The softness of the Octavia’s handling responses is what you expect to naturally follow, with a turn of that medium-weighted and moderately paced steering wheel, having noted the fairly gentle lope of the car’s quiet and well-isolated ride. It makes sense: this is a family saloon masquerading as a hatchback, really. It reminds you of that suspiciously grown-up kid you remember in your class at school, whose 21st birthday party you later went to a year before everyone else’s.
The car handles precisely enough as to be entirely easy to place, and has the body control to tolerate a brisker pace over a challenging road without really struggling. It’s refined too – more so than any other car in this top four – so it’s featuring at the business end of this test for very good reasons. But if a dose of added poise and verve in your everyday motoring is what you’re after, it doesn’t offer much.
VW’s 1.5-litre, 128bhp Golf offers more – mostly by apparent virtue of its size. The Golf is notably softer-sprung than both the Mazda 3 and the Focus, being more comfortable than both at town speeds, but keeping better control of its mass than the Octavia when cornering at speed and dealing with bigger lumps and bumps. The Golf pulls off that genius trick of feeling absolutely right-sized: big enough to accommodate a smallish family in comfort and some shopping – but absolutely no bigger, so that it feels light and agile and manoeuvrable, as a compact family car should. Now, as ever, the Golf feels like the epicentre of the hatchback’s planetary system: the fixed point around which every other car has to move.
But not because it’s brilliant to drive. You wouldn’t have said that about our test car, which was a little bit soft and short on outright grip when driven more quickly and, though nicely damped at town speeds, came up short on vertical body control at times. The Golf’s engine, meanwhile, didn’t quite share the Octavia’s levels of mechanical refinement and isolation: noisier at high revs than the Skoda, it also revved with less enthusiasm. All in all, in this specification at least, the Golf probably wasn’t a car a keener driver might pick.
But the Mazda 3 certainly was.
You couldn’t pick a tougher dynamic test for the Ford Focus than this naturally aspirated 2.0-litre Mazda, in fact – and, having spent a day trying, we should know. The car has pin-sharp throttle response, as well as beautifully weighted and feelsome controls; in both respects, it’s actually more than a match for the Ford. Meanwhile, a slightly busy-riding but honest-feeling, firmly sprung chassis gives the car plenty of cornering grip, flat body control, strong front-driven traction, and the ability to change direction sufficiently smartly and cleanly as to keep you fully interested in how it might tackle the next corner.