Best Performance Car: Civic Type R Vs Elantra N Vs Golf R Vs GR Corolla

Mike Schlee
by Mike Schlee

Spoiled. That’s what we are. Flat-out spoiled. Just look at what we’ve gathered together for the latest Best Performance Car AutoGuide shootout brought to you by WeatherTech.

At our disposal is a Honda Civic Type R, Toyota GR Corolla, Volkswagen Golf R, and Hyundai Elantra N. All four vehicle are based on sensible compact commuters, but have incredible levels of power, performance, and thrills behind the wheel. Although they may all target the same mission, they’re actually quite different.

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Body style, cylinder count, and drivetrains differ from car to car. But more importantly, each car feels different to drive. Each has its own character and charm. We honestly could see ourselves owning any one of the following four cars. But this is an AutoGuide Shootout and a winner must be chosen. So we spent a week driving these high performance compacts back to back on city streets, the highway, and the track at Toronto Motorsports Park.

But our goal isn’t to see which sets the fastest lap times or has the quickest 0 to 60 mph time. We care more about how much fun these cars are to drive, and which we couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel of again. Read on to see which of the best performance car entries brought the biggest smile to our faces. Let us know if you agree or disagree with our rankings.

4th Place: 2023 Hyundai Elantra N

Words By: Mike Schlee

Something has to come in last place in our best performance car comparison, and unfortunately for Hyundai, it’s the Elantra N. But look at what it’s up against. Every other vehicle here is more powerful and more expensive. The fact the Elantra N hangs with this group, and does it well, is impressive in its own-right. Coming fourth here is nothing to be ashamed of.

Like the Golf and Civic, the Elantra uses a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder. It makes 276 hp which is the lowest in the test. But with 289 lb-ft of torque, it has more torque than the Golf R or the GR Corolla. In a straight line, it’s about as fast as the Volkswagen or the Toyota, probably in part because of the transmission. Our tester has the optional eight-speed dual clutch automatic instead of the standard six-speed manual. Would we have preferred the manual? Of course, but this eight-speed is still pretty good. The driver has full control of it through the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters and reacts quickly.

Only the Elantra N and Golf R have an automatic transmission choice which many enthusiasts will scoff at, but it helps makes the car more accessible to more people. The more sporty cars that are sold means the more sporty cars manufacturers will make, right?

Hear It Coming

Of course, we can’t talk about an N car and not mention its exhaust. Set to the most aggressive Sport+ mode, this is the loudest tailpipe here by a mile. No one is going to miss an Elantra N drive by when it’s in this setting. It’s obnoxious in town, but a lot of fun in a track environment. A proper performance car should be a snarly beast, and here, the Elantra succeeds in spades.

Strangely, the Elantra N, with an automatic transmission, is the only vehicle here without a soft rev limiter. At a standstill we can rev it right up to redline and hear all that glorious exhaust racket. For those that live within 5 miles of neighbours, the Elantra N does feature much quieter exhaust settings, and in the comfort mode it’s pretty subtle.

The Elantra is one of two front wheel drive cars here and the only sedan. It’s easily the largest car in our test, over 3-inches longer than the Civic and nearly a foot and a half longer than the Golf. Throw in wide 245/35R19 tires to that long wheelbase, and Elantra needs a lot of space to turn around. It easily has the worst turn radius.

Tail Happy FWD

But at speed, actual turn in is very quick and the firm steering provides good feedback. The chassis and suspension of the Elantra N are set up to compensate the cars’ front-wheel drive bias by eagerly rotating the rear end. Trail braking or lift off throttle cornering gets the back end of the car to step out, and quickly. This is the most tail happy vehicle here even though it’s front wheel drive. Being able to so easily wag the rear-end is a great tool for experienced track users, but it could catch some more novice drivers off guard. One last point on the suspension, it’s also set up real stiff. Even in comfort mode it’s still quite firm, much like the Civic.

