November 28, 2023

Hyundai’s Elantra N lands smack dab in the middle of the power gap between the GTI and Golf R, so which is its true competitor? And which is the best?

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Peter Bleakney: For those with a hunger for rambunctious, three-pedal, four-door compact cars, (and a budget of $40-50K), the cupboard is far from bare. If fact, our cups runneth over. Here, for your lip-smacking pleasure, we present a zesty sandwich. Take two iconic German schnitzels, insert a baby-blue slice of kimchi, and watch the fur fly — it’s like a sport compact Double Down. These three 2.0L turbo tinderboxes are new for 2022, with the Volkswagen GTI and Golf R riding on Volkswagen’s fresh Mk8 Golf platform, and the Hyundai Elantra N hatched from the demure Elantra sedan and ending up writing a decisive book on front-drive dynamics.

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This sandwich is built on price and power. The front drive 2022 VW Golf GTI, with 241 horses and 273 lb-ft of torque, starts at $31,495 for the base car with six-speed stick. The fully-equipped 2022 Hyundai Elantra N with six-speed brags 276 horsepower (286 when overboost is activated) and 289 lb-ft of torque, and has an all-in price of $37,399. The six-speed 2022 VW Golf R is admittedly a different kettle of fish — all-wheel drive, 315 horsepower and 280 lb-ft (295 with the DSG dual-clutch auto), Nappa leather, ventilated seats, stealthy ground-effects aero, and a $45,995 sticker. Nonetheless, here in Canada the GTI/Golf R take rate is a 50/50 split. And considering the as-tested price of our Pomelo Yellow Metallic GTI is $40,245, the über Golf R is not so much of a financial stretch.

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Compare the specs of these manual cars: VW Golf R vs VW Golf GTI vs Hyundai Elantra N

So Jonathan, having stretched the legs of this feisty trio, what are your first impressions?

Jonathan Yarkony: My first impression is that this is a sport-compact burger I could eat all day every day for the rest of my driving life. I hate to give away the dramatic ending but it’s gonna be something like: Any of these three will make an enthusiast driver on a budget pretty damn happy. Pick your poison and drive off into the sunset and enjoy the community of like-minded fans each of these cars brings. I was lucky enough in my time with these cars to get friendly waves from actual owners of GTIs, Golf Rs, and one especially thrilled Elantra N owner who likely hasn’t seen many others of this stripe pop up in Brampton just yet, but many more are surely on the way. It’s refreshing to feel the love and appreciation between enthusiast drivers when the world is so full of chaos and carnage.

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And before we even dive into the subtle differences in performance between these cars, my mind turns to practicality: as a family of four with hockey, soccer, swimming, baseball and the resumption of social events, there’s a lot on the Yarkony calendar, and this dad is a lifelong devotee of hatchbacks and wagons and their superior practicality and use of space. Credit where credit is due, the Hyundai Elantra has a surprisingly spacious trunk (402 L) that is wider and deeper than the Golf twins’, but Golf R and GTI’s tall square cargo bays offer over 550 L with the rear seats in place and almost 1,000 L with the rear seats dropped, and those seats split 60/40, giving maximum practicality within its compact dimensions. The Elantra’s back seat cannot be dropped for extra cargo space because of the massive X brace that gives the modest Elantra frame a dose of much needed rigidity.

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PB: Well, I’m with you on the practicality front. Nothing beats a hatchback, and for me I’d have to choose one of the V-dubs for that reason alone. But what if hauling stuff is not as important as hauling ass? After all, this is a performance car comparison, so let’s get to the nitty-gritty.

Both the Volkswagen GTI and Golf R are immensely satisfying driving tools. Yet as sharp as they are, the Hyundai Elantra N is an absolute scalpel. In developing this front-drive sport sedan, Hyundai must have benchmarked the Honda Civic Type R, such is its baked-in balance, grip, immediacy and, well, joyfully chuckable disposition. This here is the poster child for controllable lift-off oversteer. Having attended the car’s media launch last year at Sonoma Raceway, the Elantra N resolutely ate up the big track, while also showing fabulous poise on the autocross course. It’s a legitimate track star that’s happy to run at 10/10ths all day until the standard Michelin PS4 tires call it a day. That said, the N’s ride quality is perfectly acceptable, even when buttoned down in sport mode.

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Jumping from the Elantra N into the GTI, the Volkswagen initially feels heavier, perhaps a tad more ponderous.The steering isn’t as sharp, the shifter a bit ropier, but once your butt recalibrates, this 8th-gen GTI sings a pretty sweet song. It hungrily dives into corners, and the clever front diff hauls the nose out, essentially eradicating any hint of understeer. Yet, like the Hyundai, the GTI is not averse to some grin-inducing lift off oversteer. Moving to the all-wheel-drive Golf R, well that’s a different kettle of fish. Whereas the Mk7 R was perhaps too competent and buttoned up for its own good, this Mk8 has got its freak on. Spring and anti-roll bar rates increase by 10 per cent, there’s more negative camber dialled in on the front wheels and steering gets recalibrated for better feedback. The big news is the fancy rear clutch pack that can apportion torque from side to side, giving the R a legitimate rear-drive shove (and a Drift mode). It’s a hooligan, and the six-speed manual (only available in North America, if you can believe that) gives a satisfying mechanical connect to this über-Golf.

