Hot Hatch Showdown: Honda Civic Type R vs. Toyota GR Corolla
You spend most days chained to a desk to free up moments like these – the right cars, empty roads, and the unlimited promise of a sunrise.
I’d circled a pot of gold on the map, a set of squiggling roads near Phoenix that lassoed three highways into a roughly hewn circle. The route promised a dreamlike procession of corners, one whole day splayed across endless asphalt, taking in views from the helm of the two best performance compacts on sale today. And because the R&T staff had flown to Arizona to escape the drab gray north, we expected the sun to lay a peck on our pale cheeks too.
Then somewhere along the slog out to our starting point in Globe, Arizona, snowflakes crackled like TV static against the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla’s windshield. What’s the bit about mice an’ men? I frowned and gazed over the car’s short red snout. Just ahead, the 2023 Civic Type R’s rear wing raised against the sky in protest.
By the time we wheeled into Globe, the white stuff fell at a pelt. I watched the Honda pull to a stop in the town’s historic center. Its fair-weather Michelins fluttered across skiffs of fresh powder. We three editors stepped out of the cars, kicked at the Corolla’s equally summer-centric tires, and shoved cold hands into pockets.
“You forget there’s mountains out in Arizona, huh?” I mused.
“Yeah, let’s head back,” editor-at-large Travis Okulski replied.
It wasn’t all a loss.
Doubling back meant more seat time in two of the best compact performance vehicles ever built. Even better, you can walk into a showroom and buy either one, in theory if not in practice (both automakers are cranking these cars out as fast as possible, but can’t meet demand).
You’ve likely logged weeks of cumulative time in the configurator for each vehicle. Toyota offers a worked-over hatchback digging its spurs into a snorty three-pot turbo with tangible homologation roots. It wears a funky widebody over a weaponlike array of rally-car go-fast tech. This arsenal includes a torsen diff at each axle (as this car is spec’d), and a central unit—controlled by a knob in the console–capable of providing three different torque splits between those two axles. The GR Corolla’s manic rally ‘tude plays like a deliberate throwback to legends long since passed. Toyota will sell as many GR Corollas as it can make, and leave a miles-long waiting list unfulfilled when production stops.
Honda took a different approach. It's front-wheel drive, an iteration on the last Civic Type R formula, but one that opts to preserve that old car’s hyper-composed, forward-facing character. The company refined the outgoing car from every angle, teasing more power from the old 2.0-liter turbo four, more refinement from the car’s spectacular suspension—and critically—evolving this über-Civic’s looks from a deeply embarrassing Pikachu cosplay to Jason Statham-sleek.
This showdown, we should note, had to happen. Our staff demanded it. We left the 2023 Performance Car of the Year test enamored by both vehicles, but without enough time to fully hash their intricacies on the road. Two of our editors even wagered their own money on the cars. One brought the Honda home. The other gave up waiting for a Toyota allocation. But that’s still telling: editors who spend more days in supercars than most put their own cash down for these workaday warriors.
A winner had to be crowned.
So we put those Arizona snow clouds at our backs, refueled, and headed back to the low ground. I set the waypoint of Tortilla Flat, AZ, into Google Maps, another hour and half back the way we came. Fresh out of the Corolla, I hopped into the Civic, a chance to view one car in immediate relief of the another.
The contrast was stark.
Honda endowed this Civic Type R with an interior that feels immediately special. The GR Corolla bares its pedestrian roots like shackles, a sea of charcoal grey materials. Some might call the Honda’s red seats, red-swathed door panels, and red stitching around the steering wheel gimmicky. Except the car’s interior feels so well-rounded, so conceptually sound, and executed to such a high level of quality, you understand that these accents aren’t present to paper over a cut-rate interior. They’re part of a greater design ethos hardwired into the Civic itself. The Honda stands out as one of the best interiors on sale at any price. I felt so passionate about making that point, I wrote an entire column about it. It’s really that good.
The Corolla, unfortunately, can’t match the Civic Type R in any interior metric that stirs the soul. The Toyota’s bucket seats are sporty enough, but they’re not as supportive as the Honda’s, nor does their construction feel as carefully observed. Save a few small items like the infotainment system, which isn’t as pretty but felt easier to work and navigate, this round is won by the Honda. And it’s no TKO.
Toyota offers sharp, well-calibrated inputs for the GR Corolla’s steering, shifting, and pedals. But the Honda is just a touch better to use in every department: more precise, better weighted, and easier to master.
Don’t mistake that as damning to the Corolla. That would be unduly harsh. The pedals on the Corolla may sit just a touch too close together. The Honda’s are perfectly placed. The leather wrapped around the Corolla’s wheel feels a touch cheap. The Honda’s leather feels a cut above. We rejoice at the opportunity to row our own gears between the Corolla’s seats. You feel a chunky, affirmative cha-clunk separating each slot along the GR shifter’s path. But compared to the Honda’s gearbox, which is arguably the best on sale today, the Corolla falls a tiny bit short. In this case, perfection really is the enemy of good.
One area where Toyota strikes a thundering counterpunch: its engine.
