Best hot hatchbacks
The best hot hatchbacks offer sports car thrills and performance with everyday usability and practicality for a reasonable price.
When car makers are serious about growing their fanbase, they launch a hot hatchback as it will resonate with people who love driving. The genre was established by the original Volkswagen Golf GTI and today there are far more hot hatches vying for driving enthusiasts’ wallets.
The formula is clear: take a standard hatchback, beef up the suspension, increase the engine’s power output and add sporty styling tweaks inside and out.
Today’s hot hatchbacks mostly offer at least 250bhp – or over 400bhp in some cases, making them faster than many ‘proper’ sports cars. They often have greater agility, too, thanks to their comparatively compact dimensions.
But best of all is that they really can be used every day. Aside from increased running costs and a firmer suspension setup, they’re no harder to live with than the common-or-garden version of the same car. Their boots are the same size, their interiors are as practical and their servicing costs are often no higher than lesser versions.
That blend of performance and practicality marks the best hot hatchbacks out as some of the most versatile cars on the road; equally capable of the school run, the weekly shop or an early-morning blast down a country lane.
Today, pretty much every carmaker has a performance version of at least one of its hatchbacks on sale, with surprisingly low prices for the most affordable. Few fail to entertain and the very best comprehensively undermine the case for larger and more expensive coupes or convertible sports cars.
We’ve listed our favourite hot hatchbacks currently on sale, ranging from small superminis to upmarket hatchbacks with a choice of three or five doors. There are even estate versions of some of these, meaning there really is something for everyone. Read on for our top 10 hot hatchbacks.
The latest Ford Fiesta ST is more refined and better equipped than ever, but it’s still fantastic fun to drive. In fact, the switch to a three-cylinder 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine has given the ST a new characterful soundtrack that has a hint of Porsche 911 about it. It’s quick too, with 197bhp seeing it scramble from 0-62mph in 6.5 seconds. Of course, the ST is more about cornering balance than straight-line speed, and here it comes alive, with sharp steering and impressive grip. This is even better if the optional Performance Pack is fitted, thanks to its limited-slip differential. Our only concern is the price, which has also crept up to reflect how advanced the ST has become.
The latest Honda Civic Type R is one of the most dramatically styled hot hatchbacks on sale, covered in wings, spoilers, vortex generators and vents that help it look more like a racing car than a family hatchback. It has performance to back up its shouty exterior, though: a sophisticated turbocharged 2.0-litre engine produces 316bhp and fires the car to 62mph from a standstill in 5.9 seconds. The Type R has a satisfying manual gearbox and suspension that can be as comfortable or aggressive as you like and a great turn of speed, yet it still manages to be every bit as practical as the standard model in everyday use (provided you can stomach the lower fuel economy).
The Skoda Octavia vRS is undeniably the most practical hot hatchback on this list, thanks to its vast 590-litre boot. It’s also one of the more economical options, with the 181bhp 2.0-litre diesel version returning in excess of 60mpg. If that makes the Octavia vRS sound boringly sensible, think again: a sporty bodykit and boot spoiler, sports seats, metal pedals and lowered suspension make the car’s hot-hatchback intentions clear for all to see. The overall effect is subtle rather than ostentatious, but the Octavia vRS looks quietly menacing in the metal. The diesel model is the one to go for, partly because you can upgrade to four-wheel drive if you wish. Although the diesel vRS’ 0-62mph time of 7.9 seconds sounds somewhat lacklustre, the way the engine delivers its power means it’s unquestionably rapid. The 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine comes with 217 or 227bhp and while both are faster on paper than the diesel, they’re more expensive to run in the real world.
