2012 Car Comparison: Honda Civic vs Toyota Corolla vs Ford Focus

Last Updated: Dec 12, 2011

The Competitors
This compact-car comparison compares the 2012 Honda Civic, 2012 Toyota Corolla, and 2012 Ford Focus. These are modestly priced, fuel-efficient compacts, each answering the demand for an affordable small car in its own way. This 2012 Honda Civic vs. 2012 Toyota Corolla vs. 2012 Ford Focus comparison picks a winner based on price, features, and performance.

Base-price range is $16,555-$24,655 for the 2012 Civic, $16,890-$19,360 for the 2012 Corolla, and $17,295-$23,495 for the 2012 Focus. (Base prices in this comparison review include the manufacturer’s delivery fee; note that Toyotas sold in some Southeastern and Gulf states are delivered by independent distributors and may carry different destination fees.)
Honda redesigned the Civic for model-year 2012 and hopes it’ll continue as America’s top-selling compact car. The new Civic sedan and coupe are familiar-looking outside but have slightly larger cabins with a redesigned dashboard and deliver a hushed ride that damps out the worst road imperfections. The 2012 Focus sedan and four-door hatchback are new to the U.S. market and bring from Ford’s European wing edgy styling, sophisticated road manners, interior refinement, and high-tech gear unexpected in an American-brand small car. The 2012 Corolla sedan is a 2009-vintange design that carries over without major updates after modest styling revisions for 2011; the 2012 model adds power locks with remote keyless entry and power windows to base models.

The Similarities

  • Powertrains follow the traditional compact-car layout. The 2012 Honda Civic, 2012 Toyota Corolla, and 2012 Ford Focus all have front-wheel drive, which places the weight of the engine over the drive wheels for good wet-surface traction and concentrates powertrain components in the front for efficient packaging. The mainstream version of each car has a four-cylinder engine of around 1.8-liters and is available with a five-speed manual transmission or extra-cost automatic transmission. Civic’s 1.8-liter four-cylinder produces 140 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque, Corolla’s 1.8-liter generates132 horsepower and 128 pound-feet, and Focus’s slightly larger 2.0-liter makes 160 horsepower and 140 pound-feet. (Think of torque as the main ingredient in acceleration and horsepower as the energy that sustains momentum.)  Each car accelerates 0-60 mph in around 9 seconds; cars that take longer labor to merge onto a freeway or pass slower vehicles. A high-performance turbocharged 2013 Focus ST model is on the way but for now, only the Civic offers a notably sporty variant. Civic Si models have the largest displacement engine available in this comparison, a 2.4-liter with 201 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque and do 0-60 in about 6.7 seconds. Civic also is the only member of this trio to offer a gas/electric hybrid model. It teams a 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine with an electric motor/generator and self-charging battery pack to produce a combined 110 horsepower. It drives similarly to the 1.8-liter Civics.  
  • Fuel economy is a significant compact-car selling point, and the mainstream version of these three cars all have EPA ratings in the high-20-mpg range in city driving and in the low-30s on the highway. With manual transmission, ratings for all three cars are near identical:  28/35 mpg city/highway, 31 mpg combined city/highway for the Corolla, 28/36/31 mpg for the Civic, and 26/35/30 for the Focus. Equipped with automatic transmission, the Civic is tops at 28/39/32 mpg, Focus second at 28/38/31, and Corolla is the least fuel-efficient, at 26/34/29 mpg. Focus and Civic offer extra-cost models optimized for fuel economy. The Focus SFE rates 28/33/40 mpg, the Civic HF is slightly better at 29/33/41. The mileage champ of this trio is the Honda Civic Hybrid, at 44/44 mpg city/highway, 44 mpg combined.
  • Size-wise, Civic, Corolla and Focus take up roughly the same space on the road but differ in passenger and cargo volume. All have seatbelts for five passengers, but that doesn’t mean five “adult” passengers. Each more appropriately accommodates four grownups, though the Civic has the most front legroom and head room. For rear passengers, the long-of-leg will be most comfortable in the Civic, followed by the Corolla and then the Focus. In fact, tight rear seat room is the Ford’s most serious shortcoming. Among sedan body styles, Focus leads this trio with 13.2 cubic feet of trunk space while the Focus hatchback boasts body style and cargo capacity behind the rear seat is 23.8 cubic feet of space behind the rear seat and a wagon-like 44.8 cubic feet with the rear seat folded. The Civic sedan follows with a 12.5-cubic-foot trunk (11.7 for the Civic coupe), and the Corolla trails at 12.3. All models have folding rear seatbacks to increase cargo-carrying versatility.

