If you spent your teenage years in the aughts, there was something tremendously appealing about sport compacts like the Subaru Impreza WRX. The bug-eyed, boxer-powered sedan (and wagon) wasn’t just affordable and practical—it was fast for its time. Personally, MotorTrend‘s early WRX stories blew me away because the car packed more horsepower per liter than the Porsche 911 Turbo of the era. The WRX was like the Pontiac GTO of the millennial generation. Following its entry into the American market were more high-power sport compacts from Mitsubishi, Volkswagen, Ford, Dodge, Chevrolet, and others.
Welcome to Now
Flash forward to 2022. Subaru has dropped the Impreza name, but the scene hasn’t changed much. The Subaru WRX is new for this year, entering its fifth generation, as are the Honda Civic Si and Volkswagen Golf GTI—both names also familiar to any enthusiast in the early aughts. And although some competitors, such as the infamous Mitsubishi Lancer Evo and Dodge SRT-4, are no longer with us, others stepped up in their places. The new Hyundai Elantra N entered the market this year, gamely picking up the performance mantle with a distinctly South Korean twist. All four of these cars can be had for about $33,000, depending on how judicious you are with the options list (or how much your dealer upcharges you these days).
So which sport compact is the best do-it-all performance car—the one that is the most fun to drive, most stylish, and easiest to live with while also presenting a killer value?
DNF: 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI
Volkswagen’s Golf GTI has long been among the benchmark hot hatches on the market, so we were just as surprised as you likely are to see it not finishing this comparison. Blame the continuing supply chain crunch.
Things begin promisingly for the VW. Now in its eighth generation, the new Golf GTI takes over where the beloved seventh-gen model left off, riding on a revised platform with a reworked suspension, plus carrying upgraded braking hardware and software. The carryover 2.0-liter turbo I-4 engine received some love, too, now producing 242 hp and 263 lb-ft of torque, running through a six-speed manual and a limited-slip differential to drive the front wheels. If you’re averse to rowing your own gears, you can choose an exceptionally good seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.
Unfortunately, another media outlet drove the car we tested before VW sent it our way—and promptly did a number on its clutch and tires. Volkswagen was able to repair the Golf GTI’s manual transmission for us in time, but it was unable to source another set of the stock Pirelli P Zero ultra-high performance all-season tires. Instead, the car had to make do with Continental ProContact TX grand-touring all-seasons, a tire model found commonly on sedans like VW’s Passat. Because of timing, we were unable to reschedule our testing to wait for a GTI on proper tires. [After publication, Volkswagen reached out to confirm the base GTI tested here comes on all-season tires, albeit a different model than what was fitted to our test car. Performance tires are available via the dealer, and are standard on higher trims; to see how the GTI performs on that rubber, see our test of the manual version here and the dual-clutch automatic here, and its comparison-test victory over the Subaru BRZ here.—Ed. ]
The downgraded rubber did the GTI no favors in this tough crowd; it regularly exhibited axle hop under hard acceleration, more noise than grip in corners, and sluggish steering reactions. “This is the only car in this group that makes me feel like I’m driving 9/10ths all the time—largely thanks to the near-constant squeal of these tires,” senior editor Aaron Gold said.
Despite the Golf showing up to the dance in boots, some of the car’s inherent goodness still shone through. We appreciated the stout 2.0-liter turbo-four’s meaty torque curve and engaging exhaust note, and we liked the ability to customize our drive-mode settings (even if the user experience leaves lots to be desired). We also didn’t mind the manual transmission’s ropey shift action, though the wide pedal spacing and “suggested” gear reminder when in Sport mode were both annoying. No, we don’t want to shift from second to sixth at 40 mph on a canyon road, thank you very much.
Although we generally like the rest of the Golf package, it isn’t enough to get us to look past its weaknesses. The largest is its infotainment suite. Aside from the annoying gear suggestions, the touch-heavy interface is fussy at best when stationary and distracting while moving. The steering wheel’s touch-sensitive buttons were a particularly poor choice, considering how frequently we accidentally activated the heated wheel function or changed the sound system’s volume while driving. And although the GTI claws back some ground with its wallet-friendly $30,975 sticker price, 28-mpg combined EPA score, and test-best cargo volume, this Golf’s flaws would have been difficult to ignore even on appropriate tires. Still, we couldn’t in good faith rank it among its peers in this showdown.
4th Place: 2022 Toyota GR86
In our fleet of fast four-doors here, the GR86 coupe is the outlier. “It really stands out in this group: two doors, zero turbochargers, an automatic, and rear-wheel drive,” features editor Scott Evans said. “And every one of those matters.”
