We test three top compact sedans to find entry-level doesn’t have to mean frumpy
When I was 18, the keys to my freedom belonged to a Saturn Ion. Hey, stop laughing. I no longer had to depend on my dad’s CR-V or my mom’s Odyssey; I could go where I wanted without asking for permission to borrow a parental vehicle. And when you’re 18, that’s important. My Motorola Razr was considered ancient with the recent release of the iPhone, but I didn’t care about connectivity. My Saturn and its four wheels gave me all the liberty I wanted as a young adult in Houston, the city that mass transit forgot.
Read past those trend-spotting articles that say millennials would rather stare at a phone while Ubering toward some avocado toast than actually own a car. I am part of that sizable psychographic that still lives and breathes personal transport. And not only because I review cars for a living. Having the ability to go anywhere at any time without depending on an app or a driver is precious and valuable. I’m the kind of millennial who likes to drive. And although my gig allows me opportunities to drive high-performance vehicles, I still maintain great respect for that most American of first cars: the basic compact sedan.
Whether you like driving or don’t, today’s compact sedans have progressed to offer more of the technology, interior space, styling, and value we’re looking for. Items and features that were once only available on luxury vehicles have trickled down to the masses. Sedans are safer and smarter, and they go far beyond to bring unique experiences at the wheel. Some even have style. But among all the choices available, how do you know which compact sedan is the right one for you?
It helps to narrow the field. To start, we gathered three of the best compacts, all from Japan. Two of the newest in the class—the 2019 Mazda3 and 2020 Toyota Corolla—are starting a new generation and are packed with sleek design and technology. The 2019 Honda Civic, on the other hand, is the most popular in its segment, a position earned by simply being the best option. But does it still have what it takes to keep its crown?
When the 10th-generation Civic arrived for the 2016 model year, Honda made a big statement. It had a bold look, the right technology, and superb interior space, and on top of all that, it drove really well. We liked it so much that it netted a finalist nod at our 2016 Car of the Year competition. A few months later, it won a Big Test compact sedan comparison, beating the 11th-generation Corolla and third-gen Mazda3, among others.
For 2019, Honda gave the Civic a minor refresh, updating the headlights and making the Honda Sensing suite of safety tech standard across the lineup. Our 2019 Honda Civic Touring (with a new black grille) didn’t receive any changes under the hood, so we’re still getting the 1.5-liter turbo-four that sends 174 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels via a CVT. With a sticker of $28,220 USD, the Civic Touring is the cheapest model of this trio—yet it’s also the best equipped.
The Mazda3 has been a favorite among MotorTrend staffers. We’ve recommended it to so many friends, relatives, and acquaintances that we should be getting commission checks from Hiroshima. Mazda has showed consumers that a compact car can look good and be fun to drive. But the segment became so competitive that two years after the Mazda3 won a compact sedan comparison, it was dethroned by the Civic, the Hyundai Elantra, and the Chevy Cruze.
This time, however, Mazda is doing a couple of different things—trying to make the 3 feel more premium while also subbing out its supple independent rear suspension for a cost-saving torsion beam. Our 2019 Mazda3 came equipped with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 186 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that sends power to the front wheels.
The 2019 Mazda3 has elegant lines outside and an opulent interior that could be confused for a luxury brand. Of course, this comes at a cost; our sedan, equipped with the Premium package, had a price of $29,415 USD—the highest of the three models in this comparison.
The Toyota Corolla is one of the most popular models in the segment. Any month now, Toyota will announce it has sold its 50 millionth Corolla worldwide. The model is known for its durability, reliability, interior space, and value. But the previous generation went the wrong way.
The Corolla was obscured by the Kia Forte and VW Jetta, among others, as its technology fell short and its design was the antithesis of youthful prosperity. It didn’t even earn a finalist spot in our most recent segment comparison, and it was hard to find something we liked about it that its competitors didn’t also have.
