Top 10 best hot hatchbacks 2021
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. We’ve also included the Ford Puma ST on our list as, while technically an SUV, it’s certainly worth considering if you’re looking for fun and practicality without breaking the bank.
Today’s hot hatchbacks mostly offer at least 250bhp – or more than 400bhp in some cases - making them faster than many ‘proper’ sports cars. They often have greater agility too, thanks to their comparatively compact dimensions. The vast majority are petrol but there are a few diesel and even plug-in hybrid (PHEV) hot hatches to choose from now.
Arguably their signature selling point is that they can be used every day. Aside from increased running costs and a firmer ride, 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. Some make great cars for track days too, if you enjoy blasting around circuits at the weekend.
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 EcoBoost 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 before it goes on to reach a top speed of 144mph. 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 5.8 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), featuring the same 420-litre boot, for example, which can increase to 1,580 litres with the rear seats folded down.
The Skoda Octavia vRS is undeniably the most practical hot hatchback on this list, thanks to its vast 600-litre boot. It’s also one of the more economical options, with the 197bhp 2.0-litre diesel version returning in excess of 55mpg. 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 7.4 seconds sounds somewhat lacklustre, the way the engine delivers its power means it’s unquestionably rapid. Opt for four-wheel drive for an additional £1,400 and this will be reduced to 6.8 seconds. The 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine and the new plug-in hybrid option both come with 242bhp and while both are faster on paper than the diesel, they’re either more expensive to run or buy.
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 around 50mpg and a supremely practical estate version too.
While it’s not a traditional hot hatchback, the Ford Puma ST definitely deserves a place on this list. It uses all the same underpinnings as the Fiesta ST, so is brilliant to drive. The steering is sharp, the car is settled at high speeds and it’ll zip from 0-62mph in 6.7 seconds, which all make it a hoot on UK roads.
You’ll need to pay slightly more per month for the Puma ST over the Fiesta ST, but you also get much more space inside. It’s easily roomy enough for a small family, especially given that the boot is 50% larger than the Fiesta’s. In fact, the cargo space is actually bigger than the Ford Focus ST’s, too, so you can have the practicality without losing the speed and excitement. Until the Hyundai Kona N is launched, the Puma ST has no direct rivals.
Those two letters between ‘Toyota’ and ‘Yaris’ are important, because they signify that this is no ordinary Yaris. GR stands for Gazoo Racing, Toyota’s motorsport arm that has competed in the World Rally Championship, and the team’s drivers were part of the GR Yaris’ development. The engineers have wrung out 257bhp from the 1.6-litre engine (60bhp more than the similarly sized Fiesta ST), while four-wheel drive allows a rapid 5.5-second 0-62mph time.
Just one look at the GR Yaris is enough to know it’s special, thanks to a big grille, special alloy wheels and huge swollen wheel arches. The changes are even more thorough than that though, as Toyota developed a bespoke three-door bodystyle for the GR Yaris, with a chopped roofline and increased stiffness compared to the standard model.
Hyundai got the hot hatch recipe right the first time around with the i30 N and the smaller i20 N doesn’t disappoint. It takes slightly longer than the Ford Fiesta ST to complete the 0-62mph sprint, at 6.7 seconds, although it offers slightly more power at 201bhp. But, like the ST (the car the i20 N was clearly benchmarked against), the chassis is arguably the car’s greatest strength.
The normal Hyundai i20 is a fun car to drive but the range-topping N version takes that to another level. Weighing little over a tonne (very light for a modern car), the i20 N is agile and alert, yet it’s even quite comfortable over bumps and potholes. There’s plenty of grip, while elsewhere the i20 N impresses with a big boot and the sort of tech you’d normally find in more expensive models.
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.
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.
Want to find out more about the most powerful hot hatches you can buy? Check out our guide to The UK’s top 10 fastest hot hatchbacks.
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