Mazda Speed3 vs. Ford Focus ST

By Zack Klapman and edited by Christina Selter.

What’s better than a hot hatch? A hot hatch with 5 doors. Some prefer the look of a 3-door but getting out of your seat so a friend can clamber into the back is annoying. I like this sporty segment of little wagons, because the OEMs seem like they really love them. I like to imagine each team of engineers as a group of competitive comrades, like friends on a paintball outing. The rogues of the brand, their performance headquarters filled with empty Jack Daniels bottles, chalkboards covered in algorithms, and CAD bays.

These misfits of manufacturing build fast-yet-practical cars that the traditional sedansman naively disregards. Fold the seats in either and you can move an apartment. Seats up and you can make 4 friends puke while you whip through canyons at speeds that surprise most sports car owners. And both of these provide such useful entertainment for only about $25,000.

2012 MazdaSpeed3

The MazdaSpeed3 has been around since 2007 when it came barreling off dealer lots with 263HP; it was fast. In 2010 Mazda gave it a few more smiles on the exterior, but left the power: 263HP from a boosted 2.3 liter that spins fast and free. Just keep your hands on the wheel when boost hits, because otherwise this car has the straight-line attention span of a dog running through a squirrel preserve.

The suspension is stiff, but not brutally so. It could be a little smoother on bumpy backroads, but the tires stay down, and I was too busy enjoying the nimble nose to really notice. On any decently paved street it will be fine. The interior is a busy place; thankfully the buyers tend to be good at digital multi-tasking. The Focus ST is more comfortable, but neither cabin will be mistaken for a refined English pub.

But the bottom line with the MSP3 is that it holds lots of people, lots of stuff, and goes like hell. This is a fast car with real driving chops (as expected from Mazda).

2012 MazdaSpeed3

While the MazdaSpeed3 has been here for 5 years, the Focus ST is brand new. Buyers benefit from that freshness with soft plastics, a great steering wheel, and great (but optional) Recaro seats. The interior feels just a tad more expensive than in the Mazda, and also offers almost 7 more feet of cargo space.

Ford hasn’t had a good hatch like this since the Cosworth Escorts 3 decades ago. Well folks, this is a good one. Like those cars, power here is from a very nice turbo-charged 4-cylinder making 252HP and 270lb-ft of torque at a low 2,500 RPM, a hot hatch indeed.

2012 Ford Focus ST

On the road the Focus ST is definitely the more comfortable option. The seating position feels higher, the suspension a bit softer. Grip is there by the barrel and it will even rotate in corners. It’s one of the best FWD cars ever, with MINI-like handling without the brutal ride. I’d describe the suspension as “Rally ready”. It will turn a very fast lap, no doubt, but there’s a feeling of floating just above the tires, whereas in the Mazda you feel like you’re sitting between them.

And that is what will determine which you buy. Driving hard, the Speed3 always felt stable. For autocross or tack use it’d be my choice. The Ford Focus is also a fast car with a lot of grip, but it’s a bit softer, and I didn’t feel as secure cresting and braking at 100MPH (something that happens on everyone’s morning commute).

2012 Ford Focus ST

However my love for these cars comes from their ability to pair fun and utility. If I buy a car like this, it’s because I need it to do everything well, and the Focus ST’s comfortable ride and extra space make it the better Leatherman.

(Note: All vehicles provided by manufacturers for comparison test purposes. Photos provided by Ford and Mazda.)