► CAR's best hot hatchback picks
► Pocket rockets to suit any budget
► Which one would you take home?
It’s almost impossible to mention the phrase hot hatch without at least mentioning the crop of 1980s modern classics that put small, affordable and quick hatchbacks on the map. People will also tell you that the ‘80s was the golden era and nothing can come close to the VW Golf GTI MK II, Peugeot 205 GTI 1.6 or Renault 5 Turbo that defined the period but we beg to differ…
2021 is clearly a golden year for hot hatches, with the variety, quality and speed. From the smaller, lighter hatches that pay homage to their 80’s forbearers to the brutish 300 bhp AWD hyper hatches there is something for everyone. Such variety sees the tiny VW Up GTI technically in the same category as the Mercedes A45 AMG which is a spectacular thing to behold.
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
Best hot hatch: a buying guide
Part of the initial appeal of hot hatches back in the ‘80s was that these cars could blend everyday practicality and reliability . This is still the same today although remember that hot hatches come in different sizes and you’ll likely need something Golf sized if you want to use it for family duties.
If you’re prepared the blur the lines slightly of what is a hot hatch then the selection and practicality gets even bigger. The new VW Golf R is set to become an estate while the selection of hot crossovers is growing by the day. Be wary however, it’s hard to make a crossover handle with the same poise as a smaller hatchback.
Also take into consideration how hardcore these cars may be. Adaptive suspension has come a long way in previous years but some of these cars will have the ability to shake bones loose, not the best way to keep your family happy. A handy tip is to also double-check your hot hatch of choice comes with rear seats, especially if you have kids.
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 2021 UK
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:
Toyota GR Yaris
The Toyota GR Yaris is the talk of the town at the minute. Shaking off the pleasant goody two shoes hybrid image of its namesake, the GR Yaris is quite simply the best way to spend £30k if you’re after serious performance.
Originally intended as a WRC homologation model before the rally car was cancelled, the GR Yaris still entered production at the command of Akio Toyoda. Unsurprisingly for a rally homologation the GR Yaris features AWD (which can bias the rear wheels) and somehow squeezes 257 bhp from a 1.6-litre three-pot. It’s also a bag of laughs to drive, with excellent handling and punchy acceleration in a car that starts at £29,995. And if all of that wasn’t quite enough, it even comes with a proper manual gearbox.
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
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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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Mercedes-AMG A45 S
Not many cars have matured quite as well as the A-Class in its 23-year existence. From oddball family car to a rather generic but good family car the A-Class is a staple of British roads. There’s nothing generic about the latest A45 S however, featuring 416 bhp from a 2.0-litre four cylinder and a 0-60 time of 3.9 seconds.
Brutal in a straight line, the A45 S is also good in the corners. A complex AWD system with rear-bias means it can make use of that power and, unlike previous Mercedes efforts, it’s fun to drive. The interior is also top-notch and by far the most refined offered by any of our top hot hatches. And if this is simply too much performance or money, the A35 isn’t half-bad either.
Park the original and futuristic W168 A-Class next to the latest A45 S and you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re entirely unrelated. The only real downside is that the A45 AMG starts at £50k and can easily set you back the same money as an Alpine A110 or BMW M2 Competition.
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
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Volkswagen Golf R
The eighth generation VW Golf GTI is a spectacular car and a top hot hatch but is surprisingly absent from this list. The reason for this is that for the first time, the faster, AWD Golf R is better.
No longer does the Golf R just rely on AWD and a hefty power boost to distinguish it from the GTI, the Golf R genuinely offers an engaging drive alongside plenty of power and AWD. Power is up to 316 bhp and a clever AWD system (now with drift mode) means the Golf is sure-footed trough the twisties.
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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