Sport Compact & Hot Hatch Shootout: 2023 Toyota GR Corolla vs Honda Civic Type-R vs Hyundai Elantra N

hot hatch

For many decades, North American drivers had to choose large displacement and expensive entries to go fast. In the last decade, those entries have been slowly disappearing, as everything gets less affordable and electrified due to strict emissions. There weren’t many options for car enthusiasts, until a few years ago. Sport compacts and hot hatches are the last frontline for enthusiasts as you don’t have to use all of your retirement savings to obtain a fun car to drive every day.

Unlike Europe, the concept of the Sport compact, and the “hot-hatch” is new to the North American market, but it became very popular unexpectedly fast. The main point is to have an affordable everyday fun vehicle. It can be a grocery-getter, a commuter and a weekend warrior depending on which day you drive them. This week, we have the Honda Civic Type-R, Hyundai Elantra N, and Toyota GR Corolla – the most anticipated 3 entries in this segment to compare and see which one is a better fit for your lifestyle.

The Looks: Exterior and Interior

Even at first glance, the Hyundai Elantra N has the most polarized looks without a doubt, with a huge unpainted grille. It has quite aggressive looks in the front, but it is the only entry without fender flares or wider than a regular Elantra. The car has very sharp angles everywhere, and it is more of a love-or-hate relationship. Despite its controversial looks, the Elantra N has a more conservative stance in general. There are certain design features that make the Elantra N appealing, such as dual exhaust tips and a reasonably sized rear wing.

The GR Corolla is the latest addition in the hot-hatch segment, it is one of the most anticipated performance-oriented hatchbacks this year. Unlike the other GR models, the GR Corolla is the first performance-oriented Toyota without a joint partnership with any other manufacturer. It is developed in collaboration with the Toyota GAZOO Racing World Rally Championship (WRC) team, and even just looking at it, you will find a lot of “rally-oriented” design details.

The front fenders are wider, and the rear quarter panels have fender flares for a sportier look. Aside from the wider and lower stance compared to a regular Corolla hatchback, the GR Corolla has the most number of exhaust tips per cylinder in the automotive world. The triple exhaust tips are the most controversial design feature in the back.

The new Honda Civic Type-R is proof that Honda listens to its customers. One of the biggest problems with the previous generation was the design language, as there were lots of sharp lines, fake vents, and unpainted plastic surfaces that made the car look like an anime character, which was not aesthetically pleasing to look at. Thankfully they fixed all of it with the latest generation Type-R.

The new Type-R is the biggest entry not just in this comparison, but in the whole compact segment. With its wider front and rear fenders, it looks extremely aggressive, yet subtle enough to drive anywhere unlike the previous gen. In fact, it is the most conservative of this comparison when it comes to the overall design language. That said, it has functional air vents for extra cooling for the engine and front brakes, and just like the GR Corolla, the Type-R also comes with triple exhaust tips located in the center of the rear bumper.

Technically, the Civic Type-R is advertised as a hatchback, but it is a liftback design that has its own advantages and disadvantages. The rear windshield is a part of the trunk, meaning that you have a much bigger opening to place larger items. The GR Corolla is the true definition of hatchback, even though it is the smallest entry, you can simply fold down the rear seats and have much more usable cargo space for larger items. On the other hand, the Elantra N only comes as a sedan and you can fold down the rear seats for extra cargo space, but the rear strut bar located right behind the rear seats is fixed, which means you can’t place tall items unless you remove it.

All entries in this comparison have rear doors, that’s the whole point of having a sport compact and a hatchback, as they prioritize a balance of performance and practicality. The Civic is the class-leading when it comes to rear legroom, as it is the biggest compact hatchback available today. It is followed by the Elantra and the Corolla. The biggest problem with the Civic Type-R is that it is a 4-seater, so you can’t use the middle row, unlike the others. Also due to the sloping roofline, the GR Corolla and Elantra offer slightly better headroom for tall adults.

