Mustang vs. Camaro. WRX vs. EVO. Ferrari vs. Cobra.
Automotive rivalries have a way of driving home loyalty with both enthusiasts and average consumers. And now there's another one to add to the list: Mazda 3 vs. Honda Civic. Even though the battle for economy sedan supremacy won't be played out on drag strips, rally stages or the Mulsanne straight, the stakes, for the automakers involved, are equally high.
After all, winning consumer loyalty in this segment — which rivals full-size trucks and midsize sedans as a volume leader in the U.S. auto market — can make a serious dent in year-end balance sheets. This is why companies like Honda and Mazda have spent major effort designing and redesigning the Civic and Mazda 3 and why they are the two most prominent players in the game at the moment.
Top ranked players
When it comes to economical compact sedans Honda is a serious contender. The Civic is a traditional class leader having won our 2003 Economy Sedan Comparison Test and finishing second in our 2005 Economy Sedan Comparison Test in its last generation. But now there's a fully redesigned 2006 Civic ready to take on all comers with a more powerful engine, multiple transmission options, a new suspension and revised styling.
The Civic comes standard with a 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder rated at 140 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. The EX model we ordered for this test came loaded with standard features often found only as options on most cars. Key EX features include the five-speed automatic transmission, 16-inch wheels, air conditioning, a moonroof, keyless entry, a 60/40-split-folding rear seat, and a jack for portable music players. Side airbags and side curtain airbags are standard on all Civics. Our test car was outfitted with the standard five-speed automatic transmission and stickered for $19,610, including the $550 destination fee.
Mazda's 3, however, is the current king of the compact sedan market, beating the Civic in our last comparison test with handling and control feel normally reserved for pure-bred sports cars. Its build quality, materials and design are all top notch. Add up the 3's unbelievable dynamics and superb build quality and it only makes sense that it's the current ruler of the compact sedan roost.
For this test we ordered an S Grand Touring model, which comes with a 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder rated at 160 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque. Seventeen-inch wheels are standard as are leather seats, side airbags with curtains, xenon headlights and rain-sensing windshield wipers. Our test car cost $22,010 including the optional $950 five-speed automatic transmission, $1,335 moonroof/CD changer package and $560 destination fee.
We ordered both cars with automatic transmissions figuring we'd provide the same mechanical playing field we did with our previous comparison test. Plus, more Civics and 3s are sold with automatics than with manual transmissions. Then we drove them like most people would — back and forth to work, through long stints in traffic and for the usual weekend duties. We even loaded a mountain bike in them to see if it was possible. Impressively, the backseat of both cars swallowed the bike with the front wheel removed.
When we were convinced both cars were capable of the mundane tasks everyone would ask of them, we went to the track and did things no one will ever do in these slushbox-equipped economy cars. Brake-smoking stops, cone-crushing slalom passes and not-so-blistering acceleration runs through the quarter-mile were de rigueur. And when we were done, a clear winner was obvious.
Despite being a rivalry which will be fought at dealerships, this test climaxed first at the track where the Mazda 3 simply stomped the Civic in any test that involved moving. All the instrumented tests fell heavily in favor of the sharper, stiffer, more powerful Mazda.
On the street the Civic did show its refined heritage. It's a fine car to pilot for everyday duty with quality construction and a comfortable ride. It comes with some smart features we found useful — like the portable music player jack — and a long list of standard luxuries, some of which cost extra on the 3.
Even so, the Mazda still outshines the newly redesigned Civic when it comes to interior materials and styling. Plus, the Mazda's dash is easier to use than the Civic's two-tiered speedometer/tachometer displays as are its stereo and heater-A/C controls.
At first, the $2,400 difference in cost between our test cars was a major concern, but then we realized we could do without the $1,335 moonroof/CD changer package on our 3. Without it we'd have a car that cost only $1,000 more than the Civic. That thousand bucks simply buys the better car.
First Place: 2006 Mazda 3
The 2006 Mazda 3 does everything — and we mean everything — better than its competition. In fact, its acceleration, handling, build quality, feature content, interior design and styling are on par with cars that cost significantly more. That makes the 3 a tremendous value, and for the second test in a row, a winner.
Near perfect powertrain
We like the Mazda's engine/transmission combination for a number of reasons. First, it's a monster on power when compared to the Civic. At 160 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque the 3's 2.3-liter four is one of the most powerful engines in the class and it shows. At the track the 3 ran a 16.4-second quarter-mile at 84 mph. That's 0.7 second quicker than the Civic. It also hit 60 mph in 8.6 seconds, which is a full second quicker than the Civic.
The manually shiftable automatic tranny has a smart calibration that will hold gears to redline but downshifts to 1st when the car stops. We found ourselves pounding down a gear or two to shoot gaps in traffic and appreciated its ability to be aggressive when we asked. It's also invisible when we just wanted to cruise, gathering speed with shifts as smooth as Cool Whip.
