The Motor1.com Star Award for Best Performance Vehicle really had it all, with prices extending from a cheap-and-cheerful $29,000 sport-compact icon to a $154,000, 819-horsepower, all-electric monster. There was a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 wrapped in a powder blue body and a rip-snorting Hyundai with a face only a mother could love.
The Hyundai Elantra N, Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing, Honda Civic Si, and Lucid Air Grand Touring wowed our judges both on the track at Willow Springs and on southern California's serpentine roads, but it was the 2022 Audi RS3 that took the crown. Not because it was the quickest, the most agile, or the most engaging, but because it was nearly the quickest, most agile, and most engaging, all at the same time.
Priced starting at $60,000, partnering a 401-horsepower five-cylinder with a character-transforming rear differential, and available with track-ready options like carbon-ceramic brakes and Pirelli Trofeo R tires, the RS3 is everything we could ask of a performance car. That it comes with virtually no drawbacks in everyday livability only sweetens the deal for this stunning sports sedan.
What We Looked For
Performance is both straightforward and a little bit subjective. While we looked at horsepower and torque, and their impact on straight-line speed via instrumented testing (measuring two-way averages), track testing and canyon driving also focused on overall agility and braking performance. Beyond those factors, our editors considered how involving a vehicle is – the sensation of fast, predictable, and communicative steering along with a talkative chassis and a fantastic soundtrack. And, qualities such as excellent driver interfaces and smart performance-focused technology also weighed in our decision.
|2022 Honda Civic Si HPT
|Turbocharged 2.0-liter I4
|205 Horsepower / 192 Pound-Feet
No. Not really.
The new Civic Si was an unmitigated delight on the canyon roads around our testing HQ, with editors praising its delicious six-speed manual gearbox, tight body motions, and telepathic steering. And with the lowest base price of the group, the Si automatically started with a leg-up despite its modest 200-hp output. Had our testing only included canyon roads, the Si would have had a strong case.
But on the track, the Civic Si's horsepower deficit and a soundtrack that some authors found grating after a few laps of wide-open-throttle running were too much for that accessible price tag to overcome. And on the stopwatch, it was unsurprisingly the slowest of the bunch. Despite this loss, the Honda Civic Si is something that deserves appreciation. We should appreciate these sub-$30,000 performance cars while they're still around.
|2022 Lucid Air Grand Touring
|Two Permanent Magnet Motors
|819 Horsepower / 885 Pound-Feet
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the most expensive car at this year's awards. The $154,000 Lucid Air Grand Touring is a straight-line monster, with a promised sprint to 60 of just 3.0 seconds for the 819-hp model at our test. And when it came time to reign in that speed, the Air’s brakes proved up to the task, with predictable feel and performance. But no, the Air's stunning stoppers could probably slow the earth's rotation if used irresponsibly.
Going into our testing, though, the Air had a few liabilities. Its size and weight, surprisingly, weren't really among them. This is a remarkably agile vehicle, with excellent body manners and an eagerness to change directions that would embarrass some thoroughbred sports cars. The steering is fast and predictable, although feedback was minimal both through the steering and that fantastic chassis.
The Air's extreme price was a concern for some of our editors, and some others struggled with the seating position – that all-glass roof is remarkable, but with an A-pillar mere inches off the driver's left ear, it still feels surprisingly claustrophobic. The lack of feedback through the steering and chassis was the worst of this group, too. Still, as a technological showcase and easily the quickest car at this year's competition – that also happened to be a big, comfortable luxury sedan – the Air Grand Touring represented the growing ranks of performance EVs admirably.
|2023 Hyundai Elantra N
|Turbocharged 2.0-liter I4
|276 Horsepower / 289 Pound-Feet
Make no mistake, no car had a greater hand in the Civic Si's downfall than the Hyundai Elantra N. Nearly as affordable, but possessing much more power, a more entertaining soundtrack, equal levels of agility and tossability, and a more focused cabin, the Elantra N has everything we want in an affordable sports sedan (except for good looks).
And yet it didn't seem so at the start. While the Elantra N pulls hard in the middle of the rev range, it was leisurely off the line. The two-way average sprint to 60 mph was 5.23 seconds, or 1.3 ticks of the clock off the RS3. Still, the extra power – 276 ponies and 289 lb-ft – allowed it to dominate the Civic Si, which recorded a 7.43-second run. And things improved considerably once we put our trusty data logger away.
Let loose on the Streets of Willow Springs, the Elantra N was a relentless performer, its turbocharged four-cylinder and seven-speed dual-clutch transmission working in fantastic tandem – ignore the smallish and uninspiring paddle shifters, because the powertrain tuning here is on point. It was as if the electronic brain under the hood had a map of Willow's 1.8-mile circuit in mind, holding gears and swapping up with telepathic predictability. The powertrain sounds furious, too, with cracks and pops erupting from the twin 3.0-inch exhaust pipes on a regular basis.
And in the canyons, both the N-spec brakes and suspension showed their mettle. The 14.2-inch front discs provide ample stopping power, while none of our editors reported any sense of fade during testing. The suspension, which carries electronic dampers (a rarity, even at this price point), is responsive and predictable, although the N does the high-powered-front-driver thing and understeer when pushed too hard. You'll need to willfully provoke said understeer, though, because the N's electronic limited-slip diff is simply heroic, especially on the carousel corner at Willow.
