TRIPLE TEST: Three of a kind of a kind
There are several obvious differences between the Ford Focus Estate, Peugeot 508 Fastback and Subaru Forester. But at the end of the day, all three are after the same buyers – family-car drivers looking for something that’s safe, practical, good value and moderately premium. Three of a kind? Or different answers to the same question?
IN THE CABIN
WHAT WE HAVE here are three different ways of providing family transport. The Peugeot 508 is a big car that’s heavy on style, while the estate version of the Ford Focus adds a healthy dose of practicality to its midsize hatchback underpinnings. Both are new to the market, whereas the Subaru Forester is due to be replaced soon; it’s an SUV, making it almost the default choice as a family motor in the current market.
The Focus is a top-spec Vignale model, and it gives you a whole lot of style and equipment without feeling like a full-on premium car. There’s an awful lot of scratchy plastic around the lower dash and floor console that feels hard, even brittle, and that jars a bit alongside all the electronic gadgets and lovely seat leather.
There’s plenty of space in the driver’s seat, and in front of you all the controls are laid out with logic and clarity. You get a good view of the road ahead, too, even though you feel like you’re sat quite low, but you’ll be grateful for the rear-view camera when it comes to reversing.
In the back, really it’s only for children. Trying to fit one six-footer behind another will result in both feeling cramped, and headroom here is very limited.
It’s the same story with the 508, whose sweeping rear body means it, too, is basically not suited to carrying adults in the rear. Up front, on the other hand, legroom is incredible – even a long-legged six-footer will struggle to reach the pedals with the seat all the way back.
We do like the 508’s style, but its cabin is short on substance in places. We found it impossible to adjust the steering wheel so we could see the dash properly, and the cruise control buttons are both unnecessarily complex and completely hidden from view. The media system is operated by a set of chrome-effect keys which look impressive – but, as they’re horizontally set, the graphics telling you which are which are hard to see.
The Forester by contrast is very straightforward, to the point of being a little plain. It’s big, roomy and full of light, and it’s the only option if you want to carry a full load of adults, but some of its materials feel, if not cheap, then a little prosaic. You can get one six-footer behind another in the Forester, and in that it’s unique here. The seat leather is not a patch on the Focus’, however – it feels tough and slippery, not soft and accommodating. But for a get-in-and-drive cabin layout, it’s the one.
THE FORESTER HAS something unique here, in that’s it’s an SUV with four-wheel drive and a frankly astonishing level of off-road ability. If this matters to you, obviously it wins the whole test by a walkover; certainly, it’s enough on its own to justify the extra money the vehicle costs.
If you don’t need that, the Forester is still a well equipped car. As well as a power tailgate, it has a panoramic sunroof as standard – which instantly accounts for almost a grand of the difference in price. You don’t have to pay extra for metallic paint, either, so make that a grand and a half.
It shows its age in other ways, however, in particular with a lack of modern driver assistance options. The 508 and Focus are predictably laden with these – though even in this top-spec model, Ford makes you pay an extra £500 for adaptive cruise, auto main beam and traffic sign recognition.
The Focus does give you extras like a heated screen and steering wheel, and its alloys are bigger than the others’ at 18”. A head-up display unit is handy, too, its leather sears are far and away the best and the Vignale styling tweaks certainly create an image.
But that’s not the image of a car that needs too many options to feel special. And the 508’s image beats it anyway. Both flatter to deceive a little, but for the money you pay Peugeot is more generous than Ford – and Subaru gives you something the others don’t.
YOU EXPECT THE Forester to steal a march here, and if a totally flat, hard and waterproof boot floor is the answer to your cargo-carrying needs, it’s got what it takes. But this floor is also very slippery, and there’s no obvious way of controlling your load, so by the time you’ve made it out of the supermarket car park your shopping will be in a jumbled heap.
It’s a good big space, however, with a wide, square aperture to load through. and though the rear seats don’t fold completely flat you can get a great deal of cargo into it. The wheelarch blisters look as if they intrude somewhat, but that’s mainly because the opening behind them is so wide.
Up front, oddment stowage is fine without being special, and the same can be said for the Focus. Something both these cars have in common is that it helps to have a universal joint in your wrist – to get things from the back of the Focus’ door pockets, and to reach the bizarrely positioned USB slots in the Forester’s cubby box.
The Focus doesn’t share the Forester’s rear legroom, but when its seats go down it turns into an outstanding load carrier. They lie just a few degrees off flat, with no step at all on to them, and with a nice low lip at the bottom of its tailgate aperture it’s a good bet for the inevitable Ikea visits.
