The last time we took a close look at the small sedan segment in the form of a comprehensive three-way comparison, the new-generation Honda Civic stole the cookies from the previous segment leader, the Hyundai Elantra and a slightly more left field combatant, the Skoda Octavia.
Often overlooked in favour of the hatch variant within the segment or an (often less practical) SUV, the small sedan is now providing more compelling value for money than ever before. New blood has made the competition even more feverish.
This time, we compare the 2017 Honda Civic VTi-S to the 2017 Subaru Impreza 2.0i-L and the 2017 Toyota Corolla Ascent. Don’t write this segment off as boring either. There’s still a lot to like from a segment that now has more in the way of alternatives than ever before.
Pricing and specifications
The cheapest – or should that be most affordable – car on test here is surprisingly the Toyota Corolla Ascent, which starts from $23,490 with the CVT. I use the word surprisingly because the Toyota isn’t always the most competitively priced in any given comparison.
For the refreshed 2017 model year, equipment highlights include: 15-inch alloy wheels, revised front and rear styling, new LED taillights, an optional safety package costing $1500 for this specification grade which includes pre-collision warning, AEB, lane departure warning and automatic high beams, 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment, Toyota Link apps, 4.2-inch driver’s display screen and a rear-view camera (but, no sensors).
Highlights include: 16-inch alloy wheels, LED DRLs, 7.0-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Eco Assist System, Hill Start Assist, Driver Information Interface with colour display, rear-view camera with normal, wide, top-down views and on-screen guides, a full suite of electronic driving aids, leather wrapped steering wheel, front and rear parking sensors and smart keyless entry.
The Impreza also has a starting price of $24,490 and chief among its differences is the standard AWD underpinnings for no substantial extra outlay.
Other key feature highlights include: 17-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, auto stop/start, rear-view camera, 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, 6.3-inch multi-information driver display, premium cloth trim, leather steering wheel, front fog lights with integrated LED DRLs, EyeSight collision avoidance, adaptive cruise-control driver assist with front-facing stereo cameras and a tyre pressure monitoring system.
Under the bonnet
A 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine, matched to a seven-speed CVT, powers the Corolla. It generates 103kW at 6400rpm and 173Nm at 4000rpm and uses an ADR-claimed 6.8L/100km. On test, we used an indicated 9.1L/100km The Corolla weighs in at 1260kg.
Next up, the Civic also gets a 1.8-litre engine and seven-speed CVT, with the combination using 104kW at 6500rpm and 174Nm at 4300rpm. The ADR fuel claim is 6.4L/100km and we used 8.2L/100km on test. The Civic almost mirrors the Corolla in the weight race and tips the scales at 1261kg.
Finally, the Impreza, which ups the ante slightly with a 2.0-litre direct injection four-cylinder mated to – surprise, surprise – a seven-speed CVT. The boxer engine backs up its slightly larger capacity with more power and torque – 115kW at 6000rpm and 196Nm at 4000rpm.
Still efficient, its ADR claim is 6.6L/100km and we used 8.8L/100km over the duration of our week behind the wheel. The Subie weighs a fair bit more than the other two at 1417kg, partly due – you’d assume, anyway – to its AWD system.
This could be the first time we’ve run a three-car comparo featuring three CVTs and while we don’t love this option, certainly in terms of driving enjoyment, this could prove to be an interesting and indeed tangible evaluation of the differences between various examples.
The design and execution of the Corolla's infotainment screen makes it feel bigger than it is, but it is still a clear and concise display. It is however, decidedly last generation in terms of fonts and the general look and feel.
Above: Toyota Corolla
It has very basic functionality with no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, which means you need the specific Toyota app on your smartphone to access any of the added features you might desire. Given the Corolla is the only vehicle here without Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, it's a point worth making.
From the driver's seat, the Corolla has a cheap looking (and feeling) rubber/poly steering wheel with buttons that don't even remotely evoke any thoughts of premium quality. They work, and they are easy to decipher but they feel a little out of date.
In short, the Corolla feels cheaper than either the Civic or Impreza. There's no digital speedo, a broad, slab-fronted dash that takes up a lot more cabin space than seems necessary and gauges that are clear but don't offer anything special in the way of interactivity or information.
The rear-view camera is clear and broad with excellent guidelines and it makes reversing into spaces a cinch. We're big fans of the forward collision system fitted to our test vehicle too, and when tested, it worked well – it is part of the aforementioned $1500 pack, though.
