You want suspense? Don’t look for it here. Because between the new 2020 Toyota Corolla XSE and the 2019 Honda Civic Touring, one compact sedan makes the other feel like a waste of your car-searching time. The legendary Corolla and Civic nameplates have outlasted the competition from American automakers, but we’re not awarding a trophy for simply surviving. One of these segment sales leaders provides an experience so well rounded that its rival is left with few competitive advantages.
The Corolla inspired this comparison. Redesigned for 2020, the Corolla sedan follows the new-for-2019 hatchback to showrooms with improved tech and promises a more satisfying driving experience. It’s an overdue change considering the last one we tested finished sixth in a comparison of seven cars, far behind the first-place Honda Civic. Ouch. That was back in 2016, and the Civic has barely changed since then. Surely the new 2020 Corolla can defeat the scarcely updated 2019 Civic?
The Civic is still that good. Toyota diehards take note, however: The Corolla drives much better than before. Our loaded 2020 Corolla XSE tester was weighed down by a $29,168 MSRP (no, we’re not joking). Near-$30,000 Corollas like our tester come with adaptive LED headlights with awesome LED accent lighting, an upgraded nine-speaker sound system, 18-inch wheels, and more.
Trust us, no one will look at your Corolla XSE and think “basic transportation.” Even the bare-bones 2020 Corolla L comes with LED headlights (only available on Touring for the Civic), a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay (gotta upgrade one trim to match that on the Civic), and a full suite of active safety tech. Where the SE and XSE get a 169-hp 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine, the L, LE, and XLE make do with a 139-hp 1.8-liter I-4.
The good news: The 2020 Corolla’s CVT/2.0-liter engine combo will astonish folks used to the 2014-2019 Corolla’s lethargic responses. Pay no attention to the Toyota’s horsepower and torque deficiencies compared to the Civic, as the Corolla actually feels more responsive. The Civic delivers power from its 174-hp turbo-four in a more relaxed way as the CVT balances the driver’s request for immediate acceleration with its penchant for smoothing out jackrabbit starts. But there’s more to the picture than responsiveness.
As MotorTrend en Español editor Miguel Cortina notes, the Corolla can get loud, “and not in a good way.” More sensitive drivers might notice the Toyota’s starting gear as three MotorTrend editors did; the SE and XSE pair a CVT with a physical launch gear. It’s not a big issue, but Civic drivers don’t have to deal with this subtle compromise. Nor will Civic drivers brace themselves as much for that pothole (why don’t they fix it already?), as the Honda rides better.
For a compact sedan, the Honda is also fun to drive.
“You can easily tackle winding roads confidently while remaining comfortable over rough pavement,” associate online editor Stefan Ogbac said about the Civic. From testing at the track, testing director Kim Reynolds said he found the chassis “pretty flat and composed.” To sum it up so far, the Honda rides better, is more entertaining than the improved Corolla, and its CVT lacks its prime competitor’s exaggerated simulated gear shifts.
For the most part, the Civic destroys the Corolla inside. Watch your head, and the Civic makes back-seat spatial compromises a thing of the past. The Civic eliminates the need to apologize to your friends or ride-hailing passengers for a lack of space. The Corolla’s back-seat package isn’t bad, but despite the cool way the outboard seats cup passengers’ bodies, it can’t quite compete with the Civic. There’s also about 2 cubic feet more trunk space in the Honda. (The Civic Touring has 14.7 cubic feet of space to other trims’ 15.1.) Thanks in large part to the Corolla’s annoyingly always-present rear-seat headrests, rear visibility is also better in the Civic, which has creative storage and phone-charging space in front.
Speaking of phone charging, the Civic’s central USB charger forces you to run your cord underneath the center console to a small phone tray; that arrangement drew criticism during our evaluation, but count me as a lukewarm fan. One tip, Honda: Please make this tray bigger in the next Civic to better accommodate larger phones. Compare that to the Corolla’s more open phone charger tray, a solution that works as long as you know to place your phone securely in the depressed tray at the base of the center console. If you don’t, your phone may hit the floor after a particularly fast turn. Even the cupholders between the front seats—an area you may not have realized could be improved—elevates the Civic. The Civic’s is ultra-flexible, able to carry lots of knickknacks as well as your coffee with room to spare.
