Ford Plays Golf MKIV
How Uncle Henry scrapped one of his best sellers for an even better car and then went after the Golf.
The story starts with neither of these two, instead, it starts with the Escort MK6. Now, compared to the Golf MK3, the Escort was a bit of an old fart lingering with a light smell of air freshener mixed in. Quality wasn't brilliant, it was a typical mediocre drive and just felt tinny. Whereas the Golf MK3 was tank like, with quality materials for the time, if not a bit on the heavy side. Having both side by side was just no comparison and when the Golf MK4 came out in 1997, it was years ahead.
Now, I like the Escort MK6. But, that's more of a teary-eyed nostalgia sort of thing, not that it was actually that good of a car. People still bought a lot of them with it being Ford's best seller, through cheap fleet sales as well as dealers being able to take a lot more off the asking price than the bloke in das Deutsche Autohaus, it meant the Escort could still fly out of the showrooms.
The MK1 Focus
So, the MK1 Focus came about in Summer of 1998 but could it really change people's minds on a car that had been around for 30 years? It looked a lot different to the Escort with Ford's "New Edge" design taking styling ques from the Puma, Cougar and Ka. It was quite different to most hatchbacks which were around at the time, people were worried Ford had gone too far in the future in terms of design too early like the 'jelly mould' Sierra.
Early Focus MK1
The design brief really seemed like it was aimed at really going for the Golf. A huge range of choice in terms of engines, body styles and trim levels really meant there was a Focus for every sort of person, much like the Escort. A bigger cabin meant that for families it really had the space for all the kids and their luggage to haul around, it really wasn't that tight either! The interior quality had a mad overhaul too, soft touch materials dotted around the interior, components that didn't feel like they were going to fall off in your hand and instruments which were well thought out in terms of easy driver access, this really did feel like someone had thought this car through. Safety also seemed high on the agenda; better crash protection, ABS and even ESP on some models made the Focus a better bet in a collision than the Escort too!
The RS interior, take away the blue and basically like any other Focus interior
However, there was something different in the way this car went about the way it drove. A multilink rear suspension layout rather than a twist beam you would see on Ford's of old meant that the Focus seemed a really good drivers car! Couple this with very responsive steering and little body roll and it really was a daily car you could have fun in, but while this was great for enthusiasts it was also for another reason. In an interview, Richard Parry-Jones mentions that because the Focus had a much "broader customer base" than cars such as the Puma, it was also for "building confidence and security" meaning the Focus was intuitive and therefore it felt "right". Now, this really makes sense, if you have a car which you are unsure about what it is doing or you have no real confidence in the thing, it's hardly like you're going to have confidence where it matters. Very good thinking from Mr. Parry-Jones!
But where does this all tie in with the Golf? Well, for years the Escort and Golf shared the same class but more often than not the Golf seemed to excel where the Escort didn't. But even nowadays there seems to be two names that come up when it comes to the mid-sized hatchback market and that's the Focus and the Golf, for good reason too! The MK1 really did move the target posts along, it's interior was close to the quality of the Golf MK4, it drove a lot better, it was cheaper to buy as well as maintain and from my point of view a more interesting car to look at.
The performance ones then? Does the Golf win anything back there? Yes and no. The ST170 came out in 2002 with a 2.0L with 170hp, tweaks to the suspension but the styling was more of the same just with 17" alloys and changed grills as well as fog lights. It wasn't a bad car at all, wasn't particularly fast in a straight line but you can easily enjoy it on a B road! The Golf MK4 on the other hand started out on a bad note with the GTI. It, as well, first came along with a 2.0L engine, however, 115hp doesn't sound brilliant, does it? The styling didn't change much either from the base car. How you could have a brand new GTI come along and be slower than the first one that came out? It was a very bad decision on VWs part. They did make an amendment with the two 1.8 Turbo models in both 150hp and 180hp, so it was a lot better as a hot hatch but still not as sharp as the ST170 so both score points here. The GTI for its power (1.8T) and the ST170 for it's sharp handling.
The Hotter Hatches
There was much more to this hot hatch rivalry, the RS badge had been missing for 7 years and usually it was the mid sized hatch that usually got the treatment. Escort Cosworth, anyone? With the Focus competing in the WRC for 4 years before the RS came along, it made sense to build it because it was a very competitive and successful car! It did come with a bit of a hitch though, the previous RS car was the famous Escort RS Cosworth with its AWD, whale tail and turbo making around 220hp. The Focus RS was a front wheel drive, 212hp hatchback which didn't look as dramatic as the Escort. Fail? Not as such. It was still brilliant fun to drive and could easily keep up with its rivals, but from an enthusiast's perspective, a disappointment.
So what about the Golf MK4? Well, the previous MK3 featured a special VR6 model with 174hp from a 2.7L V6 which was very quick for what it was! The regular MK4 Golf also has this engine as an option. However, for this hotter hatch segment it seemed like the GTI just wasn't going to cut it anymore and this is where the R32 came into view or should I say, rocketed into view. The R32 really had the looks the GTI was so desperately lacking as well as the performance too, the 1.8T in the GTI was more than fine but the smooth shove of the R32's V6 made it a lovely drive as well as the grip from the AWD system (something the Focus very much didn't have), meant it was a lot nicer to drive than the regular MK4.
Comparing the two is difficult because they go in two very different directions to achieve the same result, the Focus was more of a 'set the world alight and run' sort of car, you really had to drive that thing on the edge which is where the fun factor came from. Whereas with the Golf, it was the speeds it could achieve through grip and power which made it fun in that sense. It really was like the old GTI or XR3 decision again, it really was down to driver preference. In the end they are both fantastic cars.
It really didn't matter in the end what you chose with these two cars because they were both great in their own rights, even down to base trims. But Ford had caught up with the manufacturer who'd led the way for all those years until the Focus came along and made VW open their eyes to how 'lazy' they had got with the MK4. Again, the MK4 was not a bad car but it just wasn't the best Golf either, when every other Golf that had came along previously they had moved the game on massively, but this wasn't to be the Golf MK4. Now do you see why the Golf MK5 was such a good car? Well done, Focus.
I'd also like to make a tribute to Richard Parry-Jones who had sadly died last week. He had done amazing things for Ford and how they operated/built/designed cars, without him I don't think Ford would have been as close as they were to the Golf with the Focus. Rest in Peace, Richard!