When I finished writing my Cars of a Lifetime series early this year, I had just bought a used Ford Focus to become my main car. But I was keeping my old Toyota Matrix to give to my son when he gets his driver’s license later this year. Both cars are top-of-the line hatchbacks, and both were initially marketed to twentysomething drivers. But their missions couldn’t be more different. The Focus SES offers only some quasi-luxury touches over lower trim levels. The Matrix XRS, on the other hand, is a hot hatch aimed at someone with a hip, active lifestyle. I’m not in any of these demographics – I’m a middle-aged man who needs to carry two teenagers and a large dog in his car. That gives me an unusual perspective. And now that I’ve driven the Focus for a several months, I’d like to share how I think these two hatches compare.
By the numbers, these are fairly comparable cars. The Focus sits on a 102.9-inch wheelbase. It’s 168.5 inches long and 66.7 inches wide. The Matrix sits on a 102.4-inch wheelbase. It’s 171.3 inches long and 69.9 inches wide – three inches more than the Focus. Where these cars really differ is in height: 56.8 inches for the Focus and 61.0 inches for the Matrix.
Styling. Matrix wins. I know this is entirely subjective, but I think the Focus is frumpy. The Matrix’s styling is a little more rakish, maybe even a little boy-racer, but I think it’s good looking. Before it got a little banged up, I was always proud to arrive in my Matrix. I always wince a little inside when I admit I drive this Focus.
Interior. The Matrix edges the Focus. Even though my Focus includes leather seats and a sunroof, its primary interior characteristic is hard plastic. The dashboard, which screams Generic Car, reflects badly onto the windshield on sunny days. The seats are hard, though not uncomfortable on long trips.
Lots of little details make the Matrix a more pleasant place to be. It’s roomier inside, thanks to the three inches of width it has over the Focus. Despite the cloth’s weird, rough weave, the seats are much softer than those in the Focus. They’re very comfortable. Most surfaces are soft and feel pretty good, at least for this class of car. And the cockpit is just a cooler design, with gauges that glow red when the car is on but are invisible otherwise. My Matrix even has a darned useful AC electrical outlet on the dash.
Utility. The Matrix wins by a mile. The Matrix is so darned useful. Check it out: A flat load floor! Even the front passenger seat folds flat. And look at that wide hatch opening! This is where the Matrix’s extra interior height really shines. I’ve carried enormous quantities of stuff in this car. With the seats down, the Matrix carries just over 52 cubic feet of stuff.
Here’s the Focus similarly configured — and it carries just 40 cubic feet of stuff. Ford, get a clue: having to lift up the back-seat bottom before folding down the seats just sucks! And that seat bottom gets in the way of longer items. Because it’s harder to lay down the back seat and less stuff fits in here, when I need to run to Lowe’s I always take the Matrix.
I do like the Focus’s attached rigid cargo cover, though. In everyday driving, anything I store in the wayback is hidden from view. The Matrix stores a fold-out cover under the floor, and it’s usually more hassle than it’s worth to dig it out. On the other hand, when I need to haul large items in the Focus, I have to detach the cover and store it somewhere. That’s fine when I’m at home and can leave it in the garage, but it’s not so convenient when I’m at the store and unexpectedly buy a large item on clearance.
And check this out: the Matrix’s hatch glass opens, as opposed to the Focus’s fixed hatch glass. A button on the key fob even pops the glass. I find this to be so nifty and useful that I’d be willing to lobby to make it Federal law that all hatchbacks work this way.
Fit and Finish, Squeaks and Rattles. Advantage: Matrix. The Focus is much more expertly put together than my last American car, a 1996 Mercury Sable. But everything about the Matrix is at least one cut above, from the switchgear and surfaces inside to the ride free of squeaks, rattles, and vibrations even after 153,000 miles.
But oh em GEE the squeaks, rattles, and vibrations in the Focus! Shortly after I got this car, it started shaking badly at idle. It turns out that the passenger-side motor mount had cracked through – and that this is a common problem in first-generation Focuses! Replacing it cost $200. Also, there’s an infernal body squeak that comes from the rear passenger side. Every minor imperfection in the road activates it – hoop hoop, hoop hoop hoop, hoop hoooop hoop, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. I’m gonna go postal! My mechanic thinks it’s the sway bar bushings, so I’m going to have him replace them. And then there are the unidentified sporadic rattles that come from deep within the doors, the driver’s-side A pillar, and the center armrest storage bin. All this after only 79,000 miles. Ay yi yi!
Fuel Economy. It’s a tossup, and I’m disappointed with the fuel economy of both of these small four-cylinder cars. The Matrix delivers 24-26 mpg in town and 26-28 mpg on the highway, and takes premium fuel. The Focus gets a shockingly low 22-24 mpg in town, but an okayish 28-30 mpg on the highway, on regular gas. I want a zippy small car that gets 30 or more in town, 35 or more on the highway.
Driving Dynamics. The Focus wins big, which shocked the pants off me. The Matrix XRS comes with the 180hp 1.8L 2ZZFE engine that powered the contemporary Celica GT-S. You’d think that would mean performance — and it does feel like a rocket compared to the gutless 130hp 1.8L 1ZZ engine in lesser Matrixes (I used to own one of those, too). Yet the harsh 4-speed automatic shifts abruptly, the gas pedal is twitchy, and the engine is raucous. When I want to build speed but lean into the pedal just a hair too much, it downshifts with a jolt and the engine revs hard and loud. I’m forever hedging on the gas just to avoid one of those kick-in-the-pants downshifts. The engine’s sweet spot doesn’t come until you cross the 6,200-RPM redline, when a special cam kicks in and you get excellent boost. Unfortunately, that only ever happens at highway speeds. Moreover, the Matrix rolls deeply when you corner hard or fast. It even leans too much in routine cornering and feels a little uncertain in straight line driving. I have little confidence in this car when on a twisty road, and tend to drive it very conservatively overall.
The Focus, on the other hand, feels light and spritely, yet firmly planted. The steering is so tight that the Matrix’s steering feels loose in comparison. Lean hard on the pedal from a dead stop and the Focus scoots smoothly and very quickly with no fuss and little engine noise. Punch it when passing on the highway and it still has plenty of legs. It feels considerably quicker than my Matrix even though it’s 2.0L Duratec engine delivers 34 fewer horsepower. Gas it into a turn and it holds steady with minimal lean. I’m generally a careful driver, but I find myself throwing this car into curves with much more gusto than any other car I’ve owned. Even my daily commute to work is more fun in the Focus. The Focus is no sports car, but tossing it around puts plenty of smiles on my face.
The Winner. Even though the Matrix wins in more categories, the Focus is so much more fun to drive that I give it the overall nod. But when my son gets his license, I’m borrowing his car whenever I need to haul something.