By on September 15, 2021

We continue our 1990s-then-2000s series today, with the Japanese counterpart to the American compacts presented here recently. These Japanese compacts from 1998 represented the last of the Nineties’ Golden Era quality. Civic, Sentra, Corolla, make your pick!

Honda Civic

The seventh-gen Honda Civic is in its third model year for 1998 and is offered in coupe, hatch, and sedan versions within the North American market. Interesting five-door body styles are available in other locales. There are five trim levels of Civic this year: CX, DX, EX, HX, and LX. Today’s specification is a sedan, which means the bargain basement CX is out of the picture as it’s limited to the hatchback. The cheapest DX sedan asks $12,735 and uses a 1.6-liter inline-four. That engine is good for 106 horses that proceed through the five-speed manual.

Nissan Sentra

The Sentra is near the end of its fourth generation run and has been with us since 1995. Unlike the Civic, Sentra is available only as a sedan. Nissan technically offers a Sentra coupe, but it’s badged as 200SX for sporting credibility reasons. The Sentra has four trims in North America in 1998, which include the basic and much cheaper XE, and SE, GXE, and GLE which all cost about the same. A five-speed manual XE asks $13,699 this year and offers a 1.6-liter inline-four that produces 115 horsepower.

Toyota Corolla

Toyota sells all sorts of Corollas around the world based on the present E110 platform, and the North American version is new this model year. Corolla is built at NUMMI in California and is also rebadged as the Chevrolet Prizm (formerly Geo). Corolla is only available as a sedan in North America, over three trim levels: base VE, middling CE, and luxurious LE. A VE with a five-speed manual and 120-horse 1.9-liter engine is our choice today and asks $11,908 at your Toyota dealer. By the way, the twinning Geo Prizm asks $12,143.

Three bare-bones compact sedans, all promising long-term reliability. Which goes home with the Buy?

[Images: Honda, Nissan, Toyota]

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61 Comments on “Buy/Drive/Burn: Basic Japanese Compacts From 1998...”


  • avatar
    eggsalad

    Buy: Corolla. If you treat it right, you might still be driving it today.
    Drive: Civic. It’s more fun to drive than a Corolla.
    Burn: Sentra. It’s a Nissan.

    • 0 avatar
      Astigmatism

      This is the right answer, but just wanted to comment on how unusual it is to have three cars where I would actually drive all of them. Hell, I’d have that Civic as a backup car to my Alfa today if I had space in my garage and found a mint example.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      Yup. Agreed. My neighbour had a Corolla from this era. He’s planning on giving it to his son when he turns 16. His son is 10 right now.

    • 0 avatar
      3800FAN

      Yep I agree. I see these corollas all the time still. I occasionally see gen 7 civics. Nissan sentras from then? I its been so long since Ive seen one I forgot it existed.
      Civic way fun to drive. It would be my pick.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      These are 1998 models, and Nissan wasn’t that bad in the 1990s, before Ghosn cheapened the brand. My 1995 Altima was pretty reliable while I owned it, and the kid I sold it to is still driving it.

      These are actually subcompacts, or were at the time. Now every one of them is 10-12 inches longer and in the compact range of 182-185 inches long. The Altima/Camry/Accord of the time was about 185-8 inches, and that was mid-size.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    Is syphilis an option?

    • 0 avatar
      theflyersfan

      Nah – a raging STD was having to choose from last week’s Citation, Aries, Escort trainwreck. This selection is a strange rash that goes away with a little ointment.

    • 0 avatar
      Superdessucke

      My 1st new one was a ’98 Civic EX 5-speed. I also looked at the 200 SX SE-R. Dealer didn’t have one but tried to sell me a Sentra SE instead and told me it was the same thing. But I went with the Civic.

      Kind of boring once the new wore off. Not a performance car really. The intro of the Civic Si the following year was a little more salt in the wound. I was happy to get rid of it at the end of my 3 year lease in ’01, when I bought a used E36 M3 instead if the new Integra Type-R a local Acura dealer had in the showroom.

