It’s possible I missed it after 40 years of the Audi Quattro and 30 years of the Honda NSX, but amid all the automotive anniversaries that have been celebrated in 2020, I don’t recall too much bunting strewing the streets in celebration of the fact that this is the year in which the Ford Escort XR3 hit its fifth decade.

Perhaps that’s not terribly surprising, but we should pause even just for a moment to consider that it has now been four decades since Ford’s fast family hatchback has been running up against what is now eight successive generations of Volkswagen Golf GTI. I wonder how many of those encounters it has actually won? Few if any of the early skirmishes, I would warrant, and probably fewer still after the Golf GTI rediscovered its mojo for its fifth generation in 2004.

So why is this contest between the brand-new Golf GTI and the still fresh Focus ST going to be any different? It all looks very familiar on paper. As ever, the Ford has the statistical lead, although we know from experience that, in the real world, that might not count for much at all. There’s a chunk more power and torque for the Focus (34bhp and 35lb ft respectively) for not much additional weight, leading to a 0.6sec gap opening up from rest to 62mph, despite these cars’ traction-limited front-drive configurations.

The Focus is cheaper, too, although by less than a grand in the showroom, so not as much as in the past. Then again, it comes positively groaning under the weight of all its standard equipment. Put 19in rims, adaptive damping, electrically adjustable and heated front seats, a heated steering wheel and a reversing camera on the Golf and the gap widens considerably.

The first surprise once you’re on board is that the interior of this Golf has lost some of the class of its predecessor. Of course, it’s now all ultra-high-definition screens, in line with the modern vogue, and it’s full of clever stuff like ventilation controls labelled ‘cool my feet’ and a pulsating engine start/stop button, while you can choose for your interior to be lit in any of 30 different colours. I would trade it all for some better-quality plastics and simple ergonomics that don’t require you to dive through menus to find what you need.

If, for instance, you want to suppress or switch off the electronic stability control, you have to go into vehicle settings, then swipe through until you find ‘brakes’ (which isn’t where I would first think of looking), ask it to turn off the systems and then be patronised by Volkswagen telling you that it doesn’t recommend you do so before it forces you to confirm your ill-advised choice with another stab of the screen. I would rather just press a button.

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