When the first Civic rolled out of the factory in 1973, the muscle car era was just winding down, American luxury car engines were approaching 500 cubic inches of displacement, and small Japanese cars were strange, new, and unrespected. But with an oil crisis right around the corner, Honda’s luck in the U.S. market would change quickly.
In the 32 years and seven Civic generations that have passed since 1972, the car has become the standard of the economy car world and one of the bestselling cars in America. We here at Automobile Magazine have been in love with the car’s affordable, no-frills offerings since our first test in November 1987. In 1992, the Civic’s first year as an Automobile Magazine All-Star, we proclaimed, “. . . the Civic continues to represent the ideal small car . . .” The car would rejoin the circle of All-Stars in 1997, a year after we declared it Automobile of the Year.
Yet when the seventh generation of this royal family was born in 2001, the predictably larger, safer, and more efficient Civic was actually less exciting to drive than the award-winning sixth-generation Civic we enjoyed so much. Three years later, time has continued to move forward while Honda has changed the Civic only slightly. New players have come to the table, and Honda’s poker face may no longer be enough to keep the competition from playing a set of aces.
Toyota has been studying Honda’s every move for years; its Corolla has been fighting to gain the spotlight from the Civic for decades, and with Toyota’s reputation for quality and reliability, annual U.S. Corolla production numbers have reached the mid-200,000’s-just a few copies shy of the champ. But is the sporty new XRS a real contender, or just a pretender? Meanwhile, Ford’s first major effort to win over the segment, the Focus, vies to keep America in the econo-car game with an update for 2005. Are these tweaks enough to keep it in the hunt? The Mazda 3 shares basic underpinnings with the upcoming new European-market Focus (not to be confused with ours, which is an older design) and seems ready to pick up where the much admired Protege’ left off. We are excited to see what’s behind the artful new styling and see if it really can outgun its predecessor. Korean automaker Hyundai has gained its own share of attention from the American public with reassuringly long warranty periods. The Elantra GT offers an enticingly low price along with the warranty, but is this a winning combination, or is it true that you only get what you pay for?
In the world of small cars, the Corolla makes even the Civic look young. The Corolla is celebrating its 35th year in the U.S. for 2004, and we decided to celebrate with the XRS model, which is new this year. This tuner-like iteration borrows a 170-hp 1.8-liter four-cylinder from the Celica GT-S and the Matrix XRS and mates it to a 6-speed transmission, adds a firmer suspension setup and sixteen-inch wheels, and finishes the package off with an interior spruced up with more supportive seats and sportier trim. Toyota says this more athletic Corolla is meant to target single young males, a demographic other Corolla models are struggling in.
The first thing that surprised us about this car was that the seventeen-inch wheels found on the Matrix didn’t make it on this car, since “bigger is better” seems to be a winning formula when it comes to wheels, especially on cars targeted at young males. But on the road, the confusion quickly evaporated, as our Corolla quickly established itself as the back-breaker of the group, more so than even the larger-wheeled 3. We also expected more from the class-leading power. We feel Toyota’s variable valve timing, which is incorporated into the engine, could use some fine tuning, as the power comes on disappointingly late. We finally felt all 170 ponies up near 6000 rpm and enjoyed a few quick revs before shifting gears and falling back out of the powerband. Most drivers will never reach such high engine speeds in regular city driving; the power would be welcome lower on the tachometer.
Compared with the somewhat generic exterior styling of the Corolla (may we mention the unnaturalness of that body kit?), we were impressed with Toyota’s clean, luxurious cabin treatment. The Corolla made us feel as if a Lexus has somehow found its way into our group. We were delighted with the seating comfort. The six-speed shifter had a great feel, and the dash buttons were large and logically placed – a big advantage for four-eyed drivers. The Corolla came off as the most well-put-together car in the group, living up to Toyota’s long history of superior build quality.
One staffer referred to our XRS as having a “Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde” type of character. On one hand, it is a tightly sprung, high-revving sport sedan, and on the other, it ultimately doesn’t feel particularly confidence inspiring on twisty roads. Despite the stiff suspension, bumps and camber changes upset the XRS more than the Focus and the 3. The XRS also understeers considerably more than those cars. Based on the late arrival of enjoyable power and our chiropractor bill, the XRS seems like a poor compromise. Those desiring comfort, refinement, and the best quality and reliability for less than $20,000 will feel right at home in the tamer Corolla LE, but those desiring a bit of econo-excitement should look elsewhere.
For 2005, the Ford Focus, which was our 2000 Automobile of the Year, ditches its boy-racer curves for a chiseled, upscale design. Sadly, the rousing SVT model is also gone. Another heartbreaker-Europe will soon have a Focus based on Mazda’s 3 and Volvo’s S40, while we keep the same basic car we’ve been driving for four years.
