2006 Economy Sedan Comparison Test: Honda Civic vs. Mazda 3

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.

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.

Edmunds .com/Inside Line

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