The Honda Civic is Canada’s passenger-car sales champ. 5 months into 2019 and it’s still outselling everything. Only the Ford F-150 and Ram move more units.
Even as the current generation of consumers forgets about the sedan, Civic sales remain steadfast. Determined not to let SUVs take over completely.
It’s not hard to see why so many people are loyal to the Civic. They’re well priced, well made, efficient, and easy to drive. You can get them in a variety of body styles, from sedate sedan to Nurburgring record-breaking hot-hatch and they’re about as reliable as the sun rising.
For many years the Civic was also the king of driving dynamics, showing the public that economy cars didn’t have to sacrifice fun behind the wheel.
Entering the fray for the 2004 model year, the Mazda 3 replaced the long-running Protegé compact and embodied Mazda’s philosophy that every car it produces should contain Miata DNA.
The little compact from Hiroshima, like the Civic, proved an engaging driver helping transcend its econobox roots.
For 2019 the Mazda 3 was redesigned from the ground up and enters its fourth generation. And for the first time ever it can be specified with all-wheel drive. A feature the Civic cannot boast.
The 10th generation Civic, first introduced in 2016, gets restyled bumpers and some minor styling tweaks, while the addition of a much-needed volume knob and physical buttons for the infotainment and climate control improve the user experience.
I spent a week each in the Civic and the Mazda 3 to determine which of these two compacts is the better buy.
Admittedly there are some differences between the two testers: the Mazda 3 Sport is a hatchback and was equipped with a manual transmission. The Civic Touring is a traditional sedan and only comes with a continuously variable automatic gearbox. Due to scheduling constraints, I wasn’t able to get the Civic Hatchback Sport Touring, which would have been the direct competitor to this Mazda. But from a driving standpoint, the hatch and sedan are pretty much identical.
There’s nothing dramatically new about the styling of the refreshed 2019 Civic. It’s still a mish-mash of origami lines and angles. The “wing” grille has been given a gloss black finish; Touring models get updated LED headlamps and new 18-inch wheels.
The sedan’s truncated rear end makes it look almost like the hatchback, so we’ll forgive you for not being able to tell the difference between the two right away. It’s not a pretty design but it is different and doesn’t try to be like everything else. So Honda deserves kudos for that.
If the Civic’s design is a mish-mash of lines, the Mazda’s is the complete opposite with cohesively sculpted, flowing sheet metal and no hard edges. In hatch form, especially, the new Mazda 3 is easily the best looking car in its class.
The news gets even better on the inside, with premium soft-touch materials used on most surfaces and touch-points. And the two-tone red and black interior combo on my tester was especially nice. The dashboard is partially leather covered, clean, and uncluttered with only a few hard buttons for the climate control. Mazda’s rotary controller makes it easy to operate the infotainment system, which is responsive and generally quite intuitive. The screen isn’t touch-enabled but physical controllers are less distracting and help keep your eyes on the road.
Honda was wise to listen to customer demands for a volume knob, and the addition of it and a few other buttons for the infotainment and climate control have gone a long way into making its cabin a better place to spend time. By contrast, Honda’s 7-inch touchscreen Display audio system is smaller than the Mazda’s 8.8-inch affair and feels about a generation older. It’s clunky and slow, sometimes requiring multiple stabs to register inputs.
The rest of the Civic’s cabin is well put together; material quality is good, but not as nice as it is in the Mazda.
Winner – Mazda
Fold the back seats down in the Mazda 3 and there’s 1334 litres of space to work with. That’s slightly more than you get in the Civic hatchback (seat backs up a Civic hatchback has more cargo space than this Mazda), which I did drive last year, albeit in race-ready Type R form. Airport runs and Swedish furniture store binges couldn’t be easier.
Hatchbacks are bastions of practicality, not only can you haul lots of stuff in them, the large hatch opening facilitates shoving in much larger items than you could ever hope to cram into a trunk.
Don’t think that the Civic sedan isn’t practical, though. At 417 litres of space its trunk is bigger than I expected. Then again the Civic itself is bigger than I expected—inside and out.
It almost feels like a mid-size car. The back seat is huge (for a compact). I’m six feet tall and had ample legroom behind the driver’s seat positioned for myself.
The Mazda 3 feels a little cramped in the back, the large c-pillars don’t help with rearward visibility either but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. If you have taller people in your life that you’ll need to shuttle around, then the 3’s tight back seat needs to be taken into consideration.
Both cars have lots of little cubbyholes and nooks to store stuff but the Civic beats the Mazda here, too, with more storage in its customizable centre console and additional hidden storage underneath the shift lever.
My week in each car was spent on roughly the same drive routes consisting of a mix of downtown and suburban roads and highways.
The turbocharged Civic was the efficiency champ at the end of it all. Its little 1.5-litre turbo 4 coupled to a continuously variable transmission eked out an impressive 8.4 litres per 100 km.
The Mazda 3 with its naturally aspirated 4-cylinder could only muster 9.6 litres per 100 km, requiring frequent trips into the upper rpm ranges to muster adequate amounts of power. That’s quite a big difference, some of which could be attributed to the lack of mileage on the car (under 2000 km) but mainly the small displacement turbo and CVT combo are hard to beat.
