Brian Harper: Hot hatches, a descriptor I seldom hear today for sporty, generously powered hatchbacks (at least in relation to the more prosaic compact-sized runabouts from which they are based) are a sub-segment that has ebbed and flowed for almost 40 years. In North America the rockstar was — and still is — Volkswagen’s Golf GTI, a pugnacious street fighter that, when it finally arrived on our shores, was a gift from the motorhead gods at a time when automakers were just starting to climb out of the anti-performance pit that was the Sucking Seventies.
Zippy rather than fast, it helped spawn a spate of affordably priced, fun yet functional cars. While their number has dwindled these days, I am heartened Hyundai has jumped on the bandwagon with its five-door Elantra GT Sport, joining the sedan version it debuted in 2017. Even though it doesn’t have the same bona-fides as the GTI, I think the GT Sport’s performance-per-dollar ratio makes it worthy of a comparison. Thoughts?
Nick Tragianis: For the longest time, Hyundai has needed a hot hatch. It pains me to say this, but the Elantra GT Sport still isn’t it — but it’s a damn good car nonetheless. Think of it as a “warm” hatch – the 1.6L turbo-four under the hood puts out 201 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft. of torque, and that’s paired to either a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. It’s a sprightly combo — with the snappy transmission and the car set to “Sport” mode, the Elantra is surprisingly playful; there’s some turbo lag, but it pulls hard.
The trouble with the Elantra GT Sport is the price. It’s a double-edged sword, because seeing what you get for just over $30,000 is impressive any other day of the week – as usual, it follows Hyundai’s “let’s see how many features we can cram into this thing and keep the price low” mindset. But if you’re after performance, it’s tough to look past a base GTI – which comes with enough features for just over $30,000. Or $31,000, if you spec the dual-clutch auto.
BH: It’s the difference between a 40-year history and seven generations of hatchback hotness versus a newbie. There’s something about getting into a GTI that just feels right. Everything is where it should be; the chassis feels granite solid and the car’s handling dynamics is textbook. It’s a superbly entertaining package as far as it goes — except it’s time VW stepped up its game with a bit more muscle under the hood.
C’mon, Volkswagen makes much of the fact its latest GTI now pumps out 220 horsepower, but that’s on premium unleaded. And the 2.0L turbo-four has 25 percent more displacement than the Elantra’s plucky 1.6, which, I might add, gets its 201 horses while running on regular unleaded. The GT Sport might be more warm than hot, but kudos nonetheless. With a little more chassis tweaking and a larger motor under the hood think of the possibilities if Hyundai could stuff the Sonata’s 245-horsepower turbo-four four into the GT Sport. An upset could easily be in the works.
NT: Well, in a way, it exists. It’s called the i30 N, but that 271-hp beastie is exclusive to Europe. Heartbreaking, isn’t it? Hyundai finally has a true, bona-fide hot hatch — and we can’t have it. Fortunately, most of its running gear will be shared with the upcoming Veloster N, which will be sold here, but I digress.
Part of what makes the GTI special is that it does, well, everything. It’s a jack-of-all-trades. So what if it “needs” more muscle under the hood? Since when is 220 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque not enough? It’s punchy and responsive, it corners flat, there’s good feedback from the steering wheel, and the limited-slip diff up front does a great job at maximizing grip and minimizing torque steer.
Best of all, it’s ridiculously easy to live with the GTI on a daily basis. That “granite solid” feeling means very little wind and road noise filters into the cabin — which, by the way, is an excellent piece of work. Materials are top-notch, everything is tight, the seats are supportive and supremely comfortable, and the layout and controls are smartly placed. There’s no shortage of headroom and legroom front and back, and there’s plenty of cargo space. It’s tough to fault the GTI’s cabin.
What isn’t tough to fault is the price tag. As-tested, Volkswagen wants you to spend just over $39,000 for a fully equipped GTI, complete with goodies like LED headlights, a panoramic sunroof, 18-inch wheels and whatnot, plus a handful of active safety features such as blind-spot monitoring, park assist, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning … you know, stuff you’d expect in 2018. Yet even at almost $40,000, it’s missing a few key features that the Elantra GT Sport has — and the Hyundai is just as impressive inside.
BH: Just a tad defensive about the GTI, are we? The road to ruin is littered with companies that were complacent about their products. The GTI is terrific, but there’s always room for improvement. And keep in mind, the GT Sport Ultimate tester, Elantra’s topline trim level, ends at a price — $30,499 — where GTI begins. And that includes a heated steering wheel.
To be clear, the GT Sport isn’t as hot a hatch as the GTI, but it’s by no means completely out of its depth. Hyundai did some of the car’s development work at the Nürburgring, concentrating on ride and handling — and it shows up with more direct steering and a tighter chassis. So, by all means, get the GTI if you’re willing to pay for your driving pleasure. If you’re on a tighter budget, though, the Elantra is still quick enough and quite capable of entertaining.
NT: It’s not as though the Elantra is the “wrong choice” here. For $30,000, what you get is truly impressive – LED headlights, a generously sized panoramic sunroof, a heated steering wheel plus heated and cooled seats, and pretty much all the active safety features you can expect these days. Even the cabin, though not as solid as the GTI, is still impressive.
But a hot hatch the Elantra GT is not. Some buyers will love the features for the price; others would rather trade creature comforts for extra performance. I tend to side with the latter — at just over $30,000, a base GTI has the performance and “enough” features. Who needs a big sunroof, cooled seats and a heated steering wheel, anyway?
BH: Call me a wimp, but I’ll take a heated steering wheel any day of the week. The other two you can have. Anyway, we’ve already agreed that, by old school hot hatch standards, the GTI is the clear winner over the Elantra GT Sport. Yet, the GTI really isn’t all that “hot” either. How about the “Rs”, that is to say the Ford Focus RS, the Honda Civic Type R, or even VW’s own Golf R? Like the saying goes, “speed (or horsepower) costs money. How fast do you want to go?” My point is that the GT Sport might be a junior — and relatively inexpensive — member of the club, but it is a member. That’s why we should cheer it.
Type of vehicle
Five-door, front-wheel-drive hatchbacks
Elantra: 1.6L turbo-four; GTI: 2.0L turbo-four
Elantra: 201 horsepower @ 6,000 rpm, 195 lb.-ft. of torque @ 1,500 rpm; GTI: 220 horsepower @ 4,300 rpm; 258 lb.-ft. of torque @ 1,600-4,200 rpm
Elantra: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic; GTI: Six-speed dual-clutch automatic
Four-wheel disc with ABS
Elantra: P225/40R18; GTI: P255/40/18
Price: Base / As Tested
Elantra: $30,499/$30,499; GTI: $30,595/$39,045
Elantra: $1,705; GTI: $1,645
Natural Resources Canada Fuel Economy
(L/100km) Elantra: 9.2 city, 7.1 highway; GTI: 9.6 city, 7.2 highway