The point of the following comparison test was more urgent than most as the paint had barely dried on our factory and yet again redesigned 2014 Honda Civic EX sedan when it was given to us for a week of road testing to see how it stacked up against its most legitimate and most recently redesigned compact sedan foes. We chose the Civic’s stalwart enemy, the newly redesigned Corolla S, then from Korea we picked the impressive new 2014 Forte sedan and lastly we picked the Civic’s most dangerous foe in the form of the enthusiastic driver’s favorite—the 2014 Mazda3.
So for 2014 Honda tinkered with the Civic even more adding a new CVT (continuously variable transmission), a more hi-tech center screen which controls navigation, infotainment and much more as well as other detail refinements to the styling for the coupe and the Si’s handling and power. For the past two years ever since Honda’s “catastrophic” redesign the Civic has been the #1 selling compact car in this country by a rather huge margin. Can it keep its place this year with these competitors hot on its heels? Let’s see.
Our 2014 Civic sedan EX tester had the all-new for 2014 Kona Koffee exterior paint and while that may sound like a car purpose built for those with a non-stop craving for a Starbuck’s caramel macchiato, we found the color to be both subtle yet refreshingly unique and classy. Yes, that is a tough mix for paint jobs to pull off but this one manages it with aplomb. While we don’t usually get excited over a new tail lamp design, we must admit that the Civic looks much more upscale and “complete” with the changes made to the lighting fixtures as well as the additional use of chrome around the front grille. We also drove the 2014 Civic Coupe as well which is now visually different front and back compared to the four door which we found we preferred visually.
Honestly, we don’t see how Honda can really be faulted for its redesign as the bones were already there for a very handsome compact family sedan. To be quite frank, we love the look of the Mazda3 as a hatchback but are more lukewarm to the appearance of the sedan. Now, we know most Americans buy sedans so trust us when we say the styling does not ruin the car for us. We just think the 3 hatch looks way cool. On the other hand, the 2014 Kia Forte EX’s exterior exudes big car class and looks handsome from all angles. It’s rare a compact car is this well-judged visually and we give Kia big plaudits for making the Forte look more expensive than it is.
Lastly, we have the totally redesigned 2014 Corolla’s exterior which says little more than, “hey look we changed some stuff!” There is no sense of cohesive design here causing the Corolla to look busy and somewhat nauseating even when parked. But let’s be honest, the outside of the Corolla is about as exciting to look at as a box filled with paper clips. It may offer plenty of utility but there’s no pizazz anywhere to be found. (1st Place: 2014 Honda Civic EX 2nd Place: 2014 Mazda3 iTouring, 3rd Place: 2014 Kia Forte EX, 4th Place: 2014 Toyota Corolla S)
Interior Design, Utility and Quality
Inside the 2014 Mazda3 iTouring minimalism, simplicity and comfort are the concepts that are made most obvious when you sit in the driver’s seat and behold the vast rear legroom, the expansive dashboard with just some climate control knobs and a large screen where navigation, infotainment and more are displayed to shatter the visual calm. The screen can be controlled by touch or a BMW iDrive like knob located by the gearlever. We found the knob to be easy to operate and that the screen reacted quickly to all inputs including near instant uploading of our iPod. We never tired of the sitting in the Mazda3. Not ever.
On the other end of the spectrum is the steadfastly reliable but hopelessly dull Corolla S sedan which despite a lack of imagination in design did managed to prove the simplest, easiest and quickest to master in regards to interior controls. For what the Corolla may have lacked for in spirit and chutzpah elsewhere, it sure impressed us with how easily we could sync our smart phone to the stereo so we could wirelessly stream music from our iPod. Beyond that, we felt like we had rented it for a weekend away in Boca Raton, Florida.
We found that the 2014 Honda Civics’ mix of futuristic design elements, high quality plastics, easy to decipher center stack roomy overall feeling like a wisely judged mix of all elements that make a compact sedan work in your life for however long you drive it. The Civic offers 12.5 cubic feet of trunk space and we also did test a 2014 Civic Coupe which is so much less practical that we questioned the point of that version’s existence. The back seat was, shall we say, impossible to get into. One last kvetch--Honda, could you give us back a volume knob for the audio system. We are too old to understand a smartphone based sliding volume system.
Shockingly, however, it is the Kia Forte which takes this category mainly for the amount of effort and the level of improvement found inside this newly luxurious model. While you don’t need to fully option out your Forte like our tester (which admittedly came to about $25,000), we found ourselves loving the upscale features like the softest leather seats in this test, ventilated front seats, a state of the art navigation system, heated front seats, rear seats and steering wheel, a power memory driver’s seat, dual zone climate control, High intensity discharge headlamps and more. Color us impressed.
(1st Place: 2014 Kia Forte EX, 2nd Place: 2014 Mazda3 iTouring, 3rd Place: Honda Civic EX, 4th Place: 2014 Toyota Corolla S)
Before getting into the nitty, the gritty and unleash no pity in regards to how these four economically minded sedans drive, steer and handle, first let’s check out how safe they are in case you get into a crash. Well, according to the IIHS (the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) both the Mazda3 and Civic sedan get “Top Safety Pick Plus” ratings which are the highest any car can achieve. Unfortunately, the Corolla and Forte did not get any such designation as the Toyota received a “Moderate” rating in a test meant to mimic a collision with a tree or utility pole and the Kia sadly received a “Poor” rating for that test. At the IIHS the top rating possible is “Good” which the Mazda and Honda scored in front, side, offset, rear whiplash and roof strength testing. (Order of Scoring Highest to Lowest According to IIHS: Mazda3, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Kia Forte)
Behind the Wheel
Now, pitting the 2014 Kia Forte against the Civic and Mazda3 was kind of unfair in that we knew that it is not meant to be a sporty compact like those two stalwart hellions. The 2.0 liter 173 horsepower/154 lb. feet of torque 4-cylinder may make more noise than actual accelerative inspiration but the standard six-speed automatic usually keeps things calm and gives the driver sufficient power for most situations. The steering is a tad light, even with Kia’s new adjustable Flex-Steer system which allows you to set it from Comfort all the way to Sport. To be honest, we couldn’t tell any difference in any setting. Still, if you just drive the Forte each day there is nothing wrong with how it drives so it would very much keep anyone perfectly happy.
The 2014 Mazda3 iTouring we drove had the smaller 2.0 liter 155 horsepower 4-cylinder mated to a positively heavenly 6-speed manual gearbox which reminded us why we loved driving so much to begin with. Its steering is perfectly balanced and it dances through traffic like the most experienced and agile ballet star. You feel not only like you are flying when driving the 3 but you also feel like every mechanical control is directly wired into your cerebral cortex. Oh yeah, and the Mazda3 is the only vehicle in which we averaged over 40 miles per gallon during a week. Only car ever.
The 2014 Toyota Corolla S is so bad it is a step back from last year’s dull model. Simply put, Toyota didn’t try but apparently they are selling them very, very cheap. Driving the car made us hate the act of driving. That never, ever happened before so we were glad when our time in it was over.
Many pointlessly complained about Honda continuing to use its reliable 5-speed automatic in last year’s Honda Civic but just because there is an additional gear in a transmission there is no guarantee of superior fuel economy—isn’t that right Hyundai? But Honda chose to follow the pack and herds of complaining auto journalists and replaced that regular automatic with a CVT (continuously variable transmission) that is not anywhere near as good at getting the most from the standard 1.8 liter 140 horsepower/128 lb. feet of torque 4-cylinder engine although thankfully it does go about its business quietly. We are also grateful that even when we have to force the CVT into full top engine revs at redline for an extended period of time (that’s how CVT’s work—they have no gears), the Honda’s VTEC motor sing screams a sweet melody. We just wish Honda still offered manual gearboxes on higher trim levels like EX and EX-L. (1st Place: 2014 Mazda3 iTouring, 2nd Place: 2014 Honda Civic EX, 3rd Place: 2014 Kia Forte EX, 4th Place: 2014 Toyota Corolla S)
And in Conclusion….
Given how quickly that this segment moves, this outcome could be different tomorrow but as it stands now the 2014 Mazda3 iTouring is currently the segment leader. It’s can’t miss combination of value, style, build quality, steering feel, manual transmission availability and interior roominess all meshed to create the finest compact car in this test or anywhere on sale today. And we really do mean it. The finest. Now, if luxuries, a roomy interior, stylish interior and comfortable interior are paramount to you then check out the Kia. And given Kia’s reliability ratings of late, we can safely say it does everything a Corolla can do, only 20 times better. Please don’t buy a 2014 Corolla when you have so many other fine choices.
Don’t be confused by the cosmetic changes done to the exterior and interior of the 2014 Civic as they are merely changes in trim and materials choice. Otherwise, the changes to the latest Civic were relatively major thanks to fine tuning of the steering feel on center as well as smoothing out the chassis as well as some increased sound deadening in the interior. All in all, the new 2014 Honda Civic EX sedan is a winner for everyone most especially the new compact car shopper. We just wish that it was available more widely with a manual transmission. (1st Place: 2014 Mazda3, 2nd Place: 2014 Honda Civic, 3rd Place 2014 Kia Forte, 4th Place: 2014 Toyota Corolla