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So Jonathan, let’s talk power. By the numbers, the Hyundai’s 276-286 horses and 289 lb-ft of torque should be smoking the GTI’s 241 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. Maybe German horses are more robust than those from the Korean, cause the GTI feels quicker to me.

JY: I wouldn’t say the GTI felt quicker to me, but I also wasn’t doing hard launches at the drag strip. The numbers bear this out as VW lists the 2022 GTI’s acceleration times to 100 km/h at 6.2 seconds, while Hyundai claims 5.3 seconds for the DSG model, with the manual likely trailing by just a couple tenths. Where the Elantra N really shone, though, was its mid-range punch, where it absolutely pulls like mad in that sweet 20-60 km/h range that is so useful on city streets without getting into too much trouble. And with the beautiful baby blue paint job on the Elantra N, it was an attention magnet, so I was downright paranoid about attracting the wrong kind of attention. In that mid-range, the GTI just didn’t have quite the same authority and jump as the Elantra N. The Golf R, of course, proved to be in another league once again, with absolute grip off the line to push you in your seat and keep on pulling right up to highway speeds, and 0-100 km/h times well under five seconds.

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However, despite the Golf R’s power superiority, it was the Elantra N that I preferred in the corners. Like you say, its steering was scalpel sharp, and its grip and feel on turn-in was just electrifying that it made every corner pure joy and recalled the Civic Type R for me. The GTI and R were a bit heavier and more cumbersome in corners compared to the N, but they’re still rewarding and lively compared to my usual fare of roly-poly SUVs.

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The Elantra N also had one of my favourite features in this whole comparison: an audible shift alert when you are about to hit redline for those of us that don’t pick up the flashing light of the visual indicators. Unlike the auto-rev matching that takes the manual joy out of perfecting one’s own heel-toe downshifting, the shift alert just gives you a cue to improve your driving skill and shift timing.

When it comes to other more mundane aspects of these cars, the Elantra N also delivered above its pay grade. The VW GTI achieves its flat cornering at the expense of a rough ride, and on a couple of potholed, lumpy roads, the GTI almost knocked my fillings out crashing over a couple of big impacts. The Elantra N’s electronically controlled dampers actually deliver on their promise of an “ambidextrous performance car” that provides superb grip and level cornering while absorbing rough roads when just shuttling the kids to soccer games. The Golf R matches that dual personality, which I would expect from its higher price point, and even more than the power and all-wheel drive, is the thing that would push me up to a Golf R if I could afford it.

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PB: With an all-in price of $37,399, the Hyundai Elantra N is the value king here: two 10.25-inch displays, premium Bose audio, full suite of safety systems, phone charging pad and comprehensive performance data display. Plus human friendly ergonomics, thank you. (Volkswagen really dropped the ball on this one.) The GTI might start at $31,495, but equip a Performance model to a decent spec and you’re staring at $40K. The über Golf R with stick is $45,995, and as noted earlier, that’s an all-in price with luxury-level appointments.

2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI vs 2022 Hyundai Elantra N
2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI vs 2022 Hyundai Elantra N Photo by Jonathan Yarkony

Hmmmm. So which one to get? If you’re looking for uncompromised hoonage, the Elantra N wins. This red-hot front-drive sedan is Albert Biermann’s farewell love letter to auto enthusiasts. Herr Biermann (former chassis guru at BMW M) recently retired from his position at Hyundai, where he nurtured his N division into a maker of affordable world-class performance vehicles. But Jonathan, I suspect the Elantra N will be a rare sight on our roads due to its narrow focus. Conversely, the GTI and Golf R are such well-rounded, functional, comfortable and fun daily drivers, they will continue to populate the Canadian automotive landscape. As for me, if I was staring down a $40k GTI, I’d make the $6K stretch to the Golf R and not blink an eye. And do half-donuts in Drift Mode, just because.

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JY: Personally, trying to be as realistic as possible, I would pocket that $6K and then another $5K and put my money on a mid-level GTI Autobahn that takes the wheels down an inch to 18 to hopefully take the sting out of that ride quality, but still delivers a stellar driving experience, some of the coolest seats in the industry, and the added hatchback practicality that I like for my family. Neither the AWD, the subtle dynamic advantages, the ride comfort, nor the extra burst of speed would do enough to make me spend an extra $10K on the Golf R.

At least, that’s how I felt when we parted ways after driving the GTI back to back with the Elantra N, but after an extra weekend in the Hyundai sedan, and then even more time to let the experiences percolate, it was the driving experience of the Elantra N that stuck with me most and the car I most want back in my driveway. Although its sedan packaging is a compromise for me, it’s a compromise I’d be willing to make for the superior value, superb handling, and everyday livability of the Hyundai Elantra N. The Volkswagen Golf GTI and Golf R will continue to sell to its loyal fans, especially in the absence of a basic Golf or almost any other hot hatch competition, but the 2022 Hyundai Elantra N is the winner in this comparison.

PB: Well Jonathan, I have to agree with you on this. The Elantra N is a masterful bit of engineering — as joyful as it is competent, and if we’re talking performance, the W must go to the N.


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