It was late in September when a deer came out of the woods and attempted to occupy the same moment in space and time as my Mazda3. My physics professor once told us that this was an impossibility, so, as you can imagine, this didn’t go as well as either I or the deer hoped. While the Mazda3 was being repaired, I was given a Ford Focus to drive around for a little while. This came to be after Hertz and I came to the realization the Kia Rio I had been given initially was not equipped with cruise control despite that being one of my only requests.
When I picked up the symphony in silver 2016 Ford Focus it had already traveled 17,213 miles. When I returned it 19 days later, a rather coincidental 2,222 miles had passed and it was nearly due for it’s next oil change. For those of you who dislike math things, that works out to 116.9 miles per day. While most of that was due to my commute, I did also add a few extra trips in, such as Caffeine and Carburetors in New Haven, Connecticut. My wife and I also became fond of the phrase “may as well put the miles on the rental” any time we went somewhere. I wonder how Doug Demuro’s one year, unlimited mileage, bumper to bumper warranty would have fared if I had possession of his Aston for more than about 5 minutes of ice drifting?
To be honest, other than this car and the Mazda3, it’s been awhile since I’ve really driven any of the other small hatchbacks. With that in mind, I will compare this to what I know. I will compare the 2016 Focus SE to the 2016 Mazda3 i Touring.
Let’s start with something simple: Styling. On the outside, the Mazda3 is clearly more stylish. The long hood along with the lines, creases, and curves along its flanks give it a slightly aggressive stance while a light touch of chrome and the right amount of flair give it a slightly premium appearance. The Focus is not an ugly car, but, it is less stylish. Sure, from the front, the kind of person that has to squint to read stop signs may mistake it for an Aston Martin. Along the sides there are curved creases similar to the Mazda but instead of flowing all the way through the doors, the are interrupted by a horizontal line that detracts from the look of the car. The rear area, specifically the rear quarter panel and taillights are awkwardly designed. I hadn’t noticed this until after I had turned the car in, and you will not be able to un-see it, but, when viewed from the side, the taillights appear to be extending the finger of disapproval.
On the inside, these cars are MUCH different. The Mazda has a large screen that sits atop a low dashtop which is paired to a set of controls in the center console to cater to all of your infotainment and personalization needs. The rest of the dash in the Mazda houses a very clean, simple and intuitive design. The controls of the Ford are highly stylized and much busier. There are buttons and knobs everywhere that make it harder to find what you’re looking for when you want to find it quickly. And while the tiny screen may display much of the same information as the Mazda, it’s set back in the dash like watching one of those TV’s from the 1950’s where you have a 3” screen encased in a 4 square foot box. Speaking of stylized, why do I need to have such chunky needles in the instrument cluster? And why do my steering column stalks need to look like they came from a Stormtroopers helmet? Score 1 for the Mazda.
What about equipment? The car I rented is an SE model, which, while not the top of the line, is still above the typical penalty-box rental-spec. It had cruise control, alloy wheels, bluetooth and USB connectivity, a backup camera, auto on/off headlights, and a trip computer display in the instrument cluster. The Mazda3 i Touring (which sits one above the entry-level, just like the SE trim of the Focus) comes with all of those things except that the trip computer is less informative and the screen for the camera/bluetooth/etc is much larger. However, if you were cross shopping these two cars, the Mazda would also add a blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, fog lights, advanced keyless entry, push-button start, and rain-sensing wipers. Score: Mazda 2, Ford 0.
Maybe we need to talk about practicality? Storage in the front is about the same. Room for people in the front is about the same. Room for people in the back is about the same. Storage in the rear is different. There is more usable space in the back of the 3 and the rear seats fold nearly flat, making it much more user friendly! Now the Mazda is up to three points while the Ford has three fewer than that. Moving on.
Performance! We should talk about performance! The Mazda3’s 2.0L 4-cylinder engine makes 155hp and propels the car to 60mph in a little under 8 seconds while the more powerful 160hp 2.0L 4-cylinder powering the Ford helps it get to the same speed in about 8.5 seconds. In the real world, half a second isn’t much of a difference and the engine in the ford does actually feel slightly more eager than that of the Mazda. Fuel economy figures in the real world are pretty similar. I averaged about 40mpg with the Focus and the longer trips I’ve taken with 2.0L Mazda3’s have produced similar numbers. Let’s call that a draw. But, since they’re both positive, we’ll add a point so that the Ford can finally have one on the board. 4 to 1. Next.
Transmission: I’ll try not to rant on too long on this topic. The Mazda uses a 6-speed automatic transmission that shifts quickly, smoothly and while it may be programmed for eco-mode, is happy to play in a moments notice. A quick flick to the left from the “D” position gives you the manual mode to allow you to tell the car when you want it to shift. On the other side of the pond, this is the worst part of the Focus. Ford decided to use a dual-clutch automated manual transmission. For a list of other cars that use dual-clutch transmissions, see: Porsche PDK, anything in the current McLaren line-up, anything in the Ferrari line-up, the 1000-1200hp monster Bugatti Veyron, and, well, you get the picture. Why do they use these transmissions? Well, it’s not for low maintenance. It’s for performance. While one clutch is engaged the other clutch has the next gear ready to go so that when you pull the lever, there’s no hesitation, no wait, just “Bam! Next gear.” Clearly the technology to make a great dual-clutch transmission exists….Ford just didn’t use it. To start, when you take off at partial throttle, the whole car shudders as the clutch engages. It’s annoying enough when this happens when you drive a manual. It’s disconcerting when an automatic does it too. It’s slow, dim-witted and is rarely in the gear you want it to be in. Which brings me to my other gripe - why no manual mode?? It’s a DCT for fucks sake, let me play with it! Nope. You get “L” for low gear (like you got in the 70’s) and a “hill descent” button that will downshift when you’re going downhill...most of the time. I think we have to award this point to the Mazda.
But what about driveability, Bill? Can we talk about that? Yes, we can. When you ignore the previous paragraph and focus on the rest of the driving experience, the Ford can finally stand up a little straighter. It’s definitely quieter on the highway and while it’s motions are less controlled, it’s still a decent handler. It doesn’t provoke me like the Mazda products do, but, if you coax it into playing ball, it can hold it’s own. The stock stereo has decent sound and this lite version of the sync system seems to work well enough once you’re past the learning curve. Steering is light and the visibility is reasonable. The seats were supportive and comfortable - my brother and I made a day trip to Connecticut’s answer to Cars and Coffee: Caffeine and Carburetors and back without either of us complaining about our back. The Mazda is more engaging to drive and comfortable as well, but, I’m a nice guy so let’s give the Ford another point here. I think that makes 2.
Last - let’s talk about price. The Focus had less stuff and a lower quality look/feel. On the plus side, that’s reflected in the price by about $2,000. When you add to that the fact that this is a typical American manufacturer who throws large sums of cash at cars to increase the chances of selling them, it becomes easier to see why it feels cheaper. It is cheaper. So, if you are in search of the deal and can get passed the transmission (or, better yet, if you can drive a stick), it should probably be in the running. Point for the Ford.
For me, however, the more cohesive styling, the simple to use but stylish interior, and the superior driving dynamics would make the Mazda3 the winner in my book. The math above would seem to support that as well.
…..For the record, I would’ve come to this conclusion even if I wasn’t an employee at a Mazda dealer...
*all photos courtesy of me - except where indicated in the photo tags. Also, I should note that while the Mazda3 I described would’ve been a 2016 Touring - the car pictured is actually a 2017 Sport - but not much difference visually from where I took my pictures.