTI and R.
In this instance it provides the namesake 206kW and 350Nm of torque.
The 162TSI which appears in the Alltrack was great, but this version is even better. The R-Line pairs this engine with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and drives all four wheels via VW’s ‘4Motion’ variable all-wheel drive system.
It’s an excellent powertrain, and none of its rivals provide a car in quite the same performance-oriented niche.
Ford's official testing for the big window sticker delivered a 6.4L/100km result on the combined cycle. In my time with the Focus, I got 7.2L/100km indicated on the dashboard, which is a pretty solid result given the Focus spent a good deal of the time on suburban or urban roads.
With its 52-litre tank, you'll cover around 800km if you manage the official figure, or just over 700km on my figures.
The R-Line’s larger engine does carry a fuel consumption cost over the tamer 140TSI and 162TSI options in the range.
Official combined cycle fuel consumption is up from the mid-sixes in the rest of the range to 8.1L/100km, which is unsurprising.
In my few days of thoroughly enjoying this car, however, it returned a dash-indicated figure of 11L/100km, perhaps a more accurate indication of what you’ll get if you drive this vehicle as intended.
Like all VW petrol cars, the Passat R-Line requires mid-shelf 95RON unleaded fuel, and has a large 66-litre fuel tank.
Despite the very mild off-road pretensions, if it's a comfortable city ride you're after, the Active is the Focus to have. While the ST-Line isn't uncomfortable - not by a long way - the Active's more compliant tyres and higher ride height (30mm at the front and 34mm at the rear) iron out the bigger bumps without sacrificing much of the sportier car's impressive dynamic prowess, even with the low-rolling-resistance tyres.
The cracking 1.5-litre turbo is responsive and well-matched to the eight-speed auto. The big torque number pushes you along the road and makes overtaking much less dramatic than a 1.5-litre three-cylinder has any right to.
Ford's trademark Euro-tuned quick steering is also along for the ride, making darting in and out of gaps a quick roll of the wrist, which has the added benefit of meaning you rarely have to take your hands off the wheel for twirling. That darting is aided and abetted by the engine and gearbox, with the turbo seemingly keeping the boost flowing with little lag. It's almost like they planned it that way.
You have good vision in all directions, which almost renders the fact that the blind-spot monitoring is optional acceptable. Almost. It's very easy to get around in, easy to park and, just as importantly, easy to get in and out of. Compared to, say, a Toyota Corolla, the rear doors are very accommodating.
If you’ve driven a VW in recent years the Passat R-Line will be a familiar experience. If you haven’t, I think you’ll welcome what’s on offer here.
Put simply, this car in the 206TSI grade is one of the best engine and transmission combinations Volkswagen offers across its whole range.
This is because the brand’s signature dual-clutch automatics, which are fraught with minor issues when paired with lesser engines, shine when paired with torquier performance options.
In the case of the R-line, this means snappy performance typified by a strong turbo surge, angry engine note, and a responsive transmission.
Once you’re over the initial moment of turbo-lag, this big wagon leans back on its haunches and simply bursts to life out of the gate, with strong low-end torque controlled through momentous grip as the all-wheel drive system balances drive across the two axles.
The dual-clutch responds nicely, whether you leave it in automatic mode or choose to shift yourself, in one of the few instances where paddle-shift systems shine.
The R-Line’s progressive steering program shines when it comes to tilting this wagon into corners, giving you an unforeseen level of confidence, and it’s all backed by superb grip from the performance rubber and again, that variable AWD system keeping everything well and truly under control.
Despite the large power on offer, I struggled to get so much as a peep out of the tyres. And while performance is not quite Golf R level, it’s certainly somewhere between there and the Golf GTI, weighed down quite literally by the heft of the Passat’s larger body.
The trade off is well worth it. This is a car that allows the driver to have an absolute blast behind the wheel while also ferrying passengers in relative luxury and comfort.
Even the ride is finely finessed despite the large 19-inch wheels and low-profile tyres. It’s far from invincible though.
You’ll still want to steer well clear of potholes. What’s unpleasant in the cabin will be doubly so for the poor (expensive) tyres, and this makes the low-set ride not quite as ready for the trials of the suburbs as many of its more comfort-focused rivals.
Still, this is a performance variant by name and nature and while the goalposts are still way up in RS4 territory for hot mid-size wagons, this is the kind of reasonably-priced, warmed-over wagon which hot hatch lovers will be craving.
Suffice to say it’s more fun than you’ll have in pretty much any SUV.
The Active has six airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls, forward AEB (low speed with pedestrian avoidance and highway speeds), forward collision warning, lane-departure warning, speed-sign recognition and active lane-keep assist.
Annoyingly - and I can't for the life of me work out why this is a thing - despite some advanced safety features in the base package, you have to pay $1250 extra for blind-spot monitoring, reverse cross traffic alert and reverse AEB, which are part of the Driver Assistance Pack. No, Ford is not the only company to do this.
The back seat has two ISOFIX points and three top-tether anchors.
The Focus scored five ANCAP stars in August 2019.
Volkswagen’s new ethos is one we can get on board with, and that’s to provide the full safety suite across the whole range in its latest offerings.
In the case of the Passat, that means even the base 140TSI Business gets its collection of ‘IQ Drive’ active features, including freeway speed auto emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane keep assist with lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and adaptive cruise control with ‘semi-autonomous’ steering features.
Extra stuff includes proactive occupant protection, which prepares the cabin in the instant before an imminent collision for optimal airbag deployment and seat belt tension, and a new emergency assist feature which will bring the vehicle to a halt when the driver becomes unresponsive.
The Passat range has the full array of airbags including a driver’s knee airbag, as well as the expected electronic stability, traction, and brake controls, for a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating, carried over from the pre-facelift model in 2015.
The first five services cost $299 each and also include a free loan car and a 12-month extension to your roadside assist membership for up to seven years.
Volkswagen continues to offer its five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty across its range, placing it alongside most of its Japanese and Korean rivals, but behind Kia and the latest batch of Chinese up-and-comers.
Still, none offer a performance wagon in this space, so the Passat remains the standard here.
Volkswagen offers its cars with pre-packaged servicing which we recommend as it comes at a significant discount overpaying as you go.
In the case of the R-Line this means $1600 for the three-year pack or $2500 for the five year pack, saving you a max of $786 against the capped-price program.
It’s not the cheapest we’ve seen, but it could be much worse for a performance-focused European car.