2017 Honda Civic Si Coupe prototype, 2016 Los Angeles auto show
Mileage for either of these models is now great, with highway ratings for both up around 40 mpg—even if you spring for the larger 2.5-liter engine in the Mazda 3. The turbocharged engine in the new Civic, at 42 mpg highway, actually does a bit better than the standard engine. The Civic Hybrid is gone, however.
We used to caution away from the Mazda 3 for its harder ride and cabin harshness, but the latest version is better, with a more sophisticated ride and less cabin boom. What we still would point to as a weakness of the Mazda 3 is its cramped cabin, and especially the "scrunched" feel of the back seat compared to that of the Civic. It's true that the Mazda is offered either as a sedan or hatchback, but it's the case in either body style that form trumped function to a higher degree than in the Honda—which would be our choice of the two if you need to carry adults in the back seat at times. The new Civic offers some truly impressive back-seat space, as well as some clever packaging inside, including a reconfigurable center console. Although we still think the Civic is clumsy in some interface respects—dedicating two big round knobs for climate-control temperature, rather than volume or fan speed, for example.
The former Mazda 3 wasn't a strong performer for safety, but the current version has been quite the opposite. The Mazda 3 is a IIHS Top Safety Pick+ choice, with top scores all around, and available forward-collision warnings with Smart City Brake Support, which can anticipate a collision and activate emergency braking under 19 mph. The 2016 Civic gets the same Top Safety Pick+ honors from the IIHS and sports some advanced safety gear for a very reasonable price. A package with adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warnings, and forward collision warning systems with automatic braking are offered on other versions for just $1,000.
Honda has also packed many more features into the Civic, without any major price hike. All Civics now get Bluetooth hands-free calling connectivity and audio streaming, a rearview camera system, power accessories, and cruise control. At the top of the lineup, the Mazda 3s Grand Touring offers a few more items that might be seen as premium—things like rain-sensing wipers, adaptive bi-xenon headlamps, active grille shutters, and an i-ELOOP system that stores away energy in an ultracapacitor system to help improve efficiency. Both models, in all but their most affordable versions, offer infotainment systems with reasonably good connectivity and apps capability—with the Honda's system now Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible. The Mazda's system is based around a freestanding touch screen with center-console controller, while the Honda system has an in-dash touch screen.
If you simply go by the numbers and consider only value for the money—or want a simple commuting car—you could be satisfied with either the Civic or the Mazda 3. The Civic has become a more refined, better-performing car—with more personality—in its latest iteration; and the Mazda 3 remains the gold standard as we see it for a sharp-looking, sharp-performing small car, although its packaging makes some obvious compromises. There's not a bad pick between the two, but for now, we'll give the nod to the Civic.