Out on these roads, whether pulling on to the highway from a stop or ripping sprints to triple digits from a trot, the GR Corolla’s high-strung, 300-horse 1.6-liter turbo-three shines. At all revs, it snarls louder than the Civic’s ShopVac soundtrack. It feels punchier from low revs too, exactly the type of quality we expect from a car that evokes the WRC.
The Honda’s two-liter seems to develop more power up top; it arrives in one great walloping rush near the top of the tach. But other than a bit of extra whoosh from the turbo, there’s little audible feedback. We wonder aloud how a naturally aspirated version of the CTR's K20 engine, built to 300 horses by the magicians at 4-Piston racing, would feel and sound in this Civic Type R. Could it be the greatest Honda of all time? We’ll bide our time, keep an eye on CoPart for flood cars, and continue to scheme…
Meanwhile, the Toyota’s mill burbles and shakes, burps and pops. None of it feels like theatre, just the natural outcome of a small block, a fizzy turbo, and buckets of exploding Dino-juice. The soundtrack eggs you on, even when you’re lallygagging through a tiny Arizona downtown, in search of a bathroom break and a Slim Jim. This engine seems far more likely to prod you into antisocial behavior. So does the hand brake—an ACTUAL honest-to-goodness physical lever— which is useful for pulling into every rest stop with a triumphant sccccrrrrchhhhh.
The Honda will be stopping a ton, by the way, just without the benefit of a glorious manual e-brake. This Civic Type R is a gas hog, full stop. In mixed driving, we achieved roughly half the range across a full tank of gas in the Civic, when measured against the Corolla. It seems a small point, given neither of these vehicles are aimed at efficiency, but with its poor observed fuel mileage paired to a small tank, expect the needle to drop below half on the Civic while the Corolla’s gas gauge barely registers a sip consumed. If you live with the Civic Type R, sign up for those Shell Rewards, buddy.
Eventually our convoy reached the anvil-flat road that leads to Tortilla Flat, AZ, an old mining curiosity (complete with themed restaurant) where the asphalt dead-ends and turns to red ancient clay. It’s a rollercoaster procession, but unfortunately, one that packed with tourists on the day.
We turned the 25-mph double-yellow convoy into a game of cat and mouse, dropping waaaaaay back from some slow-moving shapeless crossover, then sprinting back up to its rear bumper. Rinse and repeat. These little desperate sprints revealed both cars’ eagerness to cut through corners, but highlighted how differently they approach every bend.
The Toyota is a set of bared white fangs. The Honda is that stealthy attack from the side you never saw coming.
True to its rally roots, the GR Corolla seemed to enjoy looser, more dramatic steering inputs. I found myself chasing full 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 shake the Civic Type R from its side mirrors. Selecting between the drivetrain's variable torque splits made little difference on these roads, at relatively low speeds.
I fantasized about the weather fully turning again, the Corolla shod in proper snow tires, how I'd swap between those diff settings and execute inch-perfect drifts across abandoned Safeway parking lots. If you live in a northern climate, I can’t think of a better tool to beat back Seasonal Affective Disorder. Can you imagine this little terror with a pair of snowboards strapped to the roof? Maybe a rally light pod bolted to the nose, a clutch of Hellas shining with a megawatt grin. Just picture all those quarter-mile uphill sashays past the BroDozers headed on up to the ski hill.
If your commute includes dirt, gravel, or snow, you don’t need another excuse to choose the Toyota.
The Type R, however, wouldn’t budge from the Corolla’s rearview here. These two are at a dead heat on a backroad, where the Honda can’t fully exploit its wider tires and stickier rubber compound (265-width Michelin Sport Cup 2s vs. the Toyota’s Michelin Pilot Sport 4 in a 245 width). But the Type R elevates cornering from an act to an art; Where the pavement is dry, the Honda is capable of supercar speed. That’s not hyperbole.
Much of that is down to the confidence that the Honda’s chassis inspires, but also how precise every control feels. Precision is probably the best word to describe the Civic Type R, actually, in how it approaches driving quickly on a backroad (that is, unless you get WAY past the edge of the Honda’s envelope, which you won’t on the road, but you can on a track.).
At the end of the road, where dust turned to rabble, a chance to pick a winner.
For those who love to slide and skid across loose surfaces—and have the opportunity to do so regularly—the Corolla makes its case; If you live in rainy Seattle or soggy Vermont and frequent gravel fire roads and ski hills, this is your huckleberry. The GR Corolla can inject some rally silliness into every commute, and we commend Toyota for bringing us a vehicle enthusiasts have been clamoring for. But ultimately, we walked away from this road test with a unanimous winner.
It’s the Civic Type R. This car is, when measured by the metrics we care about, just about perfect. There’s nothing else out there in the price range, equipped with four doors and a cavernous trunk, that’s even remotely as desirable as this Honda. Its combination of silky and assured driving dynamics, combined with genuine speed on a backroad, and the attention to detail and care that were lavished upon every inch of this car, amount to a vehicle the Toyota couldn’t conquer.
We feel blessed to have both of these sport compacts in the market today. Endless demand for these models proves that more automakers should follow suit. Deliver us more iterations of the four-door sport compact and do it with authentic care, endow the models with character.
But at the end of the day, as special and desirable as the Honda and Toyota both undoubtedly are, we all longed to drive the Civic back home, all the way back to our drab gray corners of America, to have and hold that car forever.
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