Shoppers’ Guide: 5 Cars Sportier Than the 2021 Toyota Corolla
The Toyota Corolla is a top-selling four-door sedan. For a good part of the past century, it has provided a wide variety of buyers with reliable, safe, affordable transportation. At times, the Corolla was also relatively sporty. Most times it was not. And there is nothing wrong with that. Making a car sporty comes with trade-offs in price, comfort, and even reliability.
The Corolla is a fantastic choice for most buyers in its segment, but not all. Some want something a bit more fun to drive. For those shoppers, we have compiled this list of sportier vehicles similar in many ways to the Corolla. You should plan to pay a smidge more for these sporty cars, but they are within reach of almost every new car buyer. Here is our list in ascending order of sportiness.
Honda Civic Si
Starting at around $27K, the Honda Civic Si is a car that is fun to drive in every situation except rush-hour traffic. Its 205 hp from the turbocharged engine is paired with great low-end torque you can feel in real-world driving. The six-speed manual transmission is one of the best sticks ever made at this price point. Honda even has an option with high-performance tires. If you go that route, budget for some winter tires as well if you live where snow falls. Fans of the Civic line may note that we have left the higher-performance Type R Civic off this list. Why? Because we have tested both, and found the Si to offer the same level of fun in the real world for ten grand less.
Hyundai Elantra N Line
The Hyundai Elantra N Line follows closely in the Civic Si’s footsteps. The specs are nearly identical, and both cars are fun to drive. So what makes it special? For starters, the paddle-shifted 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. If you need to commute in your car this is a much better method of changing gears. (Take it from a former Civic Si owner). Pricing has not been announced yet, but expect to pay around $30K. Helping keep costs of ownership down, Hyundai includes 3 years of maintenance in the price and nobody offers a better warranty.
Kia Niro EV
As much as we like the Civic and Elantra for their low-end torque, neither has the same linear pull that the Kia Niro EV offers. We drove the Niro EV back to back with the Standard Range Plus Tesla Model 3 and came away surprised that we preferred the Niro. One main reason was that we found it more fun to drive. Don’t tell that to a buddy who owns a Model 3. You will lose a friend.
The Niro EV has a much higher MSRP than the other vehicles on our list, but comes with up to $10K in incentives in EV-target states. It’s worth a look if you want a vehicle that is fun to drive and green as well. Budget about $32K for a Niro EV, but note that your energy savings compared to the other vehicles on this list will be as much as $1K every year. And no oil changes – ever!
Starting at about $29K, the WRX offers a turbocharged engine and a buyer’s choice of CVT transmission or a six-speed manual. The WRX was made even more famous than it already was by the Baby Driver movie. If you dream of tail-out drifting and reverse 180-degree turns, this is the car you likely imagine. We’ve driven the WRX on both road and track and find it to be fun, but not Baby Driver fun. The car in the movie was modified to be rear-wheel biased, and the street-legal one you will buy is not going to handle that way. This is one car we always suggest shoppers try before they fall in love after reading about it. The WRX has legions of fans, offers all-wheel drive standard, and has impressive spec-sheet numbers. Just be sure you like how it really drives before you buy.
Mazda3 2.5 Turbo
The Mazda3 is the reviewers’ choice in many comparisons of vehicles in this class. It wins over both the hearts and minds of testers for being not just fun to drive, but also refined. This is a premium vehicle hiding in a mainstream class. Starting at about $31K, the Mazda3 2.5 Turbo brings a gun to a knife fight in this comparison of sporty vehicles with a whopping 320 lb-ft available just off of idle. Yes, that is way more than the WRX. The Mazda3 2.5 Turbo is offered in both sedan and five-door hatch body styles and comes with a geared automatic transmission with paddle-shifters.
Mazda’s Mazda3 is fun in any trim. The 2.5 Turbo with all-wheel drive is just the pinnacle of the model line. Try any of the Mazda3 sedans or coupes and you will find out why the car wins over the folks who evaluate cars for a living.
Our list of sporty affordable cars is by no means intended to demean the Toyota Corolla. The Corolla tops all of these cars in certain ways, but not when it comes to driving pleasure. Be sure you know where your priorities lie and shop with them in mind.
John Goreham is a long-time New England Motor Press Association member and recovering engineer. John's focus areas are technology, safety, and green vehicles. In the 1990s, he was part of a team that built a solar-electric vehicle from scratch. His was the role of battery thermal control designer. For 20 years he applied his engineering and sales talents in the high tech world and published numerous articles in technical journals such as Chemical Processing Magazine. In 2008 he retired from that career to chase his dream of being an auto writer. In addition to Torque News, John's work has appeared in print in dozens of American newspapers and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites. You can follow John on Twitter, and view his credentials at Linkedin
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