But the 2020 edition is trying to change that. By adopting Toyota’s New Global Architecture platform, the Corolla gets standard Toyota Safety Sense and finally feels modern, something the previous generation lacked.
The 2020 Toyota Corolla XSE is powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 169 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque. It sends power to the front wheels with the help of a CVT and a one-speed transmission that serves as a starter gear. The rear suspension has switched from generations of clunky torsion beams to elegant independent A-arms (take that, Mazda). And with a price of $29,168 USD, the Corolla stands in the middle of this trio.
All three are properly equipped to satisfy the aspirational millennial’s needs. But we’re here to find out which one really stands out.
Cabin and Technology
Without a doubt, the Mazda3’s interior is the best one here. Its beautiful design and elegant lines take it a step above the mainstream brands. “So much squishy padding!” associate online editor Stefan Ogbac said. “And everything you touch—even in the rear seats—feels more expensive than the car’s sticker price suggests.” The Mazda is also the only one in this group with a head-up display (appropriate for the as-tested cost delta with the other two cars).
But dig deeper, and not everything is as good as it appears with the Mazda. The back seat is cramped, with legroom that’s too tight for most adults. This shortcoming made quite a contrast with the Civic and Corolla. Further, its new infotainment system is distracting to control, as everything is buried in menus; doing a simple task like changing the satellite radio from channel 53 to 54 can be frustrating. Fortunately, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are easier to control via the infotainment knob, and the 8.8-inch screen is standard across the lineup.
Honda’s smart packaging stands out in the Civic. Its wheelbase is 1.0 inch shorter than the Mazda3’s, yet it has more interior room and great trunk space. Although its interior isn’t as polished or as refined as the Mazda’s, the Civic’s cabin is still a nice place to sit. The center console is huge and versatile—it can fit iPads. Senior production editor Zach Gale noted the Civic Touring was the only vehicle here with a powered passenger seat and heated rear seats.
However, Gale was more critical of the trims Honda chose. “What were they thinking with this dash trim?” he wondered. “I respect the need to try something that’s not fake wood or plain aluminum, but this does not look good.”
The 7.0-inch infotainment touchscreen is easy to reach, but the system already feels outdated. “It’s slow to load and respond to your inputs,” Ogbac said. “But Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integrate really well with the interface.” At least the infotainment system is easier to control than the Mazda’s. Plus, a stereo volume knob returns.
The Corolla’s interior is an upgrade over the previous model, but it doesn’t really stand out within the segment. It’s merely competent. We get it. That’s enough for some people. The leatherette seats have a big insert of a cheaper cloth, something all of us disliked. “The door cards aren’t bad, with blue stitching, silver trim, and piano black trim, but it still looks cheap compared to the Civic and Mazda3,” Gale said.
Among the three compacts, the Toyota had the smallest center console space, only big enough to hold charger cables and tiny items. Its interior space, on the other hand, is sufficient for adults. There’s plenty of rear leg- and headroom, even if it’s not as spacious as the Civic.
Although the 8.0-inch touchscreen is easy to use, we’re not in love with its graphics. Apple CarPlay comes standard on all trims, but Android Auto is still not available in this Toyota. The screen is mounted on top of the dash, so you can operate it without taking your eyes off the road as much.
The twisty and hilly roads on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Southern California served as our proving grounds to determine which of these sedans drives best. You might be buying one of these cars because you prefer the looks or the ergonomics, but ride and handling are just as important—even more so if you ask me. Although our trio targets the same demographic, their driving dynamics couldn’t be more different.
The Civic’s powertrain combination has the best power and road feel of the group, which stood out during our looping. Its familiar engine is punchy when you need it to be, whether you’re going up a hill or merging onto the freeway. “You can easily tackle winding roads confidently while remaining comfortable over rough pavement,” Ogbac said.
