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Budget Buy Under $5,000: Civic vs Corolla

Jesse McGraw

With just $5,000 we see which of these Japanese rivals is the best bang for your buck on the used car lot, the Honda Civic or the Toyota Corolla.

Old Rivals at a Great Price

The Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla are both great cars, especially on the used market. Whether it’s a daily commuter, a first car, or the start of a fun project either option is reliable and can be found for cheap. Today we’re shopping the used car lots with $5,000 dollars in hand and seeing what we can expect when comparing the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla.

2003 Honda Civic - honda.com

2003 Honda Civic – honda.com  |  Shop Honda Civic on Carsforsale.com

In our price range we can typically find a 7th generation Honda Civic that has less than 100,000 miles. This model was available from 2000 to 2005 and could get respectable gas mileage and was available with Honda’s famous VTEC engine. Unfortunately, it is typically despised by the Honda fans as it fell between the beloved, tunable 6th gen and the greatly-improved 8th gen. But this stigma actually works out in the favor of potential used car shoppers as this Civic is still a decent car and the lack of community attention just helps it receive a better price.

2003 Toyota Corolla - toyota.com

2003 Toyota Corolla – toyota.com  |  Shop Toyota Corolla on Carsforsale.com

The 9th generation Toyota Corolla can also be found in the same price range. This model came in a little later than its competition, having been produced from 2003 to 2008. This iteration of the Corolla was very fuel efficient for the time which is a big plus. It also could be paired with a TRD supercharger which is both odd and awesome for a 4-cylinder. With over 1.5 million being sold of this generation, there’s plenty of 9th gen Corollas available to choose from. So, between the Civic and the Corolla, which one is the better deal for $5,000?

Specs – Which I4 is Best I4?

2002 Honda Civic Si i-VTEC 2.0L DOHC I4 engine - carsforsale.com
2002 Honda Civic Si i-VTEC 2.0L DOHC I4 engine - carsforsale.com

In the 7th gen Civic you’ll find a 1.7L I4 engine that makes 115hp and reached a combined 34mpg. VTEC was added to the EX trim engine providing an additional 12hp. There was also a hybrid variant available with a 1.3L I4 engine that made 93hp when paired with its electric motor and reached a combined 41mpg. However, the Civic SI performance trim had a fun K20 i-VTEC 2.0L DOHC I4 engine that made 160hp. Available transmissions included a 4-speed automatic for non-hybrids, a continuously variable transmission for hybrids, and a 5-speed manual across all versions.

2007 Toyota Corolla 1.8L DOHC I4 engine - carsforsale.com
2007 Toyota Corolla 1.8L DOHC I4 engine - carsforsale.com

The 9th gen Toyota Corolla only featured a 1.8L DOHC I4 engine in the US market, but in a couple variations. The base 1ZZ-FE 1.8L I4 made 130hp and reached a combined 36mpg. This 1ZZ-FE engine could then be paired with a TRD supercharger making an additional 40hp. The performance XRS trim came with a 2ZZ-GE 1.8L I4 that was created with the help of Yamaha. This engine made 170hp, but took a hit to gas mileage with a combined 26mpg. For transmissions, a 4-speed automatic or 5-speed manual were available for the CE, LE, and S trims while the XRS trim had a standard 6-speed manual transmission.

Toyota’s larger base engine not only makes more horsepower but reaches better gas mileage than the Honda engine. Going into the performance trims, the corolla still wins out by a couple more horsepower and an extra gear. The only area the Civic really excels is the hybrid option and that can be fickle in the used market as the sitting electric motors can go faulty and the batteries decay over time.

Driving and Comfort – Nothing Extraordinary

2003 Honda Civic - honda.com
2003 Honda Civic - honda.com

Underneath this generation of Honda Civic you will notice it has an independent suspension, but it features MacPherson struts at the front instead of a double wishbone assembly like the favorable 6th gen Civic. This helps provide a bit more front passenger leg room and helps with turning radius, but there is noticeable understeer in the turns. The ride isn’t the best around, but it’s nothing to complain about and cabin noise is moderate. The brakes are composed of discs at the front and drums at the rear, except on the SI trim where the rear drum brakes are replaced with disc brakes.

