Battle of the eco cars: Astra vs Focus vs Golf | Top Gear
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Battle of the eco cars: Astra vs Focus vs Golf

Time for some TG science. In three 3cyl petrol hatches

  • The new Vauxhall Astra has a stop-start system like no other car I’ve ever driven. Rather than restarting the engine when the driver depresses the clutch pedal, the Astra instead waits until you have selected first and moved your right foot from the brake pedal across to the accelerator. This is weird.

    And, we suspect, it’s all in the name of making the Astra travel a fraction of an inch further on a tank of fuel than any of its competitors. After all, a win is a win, even by the smallest of margins. By minutely lengthening the time the engine isn’t running, Vauxhall must’ve saved, oooh, maybe .000001 of a gallon and a carbon dioxide or two. When it has tough rivals to do battle with, and when efficiency is the name of the game, every little helps.

    Photography: John Wycherley

    This feature was originally published in the February 2016 issue of Top Gear magazine.

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  • Introductions. In red, we have the all-new Vauxhall Astra, which boasts some smart sheet metal stretched over its (on average) 130kg lighter chassis to go with its wide range of smooth, economical engines. There’s the Ford Focus, a perennial TG favourite for its deft responses and exploitable chassis. And lastly, there’s the VW Golf. Admirably competent in every way, it’s the car TG would recommend to anyone who asks, whatever they ask – dieselly smog of controversy notwithstanding.

    Since even supercar makers have taken to this downsizing thing, we’ve gone for 100bhp-ish, turbocharged 1.0-litre triples, all of which claim upwards of 60mpg, around 100g/km of CO2, and fit squarely on a single sheet of A4 paper, minus ancillaries. Probably. Prices range from less than £17,000 to just over £20,000, minus options. Five-doors only, manual ’boxes.

  • Let’s start with some numbers. With just 99bhp, the Focus is the slowest and least powerful car here, 0–62mph taking some 11.9 seconds. Meanwhile, the Golf’s 1.0-litre TSI makes 113bhp, slashing the 0–62mph time to a little under 10 seconds. There’s more torque, too – 148lb ft plays the Focus’s 125. The Astra is on a par in terms of power and torque, with 104bhp and 125lb ft, but somehow manages to reach 62mph nearly 1.5 seconds faster than the Focus, and only 0.8 seconds behind the Golf despite its power deficit.

    Now, none of these figures differs enough to sway one’s decision any which way. If you want a Ford, you will buy the Focus without giving too much thought to the road space you may be forced to concede to a particularly aggressive Golf owner. These are not sports cars, and in the grand scheme of things, a few tenths of a second sacrificed to 62mph does not matter. You don’t judge a pair of brogues by how comfortable they are over a 100m sprint.

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  • What matters nowadays is fuel economy and emissions. That’s surely why you go for one of these engines to begin with, and, if we’re honest, it’s the reason we wanted to test them. No car can achieve anything like the mpg its manufacturer claims, but some observers are very much of the opinion that small-capacity turbocharged engines, like the ones fitted to these three hatchbacks, are among the worst offenders – even with the likes of Porsche betting everything on downsizing being the way to go.

    The theory goes that, while such engines perform well in official tests because they’re never worked hard enough to spool up the turbos, in the real world, where no journey is a constant 56mph, end-to-end cruise, they perform little better than conventional petrol engines.

  • We therefore devised a test. I took each car out on TG’s 90-odd-mile test route, which spirals out from the office onto the A40 in west London, up towards High Wycombe before diving down through Oxfordshire and Berkshire towards Slough, and then back into London on the M4. We took the cars out at the same time of day, followed the same exact route, and even stopped at the same little supermarket to buy fizzy drinks and sugary snacks (strictly in the name of science, you understand).

    Whoever designed the Astra’s fuel-filler cap clearly did not want us to do this test however, for the little flap that flips back when you stick the nozzle in made brimming it either impossible, or the work of 30 minutes and much inventive swearing. We tried, and got a calculated reading of 27.0mpg, with the trip giving an indicated 47.1mpg. Oh dear. Neither the Focus nor Golf suffer from such a design flaw (Vauxhall no doubt calls it a “safety feature”, pfft), so we brimmed their tanks and did the maths ourselves…

  • We thought that the Golf would be the most economical, and we were right. It’s the only dedicated eco model here, and the first Bluemotion badged Golf to come with a petrol engine. To make it as efficient as possible, VW has smoothed the underside, added special spoilers and fitted ultra-low-rolling-resistance tyres. The result? Some 50.9mpg, bettering the indicated 50.3 from the trip. The Focus fared less well – there was a smidge more traffic about that day – but still performed better than we thought it would, returning 48.6mpg. That’s 3mpg more than the trip thought it’d done. Assuming the Astra would have deviated from the trip by the same amount, colour us suitably impressed. With more city driving, those numbers may have dipped into the high 30s, but providing your routine involves a dose of motorway plus a few long, flowing country roads, titchy 1.0-litres don’t look like too bad a bet.