In creating its first-ever hot hatchback, Hyundai has managed something truly special: engineering one of the finest handling front-wheel drive cars ever fitted with number plates. When you take on rivals like the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Honda Civic Type R from a cold start, you have to be serious, and Hyundai was relying on the i30 to launch its new ‘N’ performance sub brand. Hiring Albert Biermann - previously of BMW’s M division - must have helped, along with Hyundai’s rallying motorsport programme, because the i30 N handles beautifully and hugs the bends without beating you up on rough stretches of tarmac. The 271bhp i30 N Performance version, which also gets performance mechanicals like a limited-slip differential, is now the only offering, since the 247bhp base version was dropped. Different driving modes allow you to alter the setup of the car for your daily commute, a B-road blast or track day, adjusting parameters like the suspension stiffness and throttle response.
Arguably the father of all hot hatchbacks, the Volkswagen Golf GTI combines an impressive history, together with more than enough performance for most drivers and roads. Doing 0-62mph takes 6.3 seconds thanks to the 242bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, which is smooth and eager when accelerating. The Golf GTI loses out to some hot hatchbacks in terms of outright performance and driver enjoyment, but it’s one of the easiest cars to live with on this list, and also has one of the better-built interiors. The latest ‘Mk8’ car is also a real tech-fest, with big screens dominating the dash and few physical buttons.
The Ford Focus ST is another hot hatch stalwart, having been around in all four Focus generations. This latest iteration is arguably more important for Ford than any of its predecessors, as the company has confirmed that there won’t be an even more powerful Focus RS this time around. A 276bhp petrol engine (with components borrowed from the Ford Mustang) allows a suitably speedy 5.7-second 0-62mph time for the flagship Focus, and the excellent chassis means it’s just as good, if not better, in the corners. There’s also a diesel version capable of 50mpg and a supremely practical estate version too.
With a similar dual-clutch gearbox and four-wheel-drive system to the Audi RS3, the Golf R can still get from 0-62mph in 4.6 seconds, despite only having 306bhp from its smaller 2.0-litre turbocharged engine. Perhaps the most impressive thing though, is just how easy it is to achieve this feat time after time. Sit on the starting line with your left foot on the brake (there’s no sequence of buttons to remember) push down the throttle, wait for the revs to sit at a pre-programmed figure and release the brakes. It’s a feeling akin to a pilot being cleared for take-off, but a lot more exciting. The 2.0-litre engine places less weight over the nose of the Golf than the RS3, so it feels more nimble on some twisty roads too.
The 302bhp Mercedes-AMG A35 is the interim choice if you want more power than the A250 in the standard A-Class range but you don't want the hardcore A45 model. The A35 gets from 0-62mph in just 4.7 seconds - just a tenth of a second behind the fastest version of the Golf GTI. Despite the excellent performance, the A35 still has the modern, luxurious interior for which Mercedes has become renowned, with two large screens and plenty of plush materials, and the car claims fuel economy of almost 40mpg.
The MINI John Cooper Works (JCW) has a 228bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine that gets the car from 0-62mph in 6.1 seconds. It builds on the handling of the models in the standard MINI range, retaining the 'go-kart handling' but adding extra pace and even more grip, plus a sporty soundtrack thanks to a model-specific exhaust system. The JCW remains as usable and easy to drive around town as a less powerful MINI, despite its ability on a twisty country road. The MINI's firm ride is exacerbated in the JCW but it's a price many will be willing to pay given the fun on offer. A new MINI JCW GP version is even more hardcore, with carbon-fibre wheel arch extensions, but it’s more expensive and limited to 3,000 examples.
It's now a five-door, but there's nothing frumpy about the latest Renault Megane RS – especially if you get it in Liquid Yellow. This is one of the sharpest cars on sale at any price, and despite its engine shrinking to 1.8 litres, it has up to 276bhp and sounds better than ever. New features include 4CONTROL four-wheel steering for greater agility, while for a few thousands pounds extra, you can add a 'Cup' chassis, which stiffens the suspension. This makes the car even more focused, but ride quality suffers as a result. In other ways, the Megane RS is easier than ever to live with, thanks to a vastly improved infotainment system, plus a practical interior and boot.