Honda wins it by a nose over Hyundai's outstanding i30.
And so Honda is back with a proper Civic hatchback after six years, with the European-designed, British-built Euro. Well, you can't just come home again. Things have changed a bit in this segment since 2006.
For a start, downsizing is no longer a dirty word. There are many buyers shopping in this segment who expect the same ability, quality and equipment that they used to find in much larger machines.
Another thing: Korean brands that looked modestly promising six years ago have now become positively aspirational.
A Hyundai Elantra would not have been in contention against a Civic hatchback in, say, 2005. But the latest Hyundai i30 is now the newest and potentially brightest small-hatch in this segment; realistically, it's one of the benchmarks that the Civic Euro now has to live up to.
How times have changed. So how do they compare?
We've brought the Honda and Hyundai together in top-spec petrol versions: the Civic Euro L and i30 Elite. At $38,900 (Civic) and $39,990 (Elite) they're very close on price. They're similar in size and weight and both are luxurious, with leather upholstery, Bluetooth, reversing cameras, heated front seats and quality audio systems with iPod integration.
Both offer their own high-tech electronic USPs. The Civic has a pushbutton Econ mode that retunes the throttle, gearbox and cruise control for maximum economy. The Hyundai has three different settings for the power steering assistance - normal, comfort and sport - which allow you to change the weight of the wheel according to your mood and driving conditions.
Both have folding side mirrors but the Hyundai's automatically extend when you approach the car. The i30 also has keyless entry/start and the reversing camera is neatly hidden in the tailgate badge, popping out when required.
Both have 1.8-litre petrol engines. There's less than 10kg in kerb weight between them and the peak torque figures are strikingly similar: 174Nm at 4300rpm for the Honda against 178Nm at 4700rpm for the Hyundai.
The i30 has slightly more power, with 110kW (Civic 104kW).
The Civic lacks on-road zing compared with the i30, not because of any power deficit but because it has a five-speed automatic transmission. It's a smooth gearbox, but the wider gaps between ratios are all too apparent when you drive it back-to-back with the six-speed Hyundai, which feels much more sprightly. The Honda does have the advantage of steering wheel-mounted paddle shifts though, which are right at your fingertips and work well.
Both cars flow with assurance along winding roads. Neither has great steering but the Honda rates better for consistent weighting. The ability to change the assistance of the Hyundai tiller is a novel touch, but it's really nothing new: Fiat did it a decade ago and it didn't exactly catch on then. Love the i30's compliant chassis and superior ride, but the Honda has a slightly harder edge and higher limits without being uncomfortable.
Inside, the Civic Euro's innovative design and quality materials show the way not only for the i30 but also for the Japanese-built Civic sedan, which feels hopelessly low-rent in the cabin compared with its European cousin (the two share only about 30 per cent of parts overall).
Both Civic Euro L and i30 Elite have Bluetooth and iPod systems that are laughably easy to connect and use, although the Civic's are integrated more pleasingly into a prominent multi-information display centre in the dashboard.
The i30 rides on a 45mm-longer wheelbase, which pays dividends in rear-seat room. Occupants also enjoy a much more airy ambience than the Civic. However, the Honda has more supportive chairs front and rear and also boasts the folding Magic Seat system from the smaller Civic. This allows the rear seats to be folded in a variety of ways to accommodate high, long or tall items and is simply brilliant. It's hard to believe such a small space can be so versatile.
Choosing a winner is tough as both bring quality to the small-car space. Some will like the Hyundai's superior real-world performance and big-car feel, but for us the Honda is the winner here by a narrow margin. We like the cabin finish, on-road attitude and Magic Seats.By David Linklater Email David