The Differences

  • Body-style choices vary among this trio. The 2012 Honda Civic is available as a four-door sedan and two-door coupe. The 2012 Ford Focus offers the choice of a sedan or sporty four-door hatchback. The 2012 Toyota Corolla is a sedan only, though a wagon version is sold as the Toyota Matrix. The Civic has the most diverse model selection of the three. In addition to the standard sedan and coupe, the sporty Civic Si model is available in either sedan or coupe body styles. The Civic Hybrid comes only as a sedan. Honda also offers the Civic Natural Gas model, a natural-gas-powered sedan that produces near-zero emissions. Availability is expanded from four states to nationwide for model-year 2012 — but of course requires access to a natural-gas refueling station.
  • Styling is a prime differentiator among these three cars. Focus is the most forward-looking of the three. Designed by Ford’s European group, it follows the company’s “kinetic” styling themes characterized by a big grille, swept-back headlamps, strongly defined wheel arches, and sharp creases. Corolla’s styling is the most conservative -- not stirring or striking, but clean and handsome. Also taking the safe route, the redesigned 2012 Civic sedan and coupe are slightly racier looking than the outgoing 2011 models, though you’d probably need to park the old and new side by side to appreciate the differences. Mainly, 2012 Civics receive more radically swept-back roof pillars and more aggressively chiseled body contours. While no rival has quite matched the Civic for its forward-looking good taste, the new design may not look fresh enough and Honda is reportedly considering revisions over the next year or so.
  • Road manners are distinctive. Corolla’s suspension settings provide the softest ride in the compact class making it near-perfect for daily commutes. But if you’re looking for excitement or inspiration, it’s not here: steering response is lazy, bumps unsettle the car’s composure, and speedy turns produce tire-howling drifts. All 2012 Civics have a suspension that balances ride and handling at a level difficult to beat in this price range and this Honda is still a standout for its perky driving feel and responsiveness. Meanwhile, the Civic Si teams its more powerful engine and taut sport suspension and steering to provide road manners that can reward enthusiast drivers. Focus proves that a comfortable ride, great body control, and athletic handling can come in one affordable package. Whether sedan or hatchback, this Ford is a highly competent commuter that delivers a compliant ride with a measure of sass thrown in. Overall driving dynamics are class leading and the refined engine accompanied by the European-tuned suspension produce a genuinely sporty driving experience. The fly in the Ford’s ointment is its automatic transmission, which suffers slurred and bulky shift action.  

The Winner

The 2012 Honda Civic: Proven Honda quality, easy-driving refinement, great fuel economy, and a spacious back seat help the redesigned Civic take first place in this compact-car comparison. The Si version adds a dash of spice, while the coupe appeals to young buyers who find the sedan too stodgy. Availability of the versatile and cool-looking hatchback body style helps the 2012 Ford Focus to a close second place. Sophisticated European road manners and solid interior materials are other Focus virtues, while the behavior of its automatic transmission and tight rear seat room detract enough to deny it the win in a category where those issues are important to a wide swath of buyers. The 2012 Toyota Corolla is a competent and reliable small car that looks and feels dated, with an out-of-fashion four-speed automatic and an interior design that needs updating.