Performance vehicles represent the passion of the auto industry. Over a century, automakers have sought to go faster, corner harder, and deliver greater thrills to consumers. In the process, the number of performance vehicles and their variety has exploded so that today we have three-row luxury SUVs that can snap to 60 as quickly as a Ferrari from 20 years ago.
The year 2021 is brighter than ever for performance, with the rise of EVs leading to quicker vehicles than ever before. But our contestants for Best Performance Vehicle aren’t some newfangled things – they’re the latest versions of two icons. The 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI and 2021 BMW M3 represent legendary products that date back almost 40 years, and in that time, they've thrilled consumers and critics alike. The latest examples of these thoroughbreds are no different. But while the M3 lives near the peak of four-door performance, we selected the GTI as our winner. Read on to find out why.
The Golf GTI is the definitive hot hatchback and we'll accept no arguments to the contrary. Offering performance that's equally thrilling and approachable, it also packs far more utility than you'd expect from such a sporty offering. We like it so much we gave the new model an 8.8 star rating when we drove it for the first time.
New for 2021, the Mark 8 model retains a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and offers either a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission or a six-speed manual. While we'd recommend the 6MT with no hesitation, our European-market tester (US models don't go on sale for a minute, but the mechanical differences are modest and we did rate the Euro GTI we tested earlier in the year), carried the two-pedal arrangement.
This pairing remains a thrilling one, with the GTI scooting to 60 in a manufacturer-claimed 6.3 seconds. If VW isn't sandbagging, though, we'll eat our hat – this car feels far, far peppier than that figure would indicate, with huge mid-range punch and a torque curve that seems to never end. There's plenty of power off the line, too, but good luck breaking the front wheels loose.
That's because our test car is wearing a more serious set of rubber than a base GTI. Its Bridgestone RE071R tires are not available from the factory, although Volkswagen is offering a max-performance summer tire option for the first time. If the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires that will arrive on select US-market GTIs are even half as good as these Bridgestones, you'll want them.
Backing up the sticky rubber is a revised chassis. The new aluminum subframe is lighter and stiffer and represents the headlining change, but Volkswagen has made a number of smaller tweaks to improve the GTI's handling, including stiffer springs. A new Vehicle Dynamics Manager takes the place of VW's old drive modes, and as we've covered before, it provides far greater adjustability of the adaptive dampers, XDS limited-slip differential, and stability control.
The GTI's traditional tartan upholstery returns, lining two-piece sport seats that provide substantial support while offering softer bolsters than last year's car. Long-haul comfort should improve here. The new three-spoke steering wheel is a pleasant upgrade, although the touch-capacitive buttons can take a long walk off a short pier (watch the video to find out why).
|2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI SE
|2021 BMW M3 Competition
|Turbocharged 2.0-liter I4
|Twin-Turbocharged 3.0-liter I6
|241 Horsepower / 273 Pound-Feet
|503 Horsepower / 479 Pound-Feet
|155 MPH (electronically limited)
|25 City / 34 Highway / 28 Combined
|16 City / 23 Highway / 19 Combined
|19.9 / 34.5 Cubic Feet
|13.0 Cubic Feet
|$29,545 + $995 Destination
|$69,900 + $995 Destination
|Trim Base Price:
While everyone got wrapped up in the 2021 BMW M3's new schnoz, they seemingly ignored the dramatic improvements BMW made to the car's mechanicals and driving character. BMW M went through some dark days, highlighted by the less-than-loved last-gen M3 and the fifth-generation M5. Today's M3, particularly in Competition guise, is sharper, more aggressive, and more exciting than ever before. It scored 8.3 out of 10 in our star rating system when we drove it for the first time earlier this year.
That starts under the hood where a revised twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six engine packs 503 hp and 479 lb-ft of torque. It sings a sweet, distinctly BMW song that manages just the right amount of noise with little highway droning. Going for the Competition model forces drivers into an eight-speed automatic transmission (the six-speed box is only available in the regular M3 and requires owners to sacrifice a lot of torque and some horsepower). In Comp form, 60 mph arrives in a brisk 3.5 seconds.
