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This comparison test requested itself the second the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla arrived on the scene with its three turbocharged cylinders blaring through an equal number of exhaust pipes while sending power to all four wheels. As we discovered at a track in Utah, it was just as much of a hoot as we’d hoped, and way more of a departure from the Corolla norm than anticipated. We didn’t get to drive it on a real road, however.

Thankfully, we would get that chance at the exact same time the new 2023 Honda Civic Type R became available after getting thrashed about at Sonoma Raceway for its own press launch. We did get to drive that on both road and track, but it was also cold and rainy, so another go was called for. And this time, there’d be a feisty red Toyota filling the rearview mirror of the refreshingly refined but no less amusing next-gen Type R.

Needless to say, it was a fun day.

The cars

The Civic Type R comes only one way – loaded – so it provides the baseline at $44,385, including destination. Yes, the GR Corolla has a much cheaper base price, with the Core starting at $36,995. However, you will definitely want the $1,180 Performance package that adds front and rear limited-slip differentials, so that would be $38,175. Our particular test car was a GR Corolla Circuit, which was originally intended to be made for 2023 only, but has thankfully been given the green light for 2024, too. It includes all the Core options (Performance, Technology and Cold Weather packages), plus the hardcore Morizo Edition’s functional brake ducts, bulging hood also with ducts, red-painted brake calipers, a suedecloth/leather upholstery upgrade and the super-cool carbon fiber roof. It goes for $44,995, or a few hundred more than the Civic. All of that was a long-winded way of saying “they are effectively the same price and come with as much equipment as possible.” (Of course, all those prices are essentially theoretical as dealers across the country are adding many thousands onto the hood of any GR or Type R that finds its way onto their showroom floor).

After extensively driving them back-to-back through the canyons of Malibu, the traffic of Los Angeles, and the morass of the pre-school parking lot, we scored each car on our usual 1-10 rating scale. Many of the categories are the same as we’d use for minivans or family sedans (passenger and cargo space, infotainment and safety features, interior quality and functionality, fuel economy), but we weighted seven categories, including two that are special for this test: gearbox and “fun to drive” joined acceleration, braking, steering, handling, ride, front seat support/adjustability and value as the “car enthusiast categories.” After tallying it all up, we had a clear winner, but acknowledge that “the loser” is arguably the cooler and more memorable car.

2nd Place: Toyota GR Corolla

The GR Corolla feels more special. Whereas the Type R looks and drives like the pinnacle of a car lineup that offers driver enjoyment at every ladder rung, the GR Corolla comes off as a Skunkworks project – because that’s basically what it is. From its wider rear body work and strengthened structure, to its bonkers engine and slick all-wheel-drive system, this isn’t just a Corolla Hatchback in a costume with a few go-fast parts added. It’s more Wolverine than Batman. And if you’re looking for the more collectible car and the ability to make people go “Oh cool!” it’s the Corolla.

That said, it’s still a Corolla, which is inherently not as good as a basic 2023 Honda Civic. Because of this, scoring higher in the weighted car enthusiast categories just wasn’t enough to overcome its shortcomings. It also didn’t exactly wipe the floor with the Honda in any of those categories, either: Out of a possible 90 points, it got 65 to the Type R’s 63.

But let’s put the objective stuff aside for a second, because it’s the subjective “fun to drive” category where the GR Corolla shines brightest. While the two cars seem awfully similar on paper, with 300 horsepower for the Corolla and 315 hp for the Civic with virtually identical 0-60 times in the low-5-second range, how they go about their acceleration is entirely different. The GR’s little turbocharged inline-three is growly, snarly and raspy, like a dog shaking the hell out of a rope toy. Nothing really happens before 3,500 rpm, and there isn’t as much of a mid-range punch as the four-cylinder Civic, but it’s happy to sit north of 6,000. Basically, it’s pretty boggy, and then snarl, growl, go, go, go!

To our great surprise, the steering delivered more feedback, with crisp turn-in and agreeably light weighting that really lets you feel the road. Though I remember the steering being a bit meh at the track, it shined in the real world, contributing to how playful the GR feels. I had also wondered after the first drive event if the three-mode GR-Four all-wheel-drive system’s 30:70 power split would be better appreciated on a mountain road than on a track, where it was basically just a good way to go slower than the 50:50 Track mode. Turns out it was! Pumping 70% of the available power to the rear wheels provides a spot-on amount of rotation, a subtle looseness, that makes the car feel lively and, here’s that word again, playful. Basically, the GR can slice through corners in 50:50 mode or dance through them in 30:70. Either way, it’s superior to the front-wheel-drive Civic Type R, which, despite its suspension geometry designed to quell torque steer, will still tug at your hands as you unwind the wheel when hammering down out of a corner.

We should at least note that of the three GR-Four modes, none are some 0:100 drift mode (the GR-Four default mode is 60:40). There’s just too much grip from the Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires to break the rears loose on dry pavement. Believe us, we tried. Contributing writer Mark Takahashi suggested that if you really want a playful GR Corolla, get crappier tires. Of course, that won’t do much for the braking distances, which Motor Trend’s track testing showed to be very strong at 108 feet from 60 mph but ultimately not as good as the Civic’s supercar-like 104 feet. We preferred the Corolla’s firmer, more reassuring pedal, though, especially in the mountains.