Fuel economy is still a weak point for the 3. We drove both cars with lead feet just to keep up with the Southern California freeway pace, and it showed, especially in the Mazda which recorded a mediocre 22.3-mile-per-gallon average in combined city/highway driving. The Civic's 7-mpg improvement on that number is significant.
The soul of a sports car
Mazda says it's in every car it sells. It's no lie. The 3 did things at the track that would have impressed us in a car that cost $10,000 more. Amazing balance around the skid pad resulted in a 0.87 g lateral acceleration score proving that Mazda can make anything handle, even with less than ideal all-season rubber (205/50-17 Goodyear Eagle RS-A).
Through the slalom its numbers were even more impressive. It posted a 69-mph slalom speed, which is faster than the Subaru WRX STi we tested earlier this year. Braking isn't even close either. The 3 stopped from 60 mph in 118 feet — comparable to the last Miata we tested. Does the 3 still sound like an economy sedan to you?
But the most impressive traits of its handling aren't in the numbers. It's the experience that matters most. You must feel the Mazda's precise steering, well-damped suspension and elegant roll control to fully understand this highly underrated machine.
Its steering is most impressive. It feels sharp both on and off center, and provides immediate turn-in. Response is so quick we found ourselves needing to readjust our line until we got used to it.
Ride quality suffers little despite the awesome dynamic abilities. The 3's suspension is tuned more aggressively than the Civic's, but the compromise in comfort is virtually imperceptible. If you find any value in the Mazda's enhanced driving experience, it's unlikely you'll take issue with its ride.
Smart, pretty interior
Intuitive design permeates the 3's heating/air conditioning and stereo controls which integrate nicely into the black-faced dash. Temperature and fan speed are on two large knobs which contain buttons for "auto" and "off" functions for climate control. It's an obvious system which is overridden by turning up the fan speed. The stereo has a center-mounted knob for volume control surrounded with buttons for radio presets and CD functions. Steering wheel-mounted buttons also control the stereo and cruise control.
Otherwise, the 3's interior is simply nicer than the Civic's. Leather seats with seat heaters are standard with the "S Grand Touring" trim level. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is relatively small in diameter and thick-rimmed which makes the 3 feel more like a sports car when you're beating WRXs through the slalom.
The instrument panel is dominated by a center-mounted speedometer surrounded by a tachometer on the left and fuel and coolant temperature gauges on the right. It's a conventional design which is as functional as it is attractive.
The Mazda's seats are firmer and more aggressively shaped than the Civic's, which makes them more comfortable for any kind of driving. And like the Civic, its rear seat is split 60/40 and folds flat easily to increase cargo space.
The passionate choice
It's the little things that add up to give the 3 the victory. It does virtually nothing wrong and gets so much right. We prefer its interior design and functionality and we think it's a better-looking car than the Civic. Plus, it wins in any contest of performance. Bottom line, the 2006 Mazda 3 wins because it offers a driving experience far beyond our expectations and, more importantly, beyond its price tag.
Second Place: 2006 Honda Civic
Don't let its 2nd-place finish in this test fool you: Honda's eighth-generation Civic is a nice car. It offers a fit, finish and modernized driving experience that will feel familiar to all Hondaphiles. As will its general feeling of quality construction both inside and out.
What's more, outside of its performance, many of the reasons it finished 2nd come down to personal preference. There are simply some new tweaks to the old formula that we could do without.
First on that list is the Civic's suppository-esque styling, which didn't win many fans around the office. The aggressive rake of the windshield which leaves its driver feeling like he's piloting the Millennium Falcon wouldn't be such an issue if it didn't create the occasional visibility problem. We found ourselves needing to look around the A-pillars to have full front three-quarter visibility — an experience that was more Pontiac Trans Sport than Honda Civic.
Next on the gripe list is the Civic's dash design which places the tachometer in a traditional location behind the steering wheel, but sticks the digital speedometer, fuel and coolant temperature gauges at the base of the windshield. Ideally, this design puts the most important information closest to the road, but a side effect of the Civic's Millennium Falcon styling is an enormous dashboard, which puts several feet between the readouts.
Due to this distance we found ourselves refocusing between the road, speedometer and tachometer which required more attention than simply looking at a traditional display. The refocusing habit might disappear after more time in the car (especially in an automatic where the tachometer is less critical), but during our one-week stint it was bothersome. What's more, a digital readout is simply the wrong way to display speed since it can't be processed as easily at a glance as an analog gauge.
The Honda's powertrain does a fairly remarkable job masking its half-liter discrepancy to the Mazda. It wasn't quite as quick as the 3, but it did better than we thought it would given the difference in power, torque and displacement.