This powertrain is dynamite, even if the new automatic transmission lacks the brutal kick during wide-open-throttle upshifts that the old DCTs provided. The upside is that the M3 has excellent manners when simply commuting, while still offering thrills on the track. We especially like the meaty paddle shifters.
But the best element of the cabin are the $3,800 sport seats. Optionally finished in lurid yellows and blues, the carbon-fiber-backed chairs are probably the best factory performance seats on the market. They provide incredible support, with stiff bolsters holding drivers in place through even the most vigorous cornering.
And boy, can the M3 corner. A wider front track, standard Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, and revised suspension mechanicals make for wicked handling. But the most contentious point among our editors is just how immediate the M3 turns in. The steering is incredibly fast, with even small inputs sending the car diving towards its intended target. Because of this, the M3 demands smooth, measured inputs and discipline on the part of the driver.
How We Tested
While we spent time with all of our contestants on highways, country lanes, and many, many canyon roads, we did something extra special for our Best Performance Vehicle contestants, renting out Horse Thief Mile at Willow Springs International Raceway for more aggressive testing. There, we weighed each product's straight-line performance, overall agility, stopping power, and transmission behavior against the other and the broader market. But most importantly, we looked beyond such mundane factors as speed.
What makes a great performance car isn't merely a time on a stopwatch. The best vehicles engage their drivers directly and can make the evening commute as exciting as blasting down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans. And because few of us possess the talent to safely explore a modern performance car's ultimate limits, these vehicles need to make us feel heroic all the time. Their performance should be accessible, but they need to build drivers up while also preventing them from tearing themselves down. That is an infuriatingly difficult task for automakers to manage when legions of ravenous fans live and die based on a car's Nurburgring time.
Why The Golf GTI Is This Year's Best Performance Vehicle
That balance, that ability to tutor the driver and forgive their mistakes is a big part of why the GTI won. A novice will find this car thrilling, especially how it accelerates, the weight of the steering, and the ability to make rapid-fire adjustments to various systems. The experienced driver will revel in the granular changes they can make to the GTI's behavior, both through the electronic systems and via their own inputs.
But the GTI is also just plain fun in nearly any situation. The M3 suffers needs to be going at least eight-tenths for it really to feel happy. Calling a car a tool is a little cliché, but like any good tool maker, BMW designed the M3 for a very specific purpose and it's just not as good when you are using it for something else.
With the GTI, every turn of the wheel is an adventure. The M3 has dramatically higher limits, but its frenetic steering is tiring where the VW's is approachable and pleasant, with impressive stability in everyday driving and a proper weight and responsiveness on a canyon road or racetrack.
We can't really ignore the price disparity here either, even though it played only a small role in our decision. At $30,540, the GTI is less than half the price of the $73,795 M3 Competition. For every driver, regardless of experience levels, grabbing a GTI and putting some money towards high-performance driver training is a better long-term decision than ponying up for the fast, flashy BMW. And even if you don't take that advice, the GTI provides so, so many thrills for such a (relatively) small amount of money. For that reason, and especially for all the others, the 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI is our Best Performance Vehicle of 2021.
- October 12: Best Value - Hyundai Elantra Hybrid
- October 14: Best Luxury Vehicle - Mercedes-Benz S-Class
- October 18: Best Electric Vehicle - Ford Mustang Mach-E
- October 20: Best Performance Vehicle - Volkswagen Golf GTI
- October 22: Best Adventure Vehicle - Ford Bronco
- October 25: Best Truck - Ford F-150
- October 27: Best Family Vehicle - Kia Sorento
- October 29: Editors' Choice - Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo
Stay tuned for much more on the first annual Motor1.com Star Awards. As always, we welcome your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.