Second Place: 2006 Honda Civic The Civic's steeply raked windshield dominates its exterior styling. Don't let its 2nd-place finish in this test fool you: Honda's eighth-generation Civic is a nice car. It offers a fit, finish and modernized driving experience that will feel familiar to all Hondaphiles. As will its general feeling of quality construction both inside and out. What's more, outside of its performance, many of the reasons it finished 2nd come down to personal preference. There are simply some new tweaks to the old formula that we could do without. Design concerns From the rear the Civic's more conventional styling looks more traditionally Honda. First on that list is the Civic's suppository-esque styling, which didn't win many fans around the office. The aggressive rake of the windshield which leaves its driver feeling like he's piloting the Millennium Falcon wouldn't be such an issue if it didn't create the occasional visibility problem. We found ourselves needing to look around the A-pillars to have full front three-quarter visibility — an experience that was more Pontiac Trans Sport than Honda Civic. Next on the gripe list is the Civic's dash design which places the tachometer in a traditional location behind the steering wheel, but sticks the digital speedometer, fuel and coolant temperature gauges at the base of the windshield. Ideally, this design puts the most important information closest to the road, but a side effect of the Civic's Millennium Falcon styling is an enormous dashboard, which puts several feet between the readouts. Due to this distance we found ourselves refocusing between the road, speedometer and tachometer which required more attention than simply looking at a traditional display. The refocusing habit might disappear after more time in the car (especially in an automatic where the tachometer is less critical), but during our one-week stint it was bothersome. What's more, a digital readout is simply the wrong way to display speed since it can't be processed as easily at a glance as an analog gauge. Practical powertrain A 140-hp single-overhead-cam inline four powers the Civic to a 17.1-second quarter-mile time. The Honda's powertrain does a fairly remarkable job masking its half-liter discrepancy to the Mazda. It wasn't quite as quick as the 3, but it did better than we thought it would given the difference in power, torque and displacement. Power delivery is improved relative to the old Civic's 1.7-liter mill, but its redline is 6,800 rpm, which isn't all that high for a small-displacement Honda engine, and peak power (140 hp) doesn't arrive until 6,300 rpm. Although not quite as quick as the Mazda, the Civic's 17.1-second quarter-mile run at 81.7 mph is almost a half-second quicker than the last seventh-generation Civic we tested. The Civic's five-speed automatic has several gear selection positions but lacks the Mazda's slick automanual sport shifter which allows the driver to manually upshift and downshift. Plus, the response time from the Civic's electronic throttle in combination with its five-speed automatic transmission could be better. Planning ahead on the freeway became a necessity to survive the mash-and-wait game created by the combined delays of throttle lag and transmission kickdown. And after that you're still at the mercy of the 140-hp engine. There isn't a truly fast car in this segment, but the Mazda's added power and more usable tranny did make holes in traffic easier to sneak through. On the upside our combined fuel economy in the Civic was 29.7 miles per gallon — more than 7 mpg better than the 3 under very similar driving conditions. That difference alone will be enough to sway many buyers. Handling manners Dynamically the Civic is no match for the Mazda 3 but its ride is slightly more comfortable. On the street the Civic is responsive and sublime. Honda fans will be familiar with the control feel and engine sound. Its suspension, steering and brakes all work together respectably and it's clear that Honda's design ethos has regard for some mild sporting character. It's also a mindlessly easy car to drive with intuitive response to inputs and controls falling readily at hand. But it's not going to break any handling records. At the track the Civic's slalom speed was more than 4 mph slower than the Mazda's (64.6 vs. 69.0 mph). Transitions between cones came with ample body roll but controlling the car, even at the limit, was easy. The same is true on the skid pad where the Civic circled at 0.79 g with moderate understeer and minimal response to throttle input. The skid pad performance is likely a product of its 205/55-16 Bridgestone Turanza EL400 tires which have soft sidewalls and rock hard rubber — not the ideal combination for skid pad performance. Or for short stopping distances. At 130 feet the Civic's braking distance from 60 mph is just average. Ride quality is better than the 3, which is to say softer, with less damping. If you're never going to drive aggressively, the Civic will feel fantastic. It's comfortable at freeway speeds, sucks up drainage ditches and speed bumps like a trophy truck and will do a damned fine job hauling Aunt Nellie to the Michael Bolton concert. If, however, you're the type to attack an on-ramp from time to time, you should buy the 3. Confused interior The Civic's dash design places the speedometer above the tachometer in a separate display. We aren't big fans of this dash design. Honda traditionally produces superb interiors, which is why we are puzzled by the jump backward in heating-A/C controls. The last-generation Civic's three-knob, three-button design for temperature, fan speed and vent location was as elegant, intuitive and as efficient as any system ever built. Yet, with the 2006 Civic, Honda left simplicity in favor of more buttons (nine of them to be exact — and two knobs). It's not a deal breaker, but it's certainly not as easy to use as the old design. Even so, the Civic's interior uses nice materials which feel like they're screwed together as well as the Mazda's. They're not as upscale or as elegant-looking as the 3's all-black treatment on the center stack, but Honda does have Mazda beat in the sound system department thanks to the portable music player (think iPod) input jack and the ability to play Windows Media Audio (WMA) files. More than once we found ourselves checking to be sure the driver-side windows were all the way up at speed thanks to some unnerving wind noise. The sound was inconsistent enough that we never nailed down its source, but the windows were never down when we heard it. The Civic's interior functionality is slightly better