The Volkswagen Golf has always been a favorite of those who like the practicality of a hatchback but would also like to enjoy the drive. With the Golf's total sales of over 25 million since it was first introduced, there can be no doubt that the Golf is a heavy-hitter in its segment. Ford struck fear in the hearts of VW executives when they released the Focus in 2000, but while the rest of the world got a new Focus in 2004, Ford's home market just got a facelifted 1st gen. in 2007.
That meant that the Focus which the Golf has had to compete with in North America had become seriously out-of-date in the last couple years, and sales were a fraction of what they were in 2000. But Ford woke up, and the 2012 Ford Focus hatchback is once again a contender in its segment, even in North America. The Golf is quite a good-looking car, both inside and out, but it is also quite nondescript. It is a volume-seller which looks every bit a volume-seller, and even if nobody could say you have an ugly car, nor will it turn many heads. The Focus is very clearly ahead in this area.
It is a far better looking machine, and is one of the few cars that actually look better as a hatchback than as a sedan. The same is true on the insides of the cars, were the good VW interior is outdone by the excellent one offered by Ford. That is to say, the Focus has a better interior than the standard Golf. The Golf GTI offers not only more performance but also quite a nice interior, easily the best in the class. You can get a major upgrade in interior quality if you opt for the Focus Titanium Edition, which is priced just under the cost of the GTI.
The problem with doing this is that the GTI comes with an upgraded engine, and produces 200 horsepower, whereas the Titanium is still chugging along with the base model's 160 horsepower mill. Even the engine in the base model Golf, a naturally-aspirated inline-5, puts out 10 more horses than the Focus. We know that Ford has plans for a 247 horsepower Focus ST, but it's not for sale yet, and for the time being, your neighbor's GTI will still beat the Focus between the lights. Even when the ST does go on sale, we would wager that it will be a tad costlier than the GTI, and more likely to rival the 270 horsepower Golf R in price.
All of this means that the Focus is outmatched by the Golf in power across the board, but it is a fairly close contest. In terms of handling and feel, it's very nearly a wash. The Golf has a better feel to it than the Focus sedan, but the Focus hatchback also has a better feel than the Focus sedan, and the hatchback is the more popular body style anyway. One year ago, the Golf would have been a clear winner in this comparison, but the new Focus is good enough that picking between these two has become very difficult.
If you absolutely have to order one today, the GTI is a pretty clear winner for performance-oriented customers, but that could change with the ST. For those less concerned about every last possible horse under the hood, neither of these cars would be a wrong choice.