► CAR's best hot hatchback picks
► Pocket rockets to suit any budget
► Which one would you take home?
Today's hardcore hot hatch has enough firepower to square up to supercars of the 1980s, while comfort, technology and safety hail from a different dimension. For the price of a barn-find 205 GTI, you could buy a Honda Civic that laps the 'Ring in less than eight minutes and is as reliable as the rising sun.
Performance continue to increase, with AMG, Ford, Honda, BMW and even Hyundai all having dogs in this ever-competitive sector. But the main winner? That's us. Truly, we've never had it so good.
Further hot hatch reading
• Megane RS vs Fiesta ST vs Civic Type R
• Focus RS vs Civic Type R vs i30N long-termer adventure
• Civic Type R vs Leon Cupra vs Focus RS vs M140i
From Type R to Golf R, there are hot hatches here covering both ends of the spectrum. And if you still hanker for an old-school pocket rocket, there's big fun to be had in smaller packages, too. The venerable Ford Fiesta ST is a case in point: it's based on Britain's best-selling car, yet a defiant middle finger to mediocrity.
Best hot hatchbacks 2020: a buying guide
A hot hatchback is the ultimate practical performance car: demure enough for the school-run and roomy enough for trips to the tip, but wholly capable of eliciting expletives on the right road. If you need more space, a few – such as the Golf R – are also available as estates, although tread carefully with sporty SUVs like the Cupra Ateca. Few offer the dynamic acuity of a well-sorted hatch.
Broadly speaking, you can choose from city car, supermini or mid-size hatches – think Up, Polo and Golf. Only the largest of these is really suitable as a family car, but they won't all be popular with your passengers. A long journey in the hard-as-nails Hyundai i30N Performance is probably grounds for divorce. Likewise, swapping your back seat for a strut brace (à la Megane Trophy-R) won't go down well with the kids.
There's much variation in how cars in this class drive, look and feel. You'll find point-and-squirt 4WD traction, slingshot limited-slip diffs, scrabbling torque steer and everything in-between. Choose from paddles or a stick-shift, pothole-friendly pliancy or maximum-attack attitude. In terms of aesthetics, fly under the radar or go all-out with aggressive aero. And when it comes to comfort, pick from heated, electrically-adjustable leather or a thinly-padded carbon fibre.
If you're under 30, insurance could be the deciding factor here, although hot hatches aren't the bête noire they once were. Many also hold their value surprisingly well, meaning monthly finance may be cheaper than you expect. Use our list and reviews as a starting point, but always drive before you buy. Variety is the spice of life, and these cars are spicier than most.
Best hot hatches 2020
Want to know which is the best hot hatchback for you? Keep reading to discover our top choices for 2020 and why we rate them. You can also use the quick links below to read more about every car on our list:
Honda Civic Type R
The Type R looks like it time-warped back to the mid-1990s and crashed into a manga magazine. What's worse, some of that 'jet fighter' styling (Honda's words) isn't even functional: witness the fake grilles plastered over both bumpers. Its interior – a riot of red and black, with naff leather and dated infotainment – feels no less haphazard.
What lies beneath, however, is considerably more cogent. A 316bhp turbocharged four is the most powerful here, while multi-link rear suspension delivers sharp, sophisticated handling.
This is a '50-metre' car – one where everything feels sorted from the get-go. Big-bolstered seats hug your hips, the ball-topped gearlever snicks fluidly across the gate and the weighty steering relays every detail of the Tarmac. Give it the edamame beans and it's ferociously fast, blasting to 62mph in 5.8sec and attacking corners with unflappable focus. Its engine goads you on with breathless intensity, while its chassis feels dependable under duress. A car of contrasts, then, but one that gets firmly under your skin.
Living with our Honda Civic Type R long-termer
Browse Honda Civic cars for sale
Renault Megane R.S.
Back in 2004, while the Megane was busy 'shaking that ass', Renault Sport was more preoccupied with tweaking than twerking. The Megane R.S. garnered instant acclaim, and grew faster and more focused with every successive special edition. This third-gen model, though, has mellowed a little. There's bespoke bodywork instead of a few strategically-placed stickers, along with a tech-laden, if hollow-feeling interior. Its manners are more multi-faceted, too.
Four-wheel steering is the Renault's USP, bestowing it with rabid turn-in and arcade game agility. It feels almost precognitively alert – and a little unnerving at first – but recalibrate your reactions and it will inhale B-roads without pausing for breath. A punchy 276bhp four makes all the right noises in Race mode, or you can upgrade to the 296bhp Trophy – or indeed Nurburgring-baiting Trophy-R. You can also pick from Sport or Cup chassis, plus clunky manual or slick EDC auto transmissions. The Civic Type R is our current hardcore hero, but there's still much for fanboys to get frothy about here.
Read our Renault Megane R.S. review
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Ford Fiesta ST
The previous Fiesta ST was so brilliant, we wondered if Ford could possibly better it. Crisis averted: this is still the standout hot hatch in its class – a feisty little firecracker that level-pegs with the Alpine A110 for smiles per mile. Its 1.5-litre three-pot uses cylinder deactivation to save fuel (47.1mpg, if you're iron-willed), yet makes the same 197bhp as the old 1.6 four. Stump up £850 for the Performance Pack and you get launch control, shift lights and a limited-slip diff. Serious stuff.
Blistering real-world pace belies the Fiesta's modest on-paper performance (0-62mph in 6.5sec). The front end bites hard into apices, the rear edging playfully outwards as it lifts an inside wheel. The steering jostles with textured feedback, while the six-speed manual 'box is quick and precise. The pay-off is an utterly unyielding ride, which broadcasts every ripple in the road. If you can live with that – and we could – few sub-£25k cars come close. The ST is a life-affirming bundle of joy.
