Our contenders are the aforementioned VW, along with the 2019 Honda Civic Si, 2019 Subaru WRX and 2019 Hyundai Elantra Sport. All four start under $30,000 and offer more than 200 horsepower. And of course, they all have trunks. In our comparison, we'll look at each car's powertrain comparing horsepower and torque. We'll also look at practicalities such as interior space, fuel economy and pricing. You can see the raw numbers in the chart below, followed by additional analysis and links to reviews. If you'd like to compare any of these cars with a different group, be sure to check out our car comparison tool.
Engines and drivetrainsPerformance, and particularly power, is likely a priority for a sporty sedan buyer, and there's a clear leader: the Subaru WRX. At 268 horsepower, it's 40 ponies ahead of the next most potent car, the 228-horsepower Jetta GLI. It also ties the GLI for torque at 258 pound-feet. Both cars also support the old adage that "there's no replacement for displacement," since each have 2.0-liter engines while the Hyundai has a 1.6-liter unit and the Honda engine only displaces 1.5 liters. The Hyundai and Honda are nearly tied for power and torque, too, at roughly 200 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque.
Another bonus for the Subaru is its standard all-wheel-drive system, which is handy for power delivery, lateral grip and for inclement weather. While the Jetta GLI and Civic Si are front-drive only, they do feature mechanical limited-slip differentials to enhance traction under power. The Elantra Sport makes do with electronic aids and an open differential.
We're pleased that all four of these cars offer manual transmissions, too. But if you do want or need an automatic transmission, the VW, Subaru and Hyundai have you covered. The VW and Hyundai rely on seven-speed dual-clutch transmissions, and the Subaru uses a CVT with eight preset ratios for manual mode shifting. The Civic Si, though, is manual only (and it's an excellent manual at that).
Weight is another thing that factors into performance, but unfortunately only Honda and Subaru have curb weights available for their little sports sedans right now. The Honda is the lightweight at just 2,906 pounds, while the Subaru with its extra axles and differentials starts at 3,294 pounds. That's nearly 400 pounds heavier than the Honda.
Interior and exterior dimensionsSince Volkswagen hasn't released full specifications on the Jetta GLI, we've had to rely on regular Jetta data to fill in the interior and exterior dimension gaps. These should be extremely close since VW has said that no interior space has been compromised with the addition of the GTI engine and multi-link rear suspension. And exterior changes should be minimal.
With that in mind, the Jetta is most certainly the longest car, but the Civic and Elantra have slightly longer wheelbases. The smallest on the outside is the Subaru, with the shortest length, wheelbase and width. But in the width department, all of these cars are nearly identical with a spread of 0.2 inch.
Inside, we can draw some interesting conclusions. If you're not carrying rear passengers often, the Subaru could be the way to go, as it offers the most possible front head- and legroom. The other three are better choices for rear passengers with the VW and Honda tied for best legroom, the Hyundai with the best headroom, and the Honda with best shoulder room. If cargo capacity is the most important aspect, though, the Civic is the winner at 14.7 cubic feet, and the Subaru the clear loser with 12 cubic feet.
Pricing, fuel economy and featuresWhile the Honda Civic Si may not be the most powerful, it sure is the most frugal. It's the only car with a combined fuel economy number higher than 30 mpg, and it's highway rating is a whopping 38 mpg. The dual-clutch equipped Hyundai Elantra Sport and all versions of the Jetta GLI are essentially tied for second place. The Subaru is far behind, never breaking the 30 mpg mark in any category. It also is a rare car in which the automatic still performs worse than the manual.
Price-wise, the Hyundai is the winner at $23,520, beating the next cheapest Honda by $1,700. The Subaru tops the charts at $28,080, $1,190 more than the next most expensive VW.
Feature sets are worth comparing, too. As far as standard equipment, the Elantra Sport has the most safety features with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and even lane-keep assist. For other convenience features, the Honda, Hyundai and VW are all close. All three have heated seats, touchscreens, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and proximity entry with push-button start. The Honda and VW each have dual-zone climate control. The Honda and Hyundai each have a sunroof and heated mirrors. The VW gets ambient lighting, the Hyundai has leather, and the Honda has a 10-speaker sound system. The Subaru, on the other hand, is quite sparse, with only single-zone automatic climate control and a touchscreen sound system among its noteworthy standard features.
If you're willing to spend on options, though, the VW and Subaru have some appealing ones. The Jetta GLI can be equipped with a 10.25-inch instrument panel screen, remote ignition, leather upholstery and power-adjustable ventilated front seats. The WRX has some performance options such as Recaro seats and upgraded brakes, as well as a factory exhaust upgrade.
Editors' ImpressionsFor more information on any of these cars, be sure to check out our drive reviews. They feature detailed driving impressions beyond just the numbers.
- Read our first drive of the Honda Civic Si, which is also available as a coupe
- Read our driver notes review of the Subaru WRX
- Read our first drive of the Hyundai Elantra Sport, and note that since we wrote it, the Elantra received significant updates for 2019 that included updated styling shown below.