2023 Honda Civic Type R vs Toyota GR Corolla GTS comparison
These two hot hatches are firecrackers, so what happens when we pit them head-to-head against one another? Tom and Glenn head out on the road – and track – to find out.
Introduction & On the Road – Tom Fraser
At times over the past few years, it’s felt like the humble hot hatch could have gone the way of the dodo. Especially as car makers focus their efforts on SUVs, electric powertrains, and volume-selling nameplates, the enthusiast’s world has been dealt innumerable blows and lost more than a few iconic nameplates.
But no one shared the new status quo with Toyota or Honda. In the 2023 Honda Civic Type R and Toyota GR Corolla GTS, we’ve got arguably two of the most focused and serious hot hatches on sale in Australia.
We’ve loved our drives in both individually, but now it’s time to compare one against the other – on-road and on-track.
One wears an iconic badge with over 30 years of heritage, and the other represents a fresh take on what a hot hatch should be. For the latter, the Toyota GR Corolla brings a turbocharged three-cylinder engine and equips an all-wheel drivetrain, while the respected Honda Civic Type R stays true to its roots with a front-drive layout.
The Toyota is the less expensive of the two, but sadly it’s extremely difficult to get a hold of considering Toyota is only bringing in 700 cars in the first year. There are marginally more Type Rs coming into the country, but it’s still a tricky prospect to get one in your driveway.
Against a $64,190 list price before on-road costs, you’ll pay roughly $70,000 drive-away for a GR Corolla GTS if you’re in Melbourne.
|Key details||2023 Toyota GR Corolla GTS||2023 Honda Civic Type R|
|Price||$64,190 plus on-road costs||$72,600 drive-away|
|Colour of test car||Glacier White||Rally Red|
For that spend you’re getting a turbocharged 1.6-litre engine from the GR Yaris hot hatch, but it’s been tuned to extract more power – 221kW and 370Nm. These outputs are routed through an all-wheel-drive system.
That ‘GR-Four’ all-wheel-drive system is electronically adjustable between three separate torque splits, there are limited-slip differentials on both axles, and a six-speed manual gearbox is the only transmission available.
Another kit to get excited about includes a set of 18-inch cast alloy wheels wrapped in Yokohama Advan Apex tyres, aluminium pedals, an eight-speaker JBL sound system, head-up display, leather shift knob, handbrake and steering wheel, adaptive cruise control… oh and heated seats too.
On the outside, the GR Corolla car isn’t doing a whole lot to shake the Corolla’s 'whitegoods' reputation with the boring shade of Glacier White, but there is a lot going on around the exterior bodywork.
There’s a wide intake down below the grille, bonnet vents, pumped wheel arches, GR badging, GR-Four side skirts, and an accentuated set of rear haunches. You’ll also see a subtle spoiler at the back and triple exhaust pipes.
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In the red corner, the sixth-generation Honda Civic Type R tones down the outlandish looks of its predecessor but still looks suitably pumped in all the right places.
It’s priced from $72,600 drive-away nationwide and, like the GR Corolla, only comes in six-speed, manual-only specification. The powertrain has been largely pinched from its predecessor but now outputs 235kW and 420Nm through the front wheels.
It gets a limited-slip differential over the front axle, a series of driving modes (including the provision to create your own), a switchable active exhaust, 19-inch alloy wheels wrapped in Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres, and a set of obnoxious red seats inside the cabin – though we’ll get to those shortly.
Though it’s not quite as out-there as the Type R before it, this Rally Red example sports a low and wide front apron, functional aerodynamics down the side, pumped guards, and a big black wing at the back. The Type R also uses a three-pipe exhaust underneath its accentuated rear splitter.
|2023 Toyota GR Corolla GTS||2023 Honda Civic Type R|
|Boot volume||213L seats up||410L seats up|
Of the two, the Corolla’s cabin looks far more adjacent to the run-of-the-mill passenger car hatch it’s based on. But there are still some intentional touches.
The seats are largely pinched from the Corolla ZR model grade, but they’re covered in a grippy suede fabric that holds you in place. There could definitely be more bolstering around thighs and sides, especially when compared to the Type R.
