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Are you in the market for a new small sedan? If so, then you might have already come across reviews of the 2021 Honda Civic and the 2021 Mazda 3. Both of them are strong on fuel economy and put in good driving performances overall. However, one of them is clearly the standout performer - not just of the two, but for the entire segment. Hang around until the conclusion of this review to learn which vehicle we pick as the best deal for a small sedan.
The 2021 Honda Civic does not show any changes to the sedan or hatchback models, and the Si and Coupe have been dropped from the line-up. The Si is being overhauled and is just getting a year-long hiatus. The Type R hatchback now offers a Limited Edition trim that has special paint, a lighter body weight, and unique tires and wheels. The suspension and steering have both been edited, and the reduced sound deadening means that the vehicle weighs less, lending to a sportier performance. The BBS wheels have performance tires that are geared for a more aggressive driving style.
The entire Civic line-up benefits from a spacious cabin, a versatile cargo area design, and an abundance of standard infotainment and safety features. However, some of the driver aids (predominantly forward collision warning) can be a little too intrusive, issuing warnings when none are needed. Adaptive cruise control has the opposite problem, being somewhat slow to respond. Also, the blind spot camera is trickier to use than the typical blind spot monitors that come on other vehicles.
The 2021 Mazda 3 debuts two new engine choices this year: a 2.0-L 4-cylinder base engine that serves up 155 hp and a more powerful, line-topping 2.5-L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that puts forth 227 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque when filled with regular gasoline or 250 hp and 320 lb-ft on 93 octane. The old 2.5-L 4-cylinder engine sits in the middle of the pack with its 186 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque. The downside is that a manual transmission is no longer available with any of these engines. The upside? You still get a sporty performance.
Let's take a closer look at these vehicles' powertrains, as well as their drivability factors and safety ratings and features. After that, we will let you know whether the 2021 Honda Civic or 2021 Mazda 3 offers the best value and is the right buy for the average customer.
The 2021 Honda Civic is powered by one of two different engines. The base LX and Sport trims come with a 2.0-L 4-cylinder engine that puts out 158 hp and 138 lb-ft of torque. If that is not enough for you, the turbocharged 1.5-L 4-cylinder offers 174 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque instead. Either way, a continuously variable automatic transmission (or CVT for short) delivers that power to the front wheels.
As we already briefly discussed above, the 2021 Mazda 3 has three engine options, two of which are new for the model year. The base 2.0-L 4-cylinder offers up 155 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque and is equipped with a 6-speed automatic transmission. The Mazda 3 2.5 S trim level comes with the 2.5-L 4-cylinder which generates 186 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque. The Mazda 3 2.5 Turbo comes with the new 2.5-L turbo engine and standard all-wheel drive. Everything else has front-wheel drive.
Now that you know a little bit about what is under the hood of each vehicle, let's talk about how they actually perform. Drivability factors include acceleration, braking performance, steering, handling, ride quality and comfort, and how well controls are laid out and operate.
Starting with the 2021 Honda Civic, you get superb fuel economy and swift acceleration from the optional turbo 1.5-L engine. Upgrading to the EX trim level is not terribly expensive, and the boost in power is sure noticeable. This engine can get the Civic from 0 to 60 mph in just 6.7 seconds, which is one of the faster times in this segment. The brakes do a stellar job of modulating in everyday scenarios and bringing the vehicle to a panic stop. Precision is the name of the game with the Civic's steering and handling capabilities. With plenty of feedback and firmly planted wheels, rounding the Civic through quick, tight turns is easy and - dare we say it - fun.
If you have ever ridden inside of an Accord, then be prepared for a similar level of comfort in the Civic. The Civic's cabin is essentially a slightly smaller version of the Accord's. The impacts sustained from road imperfections are quickly smoothed out thanks to the well-tuned suspension. The ride remains comfortable and easy-going with well-padded seats up front and in the rear. The dual-zone automatic climate control system is effective at heating or cooling the vehicle and maintaining your set temperature. The cabin is also remarkably quiet until you drive it over really rough road surfaces.
The cabin itself is massive, and even the sloping roofline does not cut off that much head space for rear seat occupants. The rear doors have wide openings, making getting in and out pretty simple. Tall folks just need to duck down a little. All of the controls up front are easy to use and work just about as expected.
