By on September 17, 2021

Today’s Buy/Drive/Burn trio are the 2008 versions of the same Japanese compacts from last time. Many of you were split on the relative goodness of 1998’s Civic versus Corolla, but agreed Sentra should burn. Do those views change when the cars are from 2008?

Honda Civic

The eighth-gen Civic is in its third model year in North America, where it’s available in sedan and coupe formats. Civic is a bit edgier and serious-looking than its older Nineties sibling but promises the same overall value. In 2008 there are seven total trims That range in price from $14,800 to over $23,000. The most affordable sedan is a DX trim with a five-speed manual transmission. DX uses a 1.8-liter inline-four good for 140 horses and asks $15,010.

Nissan Sentra

Sentra entered its sixth generation in 2007 and continues unchanged for the 2008 model year. Sentra is available only as a sedan and rides on the same C platform as the Rogue. Unlike Civic which offers standard automatic transmissions, Sentra is offered only with a six-speed manual or a CVT. Five trims are available that range in price from $16,140 to $20,570. The base 2.0 has a CVT, so we upgrade to the 2.0 S for its six-speed manual. 140 horses arrive via the 2.0-liter engine. Nissan asks $16,370.

Toyota Corolla

The Corolla is in its ninth generation, and its final model year; it’s been on sale since 2003. Not to worry, Corolla was refreshed for 2005 to keep with the times! North America receives only the Corolla sedan, though wagons and hatchbacks are available elsewhere. Trims are three and have a narrow price range of $14,405 to $16,250. The cheapest CE with a five-speed manual asks $14,405. A trailing 126 horses arrive at the front wheels from the 1.8-liter engine.

Three late 2000s economy sedans, all of which are arguably build with less care and concern than their Nineties counterparts. Which one is worth buying?

[Images: Toyota, Honda, Nissan]

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28 Comments on “Buy/Drive/Burn: Basic Japanese Compacts From 2008...”

  • avatar

    Same as the 1998 list:

    Buy: Corolla
    Drive: Honda
    Burn: Sentra

    • 0 avatar

      Reverse the top two, and you’ve got my matrix. Same as the other day.

      By 2008, all the bugs were worked out of the Civic, though I’m sure that drooping and cracked sunvisors plus paint fauxs pas still were a thing. IIRC, the radios have a higher-than-average failure rate, as well.

      The Corolla would be OK to pick up after a day chasing planes—get me to the hotel without drama.

      And we know what will likely happen to Nissan Jatco CVTs of this provenance.

  • avatar

    Just like in 1998, my answer is Buy Toyota, drive Honda, burn Nissan.

    As an aside, is there a reason these comparos so often tend to be the absolute base models? It always leaves me with an overwhelming temptation to burn all of them. Something like “Here is the best version of each car you can get for $X” (in this case maybe $18,000 or so) would be more compelling to me.

  • avatar

    Buy Sentra. I actually have a soft spot for this generation.
    Drive Corolla. Although I’d prefer a tC.
    Burn Civic. General anti-Honda bias and the paint longevity on this gen was atrocious.

    One option not included here was the Lancer, which would have probably been my real life pick if we weren’t dealing with base trims.

    • 0 avatar

      I was actually quite serious about Lancer ownership. Here’s an 11 year old TTAC review where I state a desire to buy a Lancer Ralliart in the comments.

      I was a little too poor in 2010 to make a Ralliart happen but my bank account was close enough that I didn’t want to settle for a GTS. When I finally did buy a new car in 2014, Ralliarts were very thin on the ground and the Lancer forum said they thought I’d be happier in a Mustang GT.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m with you I like the lancer better as well in this time frame. Roomier sportier better looking. Also pretty reliable I know a few people who have very abused lancers that just keep running much like a 90’s GM.
      I think the Corolla is the best long term owner here but I really hate driving them. I have little love for this gen civic. The Sentra looks weird has a plastic fantastic interior, but it’s also very roomy inside for the exterior size, with the manual it may be my choice as well.

    • 0 avatar
      King of Eldorado

      I agree about that generation Sentra. I especially liked the styling, and probably would have bought a MT, so any purported problems with the CVT would not have been an issue.

      I’m less sure about the second and third choices. I’m a long-time Honda guy, but I absolutely hated the bi-level dash (I think this generation had it), which centered on a huge, garish tach on the lower level and a mostly digital upper level including an off-center digital speedo. I’m similarly ambivalent on the Corolla, which had little more than renowned reliability — a big plus –going for it.

