What a time to be alive! Finally, Toyota has returned in full force with a lineup that can go from practical to full-on outrageous, just like it did in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It gets better when on the cusp of electric-only fears, the competition is fierce in the sporty compact market with small hatches and sedans bringing performance numbers that outpace yesterday's sports cars. The Toyota GR Corolla is the car at the top of everyone's list right now, and rightfully so; it promises an all-wheel-drive drivetrain, a powerful turbocharged engine, sublime handling, and Toyota reliability starting under $40,000. If you're in the market for a car like this, however, you have options, and between a small annual run of roughly 6,600 units that will bring markups or a long wait time; you may just be looking around the room to find out what's comparable. The ultimate test of course is to get a test drive in every vehicle on this list, but the best we can do for now between supply chain issues and people scooping all of these awesome cars up before they hit the lot, is to check the stats, pictures, and pricing to figure out which one is most worthy. If you're looking for a performance hatch or sedan, here is a list of the Toyota GR Corolla and its rivals, now let's dig in!
Toyota GR Corolla
The 2023 Toyota GR Corolla comes in three trim levels, Core, Circuit, and Morizo Edition. Starting at $36,995, the Core is the bargain choice if you can manage to snatch one up close to sticker price, it can be optioned with a torsion LSD that still keeps it below $40,000, and perhaps that's what we'll use as a comparison since that is likely to be the version most purchased. Power comes from a turbocharged 1.6L inline 3-cylinder engine that generates 300 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque, all connected to an all-wheel-drive system and a mandatory six-speed manual. At each corner are 18-inch wheels wrapped in 235/40 R18 Michelin Pilot Sport 4 performance tires, and behind these gloss, black finished wheels are 14-inch and 11.7-inch front and rear rotors that are slotted and vented for maximum stopping potential. The exterior is noticeably wider and more aggressive than your run-of-the-mill Corolla, this hatchback-only model has wider fenders, are larger front bumper opening, and three exhaust tips separated out back. Inside is a slightly elevated version of the Corolla with similar ergonomics and infotainment, but with the addition of sportier seats and some trim that designates it as a GR model.
Although the choice of only a handful of colors may seem like an issue to those looking to stand out, the GR Corolla is all about performance, it can snap off a sub-5 second 0-60 and a 13.3 second quarter mile time all the way to a top speed of 143 miles per hour. With the ability to split the AWD system into 50-50, 30-70, and 60-40 modes, figuring out what settings work for the task at hand can be figured out pretty easily, but most people testing this car on track opt for a half and half split that helps generate the best lap times. The structure underneath the more muscular Corolla is updated with over 300 spot welds and points of improvement to make a stiffer chassis that has been raved about on the automotive journalist circuit, all while weighing in at a reasonable 3,300 or so pounds.
The GR Corolla is not without its faults, the pedal placement makes heel-toe shifting difficult although a rev-match system comes standard, and the interior perhaps has too much in common with that Corolla you passed on your way to work today; it seems cheap for the price. So far no other real weak points have been found, the G16 engine has turned out to be quite the platform for those lucky enough to own a GR Yaris overseas and it retains that Toyota quality and reliability we have come to expect. The GR Corolla is essentially a car that can do it all, it can drive in traffic without beating you up, it's great for spirited driving on back roads or a track, it can fit a family of four and some groceries, and it is priced to sell for those in the hot hatch market. Of course, like every car on this list, the problem is actually getting one without a ridiculous markup, only 6,600 GR Corollas are going to be available for the 2023 production run and hopefully, in subsequent years it increases with demand. The choice is simple for any Toyota lover, we've waited decades for a car just like this, built on a Toyota production line, this will be as legendary as the other truly special Toyota cars from the past.