Regardless of which one you choose, they look very similar to the base trims, but also they feel special in different ways. The Type-R has the most usable dashboard with a lot of buttons and physical controls, and it feels the most upscale in this comparison. Just like any Type-R built before, it comes with a special plate showing the production number. The seats are very well bolstered and keep the driver in place, but personally, I found the amount of “red” is too much everywhere in the interior. So you need to decide yourself if it looks tacky, or sporty.

Unlike the Type-R, the other two entries have a much more subtle approach when it comes to colour choice. Just like the exterior, the GR Corolla feels small behind the steering wheel, and it has the most monochromatic interior design. It offers the most analogue experience in a simplified fashion. For some reason, the GR Corolla did not have an armrest, and it is the least practical choice when it comes to the storage options in the front seat. The GR Corolla’s front seats are the most comfortable with a decent amount of side bolstering.

The controversial exterior design features of the Elantra N continue in the interior as it provides an extra grab handle for the front seat passenger in case they need to hold it for their lives. However, it makes the interior feel less spacious than it actually is. Also, there are lots of buttons located on the dashboard which makes it look a little bit busier than the others. The performance-oriented “N” seats offer the most aggressive side bolstering and they were the least comfortable choice of the bunch. The Elantra N has the fanciest steering wheel with a few more extra buttons for different driving settings and performance modes.

It doesn’t matter which one you want to drive, all entries come with digital gauge clusters that can be customized based on your driving style. All of them offer different screens for sportier driving mode, which allows you to see several different crucial information when you need them the most. None offer good rear-view camera resolution, but they will get the job done. The Elantra offers the biggest screen for both digital cluster and infotainment screen, but it is also the only one that does not have wireless smartphone integration.

The Drive

As expected from a hot hatch, and a sport compact sedan, all entries have horizontally placed turbocharged engines. All options offer a similar number of horsepower and torque figures, but the way that they deliver is completely different. The Type-R offers the best horsepower and torque numbers, but it is also the easiest to drive mainly due to the low-end grunt and minimal turbo lag. It only comes with a stick shift and a standard limited-slip differential in the front for optimal traction.

In typical Honda fashion, the 6-speed manual transmission offers one of the best shifter and clutch feelings available, the gear ratios are quite short for better acceleration. The mechanical limited-slip differential works aggressively, you can turn the car with more throttle input. Thanks to its extremely wide 265/39R19 size tires, it offers extremely high grip levels and the car never feels overwhelmed no matter how fast you enter the corner. The suspension tune is updated with the new generation, and it is significantly firmer than the previous model. However, I found that it is still livable in comfort mode and you can put your family without any issues until you switch to a stiffer setting.

The Elantra N is the least powerful option available at 286 hp and 289 lb-ft of torque, but the spec sheet will not tell the whole story. The 2.0-litre engine is tuned in a more dramatic way, as it wants to stay at higher RPMs to have more roll-on power. It is the only option in this comparison that you can choose the 8-speed dual-clutch transmission, and it is an excellent match with the engine. It has a limited-slip differential just like the Type-R, but it is an electronically controlled LSD which can be adjusted based on the driving mode. The Elantra N gives you a lot of feedback at the limit, and it is confidence inspiring when driven in a spirited fashion. However, even in the softest setting, the suspension tune is the harshest when you are driving on broken pavement, potholes or any type of road imperfections.

The most unique option is the GR Corolla with its tiny 1.6 liter turbocharged 3-cylinder engine that generates 300 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque. The GR Corolla only comes with a 6-speed manual transmission, and standard all-wheel drive you can choose different settings to send more or less power to each axle. The lively character of the triple engine and the short-geared 6-speed manual transmission is a perfect recipe for fun.

The standard mode offers 60/40 power distribution, or you can choose 50/50 for the track, but if you want the rear end to be more playful, you can send up to 70% of the power to the rear wheels with the GR Corolla. Toyota isn’t the first one offering an adjustable all-wheel-drive system, as it’s also been offered by other Japanese manufacturers in the past, but they are all gone. It also comes standard with Torsen limited-slip front and rear differentials for better traction on any surface.

