March 28, 2016 @ 10:38 PM

C-Segment Giant Test: Honda Civic vs Mazda 3 vs VW Jetta

How do you choose between cars that are so closely matched up on price, spec sheet and driving enjoyment, sometimes the score can only be settled on the blacktop

The roads around in and around our nation’s premier water gateway in Port Klang are a curious one. Arriving through any of the major highways reveals a contrast of landscapes at any given time – peering to the left while in the face-lifted Honda Civic 2.0 reveals non-industrialised grasslands, punctuated by tall, spiraling coconut trees. To the right, mammoth structures fabricated from hardened concrete and steel structures, dotted by towering gantry cranes – hard at work removing 40-foot containers onto waiting prime-movers.  The trucks are minute in comparison, like marching ants, when viewed from afar.
It isn’t until they get onto public roads and ramble alongside that I realise the expanse of their sizes and the extent damage those 22.5-inch tyres can do to our roads. This then should explain why the very roads I’m on are littered with small tyre-munching craters that are so adept at throwing off the heading line of my Twilight Blue Honda. In any case, the roads will provide the perfect acid-test. Photo-man Aaron had requested just prior to be dropped off at a location to frame an action shot with the three cars we have. 
Our task, if not to rate them between good, bad or ugly – is to perhaps get under the sleeves off what they intrinsically offer a prospective buyer. The Honda Civic and Mazda 3 are coon’s age rivals, The H-Badge may have enjoyed more success in the past but cutting-edge tech and the sensational styling of the current crop of Mazda’s have more than just swung their ‘Katanas’ in the face of rivals, they’re now showing them how it’s done.  
The results don’t lie, there’s no denying Mazda is on stunning-form currently. As is Honda, perhaps not the same can be said for Volkswagen – as I write this, the Malaysian Automotive Reports for the fiscal half-year are out. Honda is firmly atop in the non-national spot while Mazda is in sixth place overall; with Volkswagen – perhaps not ecstatic about the 12th spot. It’s not all bad news, further price rationalisations by Volkswagen to remain competitive mean one can now get their hands on Malaysian-built German engineering for a whisker above the Japanese C-Segment stalwarts – which brings us to our current objective.
All three cars gathered are built locally, all three are the most premium offerings in their respective stables and all three fit into the very competitive C-Segment. The Mazda 3 hatch 2.0 Skyactiv starts proceedings at RM121,105 before insurance, the premium Honda Civic 2.0 Navi tips the scales at RM128,340 and the Jetta tops the list at RM135,458. 
So how would you rate them apart? Let’s say you were after the freshest looks, the Mazda then! Good residual values; walk into a Honda dealership. Want a premium name to impress your friends better? The Volkswagen surely. The argument would stop right there! And trust me, drawing a straight line across the brochure with the best value for money options list is nigh on impossible as well. In this day of tech-and-spec conscious consumerism – do you pick the paddle shifters in the Honda but put up with the single-zone climate control, maybe fancy the Jetta for its dual-zone climate control but sacrifice keyless entry, perhaps pick the Mazda for its keyless-go and forgive it for not having cruise control. The look-over-my-shoulder antics make calling an outright winner a tad tedious, arguably, there’s one to please anyone of us – but which ticks the most boxes?
In my opinion, the beauty competition is won hands-down by the Mazda. The ‘Kodo’ design language marries taut lines with graceful contours with brutal efficiency. The front fascia bristles with energy; personified by an angular grille that meets crafty headlamps at its flanks, the treatment is carried onwards trough barrelled flanks that append into the sides of the car. The rear is no less eye-catching, the diving roofline converges into the rear haunches of the car through a swoopy C-Pillar, signed of finally by cool looking tail lamps. It’s also got the biggest wheels which intricately fill out the arches beautifully. 
Perhaps it’s the familiarity of the Honda that deducts from the sense of occasion. The previous FD-gen Civic was a sure-fire looker after the previous Etch-a-Sketch model, hence, perhaps the bar was raised a bit too high for the current FB batch. It’s all there, though, the angular headlamps are house Xenon projectors, the front hood leads onto raked A-Pillars, the roofline is sleek, the greenhouse proportions along the flanks divided into four sections to aid visibility. The flanks subtly feature a rising waistline which meets the rear waterfall tail-lamps and the 17inch alloys are ace too – it’s purposeful, albeit slightly restrained.