Inside, the N is a bit of a mixed bag. It has the least comfortable front seats. They are well contoured and offer plenty of lateral support like the Type R, but they lack any sort of cushion. The back of the seat is like a hard board. We vote these seats as the worst for a long trip.

On the plus side, the Elantra has the best, easiest to use infotainment system. It also has the most hard buttons and controls. It makes changing a radio station or adjust the climate control a breeze. The rest of the interior feels premium, and we like the steering with all its various N buttons.

Final Thoughts

In our best performance car shootout, the Hyundai Elantra N comes off a bit rough around the edges. It feels a lot like a 7/8ths version of the Civic Type R. But the Hyundai only costs about 6/8ths of that Honda’s price. Being $10,000 cheaper is quite a bit and a strong persuader. For those that can’t quite afford the Civic Type R or Golf R, or who can’t justify the price the of those two cars, they’ll still be happy with the Elantra N. In this test though, it doesn’t quite thrill us like the next three.

3rd Place: 2023 Volkswagen Golf R

Words By: Jeff Wilson

My, how fleeting our attention spans are. Why, just last year the Volkswagen Golf R was the best performance car that everyone wanted. Heck, Volkswagen still hasn’t caught up on all the orders dealers have for these things, and yet here it’s all but forgotten while a three-cylinder Corolla and a be-winged Civic steal the lime light.

Popularity contests aside, the Golf R remains every bit as desirable today as it was a year ago for the same qualities it always possessed. While the other machines in the class might turn more heads of the pimply-faced teenager crowd, the Volkswagen is the grown-up hot-hatch choice.

The Mature Choice

It’s a handsome car, and like its earlier generations, there aren’t any garish scoops, gashes or wings to draw undue attention. It’s just a traditional, two-box shape sitting squat over its tasteful 19-inch wheels. Best of all, it should still look good a decade from now. Restrained, tasteful design never goes out of style, and aside from a few R badges and an extended roofline spoiler, there’s not much to differentiate it from any other semi-premium European hatchback.

Unfortunately, Volkswagen didn’t exercise the same restraint for its interior, instead going full-on with technology, touch panels and screens. The digital gauge display looks great and can be configured to show whatever a driver wants to prioritize. The 10-inch primary touch screen is easy to work with, too. But where the other cars still utilize simple dials and actual buttons, the Golf R has haptic sliders for temperature and volume that are tedious to use at the best of times, and downright distracting while driving.

Polished, But Lacking That Connection

On the upside, the rest of the VW’s interior is well done with leather seats that are heated and cooled, there’s tri-zone climate control, and the Harman/Kardon audio system delivers bold, full sound. Plus, the Golf’s boxy shape also means that despite being the shortest and narrowest car here, it offers usable interior space and a sizeable cargo hold.

So, it’s handsome, well-equipped and comfortable, why is the Golf R in third place? Quite simply, it’s just not as exciting to drive as the other cars in this test. While it may be the smallest, the Golf is also the heaviest by a couple hundred pounds, with the most compliant suspension, and brakes with the least bite. Compound that with steering that doesn’t offer the same razor-sharp feedback of the other cars, and you’re left with a smooth, capable, but not overly-passionate hatchback. Still, with 315 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque, the VW is properly capable of spirited performance on the track and out on the backroads, but even in its wildest “Nürburgring” drive mode, it’s restrained compared to the other cars in this test.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the Golf R is competent and capable, but it’s just not as engaging or as fun as the other cars here in this best performance car comparison. Its grown-up styling, practical interior space and plentiful amenities make it a great choice for an everyday driver. Our testers agreed this is the car they’d most likely own and the easiest to live with. But they’re both well into their mature years themselves. Plus, in our best performance car shootout, it’s all about fun, and the Golf R doesn’t put as big a smile on our faces today as those two newer entries.