Above: Toyota Corolla
The driver's seat is adjustable for height as well as rake and the steering wheel is adjustable for tilt and reach. In terms of comfort, there is padding on the doors – front and rear – and actual fabric on the doors and the armrest plus soft-touch plastic at the top of the doors.
Relatively thin pillars afford plenty of visibility and the driving position is as good as it gets in terms of adjustment and comfort. Both vanity mirrors are illuminated, something neither Civic nor Impreza can match and there is a handy sunglasses holder as well.
Above: Toyota Corolla
The Corolla has nowhere near as much storage as the Civic with door bins we'd describe as, well, okay. The console doesn't make the most of the available space, and the back door storage bins are shallow but will hold bottles.
There are twin map pockets in the second row (the Civic has one), while the centre armrest in the second row folds down and features two cupholders with a cover. Matt reports there is an extra inch of knee room behind my driving position in the Corolla compared to the Civic and his feet fitted all the way under the driver's seat.
Above: Toyota Corolla
Headroom is a little tighter than the Civic and it feels more like the roof contours down at the edges when you sit in the two outer positions. All three have a plastic slab at the shoulder point on the outer section of the two outboard seating positions, but the Corolla's is not as wide as the Civic.
There are no rear air vents, and a much shallower intrusion into the rear floor space from the tunnel than the Civic too, meaning an adult can easily sit in the middle position and still have plenty of room for their feet.
Straight up, the Civic's infotainment system presents as excellent. It features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which work extremely well and are quick and easy to pair. The rear-view camera is excellent and features the three modes mentioned above. They all work clearly and are a handy option you will use even if you might initially think they are a little gimmicky.
Above: Honda Civic
There's no volume dial, which is a little annoying, but the interface is otherwise solid across all controls. The only exception is the volume control on the steering wheel, which works in two ways. It has the conventional push to manipulate the volume up or down, but can also be slid up or down and the electrostatic function doesn't really add anything to the functionality. Like the Corolla, outside the CarPlay display, the fonts and general display design are a little basic and out of date.
The driver's display is excellent and is easily visible thanks to the well thought out seating position and adjustability of the driver's seat – up and down as well as fore and aft. Strangely, the steering wheel itself looks cheap compared to the rest of the cabin, which is an execution in understated elegance.
Every other aspect of the Civic's cabin is decidedly insulated and premium. The steering wheel is adjustable for both tilt and reach. Thin A-pillars and adjustable seat belts make getting comfortable and looking forward from the driving seat easy.
The kerb-side camera can initially be distracting. The first couple of times you see it activate, it can catch your attention when you use the left-hand indicator. It is a handy function though, and you quickly get used to it. You can’t easily deactivate it however, and you’ll need to dig into a sub menu to turn it off completely. We appreciated it though, and would recommend leaving it active. You’ll get used to it soon enough and it’s also something that adds extra security to a lane change.
Above: Honda Civic
The Civic, in short, has a tonne of storage. Crucially, it's both clever and useful storage, with the lower shelf at the front of the centre console perfect for smartphones tethered to the USB dock. There are large door pockets front and rear, a fold down centre armrest with cupholders and a single map pocket.
The seats themselves, both front and rear, are as good as it gets outside of big dollar electric items. There's plenty of legroom in the second row, an adult's feet will fit under the front seat and headroom is also excellent in the second row.
Matt reported the plastic slab outside the seat back and the contour of the seat tends to push you a little further into the middle of the seat than he'd like and it points to an uncomfortable trip for the middle occupant if you have three across the second row. There's a noticeable step across the sill too, which means you have to step over and in, or up and out, which could be a pain for those of us with big feet.
There are some hard-touch plastics in the rear, soft sections on the rear doors but not a match to the fronts, and a big slab of plastic at the outboard section like the Corolla. The dual vanity mirrors up front don't have lights.
Above: Honda Civic
Like the Civic, the Impreza caters to both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and the infotainment system has a large, clear screen. The rear-view camera is likewise bright and clear, but not as wide as the Honda, and it doesn't feature the multi-view mode either.
Above: Subaru Impreza
There is however, dual-zone air conditioning with conventional HVAC controls, which are really easy to work out. The steering wheel mounted controls are undoubtedly the most premium in this comparison. Likewise the driver's information screen, which is clear and concise. We also love the fact the main screen doesn’t get overtaken by the AC controls when you want to tweak the settings.