      • 0 avatar
        bumpy ii

        “I also looked at the 200 SX SE-R. Dealer didn’t have one but tried to sell me a Sentra SE instead and told me it was the same thing.”

        Aside from the two extra doors, it was. The Sentra SE trim in that generation came with the SR20DE.

        • 0 avatar
          CoastieLenn

          @bumpy ii Could you get the Sentra SE in a manual though? IIRC, and I could be wrong, you could not get the 200SX SER in an auto and you could not get the Sentra SE in manual. Again, I could be mistaken.

          • 0 avatar
            Superdessucke

            You could. And that was the one they had. Different time for sure. I also looked into the Camry V-6 manual but it was out of my budget.

            In retrospect I should have bought the Sentra SE. The Civic EX was kind of a snore in most driving by virtue of being a bit wimpy on the low end. It was reasonably fun when you wrung it out, and I’m sure it was more reliable over the long haul, but I couldn’t wait to get out of it after the 3 year lease and get into something fun, so that didn’t matter.

        • 0 avatar
          Superdessucke

          “Aside from the two extra doors, it was. The Sentra SE trim in that generation came with the SR20DE.”

          Absolutely correct. The same engine the powered the wonderful B13 SE-R. Unfortunately, I was into coupes then so all my focus was on the 200SX SE-R v. 2-door Civic EX. The Sentra SE didn’t get a lot of play in the automotive press then either. It was all about the 200SX SE-R.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Is this a trick question? This was after peak Honda, but still solidly in the time when there was Honda and then everyone else.

    Buy: Civic
    Drive: Corolla, but only as far as wherever the Civic is parked.
    Burn: Sentra, but don’t bother if you have to use any gasoline that you could put in the Civic instead.

    If I inherited a stick shift Civic of this generation in decent condition, I would honestly keep it instead of flipping it.

  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    This one hits close to home – my first ever new car, right after college graduation, was a 1996 Sentra GXE.

    Buy: The Civic. This generation seemed to last forever until the Honda Rot took them out. Very high quality interior, very comfortable, excellent mileage, great stick shift. We were torn between this or the Sentra, and being a first time buyer, the Sentra won.
    Drive: The Sentra. Also decent with the stick. The tires resemble bike tires. I’ve never put on tires so tiny on a car. Such a smooth highway ride, and comfortable, functional interior. These didn’t age as well as the Civic, although there are still some around. The engine was also very gutless, but the highway fuel economy was stellar.
    Burn: The Corolla. This isn’t a bad car by any means. Ultra reliable, but doesn’t move my desire to buy one. But I wouldn’t discourage a new car buyer back in the late 1990s to buy one if they wanted it.

    At this time in history, I had the Sentra and other friends had the Civic and the Corolla so this is a 3-way comparison I’m very familiar with. Another had a new Neon to compare also. Far more power in the Neon, but not as comfortable or as well built. Huge back seat though.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    This is tough.

    Let’s start with the easy one:
    Burn the Nissan – it wasn’t a bad car, really, but it was completely over matched by the other choices.

    Buy the Civic – I’ve experienced both and it really comes down to the slightly better basement trim in the Honda. The seats are a little more comfortable and materials just a smidge less awful.

    Drive the Corolla – nothing wrong with it, I just prefer the Civic.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    None of these are worth burning at all, but since I’m stuck with that, here’s what I’d do:

    1) Buy the Civic. It’s the one that appeals most to me.
    2) Drive the Corolla. You can’t go wrong buying one.
    3) Burn the Nissan, because one has to burn.

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    I can’t really comment on the other two cars, but I had a 2000 Corolla CE five-speed that I kept for 20 years and 125,000 miles. It was a sweetheart little car, I still miss it. It may have had kind of a Buick like state of tune, as in no sporting pretensions. It did have major transmission problems at about 60,000 miles. It would not stay in fourth gear. I was told that was a known issue with that particular transmission.

