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March 13, 2002

Review: 2002 Honda Civic VTi-S vs Toyota Corolla Altis 1.8G

Ever since the introduction of the Honda Civic back in the early 1990s, it became an overnight success.  The ‘bug-eyed’ generation seemed to have no end as it seemed that everyone owned a Civic, whether it was an LXi, VTi or SiR.  Funny thing is that when Toyota released its Corolla back in 1998 it had all the safety equipment and some of the luxuries like better plastics and an upgraded stereo system.  Nonetheless, the Civic still ran away with the sales lead.

So now, the question is…what makes the Civic, a Civic?  It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes it a phenomenon worldwide, but most people do agree that it has something to do with Honda’s notorious affinity with the world of motor sports.  The image of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost driving a McLaren-Honda to 15 out of 16 grand prix victories in a single season is simply sublime—and Honda simply knows how to capitalize on their success.  From this formula, the Tochigi brand has successfully replicated road cars that are easily tuned and honed like its Formula One racers.  Until know, the Civic and its bigger Accord brother are known for their vast array of aftermarket performance parts from wheels to spoilers to badges to turbochargers.  (See The Fast and the Furious.)

On the other hand, the Toyota Corolla seemed to have been acting as a lost child lately.  First, it was always regarded as a painless everyday transport—always willing, never exciting.  With the introduction of the first-ever Altis with its 116-bhp 1.8-liter engine, it went upscale.  Although that model came back crashing on its face, in the end, it signaled that Toyota wanted to dominate a new market segment.

Now in 2002, these two perennial competitors have finally come up with two cars that are virtually neck-to-neck in every conceivable way: dynamics, safety, looks and reputation.  As Lexus caught up with Mercedes-Benz in the luxury car segment, it seemed that Toyota has done the same to Honda in the 1.6-liter category.  Or have they?  It the end, there can be only one.

Exterior (Winner: Honda Civic VTi-S)
Score Card: Civic (1), Corolla Altis (0) 

For both of these cars, it’s a hit-or-miss thing.  Some people just love the simple elegance of the Honda Civic VTi-S, but for some, nothing beats the Brad Pitt-like sex appeal that the new Corolla Altis has.  Bottom line is, in this category, we’d opt for the Honda. Here’s why.

The Corolla comes in dressed with 195/60 VR 15 tires and side-skirts as standard—but all of these are there to disguise the car’s tall-boy stature.  Sure most folks won’t notice the difference, but when taken as an overall package, the Corolla looks a bit unclean especially on the side profile mainly because of the numerous plastic parts stuck on the sheet metal.  Moreover, the headlamps and the taillight clusters look great, but the drooping effect of the headlamps dipping into the bumper may take some getting used to.

On the other side of the equation, the Honda Civic is one clean looking car.  The roofline is elegantly simple and the car is devoid of any kind of garnishing that ruins the overall flow of the body.

At first it does look a lot like the previous generation Civic, but take a longer look at the car to appreciate the exterior details.  The hidden-seal rear glass for instance is a technological step forward in design (this technology is usually reserved for hatchbacks only).  The sharp slope of the rear glass imparts a sportier and much more youthful appearance to the Civic.

In addition, the Civic’s panel gaps are amazingly and consistently small, the most controversial of which has got to be the tail lamp design.  Regarded by some as a Lancer rip-off, the taillights stretch from the middle of the trunk lid all the way to the rear fenders, and all the way to the top of both trunk lid and fenders.  This means that it comes into contact with the sheet metal in three planes—assembling something like this is no easy feat.  Subsequently, only the Civic shows design elements like this.

For those dressing up their Civics, we highly suggest to avoid the spoiler and the chrome garnishing as these ruin the car’s overall simplicity. We’d rather opt for the body skirt kit, fog lamps and 215/40 ZR17 tires to give it a boy racer look.

