Pragmatism isn’t sexy. It isn’t an inspiring motto. But pragmatism gets the job done without a fuss. Pragmatism doesn’t need a self-congratulatory pat on the back afterwards either.
When my colleague Sebastien Bell and I drove these two sedans, we both remarked on how they were, reasonably, all the car most people would need. For the purposes of transporting 1.4 people to their jobs on a daily basis, both the Civic and Corolla feel utterly fit for purpose. Which does it better though?
Powertrains and Driving Impressions
Both of these cars come with two traditional engine options, and both came with the more powerful of their respective pairs.
Under the Civic’s low hood sits a 1.5-liter turbocharged motor. It debuted here, and has quickly spread across the lineup in various states of tune. In the Civic it produces 174 hp up in the high reaches of the tach—how Honda. Its peak 162 lb-ft of torque is more of a plateau, available from 1,700 to 5,500 rpm. That instant power makes it easy to take advantage of brief gaps in downtown traffic, even if the CVT does its best to dampen the delivery.
The Corolla uses a CVT too, but with a catch: Toyota installed a physical first gear to make it smoother off the line. Aiding that is The Corolla’s gas pedal, which is comparably less sensitive than the Civic’s. It also has less power to work with, though not as much as you’d think: the 2.0-liter naturally-aspirated engine produces 169 hp at 6,600 rpm and 151 lb-ft of torque at a still-high 4,400 rpm.
The Honda’s touchy pedals earn it an early demerit from Seb. “The Civic decelerates aggressively whenever you move your foot. I get that that’s kind of nice for spirited driving, whatever that is, but it’s also a great way to make your passengers sick—which did happen to a girl I was trying to impress and also gave me an anti-Civic bias. It makes the car buck and sway needlessly. The Corolla, on the other hand, glides down the road.”
SEE ALSO: 2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid Review
Moving between the two, the most shocking thing for me is just how much lower the Civic’s seats are. Its hip point is remarkably close to the ground, which is bad for those needing to fold their way into it, but good for those who prize a sense of connectedness with the road. I can’t imagine many people are buying these sorts of cars, in these sorts of trims, for sporting ambitions though. And that’s where the Corolla pulls ahead. Its softer ride isn’t wayward, but it does make for the better highway cruiser because of it. Its softer throttle response is paired with a willingness to hold onto revs longer than the Civic when you lift off.
“It’s got that soft, economy-car hustle that I like,” says Seb of the Corolla. “It’s a little wibbly-wobbly through the corners, but only the way that makes you feel like you’re hustling, not in the way that makes you feel like you’re going to fall over. It’s not quite as good as the Civic, but it’s not bad, neither. Owning this car wouldn’t make your life greyer.”
Passenger Comfort and Cargo Space
You might think the Corolla has another easy win here. Not so.
The driver and whoever happens to call shotgun do get more head- and hip room in the Toyota. We’re talking fractions of an inch though, and it does give up nearly three inches of shoulder space to the Civic. I found the Honda thrones more comfortable up front, while monsieur Bell preferred the Corolla’s chairs.
We both agreed the Civic’s second row was the better of the two if you really need to put it into use. Its 37.4 inches of legroom clearly beats the Corolla’s 34.8, and headroom is practically a wash. Second-row Civic passengers have to make do with 4.0 inches less hip room and 3.3 inches more shoulder room, so if you have friends shaped like Captain America (or a Dorito), they should fit right in. Seb says he fit four people in it to go skating in comfort, and I have no reason to doubt it. The Corolla angles its rear-seat passengers’ heads forwards, which could be awkward on longer drives.
Pop the trunks and Honda gets another point in its favor. Its trunk is big. I mean strangely, deceptively, I-can-definitely-fit-an-extra-person-in-there big. The numbers are 14.7 cubic feet of trunk space in the Civic, and 13.1 in the Corolla.
Tech and Safety
Neither Honda nor Toyota have quite figured out a truly good infotainment system. Let’s get that out of the way now.
The Corolla’s is less bad, as the dated graphics hid what is overall an easy-to-use, clearly laid-out system. The extra amount of physical buttons framing the screen help too, making it easier to prod without looking away from the road. Only Apple CarPlay is available in the Corolla however, no Android Auto.
