The 2001-2005 Honda Civic EX faces the 2004-2005 Mazda 3 s, the 2000-2006 Ford Focus ST, the 2003-2005 Toyota Corolla XRS, and the 1996-2005 Hyundai Elantra GT

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.

Full Passenger Side View

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.

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Honda Civic

Toyota Corolla

Hyundai Elantra

Ford Focus

Mazda MAZDA3

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