In terms of screens, there’s an 8.0-inch display handling the infotainment and a 12.3-inch digital display in front of the driver. There’s also a colour head-up display. The infotainment is decidedly small by today’s standards, but it includes the new Toyota layout which is a major plus compared to the old alternative.
It’s very simple to navigate and use but does not include any specific performance gauges or graphics. I used wireless Apple CarPlay throughout my week.
However, the digital cluster is very customisable with gauges for g-meters, boost pressure, fuel data, gear position, and the all-wheel-drive system. It looks excellent.
Annoyingly, there’s no centre console bin, which makes storing valuables a pain and there’s nothing to rest your elbow on while driving.
In the second row, there’s a tight space for tall occupants (I’m 194cm), but at least there are three seats along the second-row bench. The Civic only has two.
There are no USB ports in the rear of the Corolla, no air vents, and it’s a bit of a tricky spot to climb into.
Much like the regular Corolla, the GR’s boot is tiny – 213 litres worth of stuff is all you’ll get in the back there, and there’s a tyre repair kit in the boot in case of emergencies.
Overall, the GR Corolla’s cabin ticks off the must-have items, but there’s not much flair or excitement – especially compared to the Civic Type R’s cabin.
On the other hand, the Civic Type R feels really special inside the cabin. And very red.
The sports bucket seats look purpose-made for the Type R and come covered in a grippy, suede-effect fabric. It feels like there’s a bit more space for taller occupants to get comfortable with and a lower base to sit on, and there are premium materials aplenty.
Drivers will be well pleased with the snug nature of the big seats, with tight bolsters and excellent adjustability to get that perfect driving position.
Within the eyesight of the driver are special touches such as the build plaque on the dash, red seatbelts, Type R-embossed headrests, a lovely metallic gear shifter, a suede steering wheel, and metal door handles.
The 9.0-inch infotainment screen is larger than the Toyota’s, and it also contains more functionality. It’s quick to come to terms with thanks to prominent shortcuts both on the screen and beside it. Wireless Apple CarPlay and wired Android Auto are available for those who prefer, like the GR Corolla.
Embedded within the system is Honda’s cool LogR track data recorder function that can convey information about your driving performance on a closed road. It’ll connect to a phone app so that drivers can monitor their own performance after the fact, which is a cool add-on for such a focused performance car.
The digital cluster in front of the driver is configurable in myriad ways to show all kinds of car data and recordings. Put the car in full R+ mode and the display changes again for an all-enveloping performance screen best suited to a single-focused track experience.
Second-row comfort is marginally larger than the Toyota Corolla in terms of legroom, but again it only caters to four occupants total. There are no air vents in the back.
Open up the rear hatch and you’ll find a 410L load capacity. There is a slide-across cargo blind to keep your valuables hidden from prying eyes, but like the GR Corolla, there is no spare tyre – just a tyre repair kit.
Before delving into the track component, we set off for Gippsland’s hills in anger, to see if there were any road conditions that might bring these two hot hatches unstuck.
The regular Toyota Corolla has a reputation for being comfortable, quiet, and frugal on fuel. But then this is no ordinary Toyota Corolla. The GR Corolla GTS fires up with a rorty grumble, and whether it’s from the three-pipe exhaust out the back or piped through the cabin, it sounds brilliant, especially compared to the relatively subdued Civic Type R.
You might not think the small 1.6-litre engine would raise hairs on the back of the neck, but the 221kW/370Nm outputs come on thick and fast after planting your foot to the firewall. Toyota’s GR-Four all-wheel-drive system ensures grip levels remain high on public roads in the dry, and the ability to switch between varying splits: 60:40 front-to-rear, 30:70 front-to-rear, or 50:50 equal.
You can feel the character and handling qualities of the GR Corolla change as you progress through each of these modes, with the back end pushing out further in the 70-per cent rear-driven split.
For better or worse, there are fewer driving modes in the GR Corolla compared to the Civic Type R, but you can customise your own set-up in an individual setting.