Ultimately, we deemed the GR Corolla to be more fun to drive. It’s unquestionably the more compelling choice as a second car/weekend plaything or, alternatively, as the only car for someone like Takahashi with no kid to cart around and a history of far less civilized wheeled transport choices in his garage. For the uncompromising car enthusiast, the choice is clear: GR Corolla. That you can pick one up, albeit without the Circuit’s exterior flourishes, for less money than the Civic can’t be discounted, either. Of course, it’s not exactly cheap: a $38,175 Corolla is also still a Corolla.  

1st Place: Honda Civic Type R

While the GR Corolla eked out various wins in the weighted car enthusiast categories, the Type R scorched it in most of the categories that would apply equally to any other Civic and Corolla. The interior is leaps and bounds better, which admittedly says more about how stunning the Civic’s interior has become in its most recent generation. The materials quality and functionality are just as exceptional, while the Type R’s unique styling complements the standard car’s design beautifully. Red carpets, seats and belts could be extremely tacky, but the hue is rich and the textiles look and feel of a high quality. The metal shift ball puts it all over the top. If there was ever any doubt as to why the Honda costs more, you don’t have to sit inside very long to go, “Oh, this is why.”

The Type R’s seats were the only “car enthusiast” category where the Civic enjoyed a big advantage. Some would argue they should be power-adjustable (like those in a humble Civic Hatchback Sport Touring), but they offer greater adjustability and lateral support than the Corolla’s sport buckets that are mounted a bit too high. We especially like the Type R’s unique split seat bottom that makes depressing the clutch just a bit easier.

Not that it’s difficult to. Quite the opposite, as it’s part of what makes the Type R’s six-speed one of the best manual transmissions, period. There’s a little more heft required to engage a gear than the Civic Sport Touring’s, and that brilliant metal shifter is mounted closer to the wheel than the Corolla’s. Gliding it through the gates is bliss. At the same time, though, we really enjoyed the GR Corolla’s gearbox, too. It has more of a mechanical feel in its engagement, plus we found the clutch’s higher engagement point resulted in smoother driving around town. Pity its pedals are so far apart, making heel-toe downshifts more difficult than in the Civic. Of course, both cars feature auto rev-match downshifting – the Corolla’s is default off, while the Civic’s is default on. It also has two settings, tied to drive mode, both of which work just a bit better than Toyota’s version. 

The engine that transmission is attached to is a classic, if not as characterful as the GR Corolla’s bonkers triple. It energetically builds to a crescendo north of 5,000 rpm that you just don’t expect from a 2.0-liter turbo-four. It sounds terrific up there in a very Honda way. Now, Honda does pipe in some fakery through the audio system, with differing amounts in different drive settings, so it’s not a totally authentic experience. The GR Corolla, on the other hand, is 100% au naturel. In general, you don’t have to push the Civic’s engine as hard to keep up pace, thanks to a robust mid-range that’ll keep you blitzing through corners in the 4,000 to 5,000 rev range. That, plus its greater displacement may result in better fuel economy despite official EPA estimates being equal at 24 mpg combined.

Although the GR Corolla took the lead in the main dynamic categories (acceleration, braking, handling, steering and ride), the Civic Type R still proved to be a masterful driver’s car as it sliced through the roads of Malibu. It may not be as playful, and it’s unquestionably limited by front-wheel drive, but it is impeccably polished and composed. We hit a nasty mid-corner bump that initially made me go “uh-oh,” but the Civic just shook it off like a car costing far more. Credit certainly goes to the adaptive dampers, which continuously adjust and offer three settings. A Type R engineer told me its “Comfort” mode is equivalent to the Civic Si’s standard setup, and it feels like it. It’s certainly more compliant than the GR Corolla. Although the Toyota’s ride is surprisingly comfortable around town (a big question finally answered after driving it only on the track), it can nevertheless be choppy with more bobbing. Its suspension also can’t get any firmer, whereas the Civic offers Sport and Track modes. This adjustability therefore gives the Type R an advantage on a track, in the mountains and on the daily drive.

And to that last point, it can’t be stated enough how much better the Civic would be to live with on a day-to-day basis. Besides being more comfortable and made to a higher quality, the interior is far more spacious despite the goofy decision to remove the rear middle seat, and has better storage (the electric parking brake might be lame compared to the GR’s big, chunky handbrake, but it does free up space). The trunk is also vast, whereas the Corolla Hatchback’s is notably tiny. It struggles to fit paper grocery bags under its cargo cover, while the Civic can do this. We also preferred Honda’s infotainment system and interior controls in general to the latest Toyota system that frustrates with its over-reliance on the touchscreen. Safety features are basically a wash.

Some may scoff, but the Civic Type R’s many practical advantages result in a car that will be a superior choice for more people. Put another way, it’s far closer to the GR Corolla in terms of performance than the Toyota is to it in terms of everyday practicality. While only two points separated them in our weighted performance categories, the Civic Type R’s overall score of 195 out of 250 max bested the GR’s 184. It really wasn’t close.

However, the main takeaway here should not be that the Civic Type R wins, but rather, that these two cars proved to be far more different than you’d expect given their many on-paper similarities. Jumping from one to the other produced exclamations of “oh wow,” just for different reasons. Either way, we don’t think you’d be disappointed.

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