Volkswagen Golf R
The original Volkswagen Golf started life as a Giugiaro-designed replacement to VW's former people's car, the Beetle. Years later the GTI was introduced which begat the hot hatch market and the rest is history...until the arrival of the R32 in 2008. The R designation in the GTI lineup has meant two things, all-wheel-drive and a significant increase in power, it makes everyone's favorite hot hatch even spicier on the Scoville heat rating system. What's also spicier is the entry price for the VW Golf R, at a hair under $45,000, the six-speed manual version (we'll omit the equally impressive DSG-equipped model for comparison's sake) comes with all of the bells and whistles including a turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder rated at 315 horsepower and 310lb-ft of torque which is sent to all four corners via the 4Motion AWD system. Golf R's also come with sizeable wheels and rubber, 19-inch wheels wrapped in Pirelli P Zero PZ4 tires that partially hide the 14.1/12.1 front/rear cross-drilled and slotted rotors, and gigantic calipers. Styling is ultra-modern, angular, and upscale but without too many differences from the standard GTI that would make it look cartoonish, it is understated in that classic German sense, the subtle exterior differences like the bumpers, rear wing, and badging are the only tell-tale signs aside from the wheels. Inside, the Golf R is a tiny step below its Audi siblings, it has Napa leather seats, carbon and blue cloth pattern inserts, and plenty of bolstering while the rear seats have been touted as being comfortable for adult passengers. The interior also has a few other neat details like customizable ambient lighting, blue "R" logos in the headrests, a digital gauge cluster, and VW's all-new infotainment system (more on that later).
When it comes to performance it's going to be hard to top the VW Golf R, for one, it has a drift mode that sends a generous amount of power to the rear so people can pretend to be their favorite Formula D driver when they're not devouring turns. With the DSG transmission, the quarter mile disappears in 12.5 seconds but since we're talking about the manual we'll stick to the 12.9-13.2 times we've seen posted by various media outlets, suffice to say it's hilariously fast all the way to its 167 miles per hour governor limited top speed. The 3360lb VW Golf R is nimble for its size although a lack of feedback from the steering wheel has garnered lukewarm reviews from those seeking full engagement, against similar modern cars it's a wonder on wheels. If this list was just about all-out performance without any other categories to judge, the R would win hands down, but there's more to a car than just numbers.
Imagine a new car, with a brand new infotainment system that uses touch controls on the steering wheel and screen that never seem to work right, it's what's happening inside of many VW Golfs. The VW Golf R suffers from a horrible touch-only infotainment system that is so bad it caused a few people at the VW Group to lose their jobs, it is frustrating and faulty and really takes away from a car that tries to deliver it all. Of course, the VW Golf R delivers on the performance metrics we all love but it does so with a slightly numb feeling, this is common in many cars today but the 15-way electronically controlled dampers make for instant changes that assist with your corner carving quest. The price is possibly the biggest deal breaker, if you lose the AWD system and about 80 horsepower, you can save over $10,000 and get about 85% of the experience, and in true VW enthusiast fashion; go for a stage 1 or 2 tune to level the playing field. The Golf R is the ultimate evolution of the original hot hatch, but is it the best? Other vehicles on this list offer similar cargo space, passenger comfort, and great handling for a lower price. The shortcomings of the R clearly lie not behind the wheel but on and in front of the wheel, in an era where everything has a touch screen, the VW group didn't make the landing well here.
Honda Civic Type R
The Type R moniker has been around since the mid-90s when it was applied to a race-spec Honda NSX in Japan, but it was the Civic and Integra Type R models that made it a legend to the common car enthusiast. For the United States, we were treated to the DC2 chassis Acura Integra Type R but missed out on many generations of the "CTR." Honda brought the first Civic Type R stateside in 2017 and it featured a turbo engine that made massive power to the front wheels, somehow Honda's engineers not only made it fast in a straight line, but it set many front-wheel drive lap records around the world, unfortunately, they also made it unsightly. Luckily, for Honda aficionados and those who just love a mix of practical and sporty, the 2023 CTR looks more mature and understated while receiving a boost in power. The CTR now makes 315 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque from its 2.0L engine with a new exhaust design and upgraded turbo, this power is sent to the front wheels via a six-speed manual. The front drive and manual-only Honda uses a dual-axis front strut suspension that keeps wheel hop and torque steer at bay, what also helps are a set of 19-inch wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires along with other chassis tweaks from the previous gen. The latest iteration of the Civic does away with the ultra-angular, samurai mask look that was so polarizing, it is now replaced by a sleeker body, a subdued front fascia, a curvier rear end, and a large wing that integrates into the four-door hatch back's silhouette a bit easier. When you look inside any Type R in history you're normally met with a mix of red and black interior bits and the 2023 CTR keeps with that tradition. A set of red supportive bucket seats rest on a red carpet, the rest of the interior is a mix of black materials with portions stitched in Honda's famous red color throughout. When you're not shifting through the gears with the aluminum shift knob you can adjust your car's settings with real knobs (sorry VW owners) and make changes between the digital cluster and touch screen attached to the dashboard.
