From the December 2021 issue of Car and Driver.
The casualty list of affordable performance cars is pretty much every car we search for on Bring a trailer: Probe, Prelude, Celica, Cobalt SS, SRT4, Impulse, Talon, Daytona, Laser, 240SX, XT6.
A victim of a culture obsessed with sitting high and cornering slowly, going fast on a budget is harder than ever. Decades ago, nearly every brand sold an affordable sporty car; now we’re down to just a few choices.
We’ve gathered four of the last players here. Yes, you could count it as three if you consider the Subaru BRZ and the Toyota GR86 as one car, something we reserve the right to do when it’s convenient, like maybe in next month’s 10Best issue. Having both along allows us to explore the differences and avoid angry letters asking why we included one and not the other.
Both have rear-wheel drive, 228 horsepower, a six-speed manual, and a sub-3000-pound curb weight. When someone says, “2+2,” rather than “4,” do you think, “Porsche 944”? Well, the Toyobarus are for you. Spending less than $32,000 on either nets a loaded car with everything you need, including heated seats, Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires, and a crisp-sounding audio system.
Enter the Hyundai Veloster N, at $33,525. For ’22, Hyundai killed every Veloster except the 275-hp N version. While that sounds like bad news, it’s fine, really. The N is a ball; the others weren’t. Horsepower isn’t the only thing that makes the Veloster N special. It has the goods, from the Pirelli P Zero PZ4s developed for it, to the electronically controlled limited-slip differential, to the chassis that really thinks you could’ve taken that corner faster. An extra door on the passenger’s side guarantees weirdness, and weirdness guarantees exclusivity.
In its storied history, there has never been a strange-looking GTI. It is, and always has been, a box of performance. Redone for ’22, this wolf in a UPS package continues to uphold the virtues of its predecessors by providing space for four people and their stuff, a ripping engine, and sports-car handling. A redesigned interior with an infotainment system straight from Dante’s Inferno is a step backward, but the joy of driving it is stronger than ever.
The $30,540 base price is higher than ever too. Getting summer tires—Bridgestone Potenza S005s here—requires upgrading to the $38,990 Autobahn trim. Given the choice, we’d buy the base version, fit summer tires, and opt for the six-speed manual that wasn’t yet available for this test. Do that, and you’d hit our group’s low-$30s target.
Foursome set, we mixed fun roads with track time. Ballots determined a winner, but with extinction so near, each remains very special.
2022 Hyundai Veloster N
Highs: Engine pulls hard, precise steering and handling, really angry about something.
Lows: The tires go hippity hop in first, always angry about something.
Verdict: A speedball of acceleration and handling that might stop your heart.
The Hyundai Veloster N is a crazy car. Not for its asymmetric body, the vortex generators on the roof, or even the adjustable exhaust that pops off a little snare-drum salute when you lift off the gas. This odd little hatch is ready for the booby hatch because it wants you to hammer on it. It craves and rewards abuse.
Floor it in first and axle-hop shock waves run through the structure as the 235/35R-18 Pirelli P Zero PZ4s trip over themselves struggling with 260 pound-feet of torque. So it’s not Miss Manners. Its 275 horses are all working to keep you from missing appointments. It will dispatch 60 mph in 5.2 seconds (quickest in the group) and vanquish the quarter-mile in 13.8 seconds at 104 mph. The shifter lacks the mechanical precision of what’s in the GR86 and BRZ, but takes hard and fast gearchanges without complaint.
Turn hard into a corner and hit the gas earlier than any driving coach would suggest—the differential ensures you have the traction to power through. It resists understeer so well that you get a sense something magical is at play.
Hyundai gives the driver an opportunity to make many adjustments: Engine response, rev matching, the bite of the differential, exhaust loudness, steering assist, and damper stiffness can all be tailored.
Fortunately, all of this is in one convenient menu. We like the dampers in their softest settings; the rest depends on which side of 40 you’re on. Skip the steering wheel’s N button, which pushes the Veloster into insanity. In that mode, the ride is stupidly stiff and the exhaust sounds like someone is lighting off M-80s in the cargo area.
Last place is a tough spot for this nutty little car. Despite the Veloster’s best efforts to convince us that front-wheel drive is great, the rear-drive Toyobarus strike a sweeter balance of control feel and handling, and the GTI beats it on practicality and refinement. Yet there’s no denying that the Veloster is a bit more fun.
2022 Volkswagen GTI
Highs: The comfort and sophistication of a luxury car, more practicality than the other three combined.
Lows: A Golf-level interior for starter-Audi money, dual-clutch automatic is a bit lazy to react, infuriating infotainment controls.
Verdict: A very grown-up hatchback in a class of car rarely known for good manners.
Front-wheel drive is a hard sell when there are rear-drive options. Choosing between torque steer and oversteer is an easy decision. The best-tuned front-drivers, though, make us doubt our answer. In its 40-plus-year life, the GTI has led us to reconsider rear-drive supremacy many times.
The GTI has been on top of its game since 2006, and that doesn’t necessarily change with the new model. We might be less critical of its interior materials if this Autobahn edition didn’t cost so much. There is, however, no excuse for all the capacitive switches on the steering wheel and dash. Sweaty palms should be caused by emotion, not because we inadvertently switched on steering-wheel heat four corners back. A touch slider for volume control didn’t work for Cadillac CUE 1.0, and it doesn’t work here either. We’ll talk about the confusing menus another time.
What is clear is that this hatch was engineered to be driven hard. With adaptive dampers, an electronically controlled limited-slip diff, and brake-based torque vectoring, the GTI pulls off the perfect line through a corner just when you thought there was no chance you could make it without running across the double yellow. The steering and brakes offer more and better feedback than the Veloster but are no match for the rear-drive coupes’ communication. And when you start to pull the shift paddles, reactions aren’t as fast as we’d like in a dual-clutch auto.
