When the third-generation Mazda3 was unveiled in 2013, we were more than pleased with what it delivered. The Mazda3 was the compact sedan we recommended. In 2014, it won a Big Test comparison against the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, and Toyota Corolla. But only a couple of years later we saw new generations of the Civic, Elantra, and Chevrolet Cruze, and the Mazda3 lost its crown. It came in fourth place in a follow-up comparison, losing to the three aforementioned sedans.
The 3 hadn’t lost its magic, though; it simply slipped behind new and improved competition. With the debut of the fourth generation for the 2019 model year, we decided to pit it against our current favorite and Big Test winner: the 2019 Honda Civic.
Honda really changed the segment with the 10th-generation Civic when it arrived for the 2016 model year. The styling, technology, driving dynamics, and value helped the Civic get to the top, and it also brought a key ingredient that set it apart from its competitors: fun. For 2019, Honda made the Civic sleeker, adding updated headlights across the board and a black grille to the Touring model. Everything stayed the same under the hood, which means the 1.5-liter turbo-four engine still produces 174 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque, and the CVT sends all that power to the front wheels. Our Civic Touring had a price of $28,220.
On the other hand, Mazda decided to try something different with the new 3. The Hiroshima-based brand took its compact a step above and made the design and interior much more premium. “Take the logos off, and you’ll think it’s a luxury car,” associate online editor Stefan Ogbac said. The new exterior is carefully crafted with crisp creases and details, and the updated interior has elegant lines and materials inspired by the most luxurious brands from Japan. Under the hood, Mazda updated the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine to produce 186 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed automatic transmission sends all the power to the front wheels. All of that added luxury comes with a price: Our Mazda3 Premium package had a price tag of $29,415, or $1,195 more than our Civic Touring.
Mazda and Honda diverge with their interiors, even when we’re comparing both brands’ top-of-the-line models. The new 3’s dash, door panels, and seats are appointed with nice soft-touch leather. Even rear passengers get soft-touch plastics, something Honda doesn’t offer. “Another way I can actually buy into Mazda’s latest premium push is with the edge of the center console, which has a leatherlike material,” senior production editor Zach Gale said. “Sure, it’s a little hard, but you can feel the softness with your hand or knee. Not expected at this price point.” In terms of interior space, though, the Mazda falls short. The back seat feels tight, lacking both head- and legroom. Tall passengers have just enough space before their heads touch the headliner, and both Gale’s and my knees were touching the seat back when the front seat was adjusted to our driving position. The Civic, on the other hand, feels cavernous and provides more than enough room for tall passengers.
We prefer Mazda’s 8.8-inch screen over Honda’s 7.0-inch screen, but we’d rather have Honda’s touch-controlled infotainment system than Mazda’s rotary knob. The Mazda3 has a head-up display and a bigger screen, and the display is located on top of the dashboard, making it easier for the driver to operate the screen without being distracted from the road. Ogbac, our resident infotainment-meister, described Mazda’s system as “a step backward” for being a maze of menus. “It takes too many steps to change satellite radio stations—five or more at least,” he said. “Using a knob is really distracting, taking your concentration away from the road.”
On the other hand, although the Civic’s infotainment is slow and looks a bit outdated, it’s easier to control. Everything is well organized, and you can get to where you want easier. A volume knob is “new” for 2019, returning after a three-year absence. Both cars have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. “I do wish you could get a larger touchscreen because the 7.0-inch looks tiny next to the Mazda3’s 8.8-inch display,” Ogbac said. “The upgraded audio system is pretty good, too, second best behind the Mazda’s Bose unit.”
The previous Mazda3’s driving abilities made the vehicle one of our favorites. Mazda’s powertrain was well calibrated, and it brought a sense of driving enjoyment other cars in its class didn’t have. But for 2019 Mazda did things differently with the 3: It ditched the independent rear suspension for a cost-saving torsion beam, which dramatically changes the way it behaves on the road. “I felt more road imperfections in the Mazda than I did in the Honda,” Gale said.