  • avatar

    Buy Honda: Reliable as the Toyota with a spicier driving dynamic. See loads of them daily in all shapes

    Drive Toyota: Just as reliable although duller than the Civic. Also see them daily

    Burn Sentra buy default: Nissan’s reliability was going down by this point the Sentra didn’t excel I anything more than the other two.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    My order remains the same:

    Buy: Honda (best resale)
    Drive: Sentra (best-looking, better packaging)
    Burn: Corolla (why be bored to death?)

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    No change from the previous D/B/B for the same 3 cars.

    Only this time I believe that this generation of Sentra was not as competitive and as others have mentioned another vehicle such as a Mazda 3 or Mitsu Lancer should have been substituted to make the selections more difficult.

    I do however rather favour the next generation Sentra, particularly with a MT as I much prefer its greenhouse/headroom to the Civics that it competed with.

    And again as others have mentioned why not compare the ‘top trim’ levels to see if the choices change?

  • avatar

    Buy: Toyota. I still see these all the time, typically being driven 15 mph under the posted limit by a wide eyed immigrant sitting bolt upright about four inches away from the wheel. I don’t remember how these drive, it isn’t much of a guess to say terribly, but economy is the reason this segment exists at all and there’s no better economy than still running 15 years later.

    Drive: Sentra. Nissan abandoned any notion of conventional proportions with this car. They raised the roofline four full inches, pulled the rear axle six inches further back, widened it besides, and successfully achieved adult sized space inside. Those proportions also achieved what might be the worst looking American market car of the century. The CVT that these now came with was also a novel displeasure at the time. Doesn’t matter, a tolerable seating position in a segment defined by its absence was worth all of that and then some.

    Burn: Honda. The no brainer buy over anything except a Toyota, these ran almost forever too, but there is a Toyota here. So I won’t buy it, I don’t want to actually drive it because it’s loud and uncomfortable like Hondas always were back then, and an only partially deserved burn is all that’s left.

  • avatar

    I’ll change up my order from the 1998 versions.

    Buy the Civic. These have always looked better then their contemporary Corolla counterparts. The ride quality though, it’s atrocious. Even when nearly new, every single little bump in the road could be felt, every block in the tire tread could be heard making contact with the pavement. They were just overall loud and noisy cars.

    Drive the Corolla. Again, not the quietest car in the world, but leagues better than the Civic, even as they age. They’re omnipresent, cheap to repair, and easy to live with. Overall a better FEELING car than the Civic.

    Burn the Sentra. This is where Nissan started to go wrong. The plastics used in this generation specifically were absolutely terrible. Granted, this car has the 6 speed, which wins it some points, but the CVT in these was an absolute joke and most of the Sentra’s sold had CVT’s. These, even in top spec SE-R trim, just don’t do anything for me. Easy burn.

    • 0 avatar
      C5 is Alive

      If memory serves, one of the auto mags reported Toyota held back the E140 Corolla for a year in North America, bumping it to a MY09 intro in early 2008, to make some styling “adjustments” in response to the fairly radical (for the time) 2006 Civic.

  • avatar

    BUY: Honda
    DRIVE: Nissan
    BURN: Toyota – I had one of these as a rental once, it was only slightly better than a 4 cyl Dodge Avenger (also rented). My base 1997 Geo Prizm at the time could run ring around it.

  • avatar

    BURN ALL!!!!

    Honda – plastic junk. Like, seriously, 7 shades of gray plastic on the dash. Noisy. Overpriced, underoptioned in base trims.

    Nissan and Toyota just not a driver cars.

  • avatar

    This one is a bit easier than the last one.

    Buy: Honda. If you don’t have the valve issue around 100,000 miles and the paint stays on your car, this car is probably the best small car value out there. The dash is odd, but once you get used to it, it starts to make sense and your eyes focus easier on the speed and road. It’s like a head-up display but built into the dash. Very comfortable seats, great fuel economy, cheap to maintain.

    Drive: Toyota. Dull as dishwater, but if I got one for a rental and had a long drive, no worries with this car. Also cheap to run and 40 mpg is easy to hit. Both this and the Honda are all over the roads and they are very reliable.

    Burn: Nissan. This Sentra was just hot garbage. The interior is a trainwreck of cheap plastics. It feels and drives so flimsy. The CVT does it no favors. This was bottom of the barrel era of Nissan when I think they really lost their way. As good as the Sentra once was, this generation was everything Nissan became at that time. The fact that you don’t see many of these on the roads any longer (I’m guessing one CVT replacement sent many to a junkyard) speaks volumes for how bad this car really was.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Buy-Honda- The eighth generation cab forward with the double level dashboard were a leap ahead.

