Until recently, American car shoppers generally treated hatchbacks with a level of disdain normally reserved for that fetid cheese you forgot about in the back of the fridge.
It made sense; most of them were base-model penalty boxes with all the charm of plain oatmeal. Now, though, the market is awash with five-doors featuring content levels and power outputs formerly reserved for much more expensive machinery.
Honda recently re-entered the hatchback game with its 2017 Civic, while Mazda has been hawking a five-door 3 since its introduction a dozen years ago. Last week, the stars aligned and the press-fleet gods shone upon TTAC by placing a Honda Civic Hatchback and Mazda 3 5-DoorÂ in the grubby hands of Tim and Matt during the same week.
While the two cars were optioned differently (a CVT-equipped Civic LX and a manual-equipped Mazda 3 5-Door Grand Touring), we nevertheless took the opportunity to get these two hatchbacks together and ask the question: â€œWhich is gooder?â€�
PICK YOUR POWERTRAIN
Tim: Our test included models that weren’t directly comparable: the Mazda was not only a higher trim level, it also arrived with an excellent, unbeatable six-speed manual transmission. The Honda Civic Hatchback is shipped from the UK exclusively with the 1.5-liter turbo â€” an upgrade for other Civic body styles â€” but our car’s 1.5T was joined to a CVT. Yet even the Mazda’s six-speed,Â naturally aspirated throttle response, and rev-happy nature couldn’t mask the fact that, in the real world, I’d rather have the Civic’s 1.5T.
Matt: True, while there was a fair price and content spread between them, the bones of these cars do compete against each other. Boosted powerplants are a lot of fun, and I did appreciate the 1.5T in the Honda. Nevertheless, that SkyActiv-G 2.5-liter made me grin every time I turned a wheel, especially around 3,500 rpm in third gear. That I can get my grins usingÂ regular fuel is a practical bonus.
Tim: Grins matter. I had other problems with the Mazda’s 2.5, however. A week with the Mazda resulted in fuel economy of 29 miles per gallon. The very next week, the Civic averaged 36. (Perhaps I have myself to blame. The Mazda’s manual may have caused me to drive, shall we say, differently.) So here’s the answer: put the Civic’s 1.5T in the Mazda with the Mazda’s shifter and chassis and we’d have a comparison test winner already.
Matt: That combination would make an excellent Franken-car. It’s no coincidence the Mazda’s torque peak and my grin meter both light up at 3,250 rpm. I agree the trade-off is in fuel economy, as I also found myself rowing my way through fourth and even third gear to maintain flank speed in December traffic. The cheaper fuel is nullified, then, by dint of burning more of it.
WHICH ONE WOULD YOU TAKE TO THE NÃœRBURGRING?
Tim: It’s not just the engine that would have you stealing the Mazda’s keys every time you knew the road had twists and turns, though, eh?
Matt: I’d jack the Mazda’s key if my driving plans included some twisty bits. The Mazda’s responses seemed a bit sharper and I felt more connected to the car. And no, it’s not just because of the manual. I did feel like the Civic was more insular than the 3, like listening to music through a wall instead of being in front of the stage. This attribute is great for commutes, or for taking the family on a jaunt. I appreciate not everyone wants their driving experience turned up to 11Â at all times.
Tim: It’s not just the manual. And it’s not that the Civic isn’t a capable car when speeds rise. Flat cornering is fine, but the Mazda is both the more comfortable and better-handling car. More importantly, the Mazda is interactive. The Civic’s steering is quick; turn-in is downright abrupt. But the Mazda’s steering fosters a connection. The 3â€™s suspension accepts what the road throws at it and works with the road. The Civic, despite an identical 106.3-inch wheelbase, feels like the firmer, less tolerant car â€” and that’s on 16-inch wheels. The Mazda’s on 18s with lower-profile rubber.
Matt: I would take the 3 to the Nurburgring, then, but I understand if commute-weary folks choose the Civic.
Tim: Better fuel economy. Better on-ramp power.
Matt: Yes. Which brings us neatly to where people actually spend their time: the interior.
TOUCHSCREENS OR CONTROL KNOBS
Tim: I can’t think of a way in which the Civic interior, particularly the control layout, is better. Oh wait: the armrest.
Matt: The armrests in the Mazda were both ill-placed. This 6-foot-6 author didn’t find the armrest on the door extends far enough aft when he pushed the driver’s seatÂ all the way back, while the centre console was odd too.
Tim: You’re too tall. But I, too, was neverÂ perfectly comfortable in the Mazda’s driver seat.
Matt: True. I donâ€™t fit properly in many cars.
Tim: Beyond comfort, minimalism has run amok in the Civic. I need buttons. I need feedback of some kind if I’m driving down the road attempting to perform important functions while operating a 3,000-pound machine.
Matt: The capacitive touch volume slider is ridiculous. I’m glad they’re employing an actual knob in the near future. TTAC employs actual knobs, too.
Tim: Let’s make a list.
Matt: Not enough paper in the world.
