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In the conversation about practicality and fun, the Golf GTI is always a contender. Entering its fifth decade of bringing joy to the daily drive, the VW hot hatch is a perennial favorite amongst critics and buyers alike. Now though, the Golf GTI has a new challenger in the form of the Hyundai Elantra N. And while buyers initially balked at the speedy Hyundai sedan, business, as they say, is picking up. 

But what does that mean? Small, fun cars are dwindling year by year, so the Elantra N is a welcome addition. We should (and do) root for more cars like this to hit the market. But is the N a true contender next to the longstanding legacy of the GTI? That’s what we’re here to find out.

The MK8 Golf GTI in gray
The 2023 Golf GTI | VW Group

Comparing the Elantra N and Golf GTI: By the Numbers

On the spec sheet, the Elantra N is the clear winner compared to the Golf GTI. Both feature 2.0-liter turbocharged powerplants, but the Elantra N delivers 276 horsepower to the Golf’s 241. Torque is a similar story, with the Korean contender offering up 289 pound-feet to the German’s 273.

Getting that power to the ground in the Elantra N involves an eight-speed wet dual-clutch automatic transmission or a six-speed manual. Meanwhile, the Golf GTI offers a six-speed stick alongside a seven-speed DCT ‘box. And it’s here where we begin to see how these two cars go about their business a bit differently from one another.

According to the EPA, fuel economy in the Golf GTI is an impressive 24 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. In the Elantra N, meanwhile, drivers can expect 22 mpg around town and 31 mpg when the road opens up.

Performance focused features

2023 Hyundai Elantra N rolling
2023 Hyundai Elantra N | Hyundai

In their features, it’s clear that the Elantra N is the more track-focused of these two affordable sports cars. It has a rear chassis brace that, while interrupting the rear cargo area (more on that in a moment), improves handling and chassis rigidity. The result is a front-wheel drive car that retains a lively character when pitched into a curve.

Both the GTI and Elantra N share features like a limited-slip differential, adaptive suspension settings, drive mode selection, and a built-in performance meter. Only the Hyundai model, though, offers a valved exhaust straight from the factory.

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Road-tripping the Golf GTI and Elantra N

Travel habits will be a significant factor when choosing between the GTI and N. The Elantra’s sedan body style gives it a more limited cargo area than that of the Golf. In fact, it offers six fewer nearly six fewer cubic feet in the rear cargo area alone. Furthermore, folding the rear seats of the GTI opens up almost 35 cubic feet of cargo area. The Elantra N, on the other hand, has a big metal bar behind the folding rear seats. Even if you fold those seats flat, the best you can do is thread a set of skis or a few 2x4s through the gaps.

However, when it comes to the seating area, the Elantra N takes a decisive lead. Only rear headroom lags behind what you get in the German hatchback, at 37.3 inches vs the Golf’s 38.1. Front and rear legroom and front headroom all exceed that of the GTI.

That is thanks mostly to the sport seats fitted to the Elantra N. They’re thinner and sit lower than seats in the standard Elantra, with aggressive but compliant bolsters. The reduced profile gives you more legroom throughout the cabin, and the lower mounting position gives taller drivers fewer headaches.

Which car provides the better value?

While both the Elantra N and Golf GTI are a great deal of fun to drive, those looking for a functional, fun daily driver will likely select the Volkswagen. A more compliant ride and quieter cabin make it a joy on daily drives, road trips, and everything in between. 

On performance, the Elantra N is clearly the victor. It delivers engaged handling and plenty of power, especially for the price point. However, it is a bit unrefined for racking up the miles, while the Golf GTI is above average to great across the board. Just don’t talk to us about the haptic climate controls and steering wheel buttons.