2009 Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla (© Evan Griffey)Click to enlarge picture

Titans of the compact class, both the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla are exceptionally shrewd choices for efficiency seekers.

The Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic are the standard bearers of the compact class, a title they've both held for decades. No longer Spartan econoboxes, both are available across a wide range of luxury and performance iterations, while still hewing to the appealing traits of small, frugal motoring. With the Corolla receiving its most thorough revamp in almost 10 years, we've pitted loaded versions of these two pragmatic stalwarts against each other to determine which retains the pampered commuter crown.

Model Lineup
Our two tarted-up gladiators enter the arena with nearly equal price tags. Both four-doors flex bottom line MSRPs in the $21,000 range, but get there via alternate routes.

Our line-topping Honda Civic EX-L Navi model arrives with a lengthy standard-fare list and no options. Its $21,345 total combines the $20,710 MSRP and a $635 destination charge. The Toyota Corolla S model takes a totally different tack. Its base MSRP of $17,150 is joined by $4,153 worth of options, making for a $21,963 sticker including a $660 destination charge.

Compare the Civic and the Corolla

The Civic EX-L Navi's standard "extras" include leather-trimmed seats and interior, a navigation system, a power sunroof, heated seats, a six-speaker 160-watt stereo with MP3 and card-reading capability, and 16-inch rolling stock featuring alloy wheels and 205/55 tires.

The Corolla S includes a standard color-matched front lip spoiler, a rear underbody spoiler and a chrome exhaust tip. The car we tested included an eight-speaker JBL audio system ($1,060), a sunroof ($890) and the $1,495 Sport Package, which consists of alloy wheels, a rear deck spoiler, power windows, remote keyless entry and cruise control.

The Toyota's Sport Package provides no engine or suspension improvements, and the wheel "upgrade" adds 16-inch alloy wheels (same size as stock) with the same 205/55 size tires that are fitted to the Civic.

 
 HitsMisses
Honda Civic EX-L NaviSweet leather interiorDivided gauge cluster
 5-speed auto enhances power curve 
   
Toyota Corolla SSporty, aggressive lookShow without the go
 Legible gaugesNumb steering
  Rear drum brakes in 2008?

Under the Hood
Pop the hoods and it's déjà vu all over again. Both cars rely on 1.8-liter 4-cylinder 16-valve engines with their respective company's variable valve timing strategies. The Toyota features a DOHC valvetrain and is rated at 132 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm. The SOHC Civic powerplant boasts 140 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque at 4300 rpm.

The only twist is in the transmissions. A five-speed automatic backs the Civic, while the Corolla relies on a conventional four-speed automatic. Both post impressive fuel economy numbers, with the Corolla checking in with a 27/35 (city/hwy) EPA mpg rating, while the Civic nets 25/36 mpg.

Does Toyota need a real "sport" version of the Corolla?

Inner Space
Slide behind the wheel and the biggest contrast between the Civic and Corolla comes into focus. The Civic has the upper hand with leather versus cloth, navigation versus no navigation. But there is a bit of a dash disconnect with the two-tier array in the Civic.

The tachometer is positioned behind the wheel and an LED digital array sits high on the dash. We'd like to see the cluster merged into an S2000 configuration that contains all the digital readouts, or swapping to the analog-based CR-V cluster. The Civic provides a better driving position, making the car feel lower and wider than the Corolla.

The Corolla has a traditional cluster and its seats have more lateral support than the Civic's, although drivers might feel like they are sitting higher in the Corolla compared to the Civic. Both cars excel in terms of interior materials and fit-and-finish, illustrating how far these entry-level commuters have evolved.