Ford Focus Vs. Mazda Mazda3Enlarge Photo
For those who like to drive, but are frugal-minded, there's plenty of good news. Compact sedan and hatchback models have very quickly evolved over the past several years, shedding their staid appearance and miserly demeanor for something much more interesting--including more better-trimmed interiors, and feature sets appealing for those who do long commutes. 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 Mazda3 more abrupt in back. 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's profile is nothing new, but on the outside its details offer a neat, athletic look overall.
There's even more of a sharp contrast between these two models inside. Mazda3's interior is sporty in appearance, but we can't help but also see it as a bit drab; on the other hand, the Focus interior feels 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 Focus and Mazda3 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 Mazda3 the enthusiasts' pick for now--even if their numbers might not show a clear winner. With the new 2.0-liter SkyActiv-G engine that's now included in Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring Mazda 3i models--along with all-new six-speed manual and six-speed automatic transmissions--Mazda has a set of powertrains that simply work more precisely and responsively than what's offered in the Focus. In fact, Mazda has coordinated all the tactile qualities of the driving experience in the SkyActiv Mazda3 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 whether you get the six-speed manual gearbox or the six-speed automatic transmission. Also, the Mazda3, hands down, does one aspect of performance better than the Focus: the steering. With well-metered hydraulic boost, managed by an electric pump, the Mazda3 manages to go green and be more confidence-inspiring than cars with electric racks.
While fuel economy for some of the carry-over Mazda3 models without the new SkyActiv powertrains is lackluster, the new SkyActiv models achieve an EPA highway rating of up to 40 mpg; that's without electing Super Fuel Economy (SFE) package as you have to do with the Focus.
Inside, the numbers show the Mazda3 to have a little more interior volume, but they're remarkably close in real-world passenger space. And 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 Focus, with its swoopier roofline, requires taller passengers to duck when getting in. Because of the Focus' long, somewhat constraining dash, you might also feel that it's the tighter of the two from the front seat. Top models of the Focus, like the Titanium, get a rich, premium feel inside that Mazda simply doesn't match; but Mazda has made the interior more refined in recent years--with road noise now much better hushed.