Power delivery is improved relative to the old Civic's 1.7-liter mill, but its redline is 6,800 rpm, which isn't all that high for a small-displacement Honda engine, and peak power (140 hp) doesn't arrive until 6,300 rpm. Although not quite as quick as the Mazda, the Civic's 17.1-second quarter-mile run at 81.7 mph is almost a half-second quicker than the last seventh-generation Civic we tested.
The Civic's five-speed automatic has several gear selection positions but lacks the Mazda's slick automanual sport shifter which allows the driver to manually upshift and downshift. Plus, the response time from the Civic's electronic throttle in combination with its five-speed automatic transmission could be better.
Planning ahead on the freeway became a necessity to survive the mash-and-wait game created by the combined delays of throttle lag and transmission kickdown. And after that you're still at the mercy of the 140-hp engine. There isn't a truly fast car in this segment, but the Mazda's added power and more usable tranny did make holes in traffic easier to sneak through.
On the upside our combined fuel economy in the Civic was 29.7 miles per gallon — more than 7 mpg better than the 3 under very similar driving conditions. That difference alone will be enough to sway many buyers.
On the street the Civic is responsive and sublime. Honda fans will be familiar with the control feel and engine sound. Its suspension, steering and brakes all work together respectably and it's clear that Honda's design ethos has regard for some mild sporting character. It's also a mindlessly easy car to drive with intuitive response to inputs and controls falling readily at hand.
But it's not going to break any handling records.
At the track the Civic's slalom speed was more than 4 mph slower than the Mazda's (64.6 vs. 69.0 mph). Transitions between cones came with ample body roll but controlling the car, even at the limit, was easy.
The same is true on the skid pad where the Civic circled at 0.79 g with moderate understeer and minimal response to throttle input. The skid pad performance is likely a product of its 205/55-16 Bridgestone Turanza EL400 tires which have soft sidewalls and rock hard rubber — not the ideal combination for skid pad performance.
Or for short stopping distances. At 130 feet the Civic's braking distance from 60 mph is just average.
Ride quality is better than the 3, which is to say softer, with less damping. If you're never going to drive aggressively, the Civic will feel fantastic. It's comfortable at freeway speeds, sucks up drainage ditches and speed bumps like a trophy truck and will do a damned fine job hauling Aunt Nellie to the Michael Bolton concert. If, however, you're the type to attack an on-ramp from time to time, you should buy the 3.
Honda traditionally produces superb interiors, which is why we are puzzled by the jump backward in heating-A/C controls. The last-generation Civic's three-knob, three-button design for temperature, fan speed and vent location was as elegant, intuitive and as efficient as any system ever built. Yet, with the 2006 Civic, Honda left simplicity in favor of more buttons (nine of them to be exact — and two knobs). It's not a deal breaker, but it's certainly not as easy to use as the old design.
Even so, the Civic's interior uses nice materials which feel like they're screwed together as well as the Mazda's. They're not as upscale or as elegant-looking as the 3's all-black treatment on the center stack, but Honda does have Mazda beat in the sound system department thanks to the portable music player (think iPod) input jack and the ability to play Windows Media Audio (WMA) files.
More than once we found ourselves checking to be sure the driver-side windows were all the way up at speed thanks to some unnerving wind noise. The sound was inconsistent enough that we never nailed down its source, but the windows were never down when we heard it.
The Civic's interior functionality is slightly better than the 3's. With multiple bins for cell phones, iPods and the ability to accommodate virtually any sized double latte Starbucks serves, it's well outfitted for the urban warrior. Plus all Civics come with standard side curtain (head) airbags and side (torso) airbags, while they're standard only on S trim-level Mazda 3 models.
It also has a slightly bigger trunk than the 3 (12 cubic feet vs. 11.4 cubic feet). But with less front and rear headroom and less rear legroom, overall interior space is a wash between the two.
The rational choice
For us, the Civic ranks lower than the 3 based on its performance and some niggling design concerns that might not bother every consumer. It is, however, a well-made, efficient, utilitarian economy sedan that lives up to its namesake. If fuel economy tops your list of priorities then the 2006 Honda Civic might be the car for you.
2006 Honda Civic
2006 Mazda 3
2006 Honda Civic
System Score: 10.0
Components: Any Honda Civic from the LX up to the Si comes with a pretty impressive audio system. Even the LX offers a six-speaker system with the ability to play WMA files and has an auxiliary in-out jack for portable music players. Step up to the Si and you get a six-speaker audio system with a subwoofer. It offers 350 watts of power and when the navigation system is ordered there's also the benefit of a digital audio card reader and CD text display (only certain coded CDs have this feature).
Performance: We feel the Civic stereo deserves a "10" not based on its sound quality but because of the abundance of features it offers even on models that are priced under $20,000. The ability to play WMA files and the auxiliary audio jack are exactly the kind of features Civic buyers are looking for. We also like the changeable background on the unit with nav.