There’s a shallow but full-width hidden compartment beneath the floor, too, which is useful for hiding your kids’ tablets and so on. Both the Focus and the Forester have electric tailgates; the former’s is a £450 option, which seems a bit cheeky on an ultimate-spec model, but we found it much better and quicker to operate than the Forester’s.
Being a hatchback, the 508 takes a different approach. Its tailgate is vast, and when it’s raised you could use the boot as a landing pad for a pretty decent-sized drone.
With the seats down, the cargo area is very long indeed. It’s limited by the height of the roof, and the rake of the rear body, but for shallow loads (Ikea, etc) it’s a giant-killer. There’s a big lip to get your stuff over, though.
The 508 is arguably the best of the bunch for oddment stowage, with a good, big glovebox, decent door pockets and a long cubby box whose clamshell lid opens to reveal an interior light that comes on automatically when you open it.
ON THE ROAD
A C-SEGMENT ESTATE, an SUV and a hatchback that looks like a saloon pretending to be a coupe. Two petrols and a diesel. One auto and a couple of manuals. A pair of new kids on the block, and an old stager. So these should all drive pretty differently to each other, then. Horses being for courses, and all that, we’re not looking for the best driving vehicle here. We’re looking for the one that’s the best at being what it is.
You might look at the 508 and ask yourself, well, what is it anyway? It comes on like what Ferrari would do if it wanted to build a four-door hatch, so it immediately has something to live up to.
Ferrari would put a howling V8 in it, but the Peugeot tested here has a 1.5-litre diesel. It only puts out 130bhp, but this comes with a side order of 300lbf.ft of torque – which means really meaty acceleration in real-world situations. Mated to a nice, slick manual gearbox, the engine pulls strongly from low revs, allowing you to make good progress without a fuss.
It won’t upset you on the motorway, either, with very little wind or engine noise and just a little pattering from the suspension. Ride and refinement are good around town, too, where the 17-inch tyres are tall enough not to be drawn into an argument with the road about the plight of its surface.
Its steering doesn’t feel over-light here, or indeed on the motorway, though on A and B-roads it can appear a little unnatural. It’s perfectly predictable, however, and the 508 holds the road very well while remaining stable through fast corners.
The Focus also has a 1.5-litre engine, but it’s a turbocharged petrol unit with a comparitively huge 182bhp. Torque, on the other hand, is just 177lbf.ft; it’s delivered from low revs, so you can cruise around town using higher gears than you expect, but on A and B-roads you need to work the gearbox to make progress (aka have fun).
This is no chore as the box is a delight, so keeping the turbo spinning is part of the entertainment. Excellent brakes help here, too, as do levels of grip, suppleness and body control which remind you that the Focus remains a hatchback at heart.
It remains composed on a cruise, too, with little road or wind noise. There’s a certain brittleness to its ride, however, which comes through most around town. It rides quietly over speed bumps and so on, but the road surface in general makes it fuss too easily – a product, we’d guess, of it having much lower-profile tyres than the other two.
The Focus’ steering is unnatural at lower speeds, too. The electric system adds weight to mimic feel when you’re making small adjustments, but this feels more like resistance than anything you can usefully interpret.
The Forester, so often a surprise package, once again shows its skills. Despite having the highest body of the three, it’s agile, grippy and capable of being cornered hard without rolling or floating. Its body does get jolted from side to side on rough A-roads, but on the motorway it’s as stable as can be. It’s the least refined vehicle here, however. Wind noise is quite evident at cruising speeds, and the suspension is on the noisy side – even though it rides impressively smoothly.
By far the worst thing about the Forester, however, is its gearbox. A constantly variable auto unit, this needs lots of winding up. You can control it to some extent with the paddles on the steering wheel, but in the main each assault on the gas pedal is rewarded with a gale of frantic noise from the 2.0-litre petrol engine which you may or may not drown out with a volley of frustrated swearing.
With 150bhp and only 146lbf.ft of torque, the Forester’s engine will always be at a disadvantage. Bolting it to such a horrible gearbox is like sending it out to bat with one hand tied behind its back; with a good manual, the vehicle would be transformed.
HANDLING Which is the most fun?
FOCUS: Agile in corners and with really positive brakes, the Focus is fun to throw around. Its engine loves to be revved, too.
508: A great manual box and supremely torquey diesel engine, combined with poised roadholding and good balance, make the 508 very fluent in corners.
FORESTER: It might sit high up, but the Forester grips like a leech and hardly rolls at all. Only its nasty auto box stops it from giving the others a chasing.
THERE’S NO LOSER in this category. That might surprise you, but the last EuroNCAP test on the Forester came back with very strong scores – and its higher seating position is an automatic bonus for safety.
