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2016 Honda Civic Touring vs. 2016 Mazda3 s Grand Touring Comparison

Honda's ambitious new Civic goes up against our favorite compact.

It's time to update your definition of "compact car," because cheap, basic transportation doesn't cut it anymore. We now expect a whole lot more from our small cars. We want them to be stylish inside and out, packed with technology, and as sporty to drive as a BMW 3 Series. Oh, and they still have to be efficient, practical, and inexpensive too.

The 2016 Mazda3 has been winning the game for the past few years. The 2014 redesign of the '3, long one of our favorite small cars, added standout styling and a luxury car-like list of options to the sharp driving dynamics we had always loved. We gave it an All-Star award in 2014 and named it best-in-class shortly afterward.

Honda has had a tougher time adjusting to the new compact-car ideal. Despite constant updates, the outgoing Civic was uncompetitive and boring, with a staid design, uninspiring dynamics, and outdated interior tech. But the completely redesigned 2016 Honda Civic is armed with a daring new look, a new turbo engine, and a vast array of tech to change all that. Can the ambitious Honda unseat the current king of the compact-car roost?

Beige and bland no more

The 10th-generation Civic's styling makes it immediately clear that Honda is not playing it safe anymore. A fastback-like rear end, a flashy chrome grille, and swoopy headlights and taillights create a look that's bolder and more distinctive than any Civic in recent memory. But maybe it's a good thing that the 2016 Honda Civic doesn't look like a Civic anymore. Even though certain angles are less than flattering, we can't help but applaud Honda for going out on a limb with a car this mainstream.

We've had a bit more time to get used to the 2016 Mazda3's design, but it still catches our eye. Flowing character lines and sophisticated-looking chrome accents make for a more cohesive look than the Honda's more angular, slightly disjointed appearance. At least with the hatchback version we tested (the '3 sedan is a bit dowdier), the Mazda looks more subtly upscale than the Civic, which is maybe trying a bit too hard.

The 2016 Honda Civic has made a similarly big change on the inside. The Touring model we drove boasts nicely grained plastics, expensive-looking brushed aluminum trim, and supple leather seats. The atmosphere is bright and airy thanks to a low cowl and large windows, and the simplistic gauge cluster is easy to read at first glance.

The Mazda's cabin is similarly well-trimmed, with rich-looking two-tone leather seats and an attractive dashboard. It also holds one significant advantage over the Honda: ergonomics. The '3's infotainment system is intuitive and logical, with a rotary controller that falls easily to hand and requires minimal distraction from the road. Things aren't so simple in the Civic. As with nearly all new Hondas, trusty knobs and buttons have been replaced by finicky touch-capacitive controls. This adds a whole lot of frustration to simple tasks such as adjusting the volume or tuning the radio, and we frequently get lost within the touchscreen's overly complex menus. At least the Civic offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability on nearly all trims so that you can rely on your smartphone's familiar interface rather than Honda's subpar system.

Fortunately, Honda hasn't lost its touch for space efficiency. The 2016 Honda Civic's rear seat is downright huge, putting the Mazda's slightly cramped quarters to shame and making us wonder if it's even worth stepping up to the larger Accord anymore. The Civic's trunk, too, is capacious -- and there's a hatchback version coming soon that will surely offer even more space inside.

Out on the road

The 2016 Mazda3 holds up its sporty reputation with crisp turn-in and a firm but not harsh ride. Its steering is precise and nicely weighted, and the whole car feels agile and lightweight whether you're looking for a parking spot or driving too fast on a back road. It's fun to drive, period -- not just for a mainstream compact car.

The new Civic has a sophisticated chassis, too, but its pleasing solidity makes it feel more mature than the Mazda. The Civic remains hushed at composed at higher speeds, while the Mazda allows more road and wind noise into the cabin. You might think that the Civic is a few hundred pounds heavier than the Mazda based on its quieter and more planted demeanor, but it actually undercuts the '3's weight by nearly 100 pounds. That means the Honda can still hustle when you want it to. Its steering is a bit heavy but has good on-center feel, and it's hard to upset the buttoned-down chassis.

Despite being down 10 hp and 20 lb-ft of torque compared with the Mazda's 2.5-liter four-cylinder, the 2016 Honda Civic's 1.5-liter turbo-four has strong midrange power delivery that makes for better responsiveness in everyday driving. The Honda's CVT can quickly find the meat of the powerband and deliver torque when you need it. The Mazda doesn't lack for grunt, but it makes its peak power and torque slightly higher in the rev range, meaning there's a bit more of a waiting game when you put your foot down. The Honda CVT's flexibility also affords significantly higher fuel economy ratings for the Civic -- a 4 mpg advantage over the Mazda's 31 combined mpg.

We do wish there was a way to manually control the Honda's transmission, which sometimes causes the engine to drone unpleasantly. It does without the paddle shifters found on the Mazda, and the '3's quick-shifting six-speed automatic is still the better tool for enjoying more spirited driving. You can also get the Mazda with a stickshift regardless of engine choice or trim level, while only the base-model Civic LX, with its less powerful naturally aspirated four-cylinder, can be had with a manual.

What really matters

So yes, the 2016 Mazda3 still satisfies our inner boy-racer more than the Civic does. The '3's styling has also held up well over time, and its interior technology is accessible and intuitive. But as much as we continue to appreciate the Mazda's precision and sophistication, it's hard to deny the 2016 Honda Civic's remarkable improvements.

For $3,000 less than the Mazda, the Civic offers a well-equipped, well-rounded package that checks nearly all the boxes. It looks good inside and out, and its new turbo engine manages an impressive balance of efficiency and power. Despite a frustrating touchscreen interface, the interior is both highly practical and convincingly premium. And most important, the 2016 Honda Civic's confident, refined way of going down the road will make you feel like you spent more money than you did. It took a little while, but Honda has finally figured out how to get back on top of the small-car heap.

2016 Mazda3 s 5-Door Grand Touring Specifications

  • On Sale: Now
  • Price: $27,315/$30,270 (base/as tested)
  • Engine: 2.5-liter DOHC 16-valve I-4/184 hp @ 5,700 rpm, 184 lb-ft @ 3,250 rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed automatic
  • Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD hatchback
  • EPA Mileage: 27/37 mpg (city/highway)
  • Headroom F/R: 37.6/37.5 in
  • Legroom F/R: 42.2/35.8 in
  • Shoulder Room F/R: 57.2/54.4 in
  • Cargo volume (rear seats up/down): 20.2/47.1 cu ft
  • L x W x H: 175.6 x 70.7 x 57.3 in
  • Wheelbase: 106.3
  • Weight: 3,016 lb
  • 0-60 mph: 7.4 sec
  • Top Speed: 130 mph

2016 Honda Civic Sedan Touring Specifications

  • On Sale: November
  • Price: $27,335
  • Engine: 1.5-liter turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/174 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 164 lb-ft @ 1,700-5,500 rpm
  • Transmission: Continuously variable
  • Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
  • EPA Mileage: 31/42 mpg (city/highway)
  • Headroom F/R: 39.3/37.1 in
  • Legroom F/R: 42.3/37.4 in
  • Shoulder Room F/R: 57.0/55.0 in
  • Cargo volume: 14.7 cu ft
  • L x W x H: 182.3 x 70.8 x 55.7
  • Wheelbase: 106.3
  • Weight: 2,923 lb
  • 0-60 mph: 7.2 sec
  • Top Speed: N/A

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