The engine does its best work lower down in the rev range thanks to an engaging surge of torque. Its torque figure feels less and less significant (in comparison to the Civic Type R’s) the closer you get to the redline.
Shift up through the six-speed manual transmission, though, and the GR Corolla is only too keen to do it all again. In isolation, the GR Corolla’s shift experience is nice and notchy, but it pales in comparison to the Type R’s (more on that later).
Toyota’s rev-match feature is handily toggled using a button on the dash, and it does a pinpoint accurate job of blipping the throttle.
Steer the GR Corolla through a bend and the system feels incisive and direct. Though it’s a lighter-feeling steering, there’s a darty character that allows a sharp turn-in. GR Corollas have four-piston brake callipers up front and two-piston at the rear. What they lack in initial bite, they make up for with strong stopping ability as you start leaning into them more heavily.
The suspension has the bandwidth to handle dynamic driving – keeping the GR Corolla stable through corners and unfazed by mid-corner bumps – while retaining the ability to act comfortably for everyday commuting. Though it’s a single-stage suspension system, the GR Corolla doesn’t exhibit a choppy or bumpy ride over speed humps or road imperfections. A very well-sorted damping set-up.
The Civic Type R, too has the ability to juggle everyday duties alongside sporty driving.
However, it doesn’t take long to realise that Type R is a much more serious performance-focused hot hatch than the GR.
We went through the nicer touches used inside the cabin earlier, but they start to pay dividends once you’re out on the road driving the car. The seating position is mounted nice and low, and the cosy seat hugs you in tight.
The tactility of the suede steering wheel and the metallic gear selector is brilliant. The steering is weightier and decidedly more meaningful compared to the GR Corolla, while the throw of the gearshift is precise and intentional. Where the GR Corolla’s manual gearbox felt snickety and precise, the Civic Type R’s short throw feels as tactile as cocking a bolt-action rifle.
Nudge up to speed and the Type R’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo engine feels gritty and eager in much the same way as a Porsche 911 GT3. It loves to rev and doesn’t relinquish pulling power right up until hitting redline. It might be up on power (235kW/420Nm) and down on driven wheels, sending power only to the fronts compared to the GR Corolla’s GR-Four AWD system, but those two wheels earn their keep by faithfully putting power down to the ground no matter the conditions.
In the most extreme of conditions, the front end can push wide if overwhelmed by power, which was most noticeable on track in the next section, but the mechanical limited-slip differential does a great job otherwise.
Like the GR Corolla, the Type R comes with its own rev-match function. It’s not as simple to toggle as the Corolla, but the Type R’s alarmingly quick response to a throttle prod makes it easy to do yourself. The clutch is high-biting, which makes it painless to drive in traffic, and the drivetrain is generally unfussed by quick gear changes whether you’re driving mundanely or at a clip.
The Type R lords one over the GR Corolla by equipping an adaptive damping system that steps up progressively in Sport and +R driving modes. Sport is the happy medium and firm enough for sports driving, but the suspension becomes uncomfortably firm in the all-out +R setting. In Comfort, the suspension is relatively relaxed and can absorb major bumps without upsetting the cabin ambience.
These modes also change bits such as the Type R’s active exhaust, though even at its loudest, the Type R has nothing on the GR Corolla’s gruff engine note.
Between applying power to the ground, providing feedback and information about grip levels, and pointing the car’s nose toward corners, there’s a lot asked of the front wheels. But the steering feel is direct and feelsome, and the Type R relishes in quick and successive changes in direction.
It stays steadfastly rigid through bends and you’re able to adjust your line mid-corner without worry of upsetting balance. It’s almost too clinical in this sense compared to the GR Corolla. There’s limited playfulness to the chassis as the Civic instead attempts to carry as much speed through corners as possible – without the drama.
Braking performance is unrelenting no matter how many times you lean on the four-piston Brembo calipers. There’s an initial grab that inspires confidence in their ability to wash off speed, but the stopping power doesn’t lose effect until you come to a halt.
Above all, the duality of character – exhibited by both the GR Corolla and Civic Type R – is key to their suitability for everyday driving.