Interior (Winner: Toyota Corolla Altis 1.8G)
Score Card: Civic (1), Corolla Altis (1)

Our main complaint with the previous generation Civic was that its switchgear looked too dated already by the time the SiR came out. Unfortunately, nothing has changed with the all-new Honda Civic.  VTi-S may sport great ergonomics (again, second to none in its class); it suffers very much from poor material feel and consistency inside.

For instance, the center silver console that extends through the entire cabin suffers from inconsistencies in shade and appearance.  The center area is in a shade of gold-silver, made from hard scratch-prone material.  The side vents and the other accents on the other hand are made of gray-silver based plastic materials that look haphazardly painted.

Moreover, the standard MP3 stereo maybe a great leap forward in features, but the Kenwood lacks the ergonomic intuitiveness making it hard to operate.  It also takes almost forever to search for the next track.

On the other side of the equation, the Corolla Altis sports a very European-styled interior.  Although not everything is within easy reach of the driver, at least it is positioned in a way that makes it learnable, especially if you’d consider the Toyota as a long-term investment.

The material feel is excellent, second only to the Nissan Exalta’s plastics and the switchgear feels great.  The gated shift lever is more intuitive and easier to use than the Honda’s ‘Cobra’s head’ design.  It comes standard with features such as variably-intermittent wipers and instrument illumination control, things which the Honda Civic doesn’t have even as optional equipment.  The Optitron gauges are easy to read whether in direct sunlight or at night.

The wood trim is not to our taste as it makes us feel as if the only thing fit to play in the Altis’ CD player would be David Benoit’s greatest hits.  While we’re discussing stereos, the 2-DIN single CD stereo cassette comes out as a negative point against the Corolla because like the Civic’s MP3 player, it is clunky and confusing to use.

Engine (Winner: Toyota Corolla Altis 1.8G)
Score Card: Civic (1), Corolla Altis (2)

What? The Honda Civic loses despite having a 130-bhp 1.6-liter VTEC-3 engine?  On paper, the Honda Civic’s power plant looks so good that you’d be willing to spend the night with it. However, in reality, it’s not that great.  It can perform, but we expected a more lively performance from a 3-stage VTEC.

The problem with the VTEC power plant is that it needs to be revved hard to gain some degree of acceleration and power.  As a result, the engine doesn’t feel relaxed—it’s as if it always has to be on its toes on every stretch of highway waiting for the gasoline pedal to be floored.  The newly reprogrammed transmission and engine combination is miles ahead of the previous Civic, but it still has a long way to go to become a refined-enough motor to be used for a relaxed cruising environment.

At start-up the VTEC-3 engine sounds like a sardine can—as if reminding the owner: don’t push me above 5,000-rpm today, please.  After it warms up, punch it and the VTEC-3 can still generate that racing-engine soundtrack at higher revs.   Because of the heavy acceleration and high revs involved, don’t expect to do 49 kilometers per liter in everyday city driving.  During our test, we only squeezed out 7.28 km/L, a figure similar to a 2.0-liter Toyota RAV4 or even an eleven-year old Galant GTi!

If the Civic’s VTEC engine sounds like a boy racer, the Corolla’s 145-bhp VVTi is perfect for a small-sized luxo-cruiser.  It performs straight off the line only marginally better than the smaller- displacement Civic engine (if you push them to the edge, the Civic actually does better), but it’s in the area of refinement that the Corolla wins out.

It is the perfect companion to comfort you after a long day’s work at the office—smooth, consistent, barely audible.  Think of it as the mechanical version of Louie Armstrong singing the blues, though its voice may crack up if you crank it past 5000 rpm.  It prefers to sing in the lower range, thank you very much.  In addition, the transmission is a perfect match for the engine’s character.  It shifts at a lower RPM range giving the Corolla a decisive advantage in fuel economy: around 8 km/L.

The Corolla’s extra displacement also offers more low-end grunt than the Civic making overtaking and highway cruising an easier task for the Toyota than the Honda.

