- United States
Most days are spent shackled to a desk, but they are worth it for moments like these – driving on empty roads with the promise of a sunrise. The plan was to drive on a circuit of roads near Phoenix, which promised a dreamy journey of corners with two of the best performance compacts on sale today. However, snowflakes began to fall on the way to the starting point, causing some doubts about the plan. Despite the snowy weather, doubling back meant more time driving these two incredible vehicles.
The Toyota GR Corolla is a worked-over hatchback with a snorty three-pot turbo and rally-car go-fast tech. It plays like a throwback to legends long since passed, and Toyota will sell as many as they can make. On the other hand, Honda took a different approach with the Civic Type R, opting to preserve the old car's hyper-composed, forward-facing character while refining every angle and aspect of the vehicle.
This showdown was inevitable. The staff demanded it after being enamored by both vehicles during the 2023 Performance Car of the Year test. Two of the editors even put their own money down for these workaday warriors. A winner had to be chosen, so the editors headed back to the low ground to make their decision.
Upon hopping into the Civic Type R, the contrast with the GR Corolla was stark. The Civic's interior felt special with its red accents, well-rounded design, and high-quality execution, making it stand out as one of the best interiors on sale at any price. Overall, despite the snowy weather, the editors were able to enjoy some incredible driving experiences and come to a decision on which vehicle was the ultimate winner.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the interior of the Corolla compared to the Civic Type R, the Toyota falls short in every metric that stirs the soul. While the Corolla's bucket seats are sporty, they do not provide the same level of support as the Honda's, and their construction doesn't feel as carefully crafted. Apart from a few small items, such as the infotainment system, which is less attractive but easier to use, the Honda is the clear winner in this department. However, it's important to note that the competition between the two cars is not a total knockout.
The GR Corolla from Toyota offers sharp and well-calibrated inputs for its steering, shifting, and pedals. Nevertheless, the Honda is just slightly better in every aspect of usage: more precise, better weighted, and easier to master. This is not to say that the Corolla is a bad car; such a statement would be excessively critical. The pedals on the Corolla might be a bit too close together, while the leather wrapped around the steering wheel feels somewhat cheap compared to the Honda's premium leather.
Although we celebrate the chance to manually shift gears in the Corolla between the seats, the shifter's cha-clunk sound that separates each slot along the GR's path feels chunky and affirmative. However, when compared to the Honda's gearbox, which is arguably the best one available today, the Corolla falls a little short. In this case, the pursuit of perfection indeed becomes the enemy of good.
Meanwhile, the Toyota’s engine emits a burbling, shaking, and popping soundtrack that doesn't feel like staged theater, but rather the natural result of a small block, a fizzy turbo, and an abundance of explosive gasoline. This aural accompaniment spurs you on, even when cruising through a small Arizona town in search of a bathroom break and a snack. The engine seems to be more inclined to encourage reckless driving. The physical lever of the handbrake, which is helpful in every rest stop, also adds to the thrill of the driving experience.
On the other hand, the Honda, which lacks the glory of a manual e-brake, will be stopping frequently. The Civic Type R is an absolute gas guzzler, with half the range of the Corolla achieved in mixed driving. Although efficiency is not the primary goal of either vehicle, the Civic's poor observed fuel mileage coupled with a small gas tank means that its fuel gauge will likely drop to below half while the Corolla's gas gauge barely registers a sip consumed. If you own a Civic Type R, sign up for those Shell Rewards, my friend.
We transformed the slow 25-mph double-yellow convoy into a cat-and-mouse game, repeatedly dropping far behind a sluggish, shapeless crossover, then racing to catch up to its rear bumper. These brief sprints revealed both cars' eagerness to cut through corners, but also highlighted the distinct ways in which they approach each bend.
The Toyota is a set of exposed white teeth, while the Honda is a stealthy attack from the side that takes you by surprise.
True to its rally heritage, the GR Corolla seemed to relish looser, more dramatic steering inputs. I found myself pushing the throttle earlier and earlier into every hairpin, searching for opportunities to let the car's sophisticated all-wheel-drive system and punchy engine claw the GR Corolla out of slower corners to leave the Civic Type R in its wake. Selecting between the drivetrain's variable torque splits made little difference on these roads, which we traveled at relatively low speeds.
I daydreamed about the weather turning even more severe, with the Corolla outfitted with proper snow tires. I would then switch between the differential settings and execute inch-perfect drifts across abandoned Safeway parking lots. I can't think of a better way to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder if you live in a northern climate. Can you imagine this little terror with a pair of snowboards strapped to the roof? Perhaps a rally light pod bolted to the nose with a clutch of Hellas shining brightly. Just imagine all those quarter-mile uphill sprints past the BroDozers on their way to the ski hill.
If your commute takes you through dirt, gravel, or snow, you don't need another reason to choose the Toyota.
However, the Type R refused to let the Corolla out of its sight. On a backroad, where the Honda can't fully exploit its wider tires and stickier rubber compound (265-width Michelin Sport Cup 2s compared to the Toyota's Michelin Pilot Sport 4s in a 245 width), these two are evenly matched. But the Type R elevates cornering from an act to an art; where the pavement is dry, the Honda is capable of supercar speeds. That's not an exaggeration.
Much of this is due to the confidence that the Honda's chassis instills, as well as how precise every control feels. Precision is probably the best word to describe the Civic Type R's approach to driving quickly on a backroad (unless you push the Honda beyond its limits, which you won't on the road, but you can on a track).
At the end of the road, where dust turned to rubble, it was time to pick a winner.
For those who enjoy sliding and skidding across loose surfaces and have the chance to do so regularly, the Corolla presents a compelling case. If you reside in rainy Seattle or soggy Vermont and frequently visit gravel fire roads and ski hills, then this is the car for you. The GR Corolla can inject some rally madness into every commute, and we applaud Toyota for creating a vehicle that enthusiasts have been clamoring for. However, we concluded our road test with a unanimous victor.
It's the Civic Type R. When measured by the metrics we value, this car is nearly perfect. There is no other car on the market in this price range, equipped with four doors and a cavernous trunk, that is even remotely as desirable as this Honda. Its blend of smooth and confident driving dynamics, combined with genuine speed on a backroad, and the attention to detail and care lavished upon every inch of this car, make it a car the Toyota could not surpass.
We consider ourselves fortunate to have both of these sport compacts on the market today. The endless demand for these models shows that more automakers should follow
Our convoy eventually arrived at Tortilla Flat, AZ, an old mining attraction that features a themed restaurant and a road that ends in red, ancient clay. It’s a thrilling ride, but unfortunately, the road was crowded with tourists that day.