The Jetta probably lacks imagination in contrast – Volkswagen corporate face is functional, and it’s not that I don’t like the look of it; it just feels bland in this company. It could also use flashier wheels – something the Jetta Sport remedied, albeit in very limited numbers. Its brand of straight lines, flexed contours at the front and sides do translate for a rather grown-up feel which might appeal to a different audience. The Jetta’s three-box dimensions also hide impeccable practicality under its skin, all you have to do is open the boot.
At 510-litres the Jetta’s boot space apes the Civic’s 460-litres and monsters the Mazda’s 308-litres – the sedan ‘3’ is marginally better with 408-litres, but the Jetta’s low-floor architecture and tall loading clearance is in a league of its own.
It’s also the most spacious on the inside, especially in the rear – the lumbar and thigh support in the Jetta great, the seats are nicely padded while leg- and shoulder room is again top-notch. The Mazda’s again trails here while the rear bench architecture is firm yet cosseting, the back supports feel excessively upright and rear legroom is tight. You’d find more space in Myvi, and the tall sills of the rear doors might make children feel claustrophobic. The Honda, on the other hand, provides the middle ground, head and legroom are manageable – even for a six-footer like me and the seats are rather comfortable. 
Up front, it’s the Mazda you want – it’s akin to a cockpit, you seat low-slung, the chunky steering wheel meets the palms with gentle wrist angles, up ahead, the prominent speedometer pulsates with a white light prior to start-up. The seven-inch touch panel negates the need for a cluttered dash centre console, now accessible by a slick rotary controller or by touching the intuitive touch panel. The Mazda also features the best infotainment-tab graphics of the lot too, crisp displays meet funky screen prompt styles and the package just makes the other two seem dated.
The Civic is impressive too, the control pod-like architecture of the dashboard is interesting and three-dimensional simultaneously, the steering wheel feels small but the reach and rake are fine, the seating position does seem somewhat lofty. There’s still a salvo of buttons left and right arching towards the driver – vying for attention, it’s busy but it makes me feel like I’m my own Captain Kirk. 
It is business as usual in the Volkswagen, with blacker-than-black dash surfaces, spared of any element that could be classified as exciting architecture – the steering wheel is black, the door cards are black, the dials are black, the infotainment back-light is… you guessed it. The only other colour scheme seems to be the carbon-look door and dash trim and the lashings of chrome on the shifter-column. If you’re listening VW, it’s time to reinvent, the Jetta wouldn’t look aged – if it was 1999. That being said, the tactility and premium feel is still present and accounted for.
But as you might already surmise by now – poking, prodding and door-thumping can only tell so much. In which case, it’s the Jetta that has the most secure door-shut ‘thud’. The pros and cons are always present depending on how you want to slice the cake, which takes me back to where I had dropped shutterbug Aaron Lee. He lay some 2km ahead probably perched on the centre guard rail. A washboard surface snaked from where I was, banked in some areas, shared in others with rampaging 40-footers.
The route ends with a climb up an elevated expressway which widens around a rectangular steel island which would otherwise make this an eight-lane road – keep heading straight though and smash directly into the heavy-duty structure formed form hardened 2x4 steel extrusions – it is unlike anything you commonly see on the roads. A sandy makeshift U-Turn lay just before it when I say makeshift, it’s probably illegal, especially since 30-tonne carriers are barrelling down in the opposite direction. 
I’m in the Honda, and I push the go-pedal firm to the floor. Nothing much happens below 2350rpm. The official numbers claim 153bhp at 6500rpm and 190Nm which is only accessed at a heady 4300rpm. The S-node on the shifter efficiently lights up the Civic, otherwise, a perpetual tree-hugger when left in ‘D’. The full fury of the i-Vtec is announced as the engines blare towards its redline, it’s urgent and rev-hungry but you have to wring it for everything it has. The gearbox is smooth on the up- and downshifts and the shift points are right on cue at circa 6300rpm. Even if the Civic isn’t the most powerful on paper – it’s a hardworking performer.
The Mazda, on the other hand, has the numbers – the stratospheric compression ratio, direct-injection and variable valve-timing part and parcel of the Skyactiv suite help muster a 162bhp at 6000rpm dollop of power while making 210Nm at 4000rpm. It’s a staggering power plant, buzzy and urgent. When coupled to the Skyactiv-Drive gearbox which fully locks-up at just 8kph, thereafter feeling pseudo-manual, progress is rapid nonetheless. In places where I clocked 105kph in the Honda, I’m now doing 115kph or more in the Mazda. The shifts are superb, the paddle shifters heighten the sense of drama and the engine note changes come rapid – driver instructed, flawlessly executed. 