2nd Place: 2023 Toyota GR Corolla

Words By: Mike Schlee

For those sad about the demise of road-going rally cars, like the Subaru WRX STI, the Toyota GR Corolla should be your next new car. The way the engine, shifter, and transmission feel reminds us so much of these cars, just a whole lot better. It also ticks off a lot of the hot hatch rally-car-inspired boxes with widebody work, a programmable centre differential, and a low-grade interior.

At the heart of the GR Corolla is a turbocharged three-cylinder that only measures 1.6-liter in size. Despite its diminutive stature, it still creates a massive 300 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. It’s a very rev happy engine that makes most of its power at the top end. Compared to the other cars, it takes the longest to dip into its powerband, but once there, it pulls as hard as anything else here that’s not called the Type R.

The engine produces a throaty burble out of the triple exhaust that is unique in sound. The clutch is light and easy to engage, with moderate travel. The six-speed manual transmission is very mechanical in feel and may not be as refined as the one in the Golf or Civic, but is very precise. There’s a meaty parking brake perfectly placed beside the driver just begging to be pulled for a slide around a dirt chicane.

Easy to Drive Fast

The GR Corolla is a small car. Besides having the tiniest engine with the least amount of cylinders, it’s the second smallest vehicle here, has the smallest wheels, and offers the least amount of headroom, legroom, or cargo capacity. But know what’s not small? The massive amounts of fun behind the wheel.

This is easily the most approachable car to drive at speed. There’s a minimal learning curve, and it does not require the finesse or precision needed to drive some of the other cars as quickly. We feel so confident driving it around the track, tossing it through the corners with ease. The small radius steering wheel and quick ratio steering only add the responsiveness and fun.

As mentioned, the all-wheel drive system is manually adjustable and splits power front to rear 60/40 in the default setting but can by switched to 30/70 for a more rear-wheel drive bias. There’s also track mode which gives a 50/50 split. These settings do overly simplify how complex, and great the system is. Just know in practice, it really works. There’s also torsen differentials front and rear to maximize traction in all conditions.

Hard to Live With

Everything about the way the GR Corolla drives is fantastic, but inside, it has the worst interior and as mentioned, the smallest livable space. The materials are low rent compared to the rest of the vehicles here and the design is as basic as it comes. It doesn’t look or feel like a nearly $40,000 car, especially the materials used on the doors.

That stated, the GR Corolla does have everything we need, even if some features we want are missing. There’s a customizable digital gauge cluster, buttons to control the drive modes and center differential, automatic climate control, a large infotainment screen, and all the usual active safety features. There’s even have heated seats, which would come in handy during winter-time shenanigans in the snow.

Final Thoughts

The GR Corolla’s small wheelbase, fantastic all-wheel drive system, and rev happy engine are a perfect combo for fun. We couldn’t wait to take our turn behind the wheel of this little hot hatch during our test week.

It’s easily the most irrational choice here though, being the most purpose-built, impractical, enthusiast special. It really is a modern take on a rally inspired road-car. Would it be the hardest to live with? Definitely. Would the GR Corolla be the most enjoyable to drive all year around in places that experience four full seasons. Without a doubt.

1st Place: 2023 Honda Civic Type-R

Words By: Jeff Wilson

Every once in a while, a new car comes along that surprises the heck out of us. As should be obvious from the words above, so far this year that car is the GR Corolla. We expected it to be good, but it proved to be more lively, engaging and fun than we had imagined.

Then we drove the Honda Civic Type-R, and it’s simply better.

It’s not just one aspect that sets this new Type-R apart from its rivals, it’s the whole package, how it’s put together and how it all works that makes it a revelation in the sporty compact segment. Honda had already proven with the last generation Type-R that it could blow people’s minds with what the brand could achieve from a front-wheel-drive platform, and now the manufacturer has gone and raised its performance even further.

Startling Quick

The 315-hp 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder matches the Golf R for best-in-class output, but its 310 lb-ft of torque tops all-comers by at least 20-30 foot-pounds. That it’s also the lightest car here makes it no surprise that it’s also the quickest. But we’re not talking numbers-on-a-page quicker, we’re talking about feeling it instantly in the seat of your pants, or seeing the speedometer flash bigger numbers on Toronto Motorsports Park’s straightaways.

