From the April 2022 issue of Car and Driver.
Decades ago, meals looked very different. People would scarf down something called creamed chipped beef, then, without missing a beat, mix canned tuna with Jell-O to create a tuna mold. Considered creative in their time, these dishes would be made today only to test gag reflexes. Time has changed our roads, too, and cars have always been subjected to the same sort of daring experimentation and fashion (which explains the rise and fall of the AMC Pacer and the Chrysler PT Cruiser).
Extolling the virtues of hotted-up economy cars fitted with manual transmissions to nonenthusiasts can feel like trying to encourage someone to taste the chipped beef. No matter how hard we try, many folks will never even consider driving these cars.
Compact sports sedans are so much fun, we plead. Just try the six-speed manual—you’ll love it. You’ll be able to corner harder than you ever have before. “Uh, no thanks,” they’ll demur as they politely step back. Sure, it’s their loss, but every time we fail, another dull, CVT-equipped crossover leaves a dealership.
The three sports sedans we’ve gathered for this sampler platter are for daring palates. The Honda Civic Si, the Hyundai Elantra N, and the Volkswagen Jetta GLI all are spicy versions of otherwise perfectly sensible transportation. Replete with flavor and fun that might be too much for some buyers, each follows a slightly different recipe. But they share the same key ingredients: a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, front-wheel drive, four doors, three pedals, and six speeds.
Merely knowing they exist is a litmus test for car enthusiasm. To write a check for one is to understand that for about $30,000 you can own a car that handles and performs at a level far beyond the workaday norm. To find our favorite, we turned to the roads that traverse the San Gabriel Mountains in California, where we ate up corners, worked shifters, and generally savored the things these cars do well while recognizing that driving them this hard would make most people sick. In the end, we found the one we’d order.
2022 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
Highs: Willing and happy engine, secure handling, civilized ride.
Lows: All-season tires, long-throw shifter, seats lack lateral support.
Verdict: Someone traded sportiness for refinement and features.
A segment forefather, a 2020 and 2021 10Best winner, and the victor in this segment’s last comparison test, the Jetta GLI continues to be what it’s been since 1983: a GTI with a trunk. The refreshed GLI enters 2022 with new bumpers and a redesigned grille, but other changes are less savory. The GLI now comes only in loaded Autobahn trim that sees its base price rise from $27,340 to $31,990, and summer performance tires are off the menu. We probably don’t have to tell you about the importance of tires or that a call to Tire Rack will correct the situation, but we will anyway. The wrong tires can ruin the mood faster than serving ham-and-bananas hollandaise on a dinner date.
Tires affect every part of the experience and ding the GLI’s objective performance numbers. Compared with a 2020 GLI wearing summer sneakers, skidpad grip falls from 0.91 g to 0.86, and it takes 12 more feet to stop from 70 mph and 30 more feet to stop from 100 mph. Despite the relatively low-grip rubber, the GLI retains its secure sense of control and will still put on a canyon-road clinic if pressed. It’s a squeal-filled lesson, but finding and using all the grip is accessible and easy.
Next to the other two, the GLI behaves like a larger car. Perhaps it’s the giant (and heavy) sunroof that’s now standard or the slightly softer suspension tuning. The benefit is a quieter and better ride and a comfortable rear seat that’s roomier than its measurements would indicate. The luxury car of the group, the GLI comes with heated and ventilated power front seats, leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control, adaptive cruise control, and a punchy Beats audio system. Interior quality is still a sticking point, but unlike the new GTI, the GLI has a volume knob, and it retains the old GTI’s superb steering wheel.
Volkswagen’s terrific turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four is the 228-hp version from last year’s GTI. It’s willing and free revving. Boost arrives quickly, and provided you don’t have the engine’s sound settings in immature modes, the four’s machinations remain at arm’s length. Step into the Jetta after driving the Civic, and the VW’s shift throws can feel long and disconnected; one driver likened them to something you’d expect in a Setra bus. Still, we didn’t miss any shifts, and the gearbox will swallow fast shifts without hiccups.
In addition to the summer rubber, the other bit of GTI missing in the GLI are the hatchback’s seats. GLI chairs come from the Jetta SEL Premium, and they lack the lateral bolstering found in the Honda and the Hyundai. Few things tell you more about how seriously a car takes performance than its tires and seats.
2022 Honda Civic Si
Highs: Grips and handles like a sports car, never having to brake for corners, the joy of shifting it.
Lows: Engine needs more kick, brakes go soft if worked hard.
Verdict: Honda nails the value and handling parts, but a sweet gearbox can’t make up for a bland engine.