The suspension isn’t adjustable with the GR Corolla, and it is slightly softer than the competition. Although it is still firm enough to remind you this is a performance-oriented hatchback, you simply don’t have to worry about the road conditions to go fast. The GR Corolla offers a rewarding driving experience when you push the car on any surface, as it can handle road imperfections much better.

At the end of the day, the winner is us – the car enthusiasts. A decade ago, there were only one or two options available and none of them were as serious or capable as today’s hot hatches, or sport compacts. Today, we have lots of different choices as long as you are willing to pay the premium. All entries offer excellent performance, while still being good at being a daily driver. There is no bad choice in this comparison, as each entry has its own advantages and disadvantages.

3rd Place: Hyundai Elantra N

The Elantra N is the drama queen of this comparison, mainly due to its engine character and exhaust note. The car wants to be pushed hard constantly, which makes it hard to drive like a normal person when it’s driven daily. It’s also several thousand dollars cheaper than the competition, which makes it more appealing to enthusiasts with its excellent value proposition and the option to choose dual-clutch transmission. If you are only looking for the automatic transmission, there aren’t many options available other than the VW Golf GTI, and the Golf R.

Without a doubt, if you are looking for the best performance for the money, the Elantra N is the right choice for you. The suspension might be a little bit harsh even in comfort mode, and definitely the harshest especially in track mode. It also may not win any beauty contest inside and out, but it offers a nice blend of GR Corolla’s fun factor and Type-R’s performance with a large interior space.

2nd Place: Honda Civic Type-R

Honda is not new to this segment. In fact, they have been building hot hatches for several decades. The Type-R not only feels the most special in this comparison, but it gives you a “money is no object” feeling even before you start driving it. When you push the Type-R on twisties, it feels the most compliant, and the most serious about the driving experience. On top of that, it gives you the most amount of interior space and the most premium feeling in general. It is without a doubt the best daily driver.

However, having the best lap times doesn’t mean it’s the most fun. It is missing the one fundamental feature that makes hot hatches special. It might be a better track car that can punch above its weight, but you always have to push it to its limits in a perfect environment to have fun. When the environment is not perfect, the Type-R can’t overcome physics at lower gears, just like any front-wheel-drive car.

1st Place: Toyota GR Corolla

Hot hatches are meant to be affordable, accessible and fun. The fun factor has to win out, therefore our first choice would be the GR Corolla. Unlike the others, you don’t need to go fast to have fun, and that is what the enthusiasts’ were missing for so long. Thanks to its adjustable AWD system, you don’t have to find the perfect environment to be fast. Gravel, mud, wet, snow, broken pavement or just recently paved track, you can go flat-out everywhere without thinking twice.

There is no doubt that the GR Corolla has its own compromises, especially when it comes to interior quality and overall space as a daily driver, but the point is not to be perfect at everything. It is the only option that gives you the genuine tuner car and mechanical feeling from the 1990s and 2000s era. Back in time, we loved each of them with their flaws, simply because they were fun to drive anywhere, just like the GR Corolla.

Hyundai Elantra NHonda Civic Type-RToyota GR Corolla
Engine2.0-litre, turbocharged inline-42.0-litre, turbocharged inline-41.6-litre, turbocharged inline-3
Transmission8-speed dual-clutch automatic6-speed manual6-speed manual
Max power286 hp @ 6000 rpm315 hp @ 6500 rpm300 hp @ 6500 rpm
Max torque289 lb-ft @ 2100 rpm310 lb-ft @ 2600 rpm273 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm
0-100 km/h5.2 sec5.1 sec4.9 sec
Weight3230 lb – 1465 kg3183 lb – 1443 kg3269 lb – 1482 kg
Fuel Economy (as tested)21 MPG – 11.2L / 100km22 MPG – 10.7L / 100km21 MPG – 11.2L / 100km
Price (as tested)$42,055 CAD$50,050 CAD$48,604 CAD

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