With its lighter flywheel this year, the engine revs up freer and while it doesn’t have the fabricated pops and bangs of the obnoxious Elantra, it possesses a demonic wail that’s every bit as exciting to my ears.

As great as the engine is, it’s the gearbox that it’s connected to that really stands out. The gearing is perfectly matched to this engine so there are never any flat spots in the power delivery. The shifter moves from gate-to-gate with rifle-bolt accuracy, and the clutch is perfectly weighted and calibrated. We truly cannot think of a more joyful stick-shift on the market today.

Total Package With Caveats

The Type-R’s steering is utterly surgical, and after driving the other cars in this test on the track, it was the Honda that could consistently be placed exactly where a driver wanted it. The wide 265 mm tires provide incredible grip, making the Civic Type R corner faster than compact hatchback should. Amusingly, like the Elantra N, the Type-R’s suspension will allow some off-throttle tail antics, but only if a driver carries much more speed into a corner than they should.

The Type-R isn’t just about performance. Its interior, based on the spacious, comfortable and well-designed Honda Civic hatchback feels a step up on the Corolla’s cabin. The Honda’s seats are the most comfortable, yet also most supportive during cornering, and even the cargo area is generous.

As brilliant as it is, the Type-R isn’t perfect, though. Its ride is stiffest in this group, even with its adaptive suspension in Comfort mode. The limited-slip differential helps manage power on corner exits, but torque steer does still exist here and a careful throttle foot will mean less wrestling with the steering wheel. And lastly, while not quite as costly as the Volkswagen, it’s nearly as expensive, but offers precious few amenities. As a final nit-pick, not all of us are a fan of the over-sized wing bolted to the hatch. It ruins the otherwise seriously improved styling of the new Type-R.

Final Thoughts

Honda’s engineers have knocked this one out of the park. There’s a presence to the new Type-R, with its flared body work, wide wheels, and subtle scoops, that instantly connects with us. Add to that the fact it offers more performance, fun, and driver engagement than the other three cars in this test makes it our choice as the overall best performance car winner.

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Mike Schlee
Mike Schlee

A 20+ year industry veteran, Mike rejoins the AutoGuide team as the Managing Editor. He started his career at a young age working at dealerships, car rentals, and used car advertisers. He then found his true passion, automotive writing. After contributing to multiple websites for several years, he spent the next six years working at the head office of an automotive OEM, before returning back to the field he loves. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA). He's the recipient of a feature writing of the year award and multiple video of the year awards.

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2 of 6 comments
  • C Gorman C Gorman on Sep 20, 2023

    It's too bad Ford got out of the car business, and especially when they had fully embraced the "hot hatch market".

    In 2017 they owned it with Fiesta ST, Focus ST and Focus RS.

    I love my 2016 Ford Focus ST, a true driver's car. When I bought it, they hadn't started production on the RS yet, so had to settle with just a FWD barn burner.

    If I had to pick a replacement, I'd probably go with the Civic Type-R.

    The Volkswagen Golf has always been the "cool" looking boxy hot hatch, but always came up short with power and steering feel.

    I refuse to purchase a Hyundai after all the issues my brother-in-law had with his 2018 Elantra blowing up and not being able to get it fixed in 2020 or 2021, due to parts shortages.

  • Mike Mike on Dec 02, 2023

    While I love that the Elantra N is being put up against the likes of the Civic type R, VW Golf R and the Toyota Corolla GR, the cold hard truth here in Canada at least, is that the Elantra N is 15 to 25K cheaper that the rest of these cars.. A more fair comparison would be against the Civic SI, golf GTI, etc.. Cars in the same price range. On that front the Elantra N is a far better car for the money, and is heads and shoulds above the rest in it's price range.