SEE ALSO: 2019 Kia Forte vs Honda Civic Comparison
Civic drivers can use both popular smartphone pairings. The infotainment system itself is considerably more fiddly, especially when doing the mobile pairing itself. “I had someone try to pair their phone to the Civic and despite being adept it took an inordinate amount of effort,” noted Seb. “It’s buried beneath acres of submenus and isn’t in the submenu you’d expect. You can’t just go through phone like every other infotainment system, you’ve gotta go through the root settings menu, find another menu, and then another still.”
The Civic claws back some lost ground by offering more tech goodies in general. In high-zoot Touring trim it comes with an induction charger, which we both liked. It also has a camera-based blind-spot monitor that takes over the infotainment screen when you indicate. I have mixed feelings about it: in downtown rush hour it can help confirm cyclists I might not be able to see clearly because of, well, other cyclists. On the other hand, like most tech like this, I worry people would start to rely only on the screen, and not a combination of it and the mirror.
Befitting their higher trim levels, both cars come with the full raft of their respective makers’ safety suites. Emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, automatic headlights, lane keep assist, and lane departure warning are all standard. The Corolla comes with road sign assist as well. The IIHS rates both a Top Safety Pick, while the NHTSA gives them both five stars.
As the older of the two, the Civic’s interior is more familiar. I’m a fan of its busy interior, even if it can feel like information overload at times. Seb is less charitable. “Honestly, the Civic’s interior already looks a little dated,” he opines, “like one of those spring-loaded day planners that slowly unfolded and that your dad got you as a stocking stuffer in the early 2000s.”
SEE ALSO: 2019 Honda Civic Review
The Corolla is simpler. That could help it age better, but who knows. What I do know is that its infotainment screen is easier to handle as the driver because it’s higher up on the dash, requiring less eye movement.
Material quality and fit is good in both. Both use a lot of black inside, which can be gloomy. At least Toyota gives the Corolla some blue stitching in XSE trim. That’s enough to make the seats more interesting, and thus it wins this category.
Thanks to our very different schedules the week we had both cars, we couldn’t get a real-world fuel mileage comparison out of them. When we did drive together in the city, we found the Civic and Corolla equally parsimonious.
We turn, then, to the EPA. The Civic scores a 33 mpg average (30 mpg city, 38 mpg highway). Not bad. The Corolla posts a 34 mpg average, however, with 31 and 38 mpg for city and highway, respectively. Another win for the Corolla, even by the smallest of margins.
The Civic’s stylish silhouette still stands out five years on, so good for Honda. It doesn’t completely kill outward visibility either, which is nice. Looks are all a matter of opinion of course, but I find the Civic’s daintier looks slightly more appealing than the Corolla’s bottom-heavy, touring car vibes.
Seb remains coy on which he prefers the look of. He wasn’t too happy with the Civic not fitting down his driveway, but then again, neither did the Corolla. As ever with this category, your mileage may vary.
For 2020, the price of entry for the Honda Civic is $21,605, including destination. The base model comes with little in the way of creature comforts however; not even Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Our Touring model rings up at $28,955, which includes $300 for the wireless mobile charger. Keeping the turbo engine at the cheapest price means going for the $24,755 EX, which loses out on the LED headlights, heated rear seats, 18-inch wheels and leather seating.
The Corolla undercuts its rival, starting at just $20,555 for the stripped-out L sedan with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder. The LE is a much better bet at $21,005, adding the larger 8.0-inch infotainment screen, 16-inch wheels, and automatic climate control. Upgrading to the 2.0-liter engine requires at least $23,005 for the SE model, which comes with either the CVT or a six-speed manual transmission. Our top-of-the-line XSE rings up at $26,505. An optional $1,715 package adds dynamic navigation, an upgraded sound system and a Qi charger.
It’s a testament to Honda’s engineering might that the older Civic maintains the dynamic edge over its much newer rival. There’s a rightness to the touch points that make it feel just a little more accomplished behind the wheel. If you value a dash of driving fun in your everyday runabout, the Civic comes out on top.
The Corolla is so much closer now than it ever has been though, and it beats the Honda in other, arguably more important categories. It’s more economical, it has the better transmission, and it comes with more standard safety and tech goodies (but less at the top trims). A smoother ride makes it the better long-distance companion too. As a whole package, the Corolla is more well-rounded, and it’s that jack-of-all-trades nature that helps it just nose ahead of the Civic in this comparison.