Read our Ford Fiesta ST review
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Ford Focus ST
While the previous petrol ST had a 2.0-litre engine, the new car uses a retuned version of the 2.3-litre four-cylinder Ecoboost engine used in the recently retired Focus RS.
It offers 276bhp and 310lb ft (compared with 247bhp and 266lb ft in the previous petrol ST, so it’s a sizeable jump). Anti-lag is new for the Focus ST, too. The really big news is the introduction of both an electronically controlled limited-slip differential (e-LSD for short) and electronically controlled adaptive dampers (CCD in Ford-speak, for Continuously Controlled Dampers).
It’s not quite potent enough to worry the superhatch-baiting Civic Type R, but it’ll go toe-to-toe with the Megane R.S. and Golf GTI and come out mostly unscathed, as it really can thrill on a good road and rewards you for working with it.
The ride is only just acceptable in Normal mode and it’s now quite a pricey beast, but this latest generation of Focus ST is one you should pay attention to; it punches hard, will really entertain if you work it hard and is loaded with kit.
Read our Ford Focus ST review
Toyota Yaris GRMN
HOW much?! In truth, the GRMN's £26k price tag matters little, as the UK's 80-car allocation sold out straight away. Still, expect second-hand examples to be sought-after: this hot hatch has the wherewithal to match its warpaint. The GRMN is a pukka skunkworks project, as far removed from your nan's Yaris as a Seat Ibiza 'System Porsche' is from a GT3. Its spec sheet includes a 209bhp supercharged engine, Torsen limited-slip diff, Sachs dampers and a strut-braced chassis – all honed on the Nordschleife – plus 17-inch BBS alloys, a centre-exit exhaust and 'Ultrasuede' bucket seats. Want numbers? Try 0-62mph in 6.4sec and 143mph flat-out.
The GRMN does without driving modes. Instead, there's a finely judged, one-size-fits-all setup. Its linear power delivery becomes pulse-spikingly urgent near the redline, while that mechanical diff hooks you into corners, then hurls you out the other side. The ride is abruptly stiff at low speeds, becoming looser-limbed as you press on. Toyota has sweated the small stuff, and it shows. Nonetheless, while subjectively less special, a Fiesta ST is ultimately more fun.
Read our Toyota Yaris GRMN review
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Volkswagen Golf R Performance Pack
Perhaps it's the sure-footed safety of four-wheel drive. Maybe it's just cheap PCP deals. Either way, R has usurped GTI as the default badge for a Golf with balls. So, behold the new benchmark: the epitome of that 'every car you'll ever need' cliché. The raw ingredients are a 306bhp engine, 4Motion all-wheel drive and manual or DSG auto gearboxes, garnished with subtle looks and a classy cabin. The Performance Pack adds beefier brakes, 19-inch alloys and a tailgate spoiler, plus a derestricted top speed (up from 155mph to 166mph). Autobahns ahoy.
It's no wonder the Golf R is, to quote one Met Police officer, "the getaway driver's car of choice"; tenacious traction, neutral balance and instant turbocharged oomph make it ludicrously easy to exploit. Too easy? Perhaps at first, but it rewards commitment, upping its game from crowd-pleasing blockbuster to edgier director's cut. Go crazy with options – including the throaty Akrapovic exhaust – and it can nudge £50k, but you'll find plenty in the classifieds for a fraction of that price. We can't say we're not tempted.
Read our Volkswagen Golf R review
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Hyundai i30N Performance
Hyundai hasn't just upset the applecart; it's swaggered into the orchard and fermented its own export-strength cider. The i30N is an explosive opening salvo from the fledgling 'N' sub-brand, developed by Albert Biermann of BMW M fame. In must-have Performance spec, it makes 271bhp – good for 0-62mph in 6.1sec – and sports an e-diff, bigger brakes, bilingual exhaust and 19-inch alloys with bespoke Pirelli rubber. Oh, and a five-year unlimited-mileage warranty.
There's something gratifyingly honest about how the Hyundai drives; it's rorty, rambunctious and short on ultimate polish, yet none the worse for that. It turns in, brakes and grips with fierce resolve, heavy steering and stern ride only amplifying the drama. Switch into N mode and it ditches all pretence of civility, dampers tightening like a clenched fist, the tailpipe pop-popping with every downshift. More like an overgrown Fiesta ST than a Golf R rival, this is a heady and intoxicating brew.
Living with our Hyundai i30N long-termer
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Volkswagen Up GTI
Proof you don't need a gazillion horsepower to have fun, the Up combines a zingy 999cc motor and six-speed manual 'box with stiffened suspension and wheel-at-each-corner stance. It's far from rapid – 113bhp and 1070kg mean 0-62mph in 8.8sec – but a sub-£15k price tag and group 17 insurance (a Swift Sport is group 35) sweeten the pill. It also looks like a proper GTI, with tartan trim, a subtle bodykit and go-faster stripes. Standard kit includes heated front seats, DAB, Bluetooth, electric mirrors and air-con.
You'd expect a half-pint city car on 17-inch alloys to ride like a rollerskate. Yet the Up GTI is relatively supple, its finely calibrated dampers endowing a cultivated feel of flow. The turbocharged three-pot thrives on revs, encouraging you to drive flat-out almost everywhere. Its snarling soundtrack is artificially enhanced and the gearbox feels a bit ponderous, but you'll be smiling too much to care. A surefire future classic, the Up GTI lives up to its lofty billing.
Read our Volkswagen Up GTI review
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We'll be updating this page regularly, so keep checking back for our latest thoughts on the best hot hatches.
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