While driving over the strikingly broken pavement of Portuguese Bend, the Civic’s independent rear suspension absorbed all the ruts smoothly; Gale felt bumps in the Mazda and Corolla that didn’t register in the Civic. Through corners, the Civic’s body movement was controlled and serene, save for the tire noise that crept inside the cabin. (Tire noise in Hondas has been a complaint of ours for years). But the Civic still has that magic ingredient that distinguished it when we first drove the current generation: fun. It’s a compact car that can be enjoyable to drive when you want, or it can be smooth and quiet. It truly can please anyone.
The Corolla’s 2.0-liter engine feels faster on the road than it actually is. It was by far the slowest car of the trio, getting from 0 to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds (compared to 7.0 and 7.3 seconds for the Civic and Mazda3, respectively). Its powertrain roars when going uphill or when you press the throttle to merge into high-speed traffic, and the tranny can be choppy at low speeds. But at least the chassis feels more refined and sprightly than the last-gen model.
The Toyota’s suspension still managed to control the body during aggressive driving, but it didn’t feel as confident or as fun as the Civic’s.
“The suspension was OK until I ran over a couple abrupt road imperfections,” Gale said. “Then you really felt and heard them. The real issue with this model is tire noise. Yes, those wheels are hot, but that might get old if you don’t turn up your music loud enough.”
Mazda’s move to ditch the independent rear suspension has been a gossip topic in the auto industry, but the key question remains: Is it still fun to drive? The Mazda3’s 2.5-liter engine is pretty robust and hasn’t really changed much since the previous generation. The transmission also feels jerky when driving at low speeds. But our biggest critique was—you guessed it—the new torsion-beam suspension, which dramatically changed the driving dynamics on twisty roads and broken pavement.
“Moving to a torsion beam detracted from the car,” Ogbac said. “It has a good ride on glass-smooth surfaces, but it feels less sophisticated than before and loses composure once it has to deal with successive imperfections.” Example: The rear end bounced sharply side to side when driving over a midcorner bump.
Also, testing director Kim Reynolds joined the chorus in criticizing the brakes: “The feel isn’t great. I don’t get enough information to predict terribly well. It just sort of stops—I’m not able to meter the braking into the corner as I’d like.” After so many years of Mazda3 love, we feel jilted; the previous generation’s character and personality got lost in the transition to this 2019 model. Mazda still sparks driving joy, but it doesn’t do it with the same kind of emotion we’re used to.
Folks who buy a compact sedan are usually on a budget. Every dollar counts. So determining which of these three is the most fuel-efficient in real-world driving situations, saving a few bucks at the pump, is key. Compared with the EPA’s fuel economy, our Real MPG figures showed mixed results. All three performed better on the highway but saw slightly worse numbers in the city.
The Corolla takes first place, with 29.7/44.3/34.9 mpg (7.9/5.3/6.7 L/100 km) city/highway/combined, a massive improvement over the EPA’s highway number of 38 mpg (6.2 L/100 km). The Civic took second place, with 28.3/43.0/33.4 mpg (8.3/5.5/7 L/100 km). Its biggest gain was also on the highway, where the EPA ranked it at 38 mpg (6.2 L/100 km). The Mazda3 came in third, sharply trailing the Corolla and Civic at 26.3/40.2/31.2 mpg (8.9/5.8/7.5 L/100 km), slightly better than the EPA’s estimate of 27/36/30 mpg (8.7/6.5/7.8 L/100 km).
Settling on second and third place was harder than picking the winner, but that doesn’t mean second and third place aren’t good cars. The 2020 Corolla is perhaps the best Corolla we’ve tested. It’s packed with better technology, good interior space, and improved driving dynamics compared with its predecessor. Conversely, the Mazda3 has been a longtime MotorTrend favorite, but the new generation risks losing our automatic recommendation. Its departure from an independent rear suspension took away part of the driving enjoyment, and its jerky transmission and numb brake feel made us wonder what happened to the Mazda3 we loved so much—and this is coming from two former Mazda3 owners (Ogbac and myself).
After hours of discussion, we made a choice for second place. Although the Mazda’s interior stands out as best in class, we figure the consumers who look for value, who want more interior space and more fun at the wheel when the mood strikes, will prefer the Corolla’s bigger cabin, greater fuel economy, and better value, all of which nudge the Toyota squarely into second place.