When driving over Portuguese Bend’s broken pavement on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the Mazda3’s rear felt like it lost traction whenever we drove over a bump on a corner. “Get ready to feel the rear end skitter and jump around the moment you go over uneven pavement,” Ogbac said. Once you drive over smooth pavement, the ride is refined, but the moment there’s a bump or imperfection on the road, things go down.
We also weren’t in love with the 2.5-liter engine. It has adequate power when you’re going straight on flat surfaces, but when you try to merge on the freeway or go uphill, the powertrain struggles. Although the cabin is mostly quiet in normal driving situations, when you step on the gas, you’ll hear a good roar from the engine. The updated engine made the compact sedan 0.1 second faster than the last Mazda3 we tested, getting from 0 to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds. One other nitpick with the Mazda3: Its brake pedal was hard to predict, feeling like you needed to press down hard in order to come to a stop. This was also noticeable at the track, where testing director Kim Reynolds had a hard time with the braking during the figure-eight test.
On the other hand, the Civic felt pretty familiar with its punchy 1.5-liter turbo, which doesn’t exert itself much to go uphill or merge onto the freeway. Although we’ve complained about the loud CVT, it works smoothly and generally does a good job. We also prefer it over the Mazda’s six-speed, which showed some jerkiness at low driving speeds. Its independent rear suspension tackles most road imperfections before you feel any vibrations in the cabin, and when the bumps are big, the springs and shocks get to work to keep cabin movement to a minimum. The Civic also feels planted in the corners, showing low body roll and also providing a fun driving experience. “Its steering is also really quick and direct, giving the driver a connected feel on the road and letting you know exactly what the front wheels are doing,” Ogbac said.
At the track, the Civic showed slightly better numbers than the Mazda, getting from 0 to 60 mph in 7.0 seconds and completing the quarter mile in 15.4 seconds at 90.8 mph (15.7 seconds at 90.3 mph for the Mazda3). Our Honda also had better braking numbers from 60 to 0 mph—115 feet over the Mazda’s 117 feet.
For 2019, every Civic comes standard with the Honda Sensing safety technologies suite. Customers get adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, automatic emergency braking, and other additional techs. During our drive, the lane keep assist and adaptive cruise control worked really well on the highway; the Civic kept a good distance between the car in front of us and read the lane marks correctly. “Honda Sensing is the best suite here,” Ogbac said. But one thing we missed on the Civic was bling-spot monitoring; the Honda still uses the outdated LaneWatch, which displays a camera view of the car’s right side on the infotainment screen when the right turning signal is on. For the driver’s side, there are no alerts or any kind of monitoring. Gale, however, still preferred LaneWatch over blind-spot monitoring.
Mazda, on the other hand, falls short on the list of safety technologies, as the 3 doesn’t even get automatic emergency braking standard. To get comparable safety tech on the Mazda3, you’ll have to opt for the Select package; the Select package includes lane keep assist, lane departure warning, driver attention alert, and Mazda’s Smart City Brake Support with pedestrian detection (among others). Although our Mazda3 with the Premium package had these options, we weren’t as pleased with the way they worked. Lane keep assist only intervened when the car had gone over the lane on the highway, and the adaptive cruise control left such a long following distance that we kept getting cut off.
The final decision in this comparison wasn’t difficult. Although the new 3 has great styling and a premium interior, the changes made to its suspension and powertrain and its lack of standard safety technologies kept it from earning top honors. The new Mazda3 is still fun to drive, but it doesn’t have the same character it used to. If you’re cross-shopping between these two cars, you should also know that the Mazda has worse fuel economy numbers.
The Civic, on the other hand, continues to deliver on everything it promises. It can be sporty when you want it to be fun and quiet when you need a peaceful ride. Its value, standard equipment, and interior space are superior to Mazda’s, and it simply continues to be the best car in its class.
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