Demand for small sedans has been a little stagnant of late, with people increasingly drawn to hatchbacks and crossover SUVs. Nevertheless, the battle for sales supremacy in this traditional part of the market is intensely fought, and there is no lack of quality options.
Our current benchmark is the Hyundai Elantra, which took the title belt from the incumbent Mazda 3 earlier this year thanks to its great packaging, strong value, good ownership costs and surprising, Australia-specific suspension dynamics.
But time stands still for no car, and the new-generation Honda Civic launched just last month has the credentials to take the crown. To say the new version is a big step up over the uninspiring previous-generation car is an understatement of sizeable proportions.
On the subject of sizeable proportions, the third contender in this showdown is actually not a sedan at all — it just looks like one. The Skoda Octavia hatch has always offered more space for less money than most, and this updated one does it better than ever before, with a splash of outsider Euro charm to… boot (pun an optional extra).
Because this end of town is price-sensitive, we’ve chosen variants at the lower end of the spectrum, priced at or around $25,000 plus on-road costs with automatic transmissions. It’s the Honda Civic VTi-S versus the Hyundai Elantra Active versus the Skoda Octavia Ambition. Let’s get this show on the road.
Pricing and specifications
The cheapest car here at recommended retail level (RRP) is the Hyundai Elantra Active, priced at $24,250 plus on-road costs ($27,606 drive-away), ahead of the Honda Civic VTi-S at $24,490 ($27,898 drive-away). The Skoda Octavia Ambition is the priciest at list, $25,290, but thanks to subsided on-road costs, has the lowest drive-away price ($26,790).
The Elantra Active offers a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay integration, USB/Aux/Bluetooth, a reversing camera, six speakers, cruise control, cloth seats, manual air-conditioning, rear parking sensors, six airbags, dusk-sensing headlights, daytime running lights and 16-inch alloy wheels with a full-size spare.
The Civic VTi-S misses the Hyundai’s dusk-sensing headlights and full-size spare, but adds Android Auto on top of Apple CarPlay, a three-angle function on its reversing camera, eight speakers, front parking sensors, a starter button, Honda’s brilliant LaneWatch blind-spot monitoring system, Auto Hold anti-creeping function and an electric parking brake.
Like the Civic, the Octavia Ambition lacks dusk-sensing headlights and a full-size spare, and like the Hyundai misses out on LaneWatch, a starter button, Auto Hold, electric parking brake, front sensors and the three-view camera, while it also has a smaller 6.5-inch touchscreen (with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto).
However, it has the biggest wheels here at 17-inches, the most airbags (seven, not six) and class-leading active safety features including adaptive cruise control and low-speed autonomous braking — and kudos to Skoda for that.
Clearly, then, the Hyundai is missing a few features, though the dusk-sensing headlights and full-size spare make it particularly friendly for regional buyers. The Octavia must be commended for offering radar cruise and autonomous brakes (class-leading stuff), but it’s the Honda that takes the edge. Just.
Cabin space and design
There isn’t a bad cabin here, but there are grades of excellence.
The Elantra’s layout is reminiscent of the bigger Sonata, with a clean design that’s ergonomic from the outset, a simple-to-operate infotainment system (though its Bluetooth audio quality is moderately less crisp than the others) a good trip computer with digital speedo and fantastic ergonomics. There is also a lot of cabin storage.
However, the door plastics feel cheaper than the others and squeak when your knees press them, the urethane steering wheel doesn’t feel as nice in the hand, and the black-on-grey colour scheme all feels a little bland.
The same could be said for the austere Octavia, though the characterful seat trim, soft dash and door plastics and 'leathers', and even the flocked door pockets, make a difference. Positives are the swiping function on its touchscreen, lovely leather steering wheel, nicer switchgear and four one-touch windows. Negative is the slightly grainy reversing camera.
But it’s the Honda which has the nicest cabin. Its design is BMW-like, with that driver-orientation of the fascia, while the plastics are of a higher quality and grade, there’s superior storage (a massive console and a hidden spot behind the centre stack) and a starter button.
