Affordable, efficient, functional and in some cases fun, the compact car has long been the top choice of those looking for reliable transportation that won’t break the bank. The segment is loaded with excellent options and the competition is steep. Manufacturers continue to up their game in an effort to keep step with each other.
Standard features go far beyond the seat belts and AM/FM radios of the not-so-distant retired models. Fully loaded, many of today’s compact cars offer the creature comforts found in entry-level luxury cars from premium brands.
Launched in 1966 as a subcompact, the Toyota Corolla’s reception was one for the record books, becoming the best-selling car worldwide in less than 10 years. By 1997, the Corolla would become the best-selling nameplate of all time, surpassing the wildly popular Volkswagen Beetle for the top spot. In 2013, Toyota would announce that the 40-millionth Corolla was sitting in a consumer’s driveway and that sales had hit a fever pitch, with 3,180 Corollas sold per day.
Honda’s subcompact Civic arrived on the scene in 1972, attempting to take on the lauded Corolla in the burgeoning subcompact segment for the 1973 model year. Thanks in great part to the 1973 oil crisis, the strong demand for fuel-efficient automobiles helped drive sales for Honda’s new econobox. The Civic would also win numerous awards overseas, as well as Road Test magazine’s “1974 Car of the Year” award in the United States.
Both subcompacts would grow in sales and size; Corolla would move into the compact class in 1991 and Civic would follow in 2000. The two would also continue to evolve through each generation, breaking segment stereotypes along the way. However, each automaker’s basic concept for both best-sellers remains essentially the same: Build a high-quality vehicle with mass appeal at an affordable price.
Now entering its 50th model year, the 2016 Toyota Corolla continues to lead the compact segment in sales, with over one million vehicles sold every year worldwide. The newest Corolla represents the 11th generation of the model, initially offered for the 2014 model year. The current Corolla is offered exclusively as a four-door sedan powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. That engine creates anywhere from 132 to 140 horsepower and favors fuel efficiency over performance. The 2016 Corolla is available in four basic trim levels: L, LE, S and LE Eco. A six-speed manual transmission is standard on the base model and a four-speed automatic is optional. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) is available on all other trim levels.
The base 2016 Corolla L, with a six-speed manual transmission, starts at $17,300. The top-trim 2016 Corolla S Premium with a CVT begins at $23,125.
The Honda Civic is now entering its 10th generation with the recent unveiling of the all-new 2016 Civic sedan. While it’s not the record-holding world sales champ, the Civic is a best seller that continually battles the Corolla for the top spot in the compact segment. It is also of interest that Canadian buyers favor the Civic over any other car, as the Honda Civic has been the best-selling vehicle in Canada for almost two decades.
The 2016 Civic is available in five trim levels with two new power plants. A 158-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine powers LX and EX models and Honda’s first-ever turbocharged, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 174 horsepower resides under the hood of EX-T, EX-L and Touring models. A six-speed manual transmission is standard on LX models. A CVT is optional on the LX and standard on EX, EX-T, EX-L and Touring trims.
The base 2016 Honda Civic LX with a manual transmission starts at $18,640. The top Touring model starts at $26,500.
I am a firm believer that style and pleasing aesthetics are a subjective matter of taste and preference. For me to pronounce a definitive winner in this category would be unfair not only to the vehicle design teams, but to you as a consumer as well. While my eye prefers the lines of the all-new 2016 Civic, it is important to remember that the Corolla’s design is now entering its third year. It is also helpful to focus on the use of form and function of the Corolla.
For instance the Civic’s wonderfully coupe-inspired C-pillar may grab more attention than the conservative design of the Corolla, but the Civic’s sharply pitched design affects the ease of rear-seat passenger ingress and egress. Taller folks will occasionally bump their head on the top window seal, something that is rarely an issue in the Corolla.
Function aside, the Civic’s sleek new look is lovely. The long hood and low-slung body give the compact the stage presence of a midsize sedan. During my time with the Civic, the vehicle garnered quite a few unsolicited compliments at grocery stores and gas stations. Perhaps it was the newness of the model, but the continual thumbs up in traffic and slack-jawed response of those learning that it was indeed a Civic confirmed the public’s approval of Honda’s new sedan.
The interior is a little easier to judge, although the numbers reveal very close competition. The Corolla and Civic both offer 42.3-inches of front legroom. The Civic has an additional inch of front headroom and bests the Corolla in the other front-seat measurements. The back seat is a different story. While both offer identical rear headroom, the Corolla’s 41.4 inches of rear legroom rivals what many full-size sedans offer and bests what the Civic has by 4 inches.