That they can each carve up a back road like a sports car, and then settle down for the two-hour drive home, is hugely commendable. But, being that the Type R performs to that much higher of a level without giving away anything to everyday comfort, ensures it’s the outright winner for on-road duties.
Time to fling both of them at a racetrack.
On the Track – Glenn Butler
All right, it's time to take this Honda versus Toyota battle to the track. Which one is quicker around a racetrack and which one is more fun?
It’d be easy to assume the Civic Type R will be quicker because it’s the current hot hatch lap record holder at the Nurburgring. Seven minutes 44.8 seconds. But that record was set with a lightweight version of the Type R that is not sold in Australia, and it had extra sticky tyres (more here).
Toyota hasn’t set a Nurburgring lap time with the GR Corolla, so the only way for us to compare is to put both cars around the same track on the same day with the same driver.
We’ve come to the very tight and technical Haunted Hills circuit north of Moe to do exactly that. This purpose-built motorsport facility is just 1400m long, has 16 corners and crazy elevation changes. This place is tough, and it favours lightweight, agile cars with strong acceleration and good brakes over high-powered and heavy supercars with insane top speeds.
Let’s refresh on our combatants’ vital statistics, the ones that matter dynamically.
The Corolla measures just over 4.4m bumper to bumper and sits on a compact 2640mm wheelbase. By comparison, the Honda is 4606mm long and rides on a 2735mm wheelbase. But don’t for a moment think this makes the Corolla more agile because it’s 49kg heavier and 72mm taller than the Civic.
|Key details||2023 Toyota GR Corolla GTS||2023 Honda Civic Type R|
|Engine||1.6-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol||2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol|
|Power||221kW @ 6500rpm||235kW @ 6500rpm|
|Torque||370Nm @ 3000–5550rpm||420Nm @ 2600–4000rpm|
|Drive type||All-wheel drive||Front-wheel drive|
|Transmission||Six-speed manual||Six-speed manual|
|Spare tyre type||Tyre repair kit||Tyre repair kit|
The 1455kg Toyota GR Corolla is powered by a 1.6-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine that requires 98-octane premium unleaded to make its 221kW and 370Nm.
The 1406kg Honda Civic Type R has a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-pot that produces 235kW and 420Nm using 95-octane fuel.
So, the Honda has a 10 per cent better power to weight: 167kW/tonne compared to 152kW/tonne. Perhaps more importantly, the Civic’s torque to weight ratio is 17 per cent better.
Both cars have a six-speed manual transmission with rev-matching capability on downshifts. But where the Honda puts its power down via an LSD-equipped front axle only, the Corolla has Toyota’s GR-Four all-wheel-drive system that has a driver-adjustable centre differential and limited-slip diffs front and rear.
As far as tyres go, the Civic Type R wears 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport rubber 265mm wide with a 30 per cent profile, whereas the Corolla’s 18-inch tyres are Yokohama Advan Apexes with 235mm contact width and 40 per cent side profile.
So, will wider and lower profile tyres help the Honda or will the Corolla’s all-wheel drive be too much of an advantage to overcome?
Inside, both cars have everything they need for the hot hatch enthusiast’s track day.
Both front bucket seats hold the driver in place behind a very adjustable and perfectly positioned steering wheel. The Honda places the driver lower in the cabin and its seats have more side bolstering, both of which heighten driver focus.
The Honda’s Alcantara steering wheel feels racier, too, and will be grippier if you favour driving gloves.
Of the Honda’s driving modes, I’ve gone straight for Plus-R, which firms up the adaptive dampers to the point where they’re uncomfortable on lumpy Aussie back roads but perfect for smooth racetracks. It also sharpens the throttle and adds weight to the steering.
Heavier steering is welcome because it helps the driver more deftly measure inputs in the heat of battle when the front wheels are not only scrabbling to put the power down but also pushing the limits of lateral adhesion.
I also turn traction control and stability control off so I’m the final arbiter of grip and slip.