As colleague Matt said, it feels much more modern and stylised than the others. The centre screen has the best resolution here, the instruments are the most legible, and the electric parking brake, Auto Hold and WiFi hotspot are unique. Only the slightly flat (though soft) seats and the ugly steering wheel buttons take the gloss off.
It’s modern, classy and, as we discussed earlier, very impressively equipped. It’s the new benchmark cabin, for now.
On a side note, we want to tip our hats to all three brands for making Apple CarPlay standard, and a further one to Honda and Skoda for the addition of Android Auto. These phone mirroring features are fast becoming essential daily items for many of us.
What about the practicality, though?
The biggest car is the Octavia at 4659mm long/1814mm wide/1461mm high/2686mm in the wheelbase. The Civic is 15mm shorter and narrower but has a 14mm longer wheelbase, while the Elantra is 90mm shorter but matches the Honda elsewhere.
Pictured from top: Hyundai Elantra, Skoda Octavia and Honda Civic
In terms of rear space, all three are capable of sitting three moderate-size adults in the back, have ISOFIX anchor points and ample storage in the doors. As second family cars or regular people-haulers, each of these cars punch above their weight.
The Hyundai has the least legroom, but can still seat two 190cm-plus people in the rear, has a flip-down central armrest, easy to clean plastic seat-backs and big rear doors for easy entry, though the door trims feel low-rent and there are no one-touch windows.
The Honda has the cushiest seats here and acres of legroom, that puts cars a segment up to shame, plus it offers the most upmarket ‘feel’, though its smaller side windows and swooping roof design mean headroom and outward visibility aren’t quite as good as the others'.
The Skoda offers no more legroom than the Honda, while the door trims are cheaper and it lacks rear flip-down cupholders, but it’s the only car here with rear air vents, and it clearly has the best outward visibility and headroom thanks to its boxy, big-windowed design.
The Elantra also has the smallest boot at 458 litres, though it’s still hugely capacious and keep in mind it has that full-size spare underneath. The Civic’s boot is a massive 519L, bigger than a Holden Commodore. Both have levers in the boot to flip-fold the rear seats.
But the Skoda is the practicality winner, with its roof-mounted hatch tailgate that gives a much bigger aperture, and a vast 568L boot, which beats most SUVs. With the seats folded you have a wagon-matching 1558L, plus numerous hanging hooks and cubbies. For those wanting more room, the Octavia wagon costs another $1700.
Engine and transmission
The big news around the new Civic is the introduction of a punchy 1.5-litre turbo engine, but the VTi-S grade misses out. Instead, it retains the familiar 1.8-litre naturally aspirated unit with 104kW at 6500rpm and 174Nm at 4300rpm, matched to a CVT automatic.
It’s no powerhouse, and lacks torque at the lower end, but the CVT does what CVTs do and keeps it in the sweet spot as often as possible, while remaining refined and largely free of excessive droning. It’s good for the breed. In general urban driving it’s entirely sufficient.
The Elantra sports a 2.0-litre engine with 112kW at 6200rpm and 192Nm at 4000rpm, though it’s a little heavier than the Honda. Matched to this is a six-speed automatic transmission with torque-converter.
Despite having higher outputs than the Honda, forward progress is no swifter, and it offers a raspy and anaemic note under strain. Its lack of torque is countered by the decisive gearbox that is quick to shift down, though this only amplifies the NVH issue.
Despite being the biggest car, the Octavia is actually the lightest at 1234kg (tare) thanks to its clever MQB architecture, and the double whammy is that its 1.4-litre turbocharged engine is the punchiest, with 110kW at 6000rpm and 250Nm between 1500 and 3500rpm. It’s matched to a seven-speed DSG dual-clutch auto.
The engine is notably superior to the others, with sufficient torque to make the front tyres chirp if you plant your foot. Rolling response for overtaking is a league ahead thanks to the turbo engine’s excellent low-down torque, making it effortless and quiet. The DSG has moments of hesitancy, but with measured driving is generally well-behaved. Additionally, the 0-100km/h sprint time of 8.2 seconds is genuinely quick for the class.