Essentially a slightly more unhinged Subaru BRZ with a Toyota badge and a GR Supra spoiler, the GR86 is a back-to-basics driver’s car powered by a naturally aspirated version of the WRX’s 2.4-liter flat-four. The new GR86 lives and dies by the mantra that it’s better to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. Its 228 hp and 184 lb-ft aren’t particularly impressive figures, but its 7,500-rpm redline (the highest in the group) and 12.6 pounds per horsepower (tied with the WRX for second best) hint at the fun available here.
The GR86 is most enjoyable with its standard six-speed manual transmission, but there seems to be an epidemic of motoring journalists who lack the wisdom to know what they don’t know. Much like what happened with VW’s GTI, Toyota’s manual GR86 needed transmission work by the time our loan with it began. In this case, however, the car wasn’t repairable in time for our testing, which meant Toyota had to send us an 86 equipped with the optional six-speed automatic. It arrived on the proper tires, at least, so we felt comfortable making an official evaluation.
Compared to its turbocharged compact competition, the GR86 presented an altogether different driving experience. Despite popular notions of the car being the vehicle of choice for tail-happy shenanigans, the Subaru-built Toyota is surprisingly well-behaved, with talkative steering and exceptional chassis and suspension tuning that always lets the driver know just how much grip is left. “You can usually push limits in this car without feeling unsafe or like you’re on a knife’s edge,” associate online editor Duncan Brady said. “This is the car that could help me grow the most as a driver, especially on track or driving autocross.”
Its naturally aspirated flat-four lacks some horses but makes up for it with character. You have the high revs, for starters, and it really scoots as it nears redline, too. Unfortunately, the six-speed auto version Toyota was forced to send us cut the legs out from under the engine. The transmission, which was cutting edge back in 2005 when it made its debut in the Lexus IS, is geared far too tall for the Toyota’s Subaru engine, and it tends to upshift early and downshift late when left to its own devices. Similarly, it’s often unresponsive when you finally resort to using the shift paddles.
For further frustration, the software denies downshifts until the revs naturally fall to about 4,100 rpm, putting the engine in a powerband no man’s land that exists until 6,000 rpm. We appreciate how Toyota hustled to get us this car after a journalist broke the stick-shift version, but please trust us when we say you’re easily better off purchasing the manual.
The rest of the Toyota experience comes with compromises. Sure, its sheetmetal is killer (particularly the little duckbill spoiler that you catch glimpses of in the rearview mirror), but the GR86’s interior is dreary compared to the other cars here. Ignoring the loud cabin, tinny stereo, and tight back seat (which, as an aside, at least folds flat to help accommodate a full set of extra tires), the cabin doesn’t feel particularly well-designed or well-built. There isn’t much storage for day-to-day items like your phone or keys up front, and hard plastics covering the center console tunnel and top mean the driver’s right knee and elbow are bruised easily, especially during hard driving. We’re usually more than happy to accept the compromises of daily-driving a two-door rear-drive sports car, but maybe just not for this one.
3rd Place: 2022 Subaru WRX
Four generations separate the new WRX with its original U.S.-market predecessor, but it feels cut from the same rally-inspired cloth. Longer, lower, stiffer, and wider than the version it replaces, the new WRX features a larger 2.4-liter turbocharged flat-four producing 271 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque (up 2 horses from the 2021 model), a six-speed manual (a CVT is optional; we haven’t driven it yet, but it’s probably worth skipping), and all-wheel drive with a 50/50 front/rear torque split. The new WRX also features a revised suspension setup with more ground clearance and roll control than before.
“Confidence-inspiring” has traditionally been used to describe Subaru’s WRX, but judges were mixed on the new one. After the previous-generation WRX’s dabble with road-focused performance, the new model is a return to form for Subaru, with an emphasis on all-weather, all-condition performance. “The WRX manages to feel like the original from 20 years ago, evolved to today,” executive editor Mac Morrison said. “The feel of everything from the steering to the clutch and shifter to the brakes and engine is very familiar to those of us who spent a lot of time with the original.”
Like the original WRX, the new one thrives when driven aggressively. The laggy turbo four-cylinder comes on hard at 4,000 rpm, and it rewards you for working the transmission to keep the engine in its narrow 2,000-rpm powerband with a throaty thrum and strong shove into your seat back. The new WRX also rides and grips similarly to the old ones, with a compliant but firm ride, an informative amount of body roll through bends, and near-endless all-wheel-drive traction. And although we appreciate the customizability offered by some of the other cars in our test, we found the Subaru’s complete lack of drive modes to be a refreshing throwback to a simpler era.