    • 0 avatar
      spookiness

      @ttacgreg
      Funny you mention Buick. I remember reading a review (probably CD, MT) of a compact sedan comparo featuring the Sentra that came after this one. They called it the “Buick Lesabre of it’s class.”

  • avatar
    ajla

    Buy the Corolla.
    Drive the Sentra.
    Burn the Civic.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      Honestly curious about the reasoning on the last two.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        My issue with Hondas is similar to your issue with Challengers. The owners I’ve dealt with have been restaurant-quality d*ckheads. When I have driven the vehicles, they are fine but nothing so superlative to thaw my feelings.

      • 0 avatar
        eng_alvarado90

        non-VTEC Civics are slow and they were pretty much converted to “racerboi” spec, although most of the time it was visual and audible-only. I can still hear the fart cans in my head.

        Douchy drivers also come to mind, cutting off on the HWY, thinking they had a race machine out of their 100hp non-VTEC engine. Neither the B14 Sentra nor Corolla bring the same stigma to my mind.

        • 0 avatar
          dal20402

          I don’t have this association nearly as strongly, I think because I live in a place where housing eats all of everyone’s money, parking spots are small, and therefore normal people very often drive 20-year-old Japanese compacts.

          In fact, I was just looking at a decent and completely unmolested ’02 EX sedan with a stick on Craigslist. Those are common around here. It’s not quite the stick car I want but at $2k it’s kind of tempting.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Assuming decent miles for the age, that’s free @ $2K. You could probably *make* money on it if you used it a year and sold.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            Yeah, it looks like it would be pretty easy to clean it up and flip for more. It’s got dull paint & headlights and flaking coating on the door moldings, and it apparently has an O2 sensor code, but all that can be fixed in a couple hours’ work. I just don’t have the time to flip cars right now.

          • 0 avatar
            eng_alvarado90

            $2K is a steal. Somehow the 7th gen Civics and newer did not catch on the “racerboi” treatment as the 6th and 5th gens did around here.

  • avatar
    CoastieLenn

    Since we all know this is a contest that doesn’t have a clear loser, I’m going to go different from just about everyone else.

    Buy: Sentra. This car, for some reason, epitomizes the late 90’s/early 00’s to me. It may not be the best car of the trio, but it’s still a damn fine ride. I still see a few in pretty nice shape every once in a while.

    Drive: Corolla. The Corolla, especially this generation, are like cockroaches. They’re still EVERYWHERE, usually held together with duct tape and zip ties and seldom in good shape, but they’re still running around.

    *puts on flame suit*

    Burn: Civic. This generation Civic and the generation before it have garnered nothing but a reputation of being festooned with fart cans, loud stereos, and a general “racerboi” image. I’m not about that life, it drives me crazy, and as such I burn the car most associated with it. *** Plus, when was the last time you saw one of these running around that wasn’t exactly as I described above and likely running with an engine/trans combo that didn’t originally come in it?

    • 0 avatar
      eng_alvarado90

      I knew I wasn’t the only one thinking the same about the 6th gen Civic.
      Don’t get me wrong, I love the EX and Si trims. But I still associate these non-VTEC versions with some owners pretending this is a car it wasn’t meant to be in the 1st place. Fart cans, aftermarket stereos, intakes, tinted windows, neon lights and lowered suspensions. I could go on.

      Even worse, some of them thought they had a race machine in there. I can still remember these cutting off between cars and trucks on the HWY. These were tossable but slow as molasses.

  • avatar
    eng_alvarado90

    This is one of the toughest ones for sure. Let’s see how it gets:

    Buy: Corolla. All-new generation, tough as nails and high quality interior. Soft plastics and all. Peppiest engine out of the bunch. I still see them today

    Drive: Sentra. Roomy, multi link suspension, peppy DOHC engine with variable timing and timing chain. Cheap interior but I’d just be driving it, right? Also this was the last gen Sentra produced before Renault took over.