    Drive: Toyota- Dull and dependable. The S has some panache but the XRS has the larger 2ZZ-GE engine also used by Lotus is a sleeper.

    Burn: Sentra-Kind of a meh Nissan product. The proportions are odd though the SE-R and Spec-V versions are the ones worth buying.

    Honorable mention: Mitsubishi Lancer. The GTS and Ralliart were quite competitive with the others.

  • avatar


    I’m sorry, what was the question again?

  • avatar

    Buy: Civic
    Drive: Sentra
    Burn: Corolla

  • avatar
    Commodore P

    My daily driver is a 2008 Civic LX in that exact Galaxy Gray. Thirteen years and 209,000 miles of reliable, forgettable driving. Original clutch and just one binder clip holding the visor together.

  • avatar

    There is probably a right way to do small cars, but it Doesn’t Happen in the U.S. market. Too Small = Too Crappy.

    So go up a size class. Unfortunately, all three of these makes had lost the plot by 2008. Reluctantly,

    – Buy the 2008 Camry
    – Drive the 2008 Altima
    – Burn the 2008 Accord

    [After 3 years of living with your ‘sedan’ you will understand why crossover blobs became popular.]

  • avatar

    Buy the Sentra- fun to drive with the 6 speed and great greenhouse visibility. Drive the Corolla, it’ll never die, and burn the Civic, cause one’s got to go and it might as well be the only one with a timing belt.

    One of these needs to be done with psuedo-sporty early 1990’s American cars, I’m thinking maybe model year 1991 with a Plymouth Sundance RS, Chevy Berreta GTZ, and say a Ford Tempo GLS or Mercury Topaz XR5. Economy car underpinnings with hey-look-at-me exteriors.

  • avatar

    Civic and Corolla will spend all of eternity duking it out for best car of all time supremacy. Sentra will burn in hell for the same amount of time.

  • avatar

    Buy: Corolla or Civic, they were both equally boring but durable (except for the paint on those civics)

    Drive: Mazda 3.

    Burn: Sentra

  • avatar

    I leased one of these Civics (a 2006 EX manual) for three years. It was basic transportation that was genuinely nice to drive, although the 5-speed stick isn’t nearly as satisfying as Honda’s FWD 6-speed.

    The Corolla is probably a bit more durable, but it’s also a lot more boring. So I’ll buy the Honda.

    Burn the Nissan because of the interior.

  • avatar

    Easy one for me, as owned a 2009 Sentra SE-R.

    Buy: the Sentra! This generation had a platform/chassis that was absolutely solid. It drove and rode like a car in the class above, the SE-R felt like a premium product. I had a 2.0 entry level as a rental car, and while you could feel the platform was still solid the suspension was cheaped out, the seats were gross and the powertrain was disappointing. Racked up a decent mileage with almost no issues, it was quiet, accelerated hard (the CVT on the SER would sit at 2800rpm torque peak if accelerating mildly, and pulled quite hard and very quietly up to highway speeds, or you could floor it and it’d fly). CVT kept the fuel consumption low. In a crash these performed extremely well, being based on the Renault Megane which was one of the best performing in Europe at the time. The SE-R also came with discs all round, a 6 CD autochanger, sunroof, nice looking wheels etc – plus was a genuine 4-seater for adults. Shame that in doing so the roofline made it too tall, and the rear three-quarters looked ungainly. It wasn’t a good looking car. The paintwork on ours was good (the electric blue).

    Drive: Civic, these drove well and were far more fun than the Sentra (handling wise), but the engine was rough, the paintwork a nightmare, and refinement was very poor. They were loud, tinny cars that boomed when accelerating. My then-in-laws had one and the fuel economy was excellent, the seats garbage and it was very tiring to drive because of road and engine noise.

    Burn: Corolla. I know it would still on the road, and it shouldn’t be. A soft, squidgy, out-of-date, boring, dull and worthless car.

    Of course what I should have done is wait a few months (in this case it’d be 18 months) and buy the 2010 Mazda 3. An absolutely standout car. Available in the proper format for a compact car; hatchback. Well equipped. Good engine. Decent software on the automatic that meant it was rarely in the wrong gear. Rust issues in the past. Drove fantasticaly.

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