Tim: And weâ€™re supposed to be the nice guys …
Matt: The gauges in the 3 remind me of a bike, which is no bad thing. The jumbo tach fitted front and centre with a neat digital speed readout tucked in the corner announce the 3’s sporting intentions.
Tim: I’m just happy there’s a center controller with vital quick-accessÂ buttons. The whole infotainment system could be quicker; the screen could be bigger. But the Mazda simplifies life. The Civic complicates it.
Matt: The quick buttons are fantastic. They dedicated an awful lot of space on the left side of the tach to telling me what gear I should be in, and a couple of the buttons on the left spoke of the steering wheel controlled a menu on the right side of the tach. Also, Mazda should let us use the touchscreen aboveÂ 5 miles per hour.
Tim: You’re not to be trusted.
Matt: No, I’m not.
Tim: If you need to carry people and load stuff, the Civic’s less frolicking back road manners and convoluted interior are, to some degree, cancelled out by greater flexibility.
Matt: That chair wouldn’t fit in the 3, no matter how many times (and ways!) we tried.
Tim: But there was not a moment of difficulty getting it into the Civic. My grandfather built that chair four decades ago. If I want to take it in my hatchback, I better be able to take it in my hatchback. Is that too much to ask?
Matt: Not at all, good sir.
Tim: It’s also easier to get people into and out of the Civic’s back seat â€” especially kids into car seats. Allegedly, the Civic has 27 percent more cargo capacity â€” it feels like 50 percent more. Allegedly, the Civic has 1 percent more passenger volume â€” it feels like slightly 5 percent more. Maybe 6.
Matt: The Civic’s cargo cover may have been as unfinished as an M. Night Shyamalan movie, but at least it didn’t intrude rudely upon the cargo space.
Tim: The Civic’s cargo cover was purchased from the scrap pile at your aunt’s favorite bargain fabric store. Unfinished edges. Thin as paper. An embarrassment to cargo covers everywhere.
Matt: Itâ€™s worth noting that the 3 is one of the few cars in which a taller-than-average elementary school aged tyke has opted to sit behind the passenger “for legroom”.
Tim: Crazy that you would have a taller-than-average child.
Matt: I know, right? The Civic is the one to get if you care about your family. The 3 is the one to get if you care about yourself.
Tim: The 3 is not the better family car. That fact is undeniable. But, would you want to be seen in the Civic? I realize we’re not the most handsome, most stylish, most iconically decked-out men this side of the Tokyo Fashion Week, but we can tell when a car is terribly unattractive, can’t we?
Matt: I am not given to bouts of vanity, but the Civic is a hard looking car, especially in white. The gaping jowls, especially on the rear bumper, are particularly galling.
Tim: I’ve probably said too much about the way the Civic looks. But the people, en masse, agreed.
Matt: That particular car, in LX trim, would probably look better in their Aegean Blue. White Orchid Pearl did it no favours. Rallye Red shows up in the next highest trim level, and would be okay, too.
Tim: Don’t defend that car by bringing out your paint chips.
Matt: â€œMy eyes! The goggles, do nothing!â€�
Tim: Is it just our reasonable, east coast, easy-going means of going along to get along, or would you and I haveÂ just asÂ easily have reachedÂ the same verdict on these carsÂ ifÂ we approached them separate from one another?
Matt: 50/50, methinks. The 3’s the better driver’s car, and that’s what matters to me. Others may disagree and prioritize cargo space and such. They are also free to make Excel spreadsheets and organize their sock drawers.
Tim: I had extensive driving experiences in both of these cars before this two-week stretch of back-to-back driving. I knew ahead of time the Mazda was the better car to drive. But the latest Civic is a big leap forward, so I wondered whether the fun-to-drive gap would be that significant. DrivenÂ back to back, the gap was indeed significant.
Matt: The latest Civic is a huge leap forward, and they will sell a ton of them to many happy customers. They just won’t be selling one to me.
Tim:Â You’re resolved. The Mazda frustrates me, I’ll admit. It’s too noisy. The driverâ€™s seat never fit me right. There are some cheap bits like the head-up display and tinny rear doors. This could be a near-perfect car with more rear seat space and cargo capacity, Honda levels of space efficiency. But the Mazda is too good not to want.
Matt: Oh, the wind noise from the side mirrors is biblical.
Tim: But essentially, we drove out to an airport to drive cars and take pictures, meet one another for the first time, and discover we think the very same thoughts?
Tim: Well then, stop talking. We’re done here.
Matt: Cool.[Images: Â© Timothy Cain/The Truth About Cars]
Matthew Guy is a lifelong gearhead who freelances forÂ TTAC, wheels.ca, and CAA Magazine. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, Â InstagramÂ where he lights the fuse on his humor and love of cars.Â
Timothy Cain is the founder ofÂ GoodCarBadCar.net, which obsesses over the free and frequent publication of U.S. and Canadian auto sales figures. Follow on Twitter @goodcarbadcarÂ and on Facebook.