    Burn: this one hurts but the Civic is the less compelling to me out of the bunch. The one it hurts this one the most was the 100hp non-VTEC D-series engine. Honda really segregated non-EX models by using an inferior engine while Toyota and Nissan would use the same one accross the board (performance versions excluded). Back in middle and high school I associated these cars with fart cans which of course made more noise than go.
    Had it been loaded versions, the outcome would’ve been totally different.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Buy: Corolla- Fine and reliable.

    Drive: Civic- It’s more fun to drive than the others plus the stick is legendary Honda slick.

    Burn: Sentra- It’s kind of meh compared to the previous generation.

    Honorable mention: I know it’s Korean built but the Hyundai Elantra with its Mitsubishi bones was coming into its own by its second generation. The third gen introduced in 2000 was a leap ahead, particularly the GT hatchback.

  • avatar
    C5 is Alive

    Buy: Corolla
    Drive: Civic
    Burn: Sentra

    All three of these cars were past peak “Nineties’ Golden Era quality” and decontented at least somewhat compared to their immediate predecessors. Nissan returned to hard plastics and rear torsion beam suspensions, Toyota’s interior materials weren’t quite as nice as the ’93-’97 “fat Corolla” and the car mags of the time noted several ways Honda had saved money over the fifth-gen Civic, such as using 1/3 fewer stitches in the rear seat cloth. (The reasoning was that it wouldn’t see as much wear as the front seats.)

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Buy: Civic, because of long-term value.

    Drive: Sentra, because it’s the best-looking inside and out, and those engines liked to run.

    Burn: Corolla, because it’s the most dorky-looking, and their interior door handles required extremely frequent replacement as they aged.

    Tough call, great matchup.

  • avatar
    MKizzy

    Buy the Corolla: The automotive equivalent to an old reliable horse.
    Drive the Civic but keep an eye on the timing belt while hooning it.
    Burn the Sentra, the ugliest generation where Nissan all but ignored its vehicles in this market as if they were preparing the way for Daimler’s Great Cheapening of Chrysler a few years later.

  • avatar
    wjtinfwb

    Excepting a CIvic Si, I don’t see much difference among the 3. I’d probably default to the toyota, more durable than a cockroach and about as endearing, but that’s the compelling virtue of all 3. I’d look for the best kept example in your price range and scour the maintenance records as cheap cars tend to be easily neglected.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    After the cluster of awful vehicles in the last D/B/B today’s selection demonstrates why Japanese manufacturers came to dominate the market.

    Buy: Corolla. Because as many have said, it could still be in your driveway and used as a grocery getter/3rd car.
    Drive: Civic. Honda tends to make MT’s that are more fun to use than most other manufacturers.
    Burn: Sentra. Not because it is a ‘bad’ auto. However it was considerably more expensive than the other two.

    How about a D/B/B with the same 3 vehicles only in top level trim? Would that then change our opinions?

    • 0 avatar
      eng_alvarado90

      Top trims would definitely change my mind.

      I burned the Civic because of the handicapped non-VTEC engine. An EX with sunroof and VTEC would’ve been the Buy for me.

      I’m also thinking about a B/D/B of Japanese compact underdogs like the Mirage, Protegé and perhaps the Impreza? I don’t know, the last entry could prove unfair for the other two. Maybe the Suzuki Esteem instead?

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Civic
    Corolla
    Sentra

  • avatar

    Buy Corolla
    Drive Civic
    Burn Sentra

    I really hate the corolla driving dynamics (I have quite a few miles logged in a couple of them) but they do run a very long time even with lots of abuse and neglect. My aunt but a new civic around this time, base model 5 speed as a place holder until she decided what she really wanted. it was a good car but they tend to have a lot of corrosion issues up here and not as dead reliable as the toyota. I don’t love or hate this gen Sentra so it gets the burn.