That's not to say the Civic's stereo doesn't sound good — it does. While sound reproduction can come across as a bit mechanical at times, there's enough punch and clarity to keep audiophiles somewhat happy. The bass response is good but at higher volumes it can sound messy and uncontrolled.
The real highlight of this stereo is how it incorporates many internal and external features without being confusing or complicated — another reason it earns a 10 in our book. High-line brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz could learn a lot from Honda in this area.
When the navigation system is ordered the menus are clear and easy to use but we wouldn't mind if the text and some of the touchscreen buttons were larger. Still, everything makes sense and we rarely, if ever, had to bust out the manual to figure out a certain feature.
Best Features: Nicely integrates many popular features.
Worst Feature: Some fonts on the menus are too small.
Conclusion: This system is exactly right for this car. Not only does the stereo sound good, it offers extra features and value that make other budget-priced cars seem lacking by comparison. — Brian Moody
2006 Mazda 3
System Score: 8.0
Components: The Mazda 3s comes standard with an impressive audio system that includes six speakers, speed-sensitive volume and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. As part of the "moonroof and 6-CD" package, an in-dash changer is added along with a 222-watt Bose stereo with subwoofer. The Mazda 3 is also compatible with Sirius Satellite Radio.
Performance: The Mazda 3's stereo delivers clean, clear sound at almost any volume. It sounds almost as good as the stereo that's in the Honda Civic but lacks that system's flexibility.
Like Civic's stereo, the 3's sound system delivers nice bass but lacks the punch of a more expensive unit. The sound quality overall is very good but not great; it lacks the warm quality of the Civic and instead opts for a more "real" sound that can sometimes be tiring at higher volumes. Midrange tends to sound hollow and can distract from the otherwise good sound coming from the six speakers.
The stereo found in the Mazda 3 looks and sounds a lot like the system in the larger Mazda 6. We like the way the controls are arranged in the Mazda 3, and although gimmicky, we like the added pizzazz of the blinking LED lights that accompany volume changes.
Best Feature: Satellite radio option is nice considering the 3's price.
Worst Feature: Midrange tends to sound lifeless.
Conclusion: A nice system overall. The average person will think they have something really special and audiophiles will hear this stereo's minor weaknesses. The Mazda 3 is a stellar little car and the stereo almost equals that in terms of sound quality.
2006 Mazda 3
"I sold my 2004 Camry Solara and bought the Mazda 3. It was a step down as far as luxury is concerned but this car is too much fun to drive. Also it has the utility of a full size car. I was surprised by the trunk space for such a small car. I absolutely enjoy driving it." — SanMan, November 3, 2005
"Had a Mazda Protege when it came out in 1995; the car was just OK to use. Wife wanted another Mazda, so we got the Mazda 3 and it is by far the best compact car that we have ever owned." — Tim, October 12, 2005
"I love the '06 Mazda 3! I have been reviewing lots of info which helped me during the buying process! In the '05 model, many complained about the bad A/C. It HAS been corrected. That was my main worry and now it's so cold it'll freeze you out
and I'm from Texas so that is mandatory! The new models also feature an outside temp gauge which the '05s didn't have. Overall this is a great car. I love it." — Lacey, September 26, 2005
"Very snappy, fun to drive, easy on the pocketbook with the great gas mileage. Perfect car for the teen to drive around town." — Cate, August 27, 2005
2006 Honda Civic
"I always do thorough research before buying and eliminated most cars with my first criteria for excellent MPG. (30 town/40 hwy minimum) I then started test-driving various models from various mfg's over the course of two months. Many cars have very good ratings for MPG, reliability, etc. but the '06 Civic was so far ahead of the others on a visceral, fun-to-drive level it was no contest. Loved it! In this price range the Civic interior (including the dash) has a more upscale feel than other cars. Co-workers, friends, & family have been uniform in admiring the car for looks and performance. Excellent commuter and good in the snow." — E A Scott, December 7, 2005
"Drives like a much bigger car. Much quieter than my old Acura Integra. I love the looks of the car and the features." — Jatlieb, December 5, 2005
"The 2006 Civic is comfortable on long trips, sporty, gets great mileage, but needs more power for passing and entering highway. Tire noise is bothersome — have to change tires." — ron dino, November 16, 2005
"I have had my new Civic for about 3 weeks now. This car is a great value for a young family, where driving a mom mobile is just not satisfying. It's great fun to drive, although it does lack the power I expected. This car does not feel or look like it costs. I think anyone who has owned a Honda previously would love this car. We stepped down from looking at Accords to buy this new Civic. I honestly never thought I would be driving a Civic. It's a Honda — you get what you pay for. The new safety features and size increase were crucial in my decision making." — Charles S, November 14, 2005