Our previous test of a Euro-spec GTI revealed a very effective launch control, but the launch control of this 150-pound-heavier U.S. car couldn’t find purchase, resulting in the slowest acceleration in the test—5.7 seconds to 60 mph and 14.2 seconds at 102 mph in the quarter-mile. Its slowest wind sprints aren’t surprising, considering that the GTI has the worst power-to-weight ratio of the four. On straights on the street, the GTI can maintain pace with the rear-drive coupes, but the Veloster gathers it up between corners.
The GTI drives like a grown-up when you’re not using the 0.98 g of lateral grip. It’s the quietest at full throttle by a wide margin, although boomy and not the best at a steady 70 mph. But it’s the most comfortable. There’s no fight over who has to sit in the back seat. It will move five full-size passengers and be downright comfortable for four. It can be a family car with room for a vacation’s worth of suitcases. It’s the adult in the room, but it can still shotgun a beer with the kids. (One beer. Two, tops.) Most important, it’s a reminder that the party doesn’t have to stop when you’re over 40. (Okay, maybe three.)
1st Place (Tie):
2022 Toyota GR86
Highs: Pure steering, sweet shifter, big fun.
Lows: Noisy at highway speeds, basic interior, basically no rear seat.
Verdict: A substantial upgrade to a terrific sports car.
We can’t overstate how welcome the purity of the Toyobaru twins is compared with today’s bloated status quo. Want to sully the new aluminum lid with a sunroof? Too bad. Go buy a crossover. The center cupholder sits back way too far to be an easy reach, but it’s at least out of the way of the shifter. These are our kind of priorities.
The moment you enter the firmly supportive driver’s seat, it’s obvious that these two are all about the business of what we love: driving. From the view forward to the fidelity of the steering, it’s clear they were designed as stand-alone sports cars and not upgrades to a mainstream hatchback like the others. The simple, hard-plastic interiors are inferior to the those in the GTI, which itself came under complaint for being a step backward from its predecessor. And the two sports cars also fall far short on available features compared with the VW.
These twins are so similar that picking a favorite—or even finding differences—between them is difficult. However, our jury all preferred the 86’s simpler front-end styling, and approving grunts were also levied at the 86’s Supra-like ducktail spoiler, part of the Premium trim. Although we also complained about all the cutlines on the trunklid with yet another piece stuck atop the pile.
The powertrain is identical between the two, which is why we’ll focus on that in the BRZ entry. But the 86’s shifter was a little tighter than the BRZ’s and its brake pedal slightly firmer, perhaps because this particular car had lived a slightly less abusive life. At least until it met us.
Suspension tuning, however, is brand specific, with the 86 getting a firmer setup and more clipped ride motions. On our winter-ravaged Midwest roads, we prefer the BRZ, which is every bit as compliant as the GTI. The 86 has more rear anti-roll bar and, no surprise, showed more tail-out aptitude, although its slidey ways couldn’t quite match the BRZ’s 0.99 g on the skidpad. Both cars now offer the grippier Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires from the previous 86 GT and BRZ tS, but they don’t come with those models’ brake upgrades. So the stoppers have to work harder, relatively speaking, and the track-day types will want an upgrade.
Choosing between the BRZ and the GR86 proved impossible, so we’ll leave you with this: You can’t go wrong with either.
1st Place (Tie):
2022 Subaru BRZ
Highs: More power in the right spots, quicker, excellent manual gearbox.
Lows: Engine is buzzy at redline, lacks the practicality of a hatchback.
Verdict: The affordable sports coupe isn’t dead, yet.
Subaru’s BRZ and the Toyota GR86 have the performance-car basics down. Rear-drive? Done. Manual? Got it. Lightweight? Naturally. Not to mention, the heavily refreshed second-generation sports-coupe designs weren’t overworked. The interiors are free of senseless tech, and the digital instrument cluster is the most sensible since the Honda S2000.
The easy-to-read strip-style tachometer requires Track mode, but either way, it informs the driver of the revolution under the hood. Gone is the 205-hp 2.0-liter flat-four that moaned like an injured deer. In its place is a free-breathing 2.4-liter that’s good for 228 horsepower. The available torque is up from 154 pound-feet to 184 and peaks at 3700 rpm as opposed to the previous 5400 revs. More important, the buzz-killing dip that occurred between 3500 and 4500 rpm is removed. The engine’s artificial soundtrack is like a beehive beneath the dash near the 7500-rpm redline, though it at least sounds more natural than synthetic.
When it comes to acceleration, spinning is winning. Not enough and the Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires will imitate a jackal stuck in quicksand. Too much and you’ll be in a cloud of smoke like Snoop Dogg. Give it the revs to around 4500, ease off the clutch, and lift that toe that went to market. Load transfers to the driven tires—a traction benefit no front-driver will ever obtain—and the BRZ and GR86 are the quickest of the group off the line. The Torsen limited-slip differential locks the torque between the rear tires as they step out of line.
There’s enough wheelspin to throw off the butt dyno, but stick with it. The six-speed manual is fluid in its action—one of the best DIY boxes left on the market—and it likes to be used. Go ahead. Grip it and rip it just before the 7300-rpm fuel cutoff. Both the BRZ and GR86 take the abuse in stride while racing to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds, 0.8 quicker than the former 2.0-liter car. The BRZ covers the quarter-mile in 13.9 seconds at 101 mph, a tenth quicker than the GR86 whose engine had logged 1500 fewer miles.
Fully loaded at $31,455, the BRZ has a tight rear seat that might not be the most accommodating, or really at all accommodating, but it at least folds flat to hold four wheels and tires. This sports coupe is surely an experience no front-driver can replicate.