  • avatar
    KOKing

    My actual buy would be the Civic, but I’d also rather drive that than the Corolla. The 6th gen civic is a great car; I’ve wrenched on a friend’s 98 a few times the past couple years, and it’s easy and cheap to work on, and drives great as well.
    I’d guess from all the recent footage from Afghanistan that those Corollas (it seems 90% of all cars in Kabul are 90s/00s Corollas) are as indestructible as the Hiluxes, though.

    • 0 avatar
      theflyersfan

      @KOKing – it’s like that all over Africa as well. When (especially) Corollas are considered “used up” and might not pass inspection in their home country, they are crated up and shipped there. They will serve the rest of their days painted very loud colors, shuttling people around town for pocket change, complete with metal on metal brakes, barely working clutch, flattened seats, and engine noises that resemble dying livestock, but THEY WILL NOT DIE!!!

      Maybe they need to leave one in the North Atlantic and then put it on the roof of an imploding building…

  • avatar
    Dan

    All three of these fully live up to their respective brands. The Honda is the best drive, the Toyota is still driving somewhere, and the Datsun was long since sent by crusher to the great rice paddy in the sky.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    I’ll buy the top seller, drive the #2 and burn the loser. It’s not just the popularity vote but down the road, it’ll have the least expensive new/reman parts and most plentiful used parts. In theory anyway.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    I’ve driven or ridden in all of these. They are all awful. I’ll ride the bus or walk to my 2nd or 3rd job so I can earn some money to buy a decent car which isn’t any of these road disasters.

  • avatar
    greaseyknight

    Buy the Corolla
    Drive the Civic
    Burn the Sentra

    Corolla is les likely to be stolen, quality wise the Corolla and the Civic should be about the same.

    No reliability concerns with the Sentra, but compared to its B13 predecessor the inside of it is half as good. Drove both a B13 and a B14 for a time and the difference was stark.

    • 0 avatar
      slavuta

      I drove each of these, all manual. Just buy and drive the Civic. Sentra was poorly engineered car. I owned this one for 3 months as emergency substitution until I found parts for my sx240.
      Corolla had no driving inspirations. No steering feel, nothing. Blend.

  • avatar
    Farhad

    Burn: Corolla
    Burn: Civic
    Burn: Sentra

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Wasn’t this the first Civic that ditched the double wishbone suspension?

    Anyway, with the exception of the Toyota, the previous gen of these cars is more compelling…I’d buy used.

    Buy – previous gen Civic

    I know, these aren’t the rules but these are the cars that replaced some of my favorite cars of the 90s. Instead of building on that and getting even better they served to tell us that the party was over.

    Drive – Previous gen Sentra (in SE-R trim)

    Burn – Toyota. It’s a fine appliance, but thems the rules.

    • 0 avatar
      BillSellwood

      Somebody should mention the Japanese financial meltdown of 1991. The party of the 1980’s for Japanese performance sedans was definitely over. Cost-cutting was necessary for all, and Toyota gained on their rivals. My ’97 Civic with standard 5-speed needed a trans rebuild at 160K miles due to an undersized main bearing.

  • avatar
    slow_poke

    my brother still has that exact Civic… something like 35k miles. certainly worth a second car or something that will never really die and though slow, is pretty fun all in.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    In order of horsepower (apparently there was a shortage in 1998; let’s be simple-minded like 1998 automotive enthusiasts):

    – Walk past the Corolla and buy a 1998 Camry.

    – Walk past the Sentra and drive an 1998 Altima.

    – Walk past the Civic and set a 1998 Accord on fire. (This will teach Honda a lesson for knowing how to build good cars, but just not doing it.)

  • avatar
    seanx37

    Burn the Sentra. Drive the Civic. Buy the Corolla.
    The Civic and Corolla are likely still in the family. Driven by grandkids or various neices and nephews

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