    And it’s not just by the numbers where the engines impress. The Golf’s is the quietest of the three, and the smoothest and most willing once you’re up to speed. There’s a pervading refinement that the Astra in particular lacks, and adequate surge from idle means it never feels as displacementally challenged as a quick glance under the bonnet would reveal.

  • All told, it’s a pleasure to string along. The weight of the engine, or lack thereof, makes the front end feel pointy and precise, and even though the suspension has been dropped by 15mm to make it cleave through the air more efficiently, it still rides neatly. But however much fun the Golf is, it still can’t match the Focus, which has no right to drive as well as it (still) does.

    Agile and chuckable, it’s in the driving where the Focus really shines. You can get one with a more powerful version of the same 1.0-litre engine we have here, but only paired with a more pricey trim level. We might be tempted, for good as it is, the 99bhp version is most definitely left wanting. The gearing probably doesn’t help – it’s long, though not as long as the Astra’s, which means fifth is best reserved for motorways. The Golf has six cogs, which makes it feel far more tractable.

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  • But don’t get us wrong, The EcoBoost is still a fine engine – maybe our favourite of the three. The most sonorous, and at least as smooth as the Golf’s TSI. Ford has been fitting this engine to its smaller cars for years, longer than Vauxhall has been using engines of this nature, and it feels as though it’s used that time to perfect them.

    Then we have the Astra. Again, not a bad engine by any means, but just not as accomplished as the other two. There’s a fair amount of driveline shunt, and you can’t use all of its 6,400rpm because by the time you get there, you’ll have run out of road. The Ford and VW feel like eco engines with concessions that make them fun to use; the Astra doesn’t. And that’s the problem. It doesn’t handle quite as smartly as the others, either. None has a surfeit of feel and feedback, but the Astra feels more geared towards taking all the pain out of a long run around the M25 (at which it is admittedly very good) than it does making the drive to the station in the morning that little bit less soul-destroying.

  • But what of the rest of the car? Interiors are important, and so is tech. The Astra beats the Focus into last place on the first point, and tops the table on the second. Material quality is nearly up there with VW, and the IntelliLink infotainment system, which is standard on most models, is a winner. Similar to the old system in look and feel, it’s quick, responsive and integrates well with your phone, whatever make. It even comes with something called OnStar, a kind of concierge service that can send breakdown cover and trawl the web for POIs. The Golf’s interior, meanwhile, is familiarly excellent, with quality materials and a brilliantly unfussy, wonderfully usable layout. The Focus? Much improved since the facelift from a couple of years ago, but still lagging in most respects. This one’s rather basic spec doesn’t help matters. Its boot is the smallest of the three, and the rear seats are the most cramped.

    And that brings us to an end. The Focus is excellent – it really is – good to drive, even with so little power, economical, comfortable and well made. But it’s expensive in this company. The Astra is much cheaper, yet more powerful, more spacious and vastly better equipped. The Focus’s dynamism is unmatched, and its engine smooth, but in all other respects, it’s bettered by its Luton-bred rival. A reluctant, close third.

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  • So, we’re down to two. The fact that the Astra is now a better all-round proposition than the Focus is commendable. It’s supremely comfortable, excellent value and good-looking (from most angles, anyway). If you were given one as a company car, there’s no one reason you’d want to swap it for either of the other cars on test. But there’s a thorn in its side – a big, blue, German thorn.

    We know it’s a bit of a cliche to give the Golf the nod, and quite frankly, we’re a little bored with it winning everything. It forms the basis of our favourite hot hatch, and, so it turns out, isn’t half bad with an engine half the size, half as many driven wheels and a little more than a third of the power. It is the most expensive – £4k more than the Astra as tested – but for the added refinement, superior quality and general classlessness, our winner couldn’t be anything else.

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