We started this comparison asking ourselves if the Civic could be dethroned by the Mazda3 or the Corolla. The short answer is no. The Civic dominated both competitors—its value, technology, interior space, and looks kept it on the top spot of the podium. It drives best, has the most features, and is almost $1,000 USD cheaper than the as-tested Corolla and Mazda3. If I were 18 again, the Civic’s keys would be the ones I’d grab off the family mantelpiece. Heck, now that I’m adulting, they still might be.
First Place: Honda Civic
It’s simply the best compact sedan you can buy today. The Civic nailed every single aspect of our criteria.
Second Place: Toyota Corolla
Toyota really stepped up its game with the new Corolla, improving its handling, technology, and fuel economy.
Third Place: Mazda3
With a jerky transmission, a rear suspension that took away its unique dynamics, and just enough interior space for adults, the Mazda isn’t the same as before.
|2019 Honda Civic Touring Sedan||2020 Toyota Corolla XSE Sedan||2019 Mazda3 (Premium) Sedan|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD||Front-engine, FWD||Front-engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged I-4, alum block/head||I-4, alum block/head||I-4, alum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||91.4 cu in/1,498 cc||121.3 cu in/1,987 cc||151.8 cu in/2,488 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||174 hp @ 6,000 rpm||169 hp @ 6,600 rpm||186 hp @ 6,000 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||162 lb-ft @ 1,700 rpm||151 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm||186 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,500 rpm||6,800 rpm||6,500 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||17.0 lb/hp||18.4 lb/hp||16.7 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||Cont variable auto||1-speed + Cont variable auto||6-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs|
|BRAKES, F; R||11.1-in vented disc; 10.2-in disc, ABS||10.8-in vented disc; 10.2-in disc, ABS||11.0-in vented disc; 10.4-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||8.0 x 18-in cast aluminum||8.0 x 18-in cast aluminum||7.0 x 18-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||235/40R18 91W (M+S) Continental ContiProContact||225/40R18 Yokohama Avid GT||215/45R18 89V (M+S) Toyo Proxes A40|
|WHEELBASE||106.3 in||106.3 in||107.3 in|
|TRACK, F/R||60.9 in/61.5 in||60.3/60.4 in||61.7/62.2 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||182.7 x 70.9 x 55.7 in||182.3 x 70.1 x 56.5 in||183.5 x 70.7 x 56.9 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||37.4 ft||35.4 ft||34.8 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||2,956 lb||3,114 lb||3,110 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||61/39%||61/39%||62/38%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||37.5 in/36.8 in||NA in||37.6/36.7 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.3 in/37.4 in||42.0/34.8 in||42.3/35.1 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||56.9 in/55.0 in||54.0/51.7 in||55.7/53.5 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||14.7 cu ft||13.1 cu ft||13.2 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.6 sec||2.9 sec||2.6 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.5||4.2||3.9|
|QUARTER MILE||15.4 sec @ 90.8 mph||16.3 sec @ 86.4 mph||15.7 sec @ 90.3 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||115 ft||119 ft||117 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.90 g (avg)||0.83 g (avg)||0.86 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||26.6 sec @ 0.67 g (avg)||27.8 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)||26.7 sec @ 0.65 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,700 rpm||1,400 rpm||1,800 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$28,220||$29,168||$29,415|
|AIRBAGS||6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee, front passenger thigh||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||3 yrs/36,000 miles||2 yrs/Unlimited miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||12.4 gal||13.2 gal||13.2 gal|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||28.32/43.0/33.4 mpg||29.7/44.3/34.9 mpg||26.3/40.2/31.2 mpg|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||30/38/33 mpg||31/38/34 mpg||27/36/30 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||112/89 kW-hrs/100 miles||109/89 kW-hrs/100 miles||125/94 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.59 lb/mile||0.57 lb/mile||0.64 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular|