Compact Hatchback Comparison Test: Cruze, Impreza, Civic and Mazda3

As we all know, the compact-car segment has always been popular in Canada. Despite the growing appetite for SUVs, many of which are based on car platforms, we’re still buying compact cars in massive quantities, thanks to their affordable price, their fuel economy and their versatility.

However, compact hatchbacks push that versatility to the next level, to the point where we’re witnessing certain resurgence of this type of vehicle. As a matter of fact, starting this year, two well-known models are now available in hatchback guise, namely the Honda Civic and the Chevrolet Cruze.

We obviously had a Civic hatchback in our market between 1973 and 2005, but it had three doors, while the new one has five. As for the Cruze, the first generation included a hatchback (and even a wagon) in other markets, while we only got the sedan. Chevrolet realised the potential for the five-door version here.

The moment was right for a hatchback confrontation. First and foremost, we invited the Mazda3 Sport, seated in second place in The Car Guide’s 2017 Compact Cars Best Buys category. The first place was handed to the Honda Civic, available up until now in coupe and sedan body styles. The last step of the podium is occupied by the Hyundai Elantra, but since the five-door Elantra GT will be redesigned this year, we decided to exclude the outgoing generation from this matchup. The Subaru Impreza being totally redesigned for 2017, and available, we included it here.

Obviously, we could’ve added the Volkswagen Golf, the Toyota Corolla iM, the Kia Forte5, the Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback and the Ford Focus as well, but they were either not available, on the verge of being refreshed or simply in the shadow of the Grim Reaper. In short, we were left with our two favourite choices and two new models on which we could get our hands on.

For this quartet of cars, we rounded up a diverse quartet of testers consisting of a young and very sympathetic chatterbox, a not-so-young grouch (yours truly), a middle-aged woman and a retiree. Without further delay, here are the results.

4th place: 2017 Chevrolet Cruze Hatch
NOT TOO FAR IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR

Photo: Marc-André Gauthier

To be honest, the Cruze deserved a better outcome, as the rankings don’t reflect the reality that these four cars are very close to each other in regards to performance, fuel economy and versatility.

From a technological standpoint, the Cruze racked up points by offering standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. Its seven-inch touchscreen, or eight inches in the tested Premier trim level, responds very well to finger poking. In addition, its interface is easy to use while driving.

The Chevy’s 1.4-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder engine doesn’t amaze in any way, but does its job without complaining. Its torque peak is generous at launch, plentiful under normal driving, but thins down as the revs go up during full-throttle acceleration. It’s the smallest engine in the group, but its observed fuel economy was higher than those of the Honda Civic and the Mazda3.

Otherwise, the Cruze Hatch serves up good driving dynamics, with its well-tuned suspension and steering, while its brakes are powerful and provide linear stops.

As for interior and exterior design, all’s good. However, the Cruze loses points in regards of interior finish. The abrasive plastic that dresses up the lower portion of the dashboard and the centre console looks and feels low-rent, and the alignment of certain trim components isn’t perfect. In addition, storage points on the centre console and small and shallow.

The roof pillars are large, hampering the view out back, and while rear-seat space is adequate for two adults, the curved pillars give the impression that we’re sitting real close to the ceiling. The cargo area is vast, although the cutout isn’t the largest.

At the end, the Cruze pleases us in many ways, but fails to knock our socks off. The difference between it and its rivals here are a bunch of little details that, summed up, relegate the car to fourth place.

3rd place: 2017 Subaru Impreza
IF THERE WAS ONLY ONE SEASON…

Photo: Marc-André Gauthier

If Mother Nature had decided to blow a snowstorm over our comparison test, the Impreza’s ranking might have changed. As we all know, Subaru sets itself apart with its full-time AWD system, an undeniable advantage during the long winter months.

However, the roads were clear and dry during our matchup, and in that case, the Impreza had to distinguish itself other than with its drivetrain. And with its exterior design, which generated the lowest score of the quartet. Yet, the oldest of our testers found the Subie to be the nicest looking of the bunch, with its myriad of character lines that define its sheetmetal all around. In short, it could be the Impreza’s styling that will age the most gracefully here.

The seats are well sculpted to keep us firmly in place during spirited driving, and of the group, it’s the Impreza that offers the most accommodating back seat. In addition, the Impreza boasts the most voluminous cargo area as well as the best outward visibility, thanks to the squared-off shape of its greenhouse. Fit and finish is also good, the choice of materials is judicious and the easy-to-read instrumentation was highlighted by our testers as well.

In the other hand, the car was the noisiest on the open road, even if, as we said before, the differences between the four cars are minimal. We noted wind and suspension noise, and let’s not forget the 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine that lets its presence heard during full-throttle acceleration. Of the group, it was the least eager to rev and boasted the highest fuel consumption during our tests. The Impreza has good driving dynamics, but nevertheless finished fourth in this regard, while being the slowest during the acceleration tests. On the flipside, its braking distances were excellent.

The new 2017 Subaru Impreza is decidedly a better car than the one it replaces. It’s roomier, more refined than ever and a tad more economical at the pump. Subaru’s hatchback has caught up to the two class favourites without succeeding in superseding them.

2nd place: 2017 Honda Civic
YOUNG AT HEART

Photo: Marc-André Gauthier

The new Civic Hatchback, which gets the turbocharged 1.5-litre, four-cylinder engine as standard equipment, was the quickest and most fuel-efficient of the quartet. It also boasts the biggest cargo area with the rear seats upright. So how come it didn’t become our compact hatchback champ?

Let’s just say the design of its bodywork is scruffier compared to those of its Civic coupe and sedan sisters, which didn’t please everybody. It’s very modern, that’s for sure, and the Sport trims also include lower-body add-ons as well as central exhaust outlets, giving the car a resolutely sportier look. However, beside the voluptuous Mazda3, the Civic seems to be wearing a wrinkled suit.

On the road, the Civic is agile, it feels light and its engine’s well spread-out torque peak cleverly hides the engine’s output. Handling isn’t as surgical as in the Mazda, although during normal driving, the difference isn’t all that significant.

As for versatility, the Civic Hatchback’s cargo hold is spacious, the cutout is rather large and Honda skilfully created a retractable cargo cover, instead of a rigid panel that must be removed while transporting bigger objects. A small touch of ingenuity that makes our lives easier.

Seat comfort is undeniable, front and back, while the cockpit is assembled with good-quality components. The centre storage bin is deep and accessible by sliding and removing the cupholders. Excellent.

The driver instrument pod with its digital speedometer and tachometer, also has a modern touch. On the other hand, the infotainment system needs work. The touchscreen is fairly reactive, but the absence of a physical volume knob is hard to forgive, and the wheel-mounted controls are flimsy. Last but not least, the seats are mounted low to the floor, typically Civic, and some testers had trouble finding a good driving position.

The Civic Hatchback will undoubtedly attract a younger crowd. However, in the compact-car segment, these vehicles must please folks of all ages, and the three other contenders here manage that slightly better. Its brilliant qualities and eagerness to please nonetheless allow it to stand on the second step of the podium, and we haven’t even mentioned its reliability track record and strong resale value yet.

1st place: 2017 Mazda3 Sport
IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS

Photo: Marc-André Gauthier

Yes, the Mazda3 relies on driving dynamics to win buyers over, just like every one of the brand’s products. However, and even though we’re driving enthusiasts, we can’t judge the car solely on this aspect.

No other Japanese manufacturer can flaunt such a talented team of stylists, or at least a team with such creative liberty. Mazda’s visual signature is distinct, organic, and more closely resembles those of luxury brands than mainstream brands. Of course, as far as looks go, everyone is entitled to their opinion, so let’s just say that from a design perspective, the Mazda3 gets our nod.

It’s in the cockpit that we spend most of our time, and that’s exactly where Mazda hit the target. The quality of the materials used surpasses those of its three rivals here, fit and finish is almost beyond reproach and the switchgear has a solid feel to it. The white leather seat upholstery will get dirty in an instant, but at least we can choose black on black. Or simply forego leather seating altogether, which is part of an option package that includes the head-up display on a small transparent, flip-up visor that some drivers found distracting.

The infotainment system is the easiest to use. Its multifunction knob allows us to intuitively attain all of the system’s features, thanks to the well thought-out menu layout. The screen becomes touch-sensitive when the car isn’t moving. However, the navigation system isn't user friendly. The centre console of the 2017 Mazda3 is higher than in previous model years, so it’s a little less comfortable for our lady tester. In addition, the new piano black trim quickly attracts dust. The car’s cargo area isn’t the most spacious, but not the smallest either.

The 2.5-litre, four-cylinder engine, delivering 184 horsepower, allowed for zippy performance despite what feels like a dip in power between 1st and 2nd gears. And compared to the 2.0-litre engine in base trim levels of the Mazda3, the difference in fuel consumption is negligible. However, the overall ranking of this test wouldn’t have changed if we had tested the smaller engine instead. The Honda and the Mazda probably would have been closer in the final scoring.

End of the day, the Mazda3 wins because it satisfies the needs of compact-car buyers of all ages, all needs and all budgets, without compromising versatility. Thanks to its refinement, its quality-crafted cockpit and its fuel economy, it finished ahead of the pack. Its driving experience is just the icing on a tasty cake.

Conclusion

With a few redesigned models scheduled to arrive in the coming months, the Mazda3, despite winning this showdown, simply cannot rest on its laurels. The 2018 Hyundai Elantra GT looks promising, which will also serve as the basis for the very first model of Hyundai’s new N performance division.

The Volkswagen Golf always represents a threat, and will obtain some improvements for the 2018 model year. The Ford Focus is ripe for a redesign, but that might not happen until next year. For the time being, the Mazda3, even though it’s not perfect, even though it’s not the best-selling car in its segment, remains the compact hatchback to beat for the whole of its qualities.

FINAL SCORING

Year 2017 2017 2017 2017
Make Chevrolet Honda Mazda Subaru
Model Cruze Civic Mazda3 Impreza
DESIGN/STYLE
Exterior /25 20.1 20.2 21.8 19.7
Interior /25 19.6 19.0 21.1 19.6
Total /50 39.7 39.2 42.8 39.3
BODY/CABIN
Interior and exterior fit and finish /15 11.8 12.6 13.2 12.1
Quality of materials used /15 11.4 12.4 13.4 11.3
Dashboard /20 16.5 15.3 16.3 16.8
Equipment /20 16.5 15.3 16.8 15.8
Trunk /30 22.0 25.1 23.9 25.4
Storage /20 15.3 17.3 16.5 17.0
Total /120 93.5 97.9 100.0 98.3
COMFORT / ERGONOMICS
Driving position /20 17.0 16.8 17.3 16.8
Ergonomics /20 17.0 16.3 18.5 17.0
Driving noise /20 16.3 16.7 16.3 15.7
Rear seats /20 16.3 15.3 14.5 17.0
Total /80 66.6 64.9 66.6 66.4
DRIVE
Handling /30 25.0 24.2 26.5 24.3
Engine /25 18.5 22.9 20.0 17.8
Fuel consumption /25 17.5 20.0 18.1 16.5
Steering /20 14.7 15.7 17.7 15.0
Brakes /20 17.0 16.3 17.3 16.7
Transmission /20 17.0 17.7 17.7 17.0
Ride quality /20 16.7 18.3 18.3 16.7
Total /160 126.3 135.1 135.6 123.9
SAFETY
Visibility /20 15.3 16.3 16.0 18.0
Driving aids /20 17.3 17.3 17.3 18.3
Total /40 32.7 33.7 33.3 36.3
EDITORS' CHOICE
Average /50 38 44 48 41
TOTAL /500 396.3 414.5 425.9 405.5
RANK 4 2 1 3

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TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

Year

2017 2017 2017 2017
Make Chevrolet Honda Mazda Subaru
Model Cruze Premier Civic LX Mazda3 Sport GT Impreza Sport
Wheelbase (mm) 2700 2700 2700 2670
Length (mm) 4453 4519 4470 4460
Width (mm) 1791 1878 2053 (w/mirrors) 1775
Height (mm) 1466 1434 1455 1480
Curb weight (kg) 1351 1321 1406 1455
Passenger capacity 5 5 5 5
Interior volume (litres) n/a 2684 2727 2761
Trunk volume min/max (litres) 699 - 1337 728 - 1308 572 - 1334 589 - 1566
Engine Turbocharged L4 Turbocharged L4 L4 H4
Displacement (litres) 1.4 1.5 2.5 2.0
Maximum power (hp @ rpm) 153 @ 5600 174 @ 6000 184 @ 5700 152 @ 6000
Maximum torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm) 177 @ 2000 - 4000 162 @ 1700 - 5500 185 @ 3250 145 @ 4000
Required fuel regular regular regular regular
Transmission 6-speed automatic CVT automatic 6-speed automatic CVT automatic
Drivetrain Front-wheel drive Front-wheel drive Front-wheel drive All-wheel drive
Front suspension Ind., struts Ind., struts Ind., struts Ind., struts
Rear suspension Ind., multilink Ind., multilink Ind., multilink Ind., double wishbone
Front brakes / diameter (mm) Disc / 276 Disc / 282 Disc Disc / 294
Rear brakes / diameter (mm) Disc / 264 Disc / 259 Disc Disc / 274
Tires 225/40R18 P215/55R16 215/45R18 225/40R18
Steering Rack-and-pinion, electric ass. Rack-and-pinion, electric ass. Rack-and-pinion, electric ass. Rack-and-pinion, electric ass.
Turning diameter (m) 11.8 10.9 10.6 10.8
Fuel tank (litres) 51.9 46.9 50.0 50.0
Acceleration 0-100 km/h (sec) 9.1 6.8 7.5 9.9
Accel. 1/4 mile (sec @ km/h) 16.6 @ 129 14.9 @ 151 15.4 @ 144 17.1 @ 131
Acceleration 80 to 120 km/h (sec) 7.0 5.8 6.4 8.0
Braking 100-0 km/h (m) 38.5 (four-season tires) 49.0 (winter tires) 46.5 (winter tires) 43.0 (winter tires)
City/Hwy/Comb NRCan fuel cons. (L/100 km) 8.1 / 6.2 / 7.3 7.7 / 6.0 / 6.9 8.7 / 6.6 / 7.8 8.4 / 6.5 / 7.5
Observed fuel economy (L/100 km) 9.8 8.4 8.7 10.2
Base / maximum MSRP $20,695 / $29,930 $21,490 / $30,790 $19,550 / $29,550 $20,895 / $30,995
As-tested price $29,335 $22,790 $29,250 $28,095
Freight and delivery charges $1,850 $1,724 $1,695 $1,595
Warranty (comprehensive / powertrain) 3/60 (C), 5/160 (P) 3/60 (C), 5/100 (P) 3/Unl. (C), 5/Unl. (P) 3/60 (C), 5/100 (P)
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