Honda and Mazda are both known for the leanness and charm that they can build into their compact cars. Both brands have, for decades, excelled at not just at making good, fuel-efficient subcompact sedans (and hatchbacks) but also ones that are nimble and fun to drive.
And the latest Honda Civic and Mazda 3 keep entirely with that reputation—in offering more personality than a lot of the other driving appliances out there at the price. Honda has brought the Civic back in form with an all-new 2016 model that has a clean-sheet design, stiff new body, and efficient new engines—plus even more of an emphasis on safety technology. Meanwhile, the current version of the Mazda 3 is one of our top-rated compact cars, with an eye-catching exterior, excellent handling, and more of a premium feel than its low price might suggest.
Which one wins for 2017? It's the Civic by a narrow victory. The Honda earned a heady 8.0 on our overall scale, compared to the Mazda's 7.6. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The Honda Civic has bid farewell to the more conservative generation that arrived back in 2012 and was since upgraded. The new 2016 Civic instead takes a much more design-savvy approach, with a beautifully edgy fastback shape that helps widen and lower the proportions. The front end and its chrome might be the weakest part, but the fast roofline and wedgy tail help it look sporty and upscale. It's now an interesting counterpoint to the Mazda, which is organic, flowing, and gently surfaced, with an emphasis on the profile itself—pushing the roofline and greenhouse back to the degree that it looks like it could be a rear-wheel drive car from the side (it's not).
We'd still call the Mazda3 the winner here, but only by a very slight lead. And inside, it's far more a matter of personal taste than before. The Mazda3 feels a little more aspirational and cockpit-like, with an upscale look and feel in the cabin materials; the Civic's interior design is more cohesive than before, with the dash going more broadly horizontal and a single screen replacing the previous version's dual screens.
In performance, the Mazda 3 manages to feel sporty no matter which model you choose, while the Honda Civic splits its identities but makes major improvements in ride and handling in any of its variants. If you go with the standard 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine in the Civic, making 158 horsepower and 138 pound-feet, you'll get familiar, linear power delivery; it's unobtrusive but also unexciting. Go with the 1.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, making 174 hp and 162 lb-ft, and you get a much more energetic personality—although through the CVT you'll be missing the direct input or right-now shift quality of either a good manual gearbox or conventional automatic.
Ride and handling for the new Civic is a huge improvement over the outgoing model; on turbo models in particular, you get upgraded hydraulic suspension bushings that help deliver a compliant ride, good control, and excellent steering.
All that said, we'd still pick the Mazda3 from a fun-to-drive standpoint. The Mazda 3 offers a 2.0-liter inline-4 rated at 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque, and a more powerful 2.5-liter version putting out 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque. Whether you go for the 6-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic transmission, these transmissions bring out a perky driving feel and return good real-world gas mileage. The latest Mazda 3 feels tight, precise, and pleasing in all the right aesthetic and tactile ways from the driver's seat. Steering is the only thing that isn't a clear step ahead in the Mazda, but it still has a more precise feel on the road than the Civic.
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.