Despite the WRX’s positives, we were mixed when it came to its steering feel and brakes. “I had to slow my hands down for this one,” Evans said. “The steering is quick and needs small inputs, or else the car feels darty,” said Evans. Brady likened it to a sim-racing wheel without force feedback. Gold was among those who enjoyed it: “Once I got used to it, I really did like the steering. It makes it easy to keep light fingers on the wheel and feel the feedback from the road.”
We all agreed an armrest for the driver’s right elbow would likely help those with heavier hands tame the Subaru somewhat. A few drivers also wanted more initial bite from the brakes, arguing they were “squishy” in initial application, though others found the brake pedal easy to modulate with plenty of stopping power.
We were mixed on the rest of the package, too. Although cheaper versions exist, our test car’s $36,990 price tag was the highest in this group, and its EPA rating of 22 mpg combined was the lowest. Our drivers were fond of the SUV-like seating position and supportive buckets, but the rear seats and trunk aren’t quite as generous as the other two sedans in this group.
We also aren’t fans of Subaru’s tablet-sized infotainment setup. It’s not quite as bad as Volkswagen’s system (at least this one has a couple knobs and buttons), but the screen is laggy and difficult to use while driving, and it looks dated, too. Unlike the Toyota and VW, the WRX was in the running for the top spots, but as good overall as the Subaru is, two other cars are simply more compelling.
2nd Place: 2022 Honda Civic Si
The Civic Si has never been one for the horsepower war, as that’s the Civic Type R’s job, but the car has always faithfully lived up to the segment’s ethos by being practical and fun to drive. The new-for-2022 Civic Si sports the same modest 1.5-liter turbo I-4 as pedestrian Civics, but it gets a power bump, a six-speed manual (the only transmission choice), and a limited-slip differential at the front wheels. The Civic Si aims to make up for any power gap with a stiffer chassis and suspension tuning (the latter with fixed-rate dampers), plus larger brakes than the previous Si.
The Civic Si doesn’t post particularly memorable numbers at the test track, but it absolutely comes alive where it matters. On the road its composed chassis, well-damped suspension, and talkative steering are absolutely sublime; they feel organic and inspire great confidence. You can take the Honda to its limit—not difficult to do with just 200 horses and 192 lb-ft on tap—and enjoy a rush as the car flows from corner to corner. “Put it in Sport mode, turn off traction control, and you can make this car turn really well,” Morrison said. “I was easily hanging onto an Alfa Romeo Giulia with no problem, laughing a bit as I imagined the Alfa driver looking in the mirror and wondering why he couldn’t shake a Civic.”
If there’s any room for improvement, it’s unsurprisingly found under the hood. We unanimously deemed the Civic to have the best-feeling manual shifter of the lot, yet we all wanted more from the engine. Sure, it’s quick to rev and makes all the proper angry four-cylinder noises, but the little four-pot tends to hang revs on upshifts and could do with just a smidgen more horsepower so it doesn’t feel so one-note. “Without much performance from this engine, I could imagine feeling as if I had outgrown it within a year of ownership,” Brady said.
Nonetheless, the Civic Si is an exceptionally easy car to live with. The cabin is spacious and comfortable, and it seems built far better than its $29,190 sticker suggests. Fit and finish are top notch, and all the switchgear and touchpoints have a quality feel to them; it’s the only car here without any obvious-to-the-eye cost-cutting. The Civic is efficient, too, netting a test-best 31-mpg combined rating.
1st Place: 2022 Hyundai Elantra N
The Elantra N is an all-new model, but it’s already put in quite a showing in its first go against the competition. Building on where the recently discontinued Veloster N left off, the Elantra N is a take-no-prisoners approach to the segment.
The boy-racer styling is augmented by a stiffer chassis (helped in part by a mini-cage of sorts in the trunk), grippy rubber, and a high level of driver adjustability to the N’s suspension, steering, throttle, and more—the latter is usually a pipedream at this price point. It’s potent, too; the Elantra N we tested sports a 2.0-liter turbo I-4 putting out a test-best 276 hp and 289 lb-ft. It puts the power to the front wheels through a six-speed manual and limited-slip diff. (An eight-speed twin-clutch auto is also available.)
Unlike with the Civic Si, we can’t imagine outgrowing the Elantra N. “Wow, this thing is a lot more intense than the Civic Si,” Gold said. “While the Civic feels relatively mature, the Elantra N is so fast, frenzied, and almost a little frightening.”