than the 3's. With multiple bins for cell phones, iPods and the ability to accommodate virtually any sized double latte Starbucks serves, it's well outfitted for the urban warrior. Plus all Civics come with standard side curtain (head) airbags and side (torso) airbags, while they're standard only on S trim-level Mazda 3 models. It also has a slightly bigger trunk than the 3 (12 cubic feet vs. 11.4 cubic feet). But with less front and rear headroom and less rear legroom, overall interior space is a wash between the two. The rational choice The Civic's seats are comfortable but aren't as supportive as the Mazda 3's. For us, the Civic ranks lower than the 3 based on its performance and some niggling design concerns that might not bother every consumer. It is, however, a well-made, efficient, utilitarian economy sedan that lives up to its namesake. If fuel economy tops your list of priorities then the 2006 Honda Civic might be the car for you. What Works: Excellent fuel economy, classic Honda fit and finish. What Needs Work: Dash design less than functional, poor front three-quarter visibility, minor wind noise. Bottom Line: Good, but not good enough. First Place: 2006 Mazda 3 Once again, the Mazda 3 tops the economy sedan class, beating the Civic as the leader in this hotly contested segment. The 2006 Mazda 3 does everything — and we mean everything — better than its competition. In fact, its acceleration, handling, build quality, feature content, interior design and styling are on par with cars that cost significantly more. That makes the 3 a tremendous value, and for the second test in a row, a winner. Near perfect powertrain We preferred the 3's five-speed manually shiftable automatic over the Civic's traditional automatic. We like the Mazda's engine/transmission combination for a number of reasons. First, it's a monster on power when compared to the Civic. At 160 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque the 3's 2.3-liter four is one of the most powerful engines in the class and it shows. At the track the 3 ran a 16.4-second quarter-mile at 84 mph. That's 0.7 second quicker than the Civic. It also hit 60 mph in 8.6 seconds, which is a full second quicker than the Civic. The manually shiftable automatic tranny has a smart calibration that will hold gears to redline but downshifts to 1st when the car stops. We found ourselves pounding down a gear or two to shoot gaps in traffic and appreciated its ability to be aggressive when we asked. It's also invisible when we just wanted to cruise, gathering speed with shifts as smooth as Cool Whip. Fuel economy is still a weak point for the 3. We drove both cars with lead feet just to keep up with the Southern California freeway pace, and it showed, especially in the Mazda which recorded a mediocre 22.3-mile-per-gallon average in combined city/highway driving. The Civic's 7-mpg improvement on that number is significant. The soul of a sports car We still prefer the Mazda 3 five-door's looks and function, but we found the sedan's handling marginally sharper. Mazda says it's in every car it sells. It's no lie. The 3 did things at the track that would have impressed us in a car that cost $10,000 more. Amazing balance around the skid pad resulted in a 0.87 g lateral acceleration score proving that Mazda can make anything handle, even with less than ideal all-season rubber (205/50-17 Goodyear Eagle RS-A). Through the slalom its numbers were even more impressive. It posted a 69-mph slalom speed, which is faster than the Subaru WRX STi we tested earlier this year. Braking isn't even close either. The 3 stopped from 60 mph in 118 feet — comparable to the last Miata we tested. Does the 3 still sound like an economy sedan to you? But the most impressive traits of its handling aren't in the numbers. It's the experience that matters most. You must feel the Mazda's precise steering, well-damped suspension and elegant roll control to fully understand this highly underrated machine. Its steering is most impressive. It feels sharp both on and off center, and provides immediate turn-in. Response is so quick we found ourselves needing to readjust our line until we got used to it. Ride quality suffers little despite the awesome dynamic abilities. The 3's suspension is tuned more aggressively than the Civic's, but the compromise in comfort is virtually imperceptible. If you find any value in the Mazda's enhanced driving experience, it's unlikely you'll take issue with its ride. Smart, pretty interior Mazda's interior would look at home in a luxury car. The 3 scored well for interior design, materials and build quality. Intuitive design permeates the 3's heating/air conditioning and stereo controls which integrate nicely into the black-faced dash. Temperature and fan speed are on two large knobs which contain buttons for "auto" and "off" functions for climate control. It's an obvious system which is overridden by turning up the fan speed. The stereo has a center-mounted knob for volume control surrounded with buttons for radio presets and CD functions. Steering wheel-mounted buttons also control the stereo and cruise control. Otherwise, the 3's interior is simply nicer than the Civic's. Leather seats with seat heaters are standard with the "S Grand Touring" trim level. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is relatively small in diameter and thick-rimmed which makes the 3 feel more like a sports car when you're beating WRXs through the slalom. The instrument panel is dominated by a center-mounted speedometer surrounded by a tachometer on the left and fuel and coolant temperature gauges on the right. It's a conventional design which is as functional as it is attractive. The Mazda's seats are firmer and more aggressively shaped than the Civic's, which makes them more comfortable for any kind of driving. And like the Civic, its rear seat is split 60/40 and folds flat easily to increase cargo space. The passionate choice The 3 is defined by its fine handling which is partially due to the 17-inch wheels. It's the little things that add up to give the 3 the victory. It does virtually nothing wrong and gets so much right. We prefer its interior design and functionality and we think it's a better-looking car than the Civic. Plus, it wins in any contest of performance. Bottom line, the 2006 Mazda 3 wins because it offers a driving experience far beyond our expectations and, more importantly, beyond its price tag. What Works: Outstanding dynamics combined with economy car utility and practicality. What Needs Work: Fuel economy could be better. Bottom Line: More performance, utility and style than any car in the segment.