Based on ADR tests, the Skoda’s downsized engine is the most efficient, with a combined-cycle consumption figure of 5.3 litres per 100km, edging the Honda at 6.4L/100km and the Hyundai’s 7.2L/100km.
This discrepancy played out across our cycle, which was not exactly oriented towards super economical driving. The Skoda averaged 8.7L/100km across urban and city routes, edging the Honda (10.2L/100km) and the Hyundai (10.6L/100km).
Of course, you could do much better than these figures if you were driving with efficiency front of mind. Note also that the Skoda prefers more expensive 95 RON petrol, though this impost doesn’t offset the superior efficiency.
It’s clear, then, that the Skoda offers the superior drivetrain, if you’re okay with the occasional delayed throttle response from the turbo/DSG combination around town. We would be. The Honda edges the Hyundai, despite lacking on paper. It’s an old engine, but still acceptable.
Ride and handling
After back-to-back-to-back dynamic loops, it became immediately clear that all three cars here have dynamic abilities that go well beyond the usual call of duty, without sacrificing excellent ride comfort in the daily urban grind. They’re all genuinely excellent.
The Octavia has good electro-mechanical steering with a decent amount of resistance and feedback, its high seat gives good visibility and the NVH at speed is fairly good based on our Db readings, contrary to the Skoda's image.
The ride also offers a level of sophisticated assuredness in aggressive driving, though it’s calibrated a little firmer than the others and therefore amplifies road corrugations more than the others. It’s also a little harsh on sharp impacts such as speed bumps.
The Elantra’s suspension is the only car here with Australia-specific tuning, and it’s beautifully composed over patchwork roads. It eats potholes for breakfast and yet gives the car great body control. The only downside is the slightly odd, elastic and overly resistant steering.
The Honda is actually the dynamic leader here. Its electric steering is super quick on centre, and coupled with the balanced chassis and good body control, makes the Civic properly ‘darty’. The ride is also composed over bumps, with an ability to dismiss and iron out big hits such like a little luxury car.
The Civic’s rear end is also very disciplined, because it’s the only car here with all-round independent suspension (MacPherson front/Multi-link rear). Downsides? There is some evident tyre roar and the odd moment of squealing in corners.
The Civic has a three-year/100,000km warranty, as well as capped price servicing at intervals of 10,000km. Each visit currently costs $284 (except for $312 at 80,000km). There are also incidentals such as new brake fluid every three years ($54), new pollen filter every two ($45) and a new fuel filter at 90,000km ($204).
The Skoda offers three years of warranty and roadside assist. Service intervals are 12-months/15,000km and the service visits over the first six years (at current prices) are $280, $352, $460, $546, $460 and $416 plus incidentals.
But it’s the Elantra that wins the cost of ownership race, with a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty and up to 10 years roadside assist if you service your car at a Hyundai dealer. Service intervals are 12-months/15,000km, and the cost of each is capped at between $249 and $349 over the first six years plus incidentals.
As Matt and yours truly discussed during testing, it’s amazing how much this segment has moved on since March, when we gave the Elantra a win over the Mazda 3.
The Hyundai remains an outstanding car, with typically good ownership costs, a well-packaged cabin and good Australian-calibrated dynamics. But it offers less space than the others, a more austere cabin and a relatively modest engine, and costs only marginally less at RRP (though remember Hyundai Australia’s propensity to entertain deals).
The Skoda Octavia, following its recent update, is better than ever. It offers the best practicality here, and in fact might be the best space-for-dollars passenger car you can buy. It also has the best engine of the three, and the fitment of standard autonomous brakes and radar-guided active cruise control is laudable. Skoda’s drive-away deals are also strong.
But it’s just edged by the new Honda Civic, by the skin of its teeth. The Honda has a benchmark cabin feel, a plethora of features including LaneWatch, and the best ride and handling balance. All of these cars are good buys, but the Honda stole our affections most.
It’s a return to form for Honda, and not a moment too soon. A comparison with the soon-to-be-updated Mazda 3 in August or September awaits. We can’t wait.
Click the photos tab for more images by Sam Venn and Glen Sullivan.