2003 Toyota Corolla - toyota.com
2003 Toyota Corolla - toyota.com

In the Toyota Corolla is a semi-independent suspension with MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion bar rear assembly. The suspension is tuned to create a soft, smooth ride and experiences little body roll going into the turns. Its power steering sits in a sweet spot for responsiveness. As a whole, the handling makes the driving experience pretty straightforward and not really noteworthy, but in a good way. For those who want to feel more involved with a sportier driving experience, the XRS trim stiffens and tunes the suspension to be more responsive. The power steering is even made more responsive generating better feedback in the turns. The Corolla’s front brakes are discs with drums at the rear and on the XRS trim the rear brakes are replaced with the drum in disc brakes borrowed from the Toyota Celica GT-S.

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A fully independent suspension should give the 7th gen Civic the upper hand here, but it just isn’t a great ride unless you find an SI trim version. The Corolla has the advantage of just being a basic handling experience with little to no complaints about it besides being just that – basic. It even panders to the enthusiasts with the sportier tuned XRS trim available.

Interior – Plastic or Nicer Plastic

The 7th gen Civic has an interior that resembles most sedan interiors of the early 2000s, full of plastic components and cloth seats. The front seats are okay comfort wise and have side bolsters to keep you in place as the body rolls through turns. In the back, the rear bench seat is low and uncomfortable. There’s more leg room to be found there in comparison to the previous generation, but it is not a great car to be a rear passenger in. There is your typical radio/CD player with the climate controls interestingly running up the left side for easier access to the driver. The shifter is found between the two front seats, except in the SI trim where you’ll find the manual shifter jutting out from below the radio.

The 9th gen Toyota Corolla does a lot of the same, but with a little bit more refinement. Again, you’ll find mostly plastic components and cloth seating, but Toyota provided a little more taste. There were optional leather seats and fake wood decoration in some trims giving off a more luxurious feel to an otherwise modest vehicle. The Corolla also excels in space and comfort, at least in comparison to the Civic. The front seating is comfortable and made well for long commutes. The rear seating is a bit more comfortable than the Civic, but still can be a bit cramped especially for 3 passengers. The center shifter location and the dashboard setup are efficient and symmetrical in design. Not too much changes going into the S or XRS trims, just some silver accenting rather than fake wood.

Honda didn’t really bring much to the table when it comes to quality in the interior. There are some gimmicky design choices, but nothing really special unless you like an odd shifter placement in the SI. The Corolla on the other hand provides comfort, style, and space all at a similar price. Plus, the Corolla is the only one where you can find leather seating, if that’s something you’re looking for.

Conclusion – Not the Honda to Get

At a price of $5,000 on the used car lot, the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla should be more competitive, but this generation just wasn’t a great for the Honda. Sure, the price is right, but it was missing the performance and flare that Civics are known for. The Corolla on the other hand just is an all-around better car in this instance. Better engine, better handling, better interior, and just better in basically everyway.

2003 Honda Civic - honda.com

2003 Honda Civic – honda.com  |  Shop Honda Civic on Carsforsale.com

If you are debating getting a used car for $5,000, the Corolla should be on your list. There’s a lot of them out there with relatively low miles at or below our target price. If you’re still dead set on a Honda Civic, look at a 6th gen for a project car and an 8th gen for a nice used option. The only reason to really get a 7th gen Civic is for the sporty SI trim, but you’re still better off looking elsewhere.

WINNER: 9th Generation Toyota Corolla

2003 Toyota Corolla - toyota.com

2003 Toyota Corolla – toyota.com  |  Shop Toyota Corolla on Carsforsale.com

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Jesse McGraw
Jesse McGraw

Jesse's life-long car obsession began when he started collecting Hot Wheels as a child. He’s constantly keeping up with the latest car news and diving deep into automotive history. His automotive journey began with a rusty ‘99 Dodge Dakota held together by zip ties, only recently replaced by an impeccable 2014 Kia Soul. You can find him modifying and racing cars in video games when he’s not playing paintball or writing about cars.

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