Like to drive, but live on a budget? We have good news. Compact sedan and hatchback models have quickly evolved recently, shedding their staid appearance and miserly demeanor for something much more interesting—including better-trimmed interiors, and feature sets appealing for long-distance commuters. And the Mazda 3 and Ford Focus are at the head of that pack for those who put the priority on driving enjoyment.
Both models are offered in a choice of four-door sedan or five-door hatchback body styles. At least in profile, these two vehicles look quite different, with the Focus (which was all-new for 2011) a little more rakish and the Mazda 3, which was just redesigned for 2014, is decidedly curvier. All around, from the long, finely detailed headlamps, along the creased flanks and all the way to the equally stretched taillamps, the Focus offers a little more to catch the eye inside and out. On the other hand, the Mazda3 has the more adventurous profile, with details that are both neat, athletic, and sophisticated.
MORE: Read our full reviews of the 2016 Ford Focus and 2016 Mazda 3
There’s even more of a sharp contrast between these two models inside. The Mazda’s interior is sporty in appearance and follows Mazda’s new, upscale, and somewhat European look and feel; on the other hand, the Focus interior feels more overtly sporty, as well as obsessively detailed throughout, with some nice surface sculpting and a nicely tailored look for the entire interior that makes it feel a class above. The one issue we have with the Focus interior, though, is that its dash tends to rob front-seat space for the driver and passenger.
The Focus and Mazda 3 both perform well, with a sportier driving feel than you’ll find in most other compact sedans and hatchbacks in this size and price range. But it’s Mazda’s attention to the fine details here that makes the Mazda 3 the enthusiasts’ pick for now—even if their numbers might not show a clear winner. Whether you get the 2.0-liter inline-4 or the 2.5-liter version, and whether you opt for the 6-speed automatic or the 6-speed manual gearbox, these combinations all bring satisfying performance and better responsiveness than most compact cars. And we think these powertrains simply work more precisely and responsively than what’s offered in the Focus, without stepping up to the high-performance versions. In fact, Mazda has coordinated all the tactile qualities of the driving experience better than those in any other car in this class; the accelerator responds evenly; the brakes feel confident; and you’re likely to be satisfied with any of the powertrain options.
The Focus has a trump card or two, though. There’s the 240-horsepower Focus ST, a fantastic back-road flogger with no equivalent in the Mazda lineup, and also a new 1.0-liter turbo 3-cylinder. The 350-horsepower Ford Focus RS is a rally car for the streets if you have $40,000 to burn.
The 3-cylinder barely ekes out a moral victory over the base Mazda 3 with the 2.0-liter engine. It returns EPA ratings 41 mpg highway with the manual or automatic transmission. Models with the 2.5-liter engine do nearly as well; and that’s without electing the Super Fuel Economy (SFE) package as you have to do with the Focus to get 40 mpg.
Inside, in both of these model lines, if you’re willing to pay a little more, you can get excellent, more supportive sport seats up front. Back-seat space is about the same, although the swoopier roofline in the Mazda now places it at a disadvantage. Top models of the Focus, like the Titanium, get a rich, premium feel inside; we also think that top models of the Focus are a bit better hushed for road noise.
The Focus falls a bit shy of the Mazda in terms of safety. The Ford only merits an “Acceptable” rating on the new small-overlap crash test. The Mazda 3 gets “Good” scores and a Top Safety Pick+ award from the IIHS, and five stars overall from the NHTSA. You can get a rear camera system in the Focus, while the Mazda 3 offers a blind spot warning system, among several other active-safety features.
Standard equipment on base models of both the Focus and Mazda 3 is comparable, with a few more tech features offered on the Focus, such as parking assistance. The Focus’ MyFord Touch connectivity setup is nearly matched by Mazda’s Harman-sourced Mazda Connect system. Both offer features like adaptive lighting, memory power seats, blind-spot monitoring, and premium sound.
Our overall ratings here make it difficult to pick a clear winner. The Focus won our Best Car To Buy competition in 2012; and the Mazda 3 came very, very close to winning for 2014. Which one you choose comes down to priorities. If you love to drive and want the best-driving, gas-stingy small car, we can’t think of a better vehicle than the Mazda 3 with either engine. But with the Focus—especially the high-performance Focus ST—you’re getting one of the best-driving, best-riding small cars on the market.
Perhaps now you can see why these two cars are tied in our scoring.