Setting up the Corolla also takes but a few moments. The centre diff has three settings varying between 60/40 and 30/70 front to rear. I opt for Track mode which applies a 50/50 split to optimise traction in both tight turns and fast bends.
There’s no multi-mode damping on the GR Corolla; one suspension tune must manage both on-road compliance and racetrack dynamics. There is a ‘Sport’ setting that adds heft to the steering and makes the throttle more responsive. I also turn the electronic assistances off for a level playing field and engage iMT Intelligent Manual Transmission that rev-matches on downshifts.
I like that Toyota gives the driver the choice to rev match or not, and initially thought that the Honda’s ‘always-on’ rev-matching would get in the way of my own heel-toeing on downshifts. After driving these cars on-road and during warm-up laps, I realise that either the Honda and I are in perfect sync or its rev-matching is smart enough to know when I choose to do it.
Regardless of that, when it comes to track laps I’m more interested in setting the two cars up as similarly as possible rather than pandering to my own preferences.
One last point to explain before we get busy: the starting procedure.
Getting a car off the mark as quickly as possible is very different depending on whether the car is rear-drive, front-drive or all-wheel drive. Plus, some cars have launch modes that can prove ridiculously effective at nailing the manufacturer’s claim – Porsche, for example – but others require a lot of driver familiarity and finesse.
Front-drive and low-powered all-wheel-drive cars generally fall into the latter category.
For this very reason, I will cross the start line at a steady 50km/h in second gear and then floor it. Two flying laps will be joined by a cool-down lap in between.
The Corolla gets the first shot against the clock. I start with three warmish laps to familiarise myself with the car and the track, and then begin the first flying lap.
It takes all of three corners to know that the GR Corolla is a properly rapid hot hatch. Its 0–100km/h claim of 5.3 seconds more than hints at this, and the in-gear acceleration provided by its rorty and characterful three-pot more than gets your attention.
Three more corners and my admiration for what Gazoo Racing had achieved grows further. I’ve never driven a normal Corolla and walked away thinking 'Wow, this would make a great hot hatch', but that’s exactly what GR has done. The Toyota GR Corolla is fast and engaging to drive. It’s an exciting hot hatch that’s also bursting with character.
The feel and feedback through the steering wheel. The responsiveness and eagerness of the engine. The tenacity and transparency of the brakes. Everything comes together to give the driver a deeper feel for the Corolla. It also imbues the GR Corolla with an eager and endearing personality different to any other hot hatch I’ve ever driven.
It really surprised me just how adjustable the GR Corolla is when it’s being pushed hard. I expected it to feel clumsy rather than crafty; a car that needs to be prepped before corner entry and then endured as the corner unfolds before eventually punching it on exit. Instead, it’s involving and adjustable, malleable even at its most manic.
Compared to the Honda, the differences are stark, however. There’s more body roll in turns, and that’s exaggerated by the driver sitting higher in the cabin. The Corolla’s Yokohamas also don’t feel to have the mid-corner grip of the Honda’s Michelins, but the driver can feel all this and refine their own inputs accordingly.
Ultimately, the GR Corolla is seriously fast and loads of fun, but it doesn’t feel as honed as the Honda Civic Type R. That’s not surprising given the physical and powertrain differences, and also that one is the first of its kind, while the other is a sixth-generation evolution 26 years in the making.
But that’s not to diminish one just to elevate the other. Both are fantastic machines to drive, on the road and around a racetrack. But where the Corolla charms in an overachieving underdog way, the Civic Type R is more relaxed and refined on the road, yet it rips racetracks apart with a scalpel’s precision.
Not that you’d know it from my first lap. I’m pretty sure the first corner is the reason the Type R set a lap time seven-tenths of a second slower than the Corolla my first time past the post.
Haunted Hills, for anyone unfamiliar with the circuit, is not really a circuit. It’s a hillclimb course with a start line and a separate finish line that just so happen to be joined by 50m of equally smooth, high-quality tarmac.
The ‘Start Line’ for the hillclimb – and our start line for this trial – is in a tight right-hander at the apex of a crest. If you start there from a stationary position, the crest is not an issue. But if you do a rolling start like we did, then you’re dealing with a car going light into a tight turn at the same moment you want to punch it.