What the Honda Civic Type R misses with traction off the line, it makes up for serious pavement-thumping horsepower from it's 2.0L engine, although it's powered by just the front wheels it still manages a 13.5-second quarter mile at 106 MPH and can climb all the way up to a 169 MPH top speed. Of course, like every car on this list, the handling will put to shame plenty of vehicles at double the price as cars like the CTR are geared toward those who like to enjoy their speed on track as well. Understeer is managed well by the suspension tuning done by the engineers at Honda, which means that through a corner you're not shuffling back and forth or managing the throttle to the point where you lose all your momentum, you can just pin it down, and let the LSD, tires, and the anti-torque-steer front struts do the job. The CTR has the crisp and direct shifter feel Honda has been known for over the years, it's one of those inputs you want to have feedback with along with the brake pedal which has been upgraded with a revised brake booster. Now that the vacuum front end is gone with the fake vents, Honda has put in real brake ducting to keep the large front discs cool and fade-free during spirited driving. Although the CTR is high-strung, adaptive dampers can be put in comfort mode to retain most of the handling prowess you want but without a jittery ride full of clanks, creaks, and a chassis bouncing off a bump stop when the pavement is less than stellar.
If you're ok with only having the front-wheel drive, the latest Honda Civic Type R may just be the best hot compact on this list, but it's not without faults that may keep all but the most diehard Honda fans away. First, the Toyota GR Corolla beats it on price as the CTR starts at roughly $43,295, there are only a few options available but those are not needed to make the most of your experience behind the wheel. Behind the wheel you'll enjoy plenty of speed mixed in with comfort but being that the CTR has over 60% of its' weight over the front wheels, you'll experience a car that dives into steering inputs, perhaps it is too eager to maintain grip which can be tiring even in comfort mode. Honda's seriousness about this version of the Civic goes beyond the crisp inputs and eager steering, they intend to make you feel like you're in a race car with the red interior bits, like them or love them, if you want a CTR the seats and carpet WILL be red. Overall, the Civic Type R is a fast, competitive, and finally handsome looking vehicle, it may not be the cheapest on this list but current markups speak to the specialness of this car with lower production numbers than the Si and other Civic models. If you're looking to stand out and want what's probably the fastest front-wheel drive vehicle ever produced, you can do much worse than Honda's enthusiast offering in the Civic Type R.
Hyundai Elantra N
The Veloster N has been discontinued, and the Kona N is perhaps more of a lifted hatch, CUV kind of thing, which leaves the Hyundai Elantra N as the enthusiast offering for the Korean brand. Hyundai has done a great job bringing some real performance to their lineup, all while keeping prices relatively low and potential owners rowing their own with manual transmissions. Gone are the days of the S-Coupe, Tiburon, and Veloster Turbo, those were solid attempts at joining the sport compact genre but the Elantra N body slams its lower horsepower competitors while keeping up with the vehicles on this list. Hyundai's offering comes with a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder that churns out 276 horsepower and 289 lb-ft of torque, all while producing plenty of entertaining cracks and pops from the exhaust for audible enjoyment without the need for a pre-recorded sound in the cabin(can be turned off). The 2023 Elantra N is front-wheel drive only but comes with a six-speed manual standard and an eight-speed dual-clutch auto (we won't mention this option) that has an electronically controlled LSD to reduce wheel spin and help turn-in. At each corner are 19-inch alloy wheels wrapped in...you guessed it, Michelin Pilot 4S tires that in conjunction with the 14.2 front brake rotors and electronically controlled dampers, help this vehicle handle around a track or canyon road fast, yet predictably. The exterior of the Elantra N is more aggressive than the admittedly handsome standard model, it adds a red "N-stripe" around the lower half of the car along with an aggressive front bumper that has a wider mouth for more airflow, an N-model-only rear wing, and a functional rear diffuser on the back bumper. The cockpit is a mixture of screens and knobs with great ergonomics, the sporty bucket seats are comfortable and grippy while also being slimmer which provides rear passengers with more leg room.