Overall Handling (Winner: Honda Civic VTi-S)
Score Card: Civic (2), Corolla Altis (2)

Despite dropping the famed double-wishbone up front, the Honda Civic VTi-S still has an edge over the Corolla.  The all-new suspension geometry in the Honda imparts stable, accurate and precise handling.  Humps and road imperfections are filtered out, resulting in a smooth, jolt-free ride.

Although the Civic may seem a bit over boosted and numb at slow speeds, there is no denying that this car corners flat through the tightest bends and is easily squeezable through gaps in traffic.   The Civic’s body structure is bedrock solid.  This gives the Civic a distinct advantage over the Corolla when going over the larger potholes.

The only downside to the Civic’s handling is the suspension travel of the rear double wishbone. With the flat-rear floor design, Honda had to move the springs and shocks closer to center.  Aside from making the Civic a bit awkward to look at from the rear (your suspension arms are showing), it makes the Civic feel more nervous when pushing the car to its limits, especially on large village speed bumps.

Like the Honda Civic, the Corolla has a shake-free body structure.  Toyota made good use of its research and development skills to come out with a car that’s as solid and structurally sound as European rivals like the Volkswagen Golf.  Thus, the 1.8G has good overall control and handling.

When pushed to the limit, the Altis exhibits a lot more body roll than its Honda rival.  It’s not something you’d like to race on a street circuit.  In addition, the Corolla still suffers from uncommunicative steering.  Although improved from the previous generations, it’s still no match for the Honda Civic that communicates its limits very well to the driver.

Safety and Security (Winner: Toyota Corolla Altis 1.8G)
Score Card: Civic (2), Corolla Altis (3)

Though both of these cars have become groundbreaking in terms of safety and security, the Toyota Corolla wins out mainly because of the performance of its active safety system. Carrying four-wheel disc brakes as standard, it results in a more responsive brake feel.

It stops more sure-footedly than the VTi-S whether on a dry or wet surface.  In addition, the Corolla carries Brake Assist as standard making it more composed and user-friendly especially for those rather unaccustomed to the workings of ABS (it helps the driver tap the full braking force in a panic stop).

Dual airbags, side-impact beams and EBD complete the safety package.

If the brakes on the Altis were as every bit as good, the Civic’s still leaves much to be desired.  Although an improvement over the previous VTi, the front-disc / rear-drum combination gives a vague braking feel that’s overly spongy especially in high-speed braking.  In addition, the original-equipment tires lacked the grip needed by the Civic to win this battle.

The only advantage of the Civic is its Electronic Brakeforce Distribution system which operates better than the Toyota’s. The Civic’s EBD eliminated virtually all body dive during heavy braking—making it the most effective EBD system of any car we’ve tested so far.

Like the Corolla, the Civic rounds up the safety category with dual airbags, side-impact beams and a safety rating that’s equal to the Volvo S80 in US crash tests.

Value for Money (Winner: Toyota Corolla Altis 1.8G)
Score Card: Civic (2), Corolla Altis (4)

Alas, the Corolla Altis just had to win.  Even with a higher price tag, the G-spec Altis (whether in 1.6 or 1.8-liter displacements) beat the Civic VTi-S simply because the Toyota carries so much more equipment for a small premium.  The 1.6G for instance has four-wheel discs, dual airbags and EBD as standard already.

The Civic deserves good credit because of the technological advancements it has introduced in this category, and it has a great warranty package (three years/100,000 km vs. two years/50,000 km for the Corolla), but it loses dearly on the areas of overall refinement and safety.

The Altis is simply more comfortable to drive and use on an everyday basis thanks to its better engine, cabin feel and seat support.  For long-haul trips, the Altis proves more practical thanks to its deeper, flatter and wider boot space plus the fact that the engine is more relaxed, more fuel efficient and quieter than its Honda rival.

Undoubtedly, the Toyota Corolla Altis is now the yardstick by which all cars in this segment must compare themselves to.  Although not quite the racer’s dream, the Altis is the choice for the everyday driver in all of us.

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