Coming across the line at 50km/h in second gear, I did exactly that. The Civic’s front end laughed at me and promptly lost traction, the tyres spinning madly. This meant the Civic also ignored the steering lock I had on and ran wide, which ultimately compromised the lap in a number of ways.
First, I had to back off to restore traction. Then I had to turn tighter to get back on course, by which time my line into the second corner – which goes the other way – was compromised. Then it’s an opening right-hander followed by a straight, and through all of that, the Honda was down on speed compared to what it could do if I’d got it right.
Even so, the Honda Civic Type R recorded a 1min 4.03sec lap compared to the Corolla’s first lap of 1min 3.36sec.
I didn’t make the same mistake the second time. I was also more dialled into the grip limits of the Civic’s front end. Unlike the all-wheel-drive Corolla, the Civic’s power delivery needs to be managed to keep the tyres within the limits of traction.
The Civic’s lower centre of gravity and firmer suspension help in this endeavour, maximising tyre contact over occupant comfort. But really, the Honda’s more intense and more immersive communicative abilities are its real weapons, more tightly hard-wiring the driver into the powertrain’s delivery and the chassis’s balance.
Even though the Honda only has two wheels putting the power down, it makes up for that disadvantage with greater grip in the corners and stronger acceleration between the bends. That’s not a revelation but more a reflection of its lighter weight, stronger engine, wider tyres and larger dynamic footprint.
Even so, the Honda surprised me with its malleability, particularly the willingness of the rear end to contribute to cornering. Front-drive cars are pejoratively called bum-draggers, yet the Honda is anything but that. Its rear end can be stable or adjustable depending on what you do with the pedals and the steering wheel.
It’s also a car that encourages you to be a better driver. A smoother driver and a more thoughtful driver.
Everything you do as a driver affects the car. Not just how much you turn the wheel, but how fast. Not just how much you press the throttle, but how progressively. Same for the brakes. And it’s the same when you come off the pedals. Stepping off the brakes into the apex just raises the nose and introduces understeer. Easing off the brakes keeps the nose planted and your apex speed up.
Both cars reward the smoother driver, but the Honda is more sensitive in this regard and more generous.
It’s the old baseball bat versus Samurai sword analogy. Both are effective weapons, but where one bludgeons the other slices. But to call the Corolla a baseball bat is an unfair exaggeration just to make a point. It’s sharp, very sharp. Just not as sharp as the Civic. Maybe it’s a cutlass to the Honda’s katana.
The GR Corolla’s second lap time was 1min 3.24sec, an improvement of just over 1/10th of a second.
The Civic Type R’s second lap time was 1min 3.16sec, an improvement of more than 8/10th of a second.
In hindsight, I should have done a third lap in each car, because I suspect the Civic’s time could be sharpened more than the Corolla’s. And if I were going to do three laps, then why not do four, or five, or enough until the times stopped shrinking?
But we only had two hours of track time, and shooting videos and photos eats into hotlapping time. As it was, I spent 10 minutes in each car getting to know each calmly and progressively before throwing them against the clock for two laps each.
It’s a fair comparison that also happens to highlight how easy it is to get up to speed in each. The Corolla was the easiest and most forgiving to just jump in and blast. The Honda needs a progressive approach but will reward more generously if you do.
As days go, this was a corker. Two hot hatches at the top of their game, a racetrack and fair weather.
What this track session has revealed is just how differently these two hot hatches express themselves. They are very, very different machines, even though they’re both aiming for the same goals of hot hatch performance and excitement.
And they both deliver, effusively.
The Corolla is a few grand cheaper, but the Honda has more performance, more tech and a wider operating bandwidth.
The Honda is the better hot hatch. It’s also the faster hot hatch around one of Australia’s tightest and toughest short courses that arguably favours all-wheel drive. On the broader and much faster turns of Phillip Island’s Grand Prix Circuit, I suspect that the Honda would leave the Corolla much further behind.
Wouldn’t it be great to know for sure? What a day that would be.