The Civic handily wins the cargo space category with up to 15.1 cubic feet of cargo space. By comparison, the Corolla offers 13 cubic feet of trunk space.
The fit and finish of both vehicles is excellent. There is good reason that the Civic and Corolla have great reputations as family-friendly vehicles. Both models excel in terms of interior space and design. The standard seats in either vehicle are comfortable and provide decent support. Higher trim levels add a nice level of luxury to the Civic’s upholstery, while the Corolla’s leatherette (Softex) left me wanting more. That material certainly feels like it will wear well, but I would be hard pressed to consider the top-level seating material worthy of use in Toyota’s premium Lexus brand. The Civic’s top-trim materials, on the other hand, felt like they could have been sourced from the Acura parts bin.
Comparing the base trim’s technology reveals that the Corolla has a slight edge. The Civic’s 5-inch color display is smaller than the Corolla’s 6.1-inch display. The Corolla has a six-speaker audio system, while the base Civic comes with a four-speaker stereo system. Both offer USB and Bluetooth connectivity.
Moving into higher trim levels is where the Civic takes the lead. The premium feel of the Civic Touring sets the compact apart from anything currently offered with the Corolla badge. But that statement makes a little less impact when you consider that the Touring starts at $26,500, which is a significantly higher price tag than the Corolla LE Premium’s $23,125 starting price.
My interior winner depends on your needs and budget. If you have a family with bigger kids and need the space, the Corolla’s massive rear seat is hard to beat, especially for the price. But if you have the budget and find the Civic’s rear seat appropriate, anything above the base Civic LX is my pick over the Corolla all day long.
Perhaps the area of performance is where the all-new Honda Civic has the most definitive edge. The Corolla’s normally aspirated 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine delivers 132 horsepower in standard form and 140 horsepower in Eco trim. Gas mileage for the Corolla in base trim is 28/37 mpg city/highway with the six-speed manual. The Corolla’s top fuel-efficiency performer is the LE Eco with the CVT, which returns 30/42 mpg.
The Civic’s base 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is good for 158 horsepower. Fuel economy for the base Civic with a six-speed manual equates to 27/40 mpg city/highway, and jumps to 31/41 mpg with the CVT. The new turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine is where the Civic really comes alive. The tiny turbocharged engine produces 174 horsepower and delivers 31/42 mpg city/highway when paired with the standard CVT.
The numbers reveal that the Civic has a strong advantage over the Corolla, which was confirmed by my extended time behind the wheel of both vehicles. The Corolla offers a comfortable ride for the most part, but the steering feels less connected and the suspension offers a far less exciting ride. The new Civic feels more composed on the road and much quicker when accelerating. A few drag races between the two always had the turbocharged Civic convincingly pulling away from the highest horsepower Corolla LE Eco.
The Corolla’s 1.8-liter is a known commodity with an excellent track record for reliability. While it isn’t the most exciting power plant, the Corolla did just fine in normal daily commuting and trips around town.
In comparison, the all-new Civic is quite fun to drive, even aggressively. The sport-tuned suspension offers excellent driving dynamics and the engines, especially the 1.5-liter turbo, use the extra power to push the compact around with authority. While the Honda falls short of being a sports sedan, the Civic is by far the sportier of the two and convincingly wins the performance category.
Cost-Effectiveness and the Verdict
The base 2016 Corolla L provides nearly bare-bones transportation for an excellent price. When comparing base models, the Corolla L is significantly less expensive than the Civic LX and offers many of the same standard features. If basic family-friendly transportation is your primary goal, the entry-level Corolla L is truly hard to beat and wins the shoot-out, especially if cost-effectiveness is a primary concern.
However, the Civic significantly pulls ahead in just about every category as you leave the base trim levels. The Civic also allows the base trim to be equipped with an optional active safety system that rivals what many luxury sedans offer. The package includes collision mitigation braking, road departure mitigation, lane departure warning, lane keeping assist and adaptive cruise control. These same active safety features are standard on the Touring trim. This is another area where the Civic has Corolla beat because none of the aforementioned active safety features are available on the 2016 Corolla, regardless of trim level. As a result, a true dollar-for-dollar comparison is almost impossible.
While the Corolla offers significant value and will likely continue to be a worldwide best-seller, the all-new 2016 Civic earns my top choice based on performance, fuel-efficiency and overall value. Both vehicles have excellent ratings in initial quality and both nameplates are synonymous with long-term reliability and durability, making either a great choice depending on your priorities. But for 2016, the Civic wins the shootout between the two.