It’s fair to say the Impreza’s cabin and controls – both the design and execution – are the most premium feeling and looking here. The Civic is excellent, but the Impreza feels that little bit more exclusive and upmarket.
It’s a sense that pervades every element of the cabin, assisted by the expansive glasshouse, which also aids visibility thanks to the small quarter window sections in the front windows. The faux carbon-fibre and alloy trim up front looks classy enough and the touch points on the armrests are the best of the three too.
Both vanity mirrors are illuminated, but the visors they are mounted inside are more annoying than functional, thanks to the intrusion of the bulky EyeSight system. There’s also a sunglasses storage unit.
Matt says knee room in the second row is almost identical to the Civic, though there’s a touch less toe-room under the front seat and notably less headroom thanks to the slope of the roof being more pronounced. There is however, soft padding at the elbow point for passengers as well as quality fabric trim throughout.
The fold down centre armrest has cupholders and is set at a better height than the other two but, there are no rear air vents, only one map pocket, bottle holders in the rear door with a small cavity next to them. The same section of plastic trim sits outboard of the seat backrest but is the narrowest of all three.
Above: Subaru Impreza
While the second row of the Impreza is equal to the Civic for comfort, the Corolla has the feeling of being higher, which is great for kids especially, meaning they can look out over the front seat occupants to a degree.
Looking at the three from outside, the boot space might surprise you, with the Civic slaying both the Corolla and Impreza. In ascending order, the Impreza accommodates 460 litres, the Corolla 470 litres and the Civic a whopping 519 litres. The numbers for the Civic especially, are more like what you’d expect from a large sedan of days gone by, not a small sedan like the Civic.
Above: Honda Civic
Comparing three vehicles with CVTs is never high on the agenda of anyone who actually enjoys driving, but the good news is all three here on test are quite excellent – mostly. Only the Impreza has some strange tendencies during on/off throttle applications, like when you're rolling along at 80km/h, for example, and back off the throttle for a second, then need to get back on. Other than that, there is no nastiness to report.
The Toyota Corolla has recently received revisions to its CVT which, according to Toyota, 'make it deliver quicker, crisper shifts and improves acceleration off the mark'. That much is certainly true most of the time, with the Corolla drive experience snappy enough both off the mark and once up to speed. You can catch the CVT out in normal mode and there is still a brief but perceptible hesitation if you need to go for a gap quickly.
The CVT is never intrusive though, and works well to extract the best from the 1.8-litre engine without ever buzzing or whining. In fact, the engine only sounds like it's fizzing up to redline when you really give the throttle pedal a stab. It can feel a little urgent, without using Sport mode, which some people might actually like – the powertrain is otherwise refined though.
Traversing typical urban roads, the Corolla rides a littler firmer than the other two on test and doesn't gather itself back up as quickly once it encounters a nasty bump. At city speeds, the driving experience feels safe and secure and there's nothing skittish about the way the Corolla gets about it business.
Push harder on a twisty road though, and the Corolla is the first here to run out of front-end grip, tend toward push understeer and engage traction control. It's a typically intrusive Toyota system too, noisy and harsh in the way it cuts in to keep things pointing in the right direction
The Corolla's steering is excellent at low speeds, light in operation with an advantageous turning circle, making city manoeuvrability a breeze. It isn't as perfectly weighted once up to speed though, where there's a strange nothing spot on centre and you have to wind on a little more lock than you first thought to turn into a corner.
It's not a deal breaker, it just takes a little getting used to. Matched against two vehicles with such driving competence, surety and all-round grip though, the Corolla is definitely the third-best.
The Civic, surprisingly, possesses the second-best ride in this group. Going in, we expected the plush Civic to easily win the ride and bump absorption test, but it's just a little firmer and a little less rapid to settle than the Impreza. It still rides well, and feels solid, but the Civic is definitely a little sharper over consistent bumpy roads than the Subaru. Ride comfort and bump compliance being so vital in this segment, there's no doubt this is an important factor for buyers.
The Civic's steering is effectively excellent, just not quite as proficient as the Impreza. It does feel quick initially when you move from centre, and can feel like it's darting a little until you get used to it, and in corners you'll need more lock, and therefore more work than the Subaru. It's a lot less likely to run out of grip than the Corolla, though.