The Elantra N's cabin earns plaudits too, although only in terms of driver interfaces. The flat-bottomed steering wheel and N-branded seats elevate this Hyundai well beyond its compact car roots, but a simple glance anywhere else brought us right back down to earth. The Elantra N's cabin feels cheap and flimsy, as if Hyundai took every single penny out of the plastics and applied it to performance. We respect that, but the rest of this segment manages to impress on the track without abuse during daily driving.
|2022 Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing
|Supercharged 6.2-liter V8
|668 Horsepower / 659 Pound-Feet
The Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing came within a hair of taking the win. An immensely likable car, its power, poise, and extremely high limits – made all the more accessible by the sublime Performance Traction Management system – make it our choice if a Mercedes-AMG E63 or BMW M5 is too cushy and relaxed.
The star of the show, of course, is the supercharged 6.2-liter V8 under the hood. With 668 hp and 659 pound-feet of torque, the Blackwing outguns its two main German rivals. Unsurprisingly, torque is always, always, always on hand, with that big supercharger stepping in to fill in what few gaps the 6.2-liter V8 leaves.
And helping wrangle the big engine is Performance Traction Management. There's a lot of talk when reviewing performance cars about “Well the electronic nannies allow just a little slip in Sport and blah blah blah.” PTM works because it does that, but the changes are completely invisible until they aren't. The car doesn't magically feel looser or more slidey, but each twist of the PTM dial on the steering wheel raises the limits. You can explore what this car can do in a way few 650-plus-hp vehicles can manage.
But the CT5-V Blackwing's shortcomings were an issue for some editors, who said this new vehicle doesn't really feel that new, with too many similarities to the last two generations of CTS-V. The clonky Tremec six-speed manual gearbox is too easy to miss shifts on when really hustling, while getting it off the line promptly is equally difficult – see the 4.03-second sprint to 60, which is a tenth off the Audi RS3, a vehicle that’s down over 250 hp. The seating position is oddly constrained for bigger drivers (even if the wheel and seats themselves were excellent), too.
The Blackwing's price also worked against it. We aren't even talking about the eye-watering $123,000 price tag of our tester – starting at just under $91,000, you need to add a few bells and whistles to get the right Cadillac. Simply adding the high-performance sport seats and carbon-ceramic brakes (the latter is a must if you're regularly exercising all 668 ponies) inflates the price tag to $104,280. Having to spend an extra $13,000 to get the best version of a $91,000 car is a real kick in the teeth.
|2022 Audi RS3
|Turbocharged 2.5-liter I5
|401 Horsepower / 369 Pound-Feet
The Audi RS3 feels like an obvious choice on paper, where it sits squarely in the middle of the pack – 401 hp, 369 lb-ft, and a $60,000 starting price. But those simple numbers belie the RS3's sheer range.
This car is a track-ready weapon, a capable and accessible drift machine, an eager canyon carver, and its premium trappings and high-end tech make it a competent daily driver. It’s supercar quick, netting a two-way average sprint to 60 of just 3.9 seconds (quicker than the CT5-V Blackwing in our testing). Those abilities alone left the RS3 competitive, but it was the way it flattered the abilities of even the most ham-fisted pilot and the depth provided by the fantastic RS Torque Splitter that sealed the deal. Simply put, the RS3 feels more neutral and balanced than nearly any other Quattro-equipped Audi that's come before it.
On both the canyon roads and at Willow Springs, the way the RS3 responded to being pushed was a delight. If Kevin Bacon's character from Animal House were a car, he'd be the Audi RS3, responding to every abuse with “Thank you sir, may I have another?” The turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder and seven-speed dual-clutch, coupled with that Quattro all-wheel-drive system, respond to inputs both abrupt and smooth in stride.
Carbon-ceramic brakes and Pirelli Trofeo R tires are available from the factory (we had the latter, but not the former), and would most assuredly make the RS3 the envy of your local track day. Those CCBs are quite good, too, with none of the grabbiness or tendency to squeal that afflicts setups on pricier vehicles. They hauled the weighty Audi down from 60 mph in just 101 feet.
The RS-spec suspension, which includes adaptive dampers, is just firm enough for regular use on public roads and delivers the kind of telepathic responsiveness we crave. The lone fly in this particular ointment, though, is the steering, which is lifeless and uninteresting. If Audi could fix that, the RS3's narrow victory would have been closer to a landslide.
A bit part of that win does come down to price, because friends, you don't really need the options this car offers. Maybe splurge on the $5,500 Dynamic Plus package for the carbon-ceramic brakes (our tester had it, but our experience with the standard stoppers has been good), but don't feel like you need to indulge in the appearance and equipment options that drove our Kyalami Green's as-tested figure to nearly $75,000 – few are worth the price. You can have an RS3 to be proud of without going much over $60,000. For that reason, and many others, the Audi RS3 is Motor1.com's Best Performance Car for 2022.
How We Choose Star Awards Winners
The Motor1.com Star Awards start with vehicles that received the highest Star Ratings throughout the year. Our awards consideration set starts with vehicles that are either all-new or significantly revised over the last year. From there, we invite the best vehicles to join us for a week of head-to-head testing.
During the year we let data take the lead in our rating system, but the goal of Test Week is to compare vehicles head-to-head – on the road, on the track, or in the dirt as the case may be – to see which competitor in each segment stands out with unmissable value, incredible technology, and impressive real-world behavior. Any vehicle invited to participate in Star Awards is excellent, but only the very best in each segment can claim the title.
Photo Credit: Logan Zillmer
2022 Audi RS3