Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ford Focus vs Vauxhall Astra

It just so happens that I'm in an excellent position to compare and contrast the merits of the Ford Focus TDCI and the Vauxhall Astra CDTI. The missus is fortunate enough to get a company car, and a few years ago she acquired the Astra.
After four years she had to change to a new car, and this time, mostly just for a change, she plumped for the Focus. And I bought the Astra from the leasing company. So we now have both, and I get to drive both regularly.

They both have the 100bhp version diesel engines, of very similar spec. They are of a similar trim level. They have similar performance and fuel economy.
So, which (as Harry Hill would say) is best? Only one way to find out... fight!

Okay, not quite a fair fight, as the Astra has done 85,000 miles and the Focus about 3,000. However, I drove the Astra when it was brand new, so I think I can do a fair comparison.

Not much in it (yet - maybe the Focus will eventually free up a bit). There's no denying that the Astra has a noisier engine, when pootling along it sounds very tractor-ish, and the Focus does not. But when it comes to overtaking and so on, they are very similar - and that is to say they're both very good, considering. If anything, and I admit the Focus engine may be still tight, the Astra has more go. The Focus is quiet alright, but it also seems to need a few more revs to get going.
Not much in it again... though I know it's early days for the Focus. Over 80k miles the Astra has managed 53 mpg, and the Focus is doing 54 mpg so far, which is a little disappointing when they claimed it would do 60. Not too shabby though, in either case.
A clear winner here, is the Focus. However, it has got quite an advantage here, as its got nice low-profile tyres and is definitely a lot stiffer in the suspension. It also has adjustable steering weight, and when you crank it around to Sport mode, it's very communicative, and quite noticeably heavier to steer. The Astra, on normal boots and no such pretensions to sportiness, handles perfectly acceptably. I've never had a nasty moment in it, rain or shine. However, if you drive the Focus and immediately then drive the Astra, you start wondering if the Astra's tyres are the right pressure (they are) - it feels, in contrast, very imprecise compared to the Focus. So... Focus wins for sportiness, Astra wins for ease and comfort.
Easy win to the Astra. Despite it's newness and it's higher price, the Focus has rear drums, the Astra has disks all round. The pedal feel is much better in the Astra, and though I suspect they'd both pull up in about the same distance, the Astra has a superior feel, giving greater confidence.
Unfortunately the Astra is a (to me) nasty dark blue, whereas the Focus is a very bright red, and this helps the Focus look much better immediately. However, though the new Focus shape is easily the nicest incarnation of the marque so far, it still for me retains a somewhat dull jelly-mould outline. The Astra has a good shape... and when they make it into a coupé, well it looks really good. Shut lines are good on both. Not entirely sure the Astra headlights look good, I have heard them described as being like cheap plastic torches. The Astra doors clunk shut with a reassuring solidity, and the Focus in comparison feels slightly flimsy... and another small point, those places on door opening where the door is held mid-way... handy in tight parking bays... Astra's are good, Focus's are bad, no strength to 'em.
No contest here... Astra wins by a mile. Its interior feels classy, and again reassuringly solid. The plastic looks good, there are some nice styling touches, and nothing glaringly out of place. In contrast the Focus has one or two really nasty features. What were they thinking when they added the shiny stripes to the otherwise quite attractive seats? As for comfort, well, the Focus has lumbar adjustment and the Astra does not. Having said that, the Astra is more comfortable for me, reason being the Focus - even when adjusted to its widest setting - is still a little tight. I know I could do with losing a few pounds, but I'm not really huge. You could argue the Focus would hold you well while driving fast down country lanes, but in real life it just squeezes you (well me) a bit too much when cruising down duel carriageways.  The Focus cabin is a lighter and larger place to be, the rear seats of the Astra suffer from having quite deep doors, with small windows, not great for allowing a view out for youngsters. Instruments, well the Focus has an immediate appeal, but on closer inspection they look a little cheap somehow. The Astra is more classy, though mine lacks the computer display that the Focus has, showing all sorts of interesting if distracting information as you drive along. The Focus is four years more modern I guess, and did cost a couple of grand more, so fair enough, it wins on IT. One big feature of the Focus is a heated front windscreen, which is absolutely the dog's in weather like we've been having recently. Oh, and one last thing... the Astra does not have a temperature gauge. I don't know why, but I find them reassuring somehow and I miss it. Oh, and one last, last thing... the Astra defaults to AirCon off, the Focus defaults to AirCon on. I'm not sure why the Focus does this... I mean it's not the greenest thing to do, is it? I think on the whole I'd prefer to forget to put it on, rather than have to remember to switch it off every time I start the car.
Another clear win to the Astra, which has the best OEM in-car stereo I've ever owned. Your ears give up before the sound distorts, it's truly excellent. But more than anything else, I prefer the Astra because it has an MP3 CD player, and MP3 CDs on long journeys are fantastic things. Make up a 'mixed tape' of albums, and not have to fanny about changing discs for hours! Magic. The Focus may be four years newer... but oddly has just a normal CD player, no MP3. Neither has a USB port, though at least the Focus has a line-in connector, for what that's worth.
Okay, well I admit it's early days for the Focus. But it was delivered in fault free condition, and nothing has gone wrong so far. The Astra has been pretty good over 80k miles, but has fallen down on a few points that are not uncommon, I've read. The pre-delivery check revealed a faulty power-steering unit. The rear tailgate opening switch failed. The petrol gauge gave an inaccurate reading, which resulted in running out of fuel, the only fault to cause a cry for help. The radio kept switching itself on in the middle of the night, and was replaced. It's currently suffering from a rear-brake squeal that no-one seems to be able to cure. But it's all pretty small beer... overall it's been top notch.
Taking the age of the Astra out of the equation, so they're both sitting there in as-new condition, well, it's a close run thing. If it was me, I'd just go for the Focus, on the grounds that it's a sportier package, and the engine is way quieter. I think if you asked the missus, she'd pick the Astra, because she's not interested in the sportiness, and thinks the Astra is a nicer and more comfortable place to be. (Pity, therefore, we actually have the cars the other way around, doh!)
I will update this article as and when the Focus reveals its true colours... or not as the case may be.

And lo, a year on, I've posted that article... click HERE - and now HERE too.

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