With SVT out of the picture, Ford hopes to satisfy its following of leadfoots with the Focus ST. Available only in sedan configuration, the ST employs a 151-horsepower, 2.3-liter engine shared with the Mazda 3 but tuned for more torque at the expense of a little top-end power (Toyota, are you listening here?). Thankfully, “V” wasn’t the only fun letter in the SVT; the ST still impresses. It didn’t send us through the turns with quite the tenacity of the 3, but at the same time, it provided a much plusher ride. The engine, although satisfyingly powered, put out a note more like a drunken karaoke singer than a church choir, and engine noise was a bit louder than we would like. This annoyance can most likely be avoided by skipping the ST box on the order sheet, but you’ll lose the larger engine’s additional torque, along with the suspension upgrade.
Much like the exterior, inside the redesigned Focus you’ll find that the wildly drawn curves of the previous model have been replaced by a sharper, more refined theme. Like the Corolla, all dashboard controls are large, well placed, and easy to use. However, Ford could take a lesson from Toyota in material quality and panel fits. The blend of rough, hard black plastic and the carbon fiber-esque center console made for the least enjoyable cabin of the group, especially considering that the seats seemed too big for the car and too overstuffed for us to get comfortable. Settling down on these seats feels like falling into a pile of laundry. Mechanically, the newly remodeled Focus is wonderful. If only Ford could give us a little more comfort-for both the eye and body-to wrap around all those moving parts.
Honda has always managed to keep the spotlight on their charming little Civic, leaving the Corolla backstage like an understudy for 31 years. It has more trophies on the wall and better sales numbers to back those awards up. The older crowd loves the car for its refinement and durability; younger people enjoy the ease with which the Civic can be modified into a screaming street machine. But with newer, fresher competitors gobbling up more market share each year, the heat is on for Honda. Kids are finding new cars to transform into personal expressions, and quality and reliability can be found elsewhere.
Given the greatness we’ve come to expect from Honda, we have been disappointed that the seventh-generation Civic is not quite the step forward we’d usually expect from such a veteran. Behind the few changes for 2004-larger standard wheels, more standard features, and a few new color options-is the same basic Civic we reviewed back in 2000. We chastised Honda then for some bad decisions made with this Civic; the rear suspension, its trailing arm discarded in the quest for better space efficiency, doesn’t feel as well planted as the great setup on the previous car. The steering is also light to the point of precluding much communication of what the tires are doing. In both the 2000 test and this one, we found the car less confident through tight turns than both the previous Civic and, more importantly today’s opponents.
The Civic does have its advantages. Having such a strong track record has given the small Honda great resale value. Despite our suspension complaints, the Civic does have a very smooth ride. It won’t light the streets on fire, but it will get you from A to B quietly and efficiently. The interior is aging a bit but is inoffensive other than a radio display that could be bigger. But the Civic’s cabin needs to borrow from the larger Accord, which has a very clean, modern, and distinct theme; we are confident that will come with the next generation, probably due in a year or two.
One of the main drawbacks of the Civic is simply its size. When parked next to the other cars here, our Civic looked small in a very 1990’s sort of way. Economy cars generally have grown taller in recent years, and the Civic’s low stance meant it had less head- and legroom inside than most of the other cars in this test.
When the first Hyundai arrived on our shores in 1985, the company joined the car manufacturing game decades behind its Japanese competition and nearly a century behind Ford. This head start for Hyundai’s competition is truly apparent. To make up for the lack of experience, Hyundai and sister company Kia have lured customers with low prices and a long 10-year/ 100,000-mile powertrain warranty. But, oh, what a long ten years that would be. In this crowd, the Elantra GT found itself at the back of the pack in nearly every category, with the exception of overall interior styling, where it beat out only the Focus. Having expected our Elantra to be the bargain of our group, we nearly cried when we realized that our test car wasn’t much cheaper than the others. Granted, Hyundai offers some generous incentives matched only by the American-made Ford, but the lack of engineering know-how presented by Hyundai does not make up for the difference.
Hyundai engineers should spend a few weeks driving the competition so they might understand how far behind they are. Shifting through the gears in this car feels like stirring a straw through a convenience store slushie. Handling performance was comparable to Corollas and Civics of the 80’s; while the ride was none too compliant, body control was poor, and the GT has a scary proclivity to pitch and bob in transitions. The steering also felt rather lifeless. We did come up with a neat trick to double the mushy brakes’ performance; we dragged our feet out the door.
The Elantra’s styling is a bit awkward, but at least it isn’t embarrassing in a Pontiac Aztek kind of way. The interior is pleasantly designed, with white on black gauges that light up a very VW-esque blue and decent-quality dash and door materials. But the seat leather was so thin, we wondered if the cow from which it was taken was malnourished. The optional Kenwood CD player looks straight off the discount rack at Best Buy, and it has too many small buttons and is too complicated to use. This obvious afterthought of a stereo is out of place in the middle of an otherwise cohesive design.