The Hyundai Elantra N is not the least expensive car on this list but is definitely an incredible bargain starting at just under $34,000. The N team has done what the M team did over at BMW so many years ago, although the N turned a run-of-the-mill sedan into a car that can blast through the quarter mile at 13.8 seconds and keep going until 155 MPH. Handling is equally impressive for this front-drive-only hot sport compact, adaptive dampers have a multitude of settings as does the steering and throttle sensitivity and even launch control. The hot Elantra has this almost magical ability to stick to the floor, perhaps it's the electronically controlled LSD that keeps grip as a priority as corners are digested like you would a straight line. The Elantra N's chassis is also stiff, much stiffer than the standard model, this helps driver feel and control when engaging in any spirited form of driving, but Hyundai also made sure that the car was livable even with settings to the active exhaust which make the exhaust note sound almost like an expensive Italian car.
The best bang for your buck may be the Hyundai Elantra N, but it's not without a few shortcomings that may make you swipe left, and first, it's the styling. The Elantra is fairly handsome for its segment, Hyundai's new design language makes their lineup look a bit more expensive than they are, however, the Elantra N may be unsightly for many with its ultra-aggressive exterior upgrades. The red line that runs through the bottom of the car is standard, and for those wanting to fly under the radar, you'll run into the same issue as other boy-racer cars like the old Civic Type R, it just sticks out. The interior is fine, most of the cars on this list share most of their components with their lower-level brethren, however, the seats in the Elantra N are very much loved and hated depending on the size, age, and weight of the person behind the wheel, but the general consensus is that they are too firm for long drives despite having great bolstering. Speaking of firm, the ride is firm and in some settings too stiff to enjoy the normal, daily-driver things you expect to do in a car at this price point, in a way it suffers the same issues as the M-branded cars Hyundai has emulated. Having the ability to adjust settings in a car like this is great, but sometimes too much of a good thing can turn things sour, in the case of the Elantra N you have settings for steering, launch control, throttle, exhaust, LSD, rev-matching, and a few others. The Elantra N is a really good car, and because of that it should feature the settings that make it the best at each level so owners can get on with their day, of course, someone is driving around now with every mode in the softest settings but with the active exhaust in race mode; perhaps that's just the time we live in and Hyundai is obliging. There will be no badge shaming here for driving a Hyundai, they have proven their pedigree in rally and touring car racing, along with delivering solid vehicles over the past couple of decades with decent reliability and great value, the N division is really pushing more established automakers to do better. Regardless of budget in this comparison, the Elantra N does most of what the other cars can do on this list, performance wise it may be lagging behind just a little bit, but its character in doing so make it a worthy contender, now if we can just find a way to color in that red stripe.
In 1995 Colin McRae piloted a perfectly tuned Subaru Impreza to win the World Rally Championship and knock out the reigning champion; Toyota. From Subaru's WRC efforts with the Legacy model prior came the Impreza, and with that the WRX or Word Rally eXperimental that would later spawn the extra spicy STI model. The rest is history as we know it for fans of fun vehicles in the United States, Subaru introduced the turbo, EJ-powered WRX in the early 2000's and brought a new era of fast, AWD, rally-bred vehicles to be sold in this market, like the Mitsubishi Evolution. Of course, as we now know, the Subaru WRX STI is no longer available, not here, there, or anywhere, Fuji Heavy seems to have finally pulled the plug on their rally-ready hot sedan and turned the notch down a bit to appeal to the masses. Not all is lost however, if you like to row your own gears, have a fun AWD car, and love a turbocharged flat-four; the WRX delivers 271 HP and 258 lb-ft of torque from its 2.4L which is plenty to get you into trouble. Styling is all new with off-road plastic cladding on the fenders and running down, and around the lower half of the car, it also shares a rear end with taillights that are reminiscent of the BRZ, and a front fascia that is a more upscale take on the last-gen WRX. Inside the WRX is comfortable, with seating for five, a mix of suede and cloth outlined with red stitching, and a new vertically mounted touchscreen for infotainment that is coupled with physical buttons for various inputs like HVAC.
