Cell therapy for spinal cord injury (SCI) is a promising strategy for clinical application. Both bone marrow mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs; also known as bone marrow-derived ‘mesenchymal stem cells’) and olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) have demonstrated beneficial effects following transplantation in animal models of SCI. However, due to the large number of affecting parameters that determine the therapy success and the lack of methodological consensus, the comparison of different works is difficult. Therefore, we compared the effects of MSC and OEC transplants at early or delayed time after a spinal cord contusion injury in the rat. Functional outcomes for locomotion, sensory perception and electrophysiological responses were assessed. Moreover, the grafted cells survival and the amount of cavity and spared tissue were studied. The findings indicate that grafted cells survived until 7 days post-injection, but markedly disappeared in the following 2 weeks. Despite the low survival of the cells, MSC and OEC grafts provided tissue protection after early and delayed transplantation. Nevertheless, only acute MSC grafts improved locomotion recovery in treadmill condition and electrophysiological outcomes with respect to the other injured groups. These results, together with previous works, indicate that the MSC seem a better option than OEC for treatment of contusion injuries.