Aside from the Civic Touring’s odd dash trim, the Honda justifies its $28,220 as-tested price tag better than Toyota does with its loaded Corolla. Generally, materials and design are superior in the Civic, where the only disadvantage to the Corolla may be its smaller 7.0-inch touchscreen to the Corolla’s 8.0-inch unit mounted higher on the dash. Although we appreciate the Corolla screen’s size and placement for better visibility, MotorTrend editors weren’t fans of either infotainment system—graphics and system speed were to blame on the Corolla, screen size and system speed on the Civic. Best to keep it in Apple CarPlay or Android Auto when you can, though Toyota doesn’t yet offer the latter system.
Toyota also doesn’t offer a power passenger seat, but the cheaper as-tested Civic does. Although both cars’ leather or leatherlike seats have cloth inserts, the Civic’s inserts are smaller and more slickly executed than the Corolla’s. In addition, loaded Civics get heated rear outboard seats (on top of the heated front seats found on both cars). In general, the Corolla feels out of place at a loaded XSE’s $29,000-range MSRP, though the Blue Crush Metallic exterior color is almost cool enough for me to want to recommend the Corolla. Whether or not drivers appreciate the speed racer look of the SE and XSE, however, I could do without the black plastic triangles that punctuate the ends of the Corolla’s side windows.
If the Corolla’s reputation for legendary reliability resonates and cars are not just appliances to you, stick with an SE to avoid the XSE’s swollen price as well as the other trims’ 1.8-liter engine. One problem: The Civic’s goodness lurks in the Corolla’s rearview mirror across the price spectrum. Remember that 2016 Big Test comparison win? That Civic was powered by its base 2.0-liter engine, which has 19 hp and 12 lb-ft of torque on the Corolla’s base engine, yet offers identical EPA-rated fuel economy when comparing CVT-equipped base-engine models.
In our own Real MPG fuel economy tests, which provide a real-world data point based on a set loop and some very expensive test equipment, the Corolla XSE had the edge over the Civic Touring. The 2020 Corolla XSE’s Real MPG of 29.7/44.3 mpg city/highway compares very well with the EPA’s 31/38 mpg; as for the 2019 Civic Touring, its Real MPG of 28.3/43.0 mpg is a bit below and above the EPA’s 30/38 mpg, respectively.
If staying safe is a priority, both cars get the job done. The 2020 Corolla and 2019 Civic have a full package of standard safety equipment that will surprise anyone entering the compact car market after 10 years. Both cars have automatic emergency braking systems that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has deemed very effective in its tests, as well as lane departure alert (with a steering assist) for Toyota and a lane keeping assist system on the Honda. Both cars aced the IIHS’ crash tests, with the highest trims of the Corolla earning 2019 Top Safety Pick status thanks to the headlights on fully loaded XLEs and XSEs.
The Honda lost out on an award because the halogen lights on most trims had limited visibility in IIHS tests. The Touring’s LEDs actually brightened the picture, but the IIHS felt that the upgraded lights created “excessive glare.” Our editors were split on Honda’s alternative to a blind-spot monitoring system, the LaneWatch camera that shows on the infotainment display what’s in your passenger-side blind spot every time you engage the right turn signal.
Well, OK—two editors felt the tech was outdated, and I appreciated its novelty and usefulness. They’ve got a point, though: Traditional blind-spot monitoring systems can be less distracting and won’t force you to look down at an infotainment display. When a panic-braking situation is inevitable despite all that safety equipment, the Civic is the car you want to be driving. The Honda’s 60-0 braking distance of 115 feet compared to the Toyota’s 119 feet isn’t significant, but our particular test Corolla suffered smelly pads after four runs, as well as some ABS noise/vibration during testing.
We still wish Apple CarPlay were offered on the base Civic and better headlights were available on more trims. Take a big-picture look at this classic matchup, though, and it’s a knockout. The Civic provides a more rewarding driving experience, important even if you don’t care about driving. It’s also more spacious, has a bigger trunk, looks better, feels more upscale inside, and is a car we’d consider buying for ourselves. Although it’s not without faults, the Honda Civic remains the compact car to beat.
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