Winner – Honda
Features, Equipment, and Safety tech
Being at the top of their respective trim lines, both the Mazda and the Honda were loaded with just about everything that could be thrown at them.
You won’t go mistaking these for luxury cars, but much of what they come with can be considered luxurious features. Like leather upholstered power seats. The Mazda’s move 10 ways, compared to just 8 for the Civic, and even come with memory settings for the driver’s seat.
The Civic gets heated seats in the back but the Mazda gets a heated steering wheel. It even has a windshield-projected head-up display something you cannot get in the Civic. In addition to showing current speed and navigation instructions the head-up display also shows blind spot alerts, and can display speed and road sign information. A feature you usually find only on expensive German saloons.
In fact, the experience of sitting in the driver’s seat of the new Mazda 3 is eerily Teutonic. There’s stitched leather on the dash, console, and doors; the elegant speaker grilles and tasteful touches of chrome show an attention to detail that’s not very common in this class of car.
There’s nothing wrong with the cabin in the Civic, but it just doesn’t come close to feeling as nice as the Mazda’s does. Really though, nothing in this segment does.
Neither skimp on safety and driver assistance tech. Both get adaptive cruise control, lane assist, forward collision warning, pedestrian detection and automatic braking, and auto high beams, but the Mazda adds blind spot monitors, rear cross traffic alert, and reverse parking sensors.
It’s worth noting that a base-level Civic DX gets the full suite of safety assistance features mentioned above as standard, and that’s pretty cool in our books. You have to move up to the mid-level GS trim on the Mazda to get those. But since we’re comparing the high-zoot trims that really doesn’t apply here.
Winner – Mazda
Performance, Ride and Handling, Fun Factor
Because the Mazda 3 tester I was driving came equipped with a six-speed manual, the Honda with its CVT was fighting an uphill battle.
Being as unbiased as possible, then, both of these cars would be the driver’s choice in this segment.
The Civic’s steering is nicely weighted, heavier than the Mazda’s, but it offers less feedback and generally feels less connected to the front wheels. It is slightly quicker and throwing the Civic into a corner remains a good experience. The body moves around a bit, but not too much, and the lean in the corners helps you gauge how much available grip you have left before the car lets go.
Do the same thing with the Mazda and the response is immediately more engaging: less body movement, more grip, more confidence to push harder.
Bumps mid-corner barely affect the line, the Mazda 3 feels planted even on rough surfaces and in my experience that’s a tough trick to pull off. No matter how deep the road crevices were, the Mazda’s suspension absorbed them all. After a while, I wasn’t even bracing for them. When they were avoidable, a quick flick of the steering wheel made pot-hole evasion a cinch.
The Civic too was comfortable even over pock-marked downtown roads and both displayed minimal tramlining when driving over streetcar tracks. But the Mazda’s ride quality was noteworthy. Braking was surprisingly good on both cars, although the Civic felt like it had a bit more stopping power, which could be attributed to the fact the Mazda was still wearing winter tires.
The 2.5-litre SkyActiv-G four-cylinder in the Mazda has an unusally high 13:1 compression ratio, part of Mazda’s plan to extract as much performance and efficiency from gasoline as possible. It develops 186 hp @ 6000 rpm and 186 torques at 4000 rpm— without turbocharging—and that’s commendable.
But in everyday driving, the Civic feels faster. It makes less torque (162 lb-ft) but all of it is available at a just-off-idle 1700 rpm. You have to work for the speed in the Mazda but the light positive throws and easy clutch take-up of the six-speed manual cog-swapper make it fun.
Take the Mazda past 4000 rpm and it actually starts to sound pretty good. Even then there just isn’t much power.
Try to wring out the Civic in the same way and you discover the fly in its ointment—the CVT. Better known by its real name: Buzz Killington.
While it might be good for fuel efficiency, the constant-rpm drone and ‘motorboating’ effect you get when giving it gas are frustrating and rob any semblance of enjoyment you can have behind the wheel. There’s a sport mode, which only makes the engine drone louder and pulling a paddle shifter results in a response that makes little sense if you’re coming from a traditional stepped automatic.
To be fair, I value a car that accommodates a spirited driving style. And when just tooling around normally the CVT is a smooth, efficient operator. But that engine drone effect isn’t easy to ignore.
Even when taking the transmission out of the factor, the Mazda has the better chassis, the better ride and it’s much more refined.
Winner – Mazda
These two sticker at just a hair over $28,000. So there’s nothing between them in terms of price. The Mazda 3 has a few more bells and whistles but both are almost identically equipped. The Civic comes off feeling a bit rental-grade when contrasted with the Mazda and it just doesn’t have the same visual impact. But it does offer much more space.
For a growing family, both cars are just about perfect. This is a close one but once again the Mazda with its sleek body and upscale cabin make it seem like you’re getting more for your money.
Winner – Tie
The Mazda may have taken most of the categories in the end but there isn’t much between the two. You really can’t go wrong with either of these cars. Both offer a lot of kit for what you pay, more than I ever expected. Entry-level today is not what it used to be and that’s what was most surprising during this test.
In the end, the Mazda just feels and looks more special. It looses some points on practicality but it’s the driver’s car out of the two and the one I would happily put in my own garage.