Before you even drive it, the Elantra’s styling sets the expectation that the compact sedan is a serious performance car, and it more than delivers. The incredible level of adjustability allows each driver to find their personal goldilocks setting of suspension stiffness, steering weight, throttle response, traction control, and differential aggressiveness, making it as docile or as frenetic as you desire.
Once dialed in to your liking—admittedly a process, especially for those with options paralysis—the Hyundai is just as confidence-inspiring as the Honda. The Elantra N has a penchant for uncorking just the right amount of performance its pilot can handle. Greener drivers will enjoy its planted feel, its quick turn-in, and the way you can use the limited-slip diff to yank the car out of a corner, while experienced aces will love its composed chassis, which allows you to slide its rear into corners and pivot quickly toward the next straight. “The cornering speeds you can carry with this car are nuts,” Evans said. “The grip and the compliance let it sail through rough corners like a German sport sedan.” Morrison was likewise impressed: “I almost couldn’t believe it when I discovered I could rotate this car into a corner entry using the brakes.”
Aside from the class-above performance goodies, you get a lot for your hard-earned $33,645 in the Hyundai, too. Granted, its interior isn’t quite as fun to look at as the exterior, but the Elantra N makes up for it with its segment-leading infotainment package. The snappy touchscreen not only lets you customize drive modes and program the steering wheel’s “N” button but also offers fun features like lap timers and g meters (plus a white noise machine, if you’re into that kinda thing). Furthermore, the Elantra is comfortable. Whether you’re caning it on a good back road or commuting to the office (or wherever you go these days), the front seats are all-day comfortable, and the back seats are adult-friendly. The interior receives its biggest demerit for some lesser-quality materials hidden below your beltline, and for the fact the cage limits the utility of the rear seats when folded.
Even with those minor flaws, the Elantra N punches way above its weight. As much as we applaud the Civic Si, our winner delivered much of the Honda’s purity plus even more hair-raising passion. It’s not just a compelling sport sedan—it’s one that, like the original WRX, thrusts the class forward and fully resets expectations of what a do-it-all performance car should be.
DNF: 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI S
- Hatchback body style is immensely practical
- Great engine
- Relatively affordable
- Showed up on the wrong tires
- Awful infotainment suite
- Touch-sensitive buttons
VERDICT: A former favorite let down by bad tech and tires so poorly suited for performance we couldn’t in good faith rank it.
4th Place: 2022 Toyota GR86 Premium
- More fun than its power output suggests
- Exceptionally well-balanced chassis
- Killer looks
- Automatic transmission needs to be sportier
- Drab interior compared to the competition
- Loud cabin
VERDICT: A manual transmission would have helped the Toyota’s chances, but there are some serious compromises inside the cabin.
3rd Place: 2022 Subaru WRX Limited
- Standard AWD
- Feels like a modern interpretation of the original
- Comfortable ride
- Laggy revs, narrow powerband
- Quick steering isn’t for everyone
- Inefficient for the class
VERDICT: A faithful reinterpretation of the original WRX, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
2nd Place: 2022 Honda Civic Si
- Best-feeling manual in this group
- An exceptionally pure driver’s car
- Most affordable
- Needs more power
- Engine doesn’t have as much character as the rest of the car
- You’ll always wonder if you should’ve bought the Type R
VERDICT: A few ponies shy of true greatness.
1st Place: 2022 Hyundai Elantra N
- Scary quick, in a good way
- Massively adjustable
- Great bang for your buck
- Bracing in trunk prevents rear seats from folding
- Number of settings may overwhelm some users
- Average interior quality
VERDICT: Both novices and experienced drivers will find lots to enjoy about this affordable and incredibly engaging performance car.
|POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS||2022 Honda Civic Si Specifications||2022 Hyundai Elantra N (6M) Specifications||2022 Subaru WRX Specifications||2022 Toyota GR 86 (Premium 6A) Specifications||2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI (S 6M) Specifications|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD||Front-engine, FWD||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, RWD||Front-engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbo direct-injected DOHC 16-valve I-4, alum block/head||Turbo direct-injected DOHC 16-valve I-4, alum block/head||Turbo direct-injected DOHC 16-valve flat-4, alum block/heads||Port- and direct-injected DOHC 16-valve flat-4, alum block/heads||Turbo direct-injected DOHC 16-valve I-4, iron block/alum head|
|DISPLACEMENT||1,498 cc/91.4 cu in||1,998 cc/121.9 cu in||2,387 cc/145.7 cu in||2,387 cc/145.7 cu in||1,984 cc/121.1 cu in|
|POWER (SAE NET)||200 hp @ 6,000 rpm||276 hp @ 5,500 rpm||271 hp @ 5,600 rpm||228 hp @ 7,000 rpm||241 hp @ 6,500 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||192 lb-ft @ 1,800 rpm||289 lb-ft @ 2,100 rpm||258 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm||184 lb-ft @ 3,700 rpm||273 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,500 rpm||6,750 rpm||6,000 rpm||7,600 rpm||6,500 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||14.9 lb/hp||11.6 lb/hp||12.6 lb/hp||12.6 lb/hp||12.8 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual||6-speed manual||6-speed manual||6-speed automatic||6-speed manual|
|AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO||4.35:1/2.98:1||4.15:1 (1, 2, R), 3.18:1 (3-6,)/2.71:1||4.11:1/2.74:1||3.90:1/2.27:1||3:45:1 (1-4), 2.76:1 (5, 6, R)/2.51:1|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||12.3-in vented disc; 11.1-in disc||14.2-in vented disc; 12.4-in vented disc||12.4-in vented disc; 11.4-in vented disc||11.6-in vented disc; 11.4-in vented disc||13.4-in vented disc; 12.2-in vented disc|
|WHEELS||8.0 x 18-in cast aluminum||8.0 x 19-in cast aluminum||8.5 x 18-in cast aluminum||7.5 x 18-in cast aluminum||8.0 x 19-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||235/40R18 95Y Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 2||245/35R19 93Y Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S HN||245/40R18 97Y Dunlop SP Sport Maxx 600A||215/40R18 85Y Michelin Pilot Sport 4||225/40R18 92H Continental ProContact TX (M+S)|
|WHEELBASE||107.7 in||107.1 in||105.2 in||101.4 in||103.6 in|
|TRACK, F/R||60.5/61.7 in||62.4/62.2 in||61.4/61.8 in||59.8/61.0 in||60.4/59.6 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||184.0 x 70.9 x 55.5 in||184.1 x 71.9 x 55.7 in||183.8 x 71.9 x 57.8 in||167.9 x 69.9 x 51.6 in||168.8 x 70.4 x 57.6 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||38.1 ft||38.4 ft||36.7 ft||35.4 ft||35.8 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT (DIST F/R)||2,981 lb (59/41%)||3,208 lb (63/37%)||3,412 lb (60/40%)||2,871 lb (56/44%)||3,082 lb (62/38%)|
|HEADROOM, F/R||37.6/37.1 in||39.9/37.3 in||38.8/36.7 in||37.0/33.5 in||38.5/38.1 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.3/37.4 in||42.3/38.0 in||43.1/36.5 in||41.5/29.9 in||41.2/35.0 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||57.0/56.0 in||56.5/55.6 in||56.7/55.6 in||53.6/51.7 in||55.9/53.9 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||14.1 cu ft||14.2 cu ft||12.5 cu ft||6.3 cu ft||19.9 (34.5, seats folded) cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.3 sec||2.2 sec||1.7 sec||2.6 sec||2.4 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.7||2.9||3.1||3.0||2.4|
|QUARTER MILE||15.3 sec @ 92.8 mph||14.4 sec @ 100.1 mph||14.3 sec @ 97.8 mph||15.0 sec @ 96.2 mph||14.8 sec @ 96.5 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||110 ft||110 ft||113 ft||107 ft||124 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.93 g (avg)||1.00 g (avg)||0.94 g (avg)||1.00 g (avg)||0.85 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||26.3 sec @ 0.67 g (avg)||25.0 sec @ 0.74 g (avg)||25.0 sec @ 0.74 g (avg)||24.8 sec @ 0.76 g (avg)||26.5 sec @ 0.66 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||2,500 rpm||2,100 rpm||2,200 rpm||1,900 rpm||2,000 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$29,190||$33,645||$37,490||$33,320||$30,975|
|AIRBAGS||10: Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, front knee||6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||7: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee||7: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee||6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||6 yrs/72,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||10 yrs/100,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||6 yrs/72,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||3 yrs/36,000 miles||5 yrs/Unlimited miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||12.4 gal||12.4 gal||16.6 gal||13.2 gal||13.2 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||27/37/31 mpg||22/31/25 mpg||19/26/22 mpg||21/31/25 mpg||24/34/28 mpg|
|EPA RANGE, COMB||384 miles||310 miles||365 miles||310 miles||370 miles|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium||Unleaded regular|