Driver's Seat: The Civic vs. Corolla showdown, Part 2

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2013 Honda Civic EX-L vs. 2013 Toyota Corolla S: Part 2 of the "What Would Jesus Drive?" showdown. (See July 17 edition for Part 1).

Up to speed: Last week Mr. Driver's Seat adopted his "Princess and the Pea" routine, comparing interiors. The Civic went futuristic and the Corolla stayed mainstream, but both were comfortable. Now let's take them for a spin.

On the road: I didn't expect the Civic sedan's 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and five-speed automatic transmission to offer great performance. My expectations were met.

The Corolla's 1.8-liter four and four-speed automatic? They were even more lackluster, in large part due to the Paleolithic-era gearbox. Acceleration generally involved a hard downshift and much engine noise -- and a bit of a wait.

Of course, neither of these is designed to be a rocket. But I would like to try both in manual form.

Curvy: The 2013 Civic's handling is much better than I recall the 2012 sedan I tested a while back. I called that one a comfortable shoe, but I found the 2013 a little snappier on the curves.

The Corolla is the same as it ever was. It blends the uncanny ability to feel vague and loose with occasional unwanted quick response, like when I try to drive one-handed for a second. At that moment it seemed to easily veer one way or the other.

Shifty: How much better these cars would perform if their makers simply offered a shiftable automatic. Sure, it boosts the cost and complexity, but Mazda, Hyundai and Kia all offer this feature in their smallest cars, and it drastically alters the experience.

I want a shifter with feeling, of course. My old Mazda Protege5 was my gold standard in this department, and I didn't learn until later that the +/ -- feature instead of PRNDL doesn't automatically mean fun. But the makes I mentioned above seem to do fine in their smaller cars.

Dashboard: I mentioned the two-layer horizontal display in the Civic last week, but it's worth noting here that its bad form also yields bad function. I'm not sure why a four-banger sedan with automatic transmission needs a giant tachometer front and center. And some pieces of information -- lights off, cruise control set, and Eco mode on -- were hidden behind the steering wheel.

The Corolla's gauges were easy to read.

Economy: So here's the real raison d'etre for these cars -- you'll drive past gas stations, right? That's a great feeling now that gas is $3.75 a gallon and climbing, right?

Not so fast. Each car averaged about 29 mpg in the Driver's Seat usual mix of highway and suburban driving. (The Civic was closer to 30 and the Corolla to 28.)

And this is another good reason for a shiftable automatic. Once upon a time, Mr. Driver's Seat had a bad shoulder sprain, forcing him to leave the Protege5 in automatic mode for a couple months. During that time it averaged about 24 mpg, down from a normal of 27 or 28. So obviously Mr. Right Foot causes Mr. Transmission to downshift a lot in smaller cars.

Furthermore, I'm not sure what gives with the fuel economy this time around. I tested a 2011 Corolla S automatic that averaged 36 mpg -- the best non-hybrid I've ever tested -- and a 2012 Civic automatic, 34.

Where they're built: The Civic hails from Greensburg, Ind. The Corolla is brought you by Cambridge, Ontario.

How they're built: The Toyota Corolla has long been a Consumer Reports recommended model. The Civic was pushed off the list after its 2012 redesign, but is back on for 2013, and its reliability is still top-notch.

In the end: Neither of these cars is offered for people who want some fun with their economy. They seem designed for people who'd rather not be driving at all.

The Civic comes in many varieties, and the Si model is a rollicking good time (although one that costs a solid $5,000 more and drinks only premium fuel). A Corolla is a Corolla is a Corolla.

But are they the humblest of the humble? No. Surely a bargain-priced Kia Soul is not coveted among the cool kids. A Kia Forte is on my own list of the hummest of humdrum, along with the Hyundai Elantra.

Given the choice of these two models, though, I'd probably rather live with the Civic. It felt more upscale and lively, if only by a bit. But let me have a stick. Please?

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Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at First Published July 24, 2013 4:15 AM


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