The 2021, 2022, and 2023 model years have been good for fans.
For driving enthusiasts, this is a good time to have a valid driver’s license.
All year, I’ve been thinking about this extended segment and feeling beyond excited at the thought of potentially driving and reviewing all the latest additions. Sport compact cars are brilliant, all of them, and they’ve played a huge role in shaping me as a driver.
One of my fondest career-related memories is a track comparison test I participated in 22 years ago. It included the 2002 Acura RSX Type S, 2002 Volkswagen Golf GTI, 2001 Mazda Miata MX-5, and a 2001 Toyota Celica GTS. That same year I tracked a 2001 bugeye Subaru WRX so hard that before returning the press unit, I rotated the tires to try and mask the wear on the front tires. At the time, I drove around in a 1992 Volkswagen Jetta GLI (still own it). Also, I bought a 2003 bugeye WRX wagon some years later. Needless to say, I was and am into small sporty cars.
Over the years, I witnessed the slow death of many models to the point where it seemed clear that the segment wasn’t going to survive. Examples include the Celica, the Ford Focus ST and RS, the Dodge Neon SRT4, the Chevrolet Cobalt SS, the Genesis Coupe, the Mazda RX-8, and one of my all-time favorites, the Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X.
Though all of these are still dead, the latest crop of sport compact cars makes up for the losses. Here are then, my personal Top 10 modern sport compact cars:
#1 2023 Toyota GR Corolla
This car is the single greatest gift to automotive enthusiasts since the FK8 Civic Type R was finally introduced on the continent in 2017. This car is fun, fast, and loud, and it’s going to be almost impossible to buy – this is its only flaw.
#2 2022 Subaru WRX
The WRX is the first answer when it comes to answering the question: What sport compact car should I buy? From there, it’s a matter of setting priorities. The Subaru WRX is incredibly affordable, fast, and with AWD, capable of killing it in all seasons.
#3 2023 Honda Civic Type R
The new Type R remains the best-driving FWD car in the world. The all-new 2023 Type R is grown up and far more visually appealing. For some, like me, it may have compromised on pure driving dynamics such as steering response and feedback, it is a gift from Honda engineers and we should be thankful.
#4 2023 Toyota GR86 / Subaru BRZ
If for some reason the WRX isn’t your bag, look across the showroom to the BRZ or cross the street to the Toyota store and lovingly gaze at the GR86. These lightweight sports cars deliver the most exhilarating RWD driving experience for 50% or less money than the next best option, the new Z.
#5 2023 Nissan Z
Sometimes what’s old is new again and this absolutely applies to the new Nissan Z. It’s not as sharp or refined but what it lacks in poshness it makes for it with power, styling, and a manual transmission that must be respected and tamed. The Z’s not easy to drive and that’s a real plus.
#6 2022 Hyundai Elantra N
Fast, loud, engrossing, and impossibly affordable, arguments against this car are solely driven by ignorance and fear. That fear comes from lovers of established sports cars like the Type R and Golf R as the Elantra N can and does go toe-to-toe with them all, and for far less money.
#7 2022 Volkswagen Golf R
The Volkswagen Golf R’s influence is far greater than many think. Without going over its entire story, it was instrumental in shaping the segment we all know and love. And it’s still at it today – how else does one explain the new Civic Type R’s newfound maturity? Fast and subtle, it’s a greater do-it-all car.
#8 2022 Honda Civic Si
This list nearly held a series of ties. Had it been the case, the Civic Si would have been tied in the 5th position or better. Uniquely engineered for drivers and people capable of appreciating what that actually means, the Si is a perfectly measured speed-handling-capability package. And a far greater bargain than its near-twin, the Acura Integra.
#9 2023 Toyota GR Supra
This car is on the list mostly out of respect. Well, that’s not fair as the GR Supra is immensely fast and well-built, but it does stretch the concept of sport compact to the extreme. Even so, it’s an incredible road car that is now offered with a 6-speed manual transmission. I recently tracked (’23 GR Corolla event) it but have not reviewed it formally in a few years.
#10 2022 Volkswagen Jetta GLI / Golf GTI
This is another strange one where I’ve yet to actually drive the MK8 VW GTI, and not for a lack of trying… I have however driven the new MK7.5 Jetta GLI on a few occasions. The latter is, like the Golf R, a grown-up premium compact car with plenty of heart and speed, and is reasonably priced.
There are a few honorable mentions that could be added here but we’ll stick to the one and only always delightful Mazda MX-5. It remains a yardstick in the segment for all metrics that matter, namely handling, driver involvement, and smiles per mile.