Honda Civic Vs. Mazda Mazda3Enlarge Photo
The Honda Civic got a redesign for 2012 that made it feel, undeniably, a little more conservative; to Honda's credit, it did retain much of the futuristic look and rakish roofline of the previous Civic versions, but with a somewhat careful, evolutionary look in front, combined with a more utilitarian look inside, Honda's clearly emphasized practicality over style this time. Then a quick restyle for 2013 made the Civic much more handsome and chiseled from the front, and darker interior themes and more soft-touch materials made it feel more sophisticated inside. Yet from a design standpoint (it's still tough to love the Dali-esque instrument panel curvature), the Mazda3 is the winner here, and remains one of the most distinctive small-car picks--especially if you opt for the five-door hatchback (a layout not offered in the Civic). Inside, the Mazda3 is more inspiring, more aspirational and cockpit-like, even if the two-screen dash layout is a bit odd.
The Civic might remain nimble and responsive compared to most other subcompacts, but it's clearly the second choice in terms of performance; its 140-hp, 1.8-liter four is still one of the best, but the steering isn't as precise or as well-weighted as the Mazda's, and the five-speed automatic tends to balk for downshifts. Mazda has now expanded availability of the efficient SkyActiv powertrain, and the models with it are the pick of the lineup. These models include the new 155-hp, 2.0-liter SkyActiv engine, with direct injection, and it's paired with either a six-speed automatic or a six-speed manual (both all-new). Especially with this very smooth powertrain, the Mazda3 feels tight, precise, and pleasing in all the right aesthetic and tactile ways from the driver's seat. Steering, too, is hands down the best in the subcompact class, thanks to hydraulic power steering with an electric pump.
Mileage for either of these models is now great, with city ratings in the upper 20s and highway ratings up around 40 mpg; although with the 2012 Mazda3 you might want to avoid either of the older-tech 2.0-liter or 2.5-liter engines in the non-SkyActiv models if miles per gallon are a priority. Keep in mind that the Civic also offers an Si model, with a larger 2.4-liter four, as well as a Civic Hybrid, which returns an EPA-rated 44 mpg.
We used to caution away from the Mazda3 for its harder ride and cabin harshness, but over the past several model years (including for 2012, with somewhat softer calibrations), the automaker has largely quelled that, bringing a more sophisticated ride. What remains not to everyone's taste is the plethora of hard plastics on the dash. The Mazda3's details might be sportier and more distinctive than the Civic's, yet with this year's improvements the Civic is by far the quieter of the two inside—with a more comfortable ride, too. In a practical sense, the Civic sedan feels like it has more legroom than the Mazda3 sedan, but it's the opposite tradeoff in headroom.
From a safety perspective, the thing that's concerning about the Mazda3 is its three-star side impact rating from the federal government. Meanwhile, the Civic Sedan models are the winners here, achieving a top five-star rating; both cars (except the Civic Coupe) are top performers according to the IIHS, and the 2013 Civic has earned the new IIHS Top Safety Pick+ accolade.