It takes more than warranties and incentives to be a real player in this segment. GM tried the same formula with the Chevy Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire, and those cars mercifully are dying at the end of this year. Toyota and Honda are not selling nearly 300,000 small cars a year each in the U.S. by simply making them cheap. Their success has come from decades of refinement, quality, and drivability. Hyundai needs to stop with the incentives and warranties and use that money toward research and development. If not, the Elantra could end up following the Cavalier, the Sunfire, a whole line of Daewoos, and the Dodo right into extinction.
Exciting things are coming from Mazda these days. With both the mid-size 6 sedan and the sporty RX-8 coupe making our All Stars list this year, we were downright giddy to hop in the new 3. The 3 is available in both 4- and 5-door body styles, and sedan buyers get a choice of two engines, while the wagon comes standard with the larger one, a 160-horsepower 2.3-liter 4-cylinder. Also standard on the 5-door is a sport package with stylish seventeen-inch wheels, firmer suspension, and larger brakes. We found our 5-door test car to be the real athlete of the group, living up to its company slogan. The 3 always seemed to have enough power to make us smile, and the car ate up tight twisties with ease. Handling was refreshingly neutral and secure. The only trade-off is that the larger wheels made for a bumpy ride through southern Michigan roads still recovering from a long winter, so some buyers may opt to rebel from the big-wheel trend and settle for a 3i sedan with fifteen-inch tires, albeit at the expense of the bigger engine. The 3s sedan comes with sixteen-inch wheels and the larger engine.
Inside the cabin, the 3 achieves a beautiful balance of sport and elegance; controls are stylish and easy to use. The 3 shares some good DNA with an unlikely car, KITT, the Pontiac Trans Am that starred in TV’s Knight Rider. Both cars feature a row of red lights that illuminate sequentially; while KITT’s were on the hood, the 3’s dance along the dashboard in response to movement of the control dials. The most exciting thing about this cabin, though, is the list of available options including not only the usuals – leather, a 6-disc in-dash CD changer, and a moonroof – but even a navigation system, xenon headlights, side curtain airbags, and a tire-pressure monitoring system. The cutting edge does come at a price though, as a fully loaded 3 costs nearly $25,000, or as much as a well-equipped Mazda 6. Still, even loaded, the 3 represents real value for the money, especially when compared with the Volvo S40, a car based on the same platform can cost $10,000 more.
In this segment, the 3 is the car we would find ourselves owning, and with the wide selection of power plants, body styles, and optional equipment, the latest little Mazda seems ready to suit any small car buyer’s desires. Now, if only a Mazdaspeed version could come sooner. . .
All five of these cars’ base models cost between $13,000 and $14,000, but the versions we drove better represent what a driving enthusiast might spring for. The Mazda 3 brings hot performance, hot styling, and exciting features to the class. If we were to pick one stand-out in the group, it would be the 3. It was a blast to drive and pleasing to look at both inside and out, and the 5-door would make a fine alternative to not only other economy cars, but also small SUVs by virtue of its commodious cargo hold.
The Corolla provides Toyota build quality and reliability, two major real-world advantages. Buyers looking for something for the long haul can count on minimized visits to their local service center. But our Corolla XRS was trying to be more than it really is. The rock-hard suspension, peaky engine, and mediocre cornering prowess were letdowns, so we would avoid the XRS.
Opposite the XRS stands the Focus ST. Ride and handling are top notch, but the Focus is plagued with a dour interior and love-it-or-hate-it exterior styling; the car didn’t capture our imaginations in the same way the 3 did. The Focus’s reliability history is also not great. Readers tell us that buying a Focus can sometimes result in a long-term relationship with your Ford service manager. The ST is not as exciting as the late SVT, nor does it sound as cool. Please, Ford, bring our baby back.
At the end of our test, we told the Elantra it had a nice. . . personality. . .but to be honest, we don’t really plan on calling it again any time soon. Hyundai’s heart is in the right place with this car, but it simply does not perform at anywhere near the level of the others. The long warranties and rebates are a good way to get business going, but the success of this car, and all Hyundai products for that matter, lies in the hands of designers and engineers, all of whom need to go back to the drawing boards and try again. But at the same time, we do have pity; wrestling with the likes of Honda, Ford, Mazda, and Toyota is tough work, and at least Hyundai is trying.
The Civic is one of the most refined economy cars on the road. Over the years, it has won our enthusiast hearts nearly as much as the beloved BMW 3-Series cars. And with natural gas and hybrid versions, it is one of the greenest cars on the road. Unfortunately, small dimensions, a lack of power, an uninspired interior, and suspension faults have taken this car out of the spotlight. There are simply more exciting cars than the Civic at this price.