As far as tech features go, everything above the base LX is well-equipped. Those trims come with smartphone app integration via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a 7-inch touchscreen, and multiple USB ports. The infotainment system is slightly outdated, but the Touring does have an amazing 10-speaker premium sound system and easy-to-use built-in navigation system.
We should also mention fuel economy here. The 1.5-L turbo engine is able to give you up to 36 mpg combined (32 mpg in the city/42 mpg on the highway). For a non-hybrid small sedan, those numbers are excellent and are hard to beat.
Now, on to the 2021 Mazda 3. The Mazda 3's driving performance is all about balance and control. Steering and handling are equally strong on this vehicle, offering swiftness and precision in order to inspire driver confidence. The regular 2.5-L engine delivers a smooth amount of power. Its 0-60 mph time of 8.3 seconds is about industry-average though and certainly does not beat the Civic's 1.5-L turbo engine. The optional 2.5-L engine does much better, aligning itself with the 1.5-L turbo with a 0-60 time of 6.1 seconds. The 2.5-L turbo has a good amount of initial thrust.
The Mazda 3 is comfortable but somewhat more sport-oriented than the Civic, which means that you get a stiffer ride quality. Still, the Mazda 3's suspension is able to smooth out quite a few road imperfections. Comfort is hindered by the hard front head restraints and the automatic climate control system, which fails to heat or cool quickly and keep the desired temperature steady.
The front seats are not designed for taller individuals. Not only is there a shortage on leg room all throughout the cabin, the steering wheel does not telescope that far. Front seats occupants will need to slide their seats back, which cuts off even more leg room for those in the rear.
As far as tech goes, the infotainment system has an intuitively designed physical knob control, but the on-screen menus do not have touchscreen functionality. The learning curve is ultra short for most people, so at least the system is user-friendly. It just is not terribly high-tech. The sound system works well, and the 8.8-inch screen does give off clear graphics. Adding fully-functional touchscreen capabilities would bring the Mazda 3 more up-to-date though.
On the FWD models, the Mazda 3 gets about 30 mpg combined and, on the AWD models, 28 mpg combined. This is certainly nowhere near what Honda achieves on the Civic and falls behind the segment's average.
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As you might reasonably expect, both the Civic and Mazda 3 come with a ton of safety features. On the Honda Civic, you get the Honda Sensing suite of standard driver aids. These include forward collision warning, which warns you of impending frontal crashes and will apply the brakes if it detects you will not be able to do so in time. Lane departure mitigation warns you of when the vehicle starts to stray outside of the lane and will gently correct the vehicle back into the center of the lane. Adaptive cruise control will set a safe following distance from the vehicle in front of the Civic and adjust it accordingly. A blind-spot monitor comes on the EX trim level and above.
The The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (also known as NHTSA) assigned the 2021 Civic a full five-star rating and gave it five stars on each of its tests. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) gave the Civic 'Good' marks across the board on its series of safety tests.
Now, for the 2021 Mazda 3. It comes with a bundle of driver aids that includes forward collision warning, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and a drowsy driver warning. The 2.5 S's Select package adds a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert. The line-topping Premium Plus adds a traffic jam assist function and rear automatic braking.
NHTSA has not yet rated the Mazda 3, but the IIHS assigned it numerous 'Good' marks on its tests.
Which Has the Best Value?
The vehicle that offers the most value is undoubtedly the 2021 Honda Civic. While the Mazda 3 is priced slightly below the Civic, the Civic offers the better driving performance from its 1.5-L turbo engine, which can be purchased for a reasonable cost on the mid-tier EX trim level. You will have to spend more to get the Mazda 3's comparable 2.5-L turbo engine. The Civic also offers a more refined cabin with a versatile design and a more advanced infotainment setup with full touchscreen functionality. In other words, on the Civic, you get exactly what you pay for and then some.
Which is Better?
The 2021 Honda Civic triumphs over all of the competition, including the 2021 Mazda 3. Nothing else holds up against the Civic's superb fuel economy and range of configuration options. You can keep it casual or go a bit sporty - it is all up to you. But whatever you choose, you will get a vehicle that performs well above expectations. Small sedans and hatchbacks are not exactly thrilling to drive, but the Civic manages to make the experience rather enjoyable. If you can look past the driver aids sometimes being a bit obnoxious, then the Civic might just be the right vehicle for you.