The Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic are titans in the automotive marketplace. Both are perennially in the top 10 best sellers in America, and together, they sell about 600,000 units a year, meaning that about 4 percent of all cars sold in the US are one of these two models.
So, when a new one debuts, it’s cause for examination. Each comes in a range of models, but for this comparison, we’re looking at the most fuel efficient non-hybrid trims, the Corolla LE Eco and the Civic HF.
We’ve begun to reach the limit on the fuel economy a conventional internal combustion engine can provide. Both the Corolla LE Eco and the Civic HF utilize a conventional gas engine, but maximize fuel economy by every means possible, including continuously variable transmissions, wind-cheating spoilers and wheels, and low rolling resistance tires. They offer an enticing combination of high fuel mileage and price tags between $5,000 and $8,000 less than their hybrid-powered family members.
The Corolla LE Eco is the less expensive of the two at the base level. It starts at $18,700, while the Civic HF begins at $19,765, plus destination charges for both. The less expensive Corolla includes a handful of standard features that, with the Civic HF, you’ll either have to purchase or aren’t available, including automatic climate control, 16-inch wheels, and LED headlamps.
The Corolla LE Eco and the Civic HF both have a 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine delivering exactly the same horsepower, but how they get it to the front wheels is a little different. The Corolla has a dual-overhead cam with Toyota’s Valvematic valvetrain technology, a variable valve timing program that concentrates more on optimal intake than exhaust, relative to the engine demand. This alone allows the LE Eco to offer a 5 percent increase in fuel economy and the same increase in horsepower.
The Civic HF’s 1.8-liter four is an updated version of the engine that appeared in the last-generation Civic HF, with a single overhead camshaft, i-VTEC variable valve timing, and a dual stage intake manifold.
With nearly identical performance, equipment, and fuel economy, it’s hard to choose between the Corolla LE Eco and the Civic HF, but there are subtle differences. For example, the transmission in either car offers a completely different driving experience. The Corolla LE Eco has a two-speed continuously variable transmission, while the Civic HF uses a more conventional five-speed automatic transmission. No matter which car you choose, 140 horsepower moving between 2,756 and 2,875 pounds is going to be s-l-o-w, especially if you’re used to driving the 200-plus horsepower cars that are commonplace today. The CVT in the Corolla LE Eco makes the experience even more foreign by maintaining engine speed, giving you the sensation that no matter how aggressively you step on the throttle, the engine isn’t spooling up the way you think it should.
Both cars attempt to walk the line between acceleration and economy with different driving modes. Selecting ECO on the Corolla or ECON on the Civic readjusts throttle response. In the Civic, for example, between 25 and 90 percent throttle, the throttle opens gradually, offering lower performance but maximizing fuel economy by favoring consistency. In other words, if your dad ever told you to drive like you had an egg under the gas pedal but you could never do it, both the ECO and the ECON mode will do it for you.
Of course, you can beat both of these competitors’ fuel economy by choosing a hybrid in the form of a Honda Civic Hybrid or one of the Prius models. But hybrids really perform at their peak in city or heavy traffic driving conditions. For example, the Prius offers 51 miles per gallon in the city by disabling the gas engine in traffic, which clearly beats out the Corolla LE Eco, but on the highway, the EPA estimate drops to 48 mpg. In actual highway driving, you’re likely to see even less. The Corolla LE Eco delivers 30 mpg in the city, but climbs to within eight miles per gallon of the Prius on the highway.
Eight miles per gallon is a lot of distance, but at a price difference of $5,500, you’re only saving $225 per year in fuel if you drive 15,000 miles per year. Of course, that doesn’t factor in resale value, but it’s an important consideration when choosing a hybrid versus a conventional gas engine.
The other major consideration in a small car is safety. The Toyota Corolla achieved a Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS, but the Civic beats it with a Top Safety Pick +. The new “+” rating from the IIHS addresses how a car reacts to a “small overlap” front crash, for example, when an oncoming car veers out of its lane and hits another car head-on, but with only a 25 percent overlap. It’s difficult to manage all that energy with such a small crash area, but the Civic managed a “Good” rating, while the Corolla only achieved a “Marginal” score. The Civic is one of just six small cars to achieve the advanced rating.
Despite the Civic HF’s older engine technology, we’re fans of the way the five-speed transmission shifts versus the Corolla LE Eco’s CVT, and that would be a deciding factor in choosing between the two. But before you decide, be sure to get into both cars and drive them the way you do on a daily basis. Pulling out onto Route 9 during the morning rush might just make your decision for you.Craig Fitzgerald is a freelance writer living in Holliston, Mass. You can read his blog at clunkernation.com or follow him on Twitter at @vespafitz.