One of the best qualities of the Subaru WRX is the price, starting at just $29, 605 for the base trim and rising up to $36,495 for the almost fully loaded Limited trim (retains the manual) this sedan is a bargain. Performance is in line with the segment as a 5.5-second dash to 60 eventually turns into a 13.9-second quarter mile at 101 MPH, not the fastest in a straight line on this list but it holds its own. The WRX does a good job at handling while maintaining a softness that's still acceptable for the streets, with AWD and a set of Dunlop Sport Maxx GT tires hugging its 19-inch wheels, it can tackle pretty much any corner with ease. The WRX has grown up and because of that it now appeals to more buyers who may want less noise inside the cabin which Subaru has accomplished, if the previous generation is a boy racer, this generation is a courteous scholar; well-versed but inoffensive.
It's honestly very difficult to compare the WRX to all of the other really good cars on this list, it falls short compared to everything else which is a shame considering that Subaru ditched the STI to move into the EV world while impressing stockholders. The WRX is a fine vehicle, it just might not be a competitor here in stock form, it is more suited to battling it out with the VW GTI as the Elantra N beats it in price when it comes to being loaded with features, and then trounces it when measuring performance. Subaru has gone too conservative except for styling when first revealed everyone panned the WRX's new styling but it seems to have grown with some for its rugged looks, while others have already purchased and installed body-colored cladding to make the car less...Outback-y. Trim levels for the WRX are a bit out of line with what people want from a performance do-it-all vehicle, the Limited is the best spec if you want a manual (trust me you don't want a CVT) but the GT has all of the features you'd want in a sports sedan albeit with a CVT auto, which is tragic. The GT gets Recaro seats, drive modes, and adaptive dampers but it raises the price just under $43,000 while being saddled with a CVT and an extra 160 or so pounds, did I not say tragic? Without an STI model to save it, Subaru fans are left with a car that revs 600 RPM less than the prior generation, is slower than the last generation, and has turbo lag that prevents you from making a fast exit in corners; it is the reasonable uncle on this list. The Mitsubishi Evolution had a similar fate on its way off of the market, it was bloated compared to the prior model, it was aimed at more grown-up buyers, had an engine fans were less confident with, and in the final model year stripped out its best features as a huge smack in the face to enthusiasts. Luckily, Subaru has not fallen that far and die-hard fans should continue to fiercely drum up interest for an STI successor, until then cars like the GR Corolla are giving those fans a warm place to sit and a true driver's experience behind the wheel.
When looking at this list you may have a winner already drawn up in your head, some people may say the winner is the owner of any of these vehicles as enthusiasts have kept the hot hatch/sedan segment alive with manual transmissions to boot. If we remove markups from the equation; for the price, Toyota knocks it out of the park with the GR Corolla. Reviewers have waxed poetic on how the GR Corolla is as sublime of a vehicular experience as one can attain at its price point, sure the Golf R and Civic Type R give it stiff competition in regards to performance, but they are more expensive and lose points on styling while the Toyota retains a subdued look. The hype is real with Gazoo Racing's effort in plucking the GR Yaris' drivetrain and stuffing it into the engine bay of the more useable Corolla chassis, it brings impressive numbers to back its sporting intention. While the Corolla may lack a variety of colors to choose from and has only a slightly upgraded interior from the standard model, it retains the promise of Toyota reliability along with reasonable fuel economy. Every car on this list is a good choice to have fun on the road, but the GR Corolla is the most special, perhaps because internal combustion engines are going to potentially be phased out which means it may be the only production run of this hot hatch.