9th Place – Toyota Corolla

Someone had to finish last. Some people really didn’t like this car. It wouldn’t even be a stretch to say that a couple people genuinely hated it. One judge noted that it had a “Clean look.” Said judge will remain anonymous, although perhaps he was referring to the total lack of anything going on in exterior or interior design. Throughout the testing we repeatedly grilled each other wondering how Toyota manages to sell this car in such numbers, or even sell any of them at all without massive financing. At a certain point we landed on a viable theory.

Compact car comparo
Compact car comparo
Click image to enlarge

The Corolla is the Anti-Car, and all that such a title implies. By virtue of our profession and involvement in this comparison, we obviously like cars and probably driving to some degree. If you’re anything like us, this car is not for you. However, if you could care less about how your car looks, how it handles or steers, or even what materials you will come in contact with, well, maybe the Corolla is for you, and you’re welcome to them. It’s not that Toyota can’t build good cars, either — give us a Yaris over this tired Corolla any day and we’d be happy.

The Corolla is as simple to operate as a door knob, particularly the conventional stereo and heating controls, and the puny 15-inch steel wheels and hubcaps turn in the direction the steering wheel points them. The 132-hp 1.8L engine is the weakest in this class, but it had no problem getting the 1260-kg sedan up to speed in a reasonable time, though no one claimed it was pleasant, particularly the shifting of the archaic four-speed automatic. At speeds over 100 km/h, it suffered from a variety of wriggling, floating, wandering, and steering so loose that it was disconcerting. Once again, not a car for people who like to drive fast.

At the end of the day, it is a car that fulfills a mission we find hard to relate to. It is spacious in the front and rear seats, and cargo volume is also sufficient for basic needs. It is practical (easy to get in and out of and install a child seat), safe (IIHS Top Safety Pick), and lives up to its promise of fuel efficiency at 7.8 L/100 km observed, the second-best results in the test behind only the Mazda3. At $20,565, its price was only a few hundred dollars short of being the cheapest to show up on the test (the stripper Sentra took that honour), but still featured key options like power windows, doors, mirrors, six-way adjustable seats that were okay for everyone. And, as mentioned earlier, those features were dead simple to use, including Bluetooth that practically connected itself to at least one phone.

And Toyota’s trump card, its reputation for reliability, didn’t factor into our scoring, but the Corolla is expected to deliver Better than Average reliability and the best possible ownership costs (y’know, the full red circle thingy) according to Consumer Reports and Toyota is the top non-luxury brand in JD Power’s 2012 Vehicle Dependability Study, with the Corolla behind only the Prius in the Compact Car segment. So there you have it, plenty of reasons that people unlike us buy the Corolla.

Pricing: 2012 Toyota Corolla CE
Base price: $15,450
Options: Enhanced Convenience Package ($3,540), Automatic Transmission ($1,000)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,465
Price as tested: $20,555

8th Place – Honda Civic EX Sedan

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. How did a brand new for 2012 model place behind a 6-year-old design (Nissan Sentra) that didn’t have a height adjustable seat or cruise control? Well, simply put, the new Honda Civic is drowning in a sea of complacency and mediocrity. As one tester put it, “This new Civic drives like the old Civic. Honda clearly thought that was a good thing; let’s hope buyers do, too.” Judging by the sales numbers alone, buyers do like it. However, this year, the Elantra is making a strong claim for first overall with two new body styles about to hit the market.

Compact car comparo
Compact car comparo
Click image to enlarge

Don’t get us wrong, the Civic is still a compelling package and, priced at $22,435 after delivery, is still a good value, especially with the current deals Honda is offering. However, everyone else has stepped up their game in the compact car segment while the Civic has remained neutral. Some of our testers would even argue that it has taken a step backward with the current interior and exterior design.

But it is not styling alone that relegated the Civic to the back of the pack in this comparison. We found the engine note, while pleasant, was loud. So was basically every other noise such as wind and tire roar. As Senior Editor Jonathan Yarkony commented, “The Civic sounds rickety.” The steering also drew its share of criticism as some found it wandered too much at highway speeds.

The stereo, on the other hand, is easy to use and offers enjoyable sound, but the two-tiered dash continues to be a sore point with some. Rear seat comfort for two people tied for last with the Elantra due to a lack of rear headroom and low seat position, but with three people, adequate legroom and shoulder space placed it mid-pack. Cargo space was third smallest at 344 L available in the trunk.

On the plus side, power is quick and immediate from the 1.8L 140-hp 4-cylinder engine and the five-speed automatic transmission goes about its business without drama. The Civic returned an impressive 7.9 L/100 km average fuel consumption during our test, which was in the top half of the field thanks to being the lightest vehicle in the group with a svelte 1,255-kg curb weight.

Honda will continue to sell this vehicle in large quantities due to reputation, familiarity and pricing. However, Honda realizes it needs to step up its game and is reputedly already working on a replacement for this Civic.

Pricing: 2012 Honda Civic EX Sedan
Base price: $20,940
Options: None
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,495
Price as tested: $22,535

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