We loved the Civic's sharp and precise throttle response, and it's willingness to get off the mark and up to speed quickly. That's partly due to the excellent CVT and the enthusiastic 1.8-litre engine which, typical of Honda, loves to be worked hard. Like the Corolla, there is nothing nasty or noisy about the CVT, a pleasant change from the previous generation of these efficient transmissions.
You'd expect the Impreza, with its AWD and more powerful two-litre engine, to be the more enthusiastic performer and it is – but only just. You can see from the specification breakdown the Subaru is heavier, which theoretically robs some of that power advantage that plays out on paper. Regardless, the CVT is smooth and equally happy working hard or cruising around, and as mentioned above, only ever shows hesitation during some specific on/off throttle actions.
What isn’t smooth under any circumstance, is the Subaru’s stop/start system. The shutdown aspect is fine and you barely notice it happening. It’s when the engine fires back up that things move a long way from premium. The system is harsh, unrefined, and if you aren’t really holding the brake heavily, the Impreza will twitch forward a little. In short, it grates against every other positive aspect of the Impreza’s broad portfolio of skills.
We were impressed with the Subaru's competent blend of handling ability and ride comfort, especially given we went in expecting the Civic to win this battle. There's no doubt the Impreza is the best of this trio when it comes to bump absorption across all surfaces and you can combine that with more proficient handling at speed.
The Impreza's steering is excellent at any speed and the overall chassis balance is the best here by some margin. There's a surfeit of grip and much less tyre noise at the limit, illustrating the advantage in regard to mechanical grip. Initial turn-in is sharp and the Impreza holds its line beautifully, aided by near perfect steering weight. The feedback through the wheel feels just right, never too heavy at low speed, and never too light once on the move either.
While the Subaru's full-time AWD system provides a clear advantage in this company, it's not just the extra grip that makes the difference. The Impreza has a more competent chassis, better all-round balance and ability, and a more comfortable experience from inside the cabin. There's no doubt that for those of us who live in urban areas, the Impreza is the winner.
A 50km highway run in each vehicle, reflects many of the strong points we've already noticed and covered around town at speeds up to 60km/h. The Corolla is quiet, effortless and quite possibly even the best of the three at 110km/h. There’s barely any wind or road noise entering the cabin and the Corolla cruises along without the engine feeling like its being taxed too heavily.
On the highway, the Civic is the next best, once again highlighting how refined and well-built it is. There’s a small amount of road noise that enters the cabin above 90km/h on coarse chip surfaces, but otherwise the Civic experience is very comfortable.
The main reason the Impreza isn’t our highway pick, is the hesitation in the way the CVT distributes the engine’s power through those on/off throttle applications mentioned above. Definitely not a deal breaker, but it’s not quite as refined and smooth as either the Corolla or Civic.
The Corolla comes with Toyota’s three-year/100,000km warranty, and a capped-price servicing scheme. The pricing is extremely competitive and will cost owners just $140 per visit for the first three years or 60,000km, whichever comes first. Services are due every 10,000km, which means over the first three years, if you travel 20,000km per year, the total will be $840.
The Civic is covered by a three-year/100,000km warranty, and a capped-price servicing schedule up to 100,000km. Services are required every 10,000km and if you cover 20,000km each year for the first three years, you’ll be paying $1704 in total.
The Impreza is covered by a three-year/100,000km warranty, with a change to the previous model’s servicing schedule. Services are now required every 12 months (rather than six) but the kilometre range stays the same at every 12,500km. The Impreza is covered by a capped-price servicing scheme, which will cost a total of $1298.19 over that three-year period.
We expected a tight tussle here, and that’s exactly what played out on the road – incredibly close, in fact, at the end of our week with all three. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of this test is that all senior editorial staff in the CarAdvice Sydney office had the chance to spend plenty of time in all three vehicles in the test.
The feedback from the editorial team was unanimous too, and the winner of this comparison is the Subaru Impreza. The negatives we found – with all three really – were the result of nitpicking, looking for things not to like, such is the competence of all three vehicles. In fact, we’d happily recommend all three of these combatants and none of them exhibit any issues that are a deal breaker.
The fact the Impreza wins this comparison test is more to do with it being a more competent and value for money all-rounder. The message is clear. Don’t rush out to buy an SUV. Actually, take a close look at what 25 grand buys you in the SUV segment. You'll find it’s not much. These three sedans are therefore exceptional value for money.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Glen Sullivan.