Seeing a new Civic Si on the road reveals a lot about the driver. First, they can drive a manual—every new Si has a do-it-yourself gearbox. Start talking about automatics in front of a Honda salesperson and they’ll usher you over to a Civic Sport, with less power and without the Si’s firm suspension. Your loss. Summer tires—you want the Summer tires—add $200 to the Civic Si’s $28,315 base price. Our test car arrived dressed in $395 Blazing Orange Pearl paint, which glows like a carrot-filled aspic.
Redesigned last year, the new Civic is a solid little citizen that won’t jiggle like gelatin. In this car, however, horsepower is down by five since the last Si. The 200-hp turbocharged 1.5-liter is the least powerful in this group, and 60 mph comes up in a slowest-in-test 6.7 seconds. Stirring the six-speed manual, though, is a delight despite the shifter being a couple inches farther forward than you’d expect. The engine is smooth and will growl at high rpm, but it hangs on to revs and lacks the punchy character and liveliness of the fours in the Hyundai and the VW. It feels essentially like what it is: a regular Civic’s engine with 20 extra horsepower.
Honda makes up for the engine-room deficiency with a secure, lively, and playful chassis that is a joy all the way up to the 0.97-g limit. The firm ride is an entirely acceptable trade-off for the thrilling handling. Deft and light, the Si sneaks in under 3000 pounds. While the Civic is a tenth of an inch wider than the Jetta, tight roll control and effortless, natural directional changes make it seem a foot narrower. The steering could be more informative, but if your goal is to maintain a speed and never brake for corners, the Si is a great friend. Brake hard and often, as we do in our testing, and the heat will trigger a brake warning light and a soggy pedal.
Take some time to cool the brakes and you’ll notice a fuss-free instrument panel with clear digital gauges that mimic analog dials. The large touchscreen protruding from the dashboard responds quickly. Honda thoughtfully includes a volume knob, so life is good. The front seats have excellent lateral support, although one of our testers complained of glute soreness after only an hour or so. Rear-seat space felt a little tighter than in the other two, but it’s plenty comfortable in back for two adults.
If value and handling hold primary appeal, the Civic Si is a great choice. If you’re looking for a bit more firepower, the other two sedans are worth the spend.
2022 Hyundai Elantra N
Highs: Class-leading acceleration and handling, most fun to drive, hold-me-tight seats.
Lows: Endless settings, occasional ride harshness.
Verdict: The letter N elevates the Elantra to the sports-sedan A-list.
The name Elantra N might sound like pimento loaf to some buyers, but to us it describes a tasty blend that pairs sedan practicality with the outrageous and joyous flavors of Hyundai’s slightly crazy and deeply wonderful Veloster N. New for 2022, the Elantra N is the latest car from the Korean carmaker’s sporty N subbrand. It comes with a six-speed manual or a eight-speed dual-clutch automatic. Prices open at $32,945 for the manual version, to which we added Performance Blue paint for $400. The auto is a $1500 option, but consider the slick six-speed a must-have.
Driving the Hyundai banishes any thoughts that “Elantra sports sedan” is an oxymoron. From the moment you start the engine, it feels alive, eager, and confident. A 276-hp turbocharged four brilliantly puts the power down through the front tires, taking the Hyundai to 60 in 5.1 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 13.5 seconds at 105 mph. A firm (sometimes a bit too firm) suspension and an electronically controlled limited-slip differential make the most of the standard Hyundai-spec Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires. A look at the scoring reveals that Hyundai nearly ran the table on both objective and subjective performance scores, proving it’s not just a numbers car. Bend it into a few corners and by the third one you’re comfortable using all 0.99 g of grip. Every component works together to get you to go faster.
Like those in BMW’s M division, N engineers present the driver with a dizzying array of adjustability. Start with the engine volume—there are five settings for the Active Sound Design system and three exhaust modes. Even in the most extreme TCR mode (named after Hyundai’s TCR race car), the rumbles and zings sound authentic, even if it’s a computer blowing the kazoo. The snap-crackle-pops coming from the tailpipe are real, but we’d leave the exhaust in its tamest mode. The louder ones have all the subtlety of a kid with a snare drum.
Beyond the three suspension adjustments, there are also three for steering, engine response, rev matching, and stability control, plus two differential settings. And don’t forget about the adjustable rpm in launch-control mode.
At least you can’t screw things up too badly. Changes in engine response and rev matching are subtle. Moving up through the steering settings backs off the assist without affecting the quick rack’s steady feedback, so cycle through and find a favorite. Changing the diff’s setting has a greater impact on the steering, since the diff’s aggressiveness will tug at the wheel more as the car bites harder into corners. And it eats corners by the mouthful. Think the front tires are about to start sliding? Get on the power and the differential works to tighten your line.
All the fun comes with a spacious cabin, hold-me-tight seats, and a price only slightly higher than the others. This is a breakthrough car that will make people take the N brand seriously. It has the flavors we love and left us with a chipped-beef-eating grin.
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