The Mazda, of course, feels fast and is fast, until you plant your foot in the Jetta. This is when you realise natural-aspiration can only do so much, the realm of forced induction takes it further. The speedometer climbs with menacing gusto. The numbers only tell half the story – with 158bhp at 5800rpm and 240Nm of twist force at 1500rpm – it’s the way Jetta delivers its power that is so special. On one run I kept the Mazda around as a benchmark, the Volkswagen simply blitzes the ‘3’ all the way up till about third gear where their respective acceleration forces start to level out. The power is so addictive you’d even put up with the interior to enjoy it on a daily basis.
All three cars sport electronic steering systems – with very little in it between how they feel and act in the corners. The Honda’s is tad light (perhaps more suited for the daily commute) while it’s accurate with output, it doesn’t quite inspire confidence like the other two, feedback is good nonetheless. The Volkswagen’s steering weight is spot-on, the rack is quick and the resulting output is very predictable. I would enjoy a whisker more feedback but it’s not a bug-bear. The Mazda’s steering is the best – it steers on a dime, inch perfect to your commands – chatty and alive, always bristling with information and anxious for input. 
It’s much the same with the ride, the Honda straddles a point optimised for comfortable cruising, there’s flicker of body roll if you chuck it into corners too fast, but the brakes are on point if you need them. The Mazda again is simply brilliant, the solid chassis again spreads forces swiftly, the damping is stiff but never bone jarring and there’s almost no roll – it’s simply connected to the landscape. However, it’s the Jetta that surprises the most – it’s planted! The brakes are a tad soft and unresponsive at first but there’s no faulting the robust chassis, the Jetta rocks the fine line between being poised yet chuck-able in the corners, and it will handle what you throw at it with talent and confidence. 
Remember the U-Turn? Towards the end of my run in the Honda, I had childishly decided, that instead of pussy-footing my way around the corner – and risk a longer exposure towards an unwanted situation, I’d instead yank the handbrake to flick the car right over. Classy… don’t you think. I figured it was a good test as anything to discern the final factor of this C-Segment trifecta – fun! 
As the Honda stormed its way up the final ascending stretch, I give it two quick taps of left paddle shifter to drop it into second gear – the last of the guard rails disappear on the right, a jolt to the left, before I give the lever a good rip while yanking the steering to the right. The Honda flings it’s arse around tenaciously as the steering wheel rapidly rotates in the opposite direction to compensate – almost as soon as I could wink, I was facing the other way before I gave it the beans again. If you are wondering, the experience was brilliant yet unnecessary – and the Honda was good at it, but one could do deduce that most of the car’s mass are centred towards the front. 
When the exercise was repeated in the Jetta, oddly it never quite flicked the whole way over, it merely pinged three-quarters of the slide and stopped – a mixture of not carrying enough speed-in and the handbrake not maintaining the brake force – meant that besides the capable underpinnings, it probably didn’t appreciate this level of hooliganism. Plus the thick-walled tyres probably didn’t help.
I fired my last round in the Mazda 3, two flicks of the paddles and a dab of the brakes. The coast is clear – the handbrake freezes the rear wheels just as soon as you lift the handbrake and the rear steps out in the most graceful and controlled, almost Ken Block style all-wheel drive slide, the front skates along to compensate and the car remains beautifully flat. A perfect 180-degree flick. The Mazda simply redefines what fun is supposed to be in a front-wheel drive C-Segment car. 

Words: Arvind Kumar
Photography: Aaron Lee
Price RM128,340
Engine 1997cc 16v 4-cyl SOCH VVT, 153bhp @ 6500rpm, 190Nm @ 4300rpm
Transmission Five-speed Auto, front wheel drive
Suspension McPherson Struts front, Multi-link rear
Weight 1270kg
Price RM121,105
Engine 1248cc 16v 4-cyl DOHC VVT, 162bhp @ 6000rpm, 210Nm @ 4000rpm
Transmission Six-speed Auto, front wheel drive
Suspension McPherson Struts front, Multi-link rear
Weight 1292kg
Price RM135,458
Engine 1390cc 16v 4-cyl turbocharged and supercharged 158bhp @ 5800rpm, 240Nm @ 1500rpm
Transmission Seven-speed Auto, front wheel drive
Suspension McPherson Struts front, Multi-link rear
Weight 1380kg

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