Both owned by Mattel as of publication, Hot Wheels and Matchbox are iconic brands of miniature toy car. The products offered by both companies have a lot in common, but there are a few distinct differences in the type of toys produced by each. The biggest differences between them are the type of cars each brand focuses on, as opposed to actual differences in build.
Sport vs. Utility
One of the biggest differences between Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars is the types of models in each brand's catalog. Hot Wheels puts an emphasis on sportier, high-speed vehicles like Lamborghini, Ferrari, and the best of American muscle and pony cars. While Matchbox's catalog has a few sports vehicles, it's mainly comprised of a diverse lineup including service and utility vehicles, military equipment and planes. Even where both brands create the same model, you'll see differences based on this emphasis: Hot Wheels will often include racing-inspired body kits, lowered bodies, superchargers and spoilers, while Matchbox will deliver the "stock" model.
Hot Wheels also has an extensive line of fantasy cars, with no real-world counterparts available. Many of these cars feature heavily themed aesthetics like bizarre scoops and pipes, canopies, and other features more at home in science fiction. Hot Wheels also often releases versions of licensed vehicle designs from movies and television, like the iconic ECTO-1 from "Ghostbusters" or any of Batman's numerous Batmobiles. Matchbox has a focus on realistic vehicles, which excludes any fantasy vehicles; these are usually included in the Hot Wheels line.
Hot Wheels also has several lines exclusive to various retailers throughout the year, while Matchbox has far fewer exclusive offers. In both lines, exclusives vary depending on the retailer. In many cases, they're exclusive repaints of existing models, but in some rare cases they are reissues of previously released vehicles. Sometimes exclusives may be for more than just the car, such as a playset or track being exclusive to a single retailer. The majority of Hot Wheels exclusives center around a holiday theme, such as Halloween or Christmas, or a brand, such as Fast & Furious or Mustang. In some cases, exclusives are themed around an occasion, like exclusive Hot Wheels vehicles for San Diego Comic-Con.
Modern models from both companies are fairly similar in terms of build quality, typically using plastic tires, plastic bodywork and a small amount of die-cast metal. However, older models do feature some small differences in build compared to the models of today. Older Hot Wheels cars typically have wider wheels and long axles, which cause the wheels to stick out from the body somewhat, while Matchbox cars do not. In addition, most older Hot Wheels cars featured a red ring around the tire; fans have given the name "Redline" to these cars. Older Hot Wheels cars also feature somewhat different proportions from Matchbox, even for the same model of car.