As you’d expect, however, the newer Focus and 508 offer a great deal more in the way of modern safety kit and driver assists. In particular, both have autonomous emergency braking as standard. The Forester doesn’t have that, but it has gained lane departure warning during its life.
The 508 lacks knee and pelvis airbags, but it scores highest by some way for adult occupant protection. The Forester scored very well for child protection when it was last tested, too.
However none of these vehicles does anything other than very well in this extremely important category.
NONE OF THESE vehicles excel here. If you’re looking for pin-sharp graphics, instant responses and an intuitive interface, you’re likely to keep looking.
The 508’s system looks cool in that it uses flat keys to operate a long, shallow screen. Setting the sat-nav is confusing, though – so much so that one of us gave up and started using his phone instead. It doesn’t need to be so complex, and frankly it put us off.
The screen in the Focus sticks up and out from the facia, which is never good. It works well enough, though, albeit with Ford’s usual light blue background colour that some of us find somewhat institutional.
The Forester’s system has the excuse of being older, but it’s not disgraced. Unless you insist on Apple CarPlay, it does the same things as the others’.
VALUE AND RUNNING COSTS
HOW MUCH THESE vehicles actually cost is complicated by the many options on the Focus we tested – and by the size of the discounts you’ll get on each. If the brokers we’ve asked are to be believed, you can get some £3000 off this 508 and twice that off the Focus. Quite a big ‘if.’
Either way, the 508 uses far less fuel than the others. The official figures say so, and so do the returns we got during our time with the three vehicles. This helps the Peugeot cost less in terms of first-year road tax, too – only by twenty quid compared to the Focus, but the Forester will hurt you more than three times as much as either.
That’s nothing compared to the cost of depreciation, however. Here, we’d expect the Forester to hold its value far better than either of its rivals – Subaru owners are an extremely loyal bunch, and used stock is in very high demand. Another plus for the Forester is its five-year, 100,000-mile warranty. It certainly is the most expensive to
buy and run, but not to the extent that you should avoid it if it’s the one you really want.
Nonetheless, with its balance of list price, equipment and running costs, the 508 is the value champion here. At more than £4500 less than the others, as tested, it’s hard to make a water-tight case against it.
WE SET OUT to compare three very different vehicles in this test, so it’s our own fault that separating them has proved very diffi cult. But we’d argue that it’s been very relevant, because if you’re a family car buyer in this kind of price bracket, all three will be firmly after your money.
And starting with money, as we all must, let’s acknowledge that at more than £4500 less than either of the others (as tested, at list price), the Peugeot 508 has something very compelling indeed on its side. You can look longingly at the seat leather in the Focus or wish you could drive up that muddy track over there the way the bloke in the Forester can, but four and half grand doesn’t just talk, it roars.
That kind of gives the lie to what we aimed to do when we tried to compare a high-spec version of a smaller car with a medium-speccer from the next size up. It’s a conundrum almost every new car buyer faces, but when you end up with a price difference like this it feels a bit meaningless.
Instead, we can consider whether, all else being equal, the Focus feels special enough in Vignale form to be considered as a rival to bigger cars. It certainly is nice inside, but one tester after another commented that if it were their money, they’d save it and go for a less fancy version. We were sorely disappointed, too, to find how much of the kit on our test car was optional.
It remains the case that the Focus is a very good car in lots of ways, and the estate adds a huge element of practicality without compromising the way it drives. But stylish though it is, the Vignale edition doesn’t convince us.
The Forester certainly didn’t convince all our testers, either, though it did a fine job of dividing opinion. One went as far as to say that it’s the only one he could imagine owning – though with the caveat that the CVT auto box on our test vehicle would be an absolute deal-breaker, however good it might be in however many other ways.
The same tester, however, admitted that when he first drove the 508, he said the same thing about its sat-nav – but that in retrospect, having considered all three vehicles and looked at their prices, he would choose it ahead of the Focus. And this was a common theme; we tend to feel that while the Focus is marginally better to drive, the gulf in costs is overwhelming.
A repeated criticism of the 508 was that it puts form over function at times. But it does so merely in a getting-on-your-nerves kind of a way. The Focus does it in a taking-money-off-you way, which is why the Vignale, nice though it may be, isn’t a winner in our eyes.
If the Forester does what you need, it’s the only one worth thinking about. If you don’t need that, each has its pros and cons – but price alone will make it hard to see past the Peugeot.
Ford Focus 1.5 Eco-Boost Vignale Estate
Peugeot 508 1.5 HDi Alluire Fastback
Subaru Forester 2.0i XE Premium
Ride & Refinement