Currently reading: Top 10 best hot hatchbacks 2021
These are our favourite hot hatchbacks currently on sale. But who will claim the top spot?
Autocar
News
11 mins read
29 September 2021

When it comes to the balance of performance, cost and daily usability, no other type of performance car does it better than the not-so-humble, full-sized hot hatchback.

The idea of taking a regular family hatchback and turning it into a performance car is now time-honoured and remains popular with enthusiast buyers in the UK especially. 

Volkswagen assumed ownership of the concept with the Mk1 Golf GTI of 1976, although students of the segment will tell you that the hot hatchback niche was founded earlier by either Simca or Autobianchi. Whoever went there first, most manufacturers now have one of these fundamentally enjoyable cars in their line-up.

From mega-power German luxo-hatches to newcomers from Hyundai, the segment has never offered so much choice. Creating some semblance of order, here are our top 10 picks.

1. Toyota GR Yaris

The top-ranking entry on this list may stretch the definition of a 'full-sized' hot hatchback that you've only just read, but you can believe it when you read that Toyota's incredible new rally-bred Yaris deserves top billing here in any case. It may not offer quite the space and usability of the rest of the cars on this list, but it yields little if anything to anything to most of them on real-world point-to-point pace or driver reward. Since it's also priced more like a full-sized hot hatchback option than a 'pocket rocket' hot supermini and also punches well beyond its weight in terms of outright performance, it makes sense to include it here instead of elsewhere.

This car had a fascinating development, having been first intended as a rally homologation car but then falling victim to a WRC rule change that could have killed the project stone dead. That it made production anyway says much about Toyota boss Akio Toyoda's commitment to change the perception of the brand for which he is responsible, by bringing exciting new driver's cars into its model range at multiple levels.

The GR Yaris is just one of those cars. It has a 1.6-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine making 257bhp, and a four-wheel drive system (with optional mechanical torque-vectoring diffs if you want them) that makes the car capable of 0-62mph in just 5.5sec. It also has a chassis and suspension developed with input from Toyota Gazoo Racing's WRC team that is perfectly tuned for fast B-road driving in just about any weather.

With communicative controls, surefooted cornering balance, and an uncanny dynamic composure that eggs you on to greater speeds and more amusement wherever and whenever you can get it, the GR Yaris is a very rare and special affordable performance car of a kind that has fallen out of fashion somewhat, but we're delighted it see it rekindled so successfully.

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Save money with new Yaris deals from What Car?

2. Ford Focus ST & ST Edition

The Blue Oval has had some memorably brilliant, chart-topping hot hatchbacks over the last couple of decades – and one of them still rules our ‘pocket rocket’ hot supermini rankings, let’s not forget. The current Focus ST narrowly misses out on matching that status, but not because it isn’t a really incisive and involving driver’s car, or because it’s lacking in power, pace or mechanical specification.

Although STs are typically slightly subordinate hot hatchbacks, Ford hasn’t held back with the makeup of this one. It’s the first Focus ST with adaptive dampers and the first with an electronically controlled limited slip differential for its driven front axle, the latter being something that remains fairly rare on cars of this price point and which certainly adds to its handling appeal.

If you want an even more specialised and hardcore prospect, there's now also the ST Edition version with its very special, manually adjustable coilover suspension and lightweight alloy wheels - and it takes the ST's dynamic recipe to even greater heights for body control and handling incisiveness.

The Focus ST has direct, agile handling, purposeful-feeling firm body control and abundant vocal and motive performance-car character. It’s the kind of hot hatch built to make even the more mundane road miles enjoyable, and it succeeds at that – although it lacks the outright grip and performance of some fast Fords of old. 

Perhaps that’s the right balance for an ST model: more the effusive everyday road performance car than the really purposeful, big-hitting track machine. It’s not quite enough to make this car our ultimate hot hatchback of the moment, bu but it's a very strong contender all the same.

Save money with new Focus deals from What Car?

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3. Mercedes-AMG A45 S

Let the following statement sink in: the Mercedes-AMG A45 S is a four-wheel-drive hot hatchback that costs more than £50,000 and has a 2.0-litre four-pot that makes 416bhp and 369lb ft. Not only does that mean Affalterbach’s most rabid hot hatch has the most powerful series production four-cylinder motor on the planet, it also has a motor with a higher specific output than that of a Ferrari 488 Pista. It is, in a sense, utterly ridiculous.

Be that as it may, there’s still a phenomenal (not to mention usable) driver’s car lying beneath all its wings, fins and flares. Straight-line performance is undoubtedly immense, but more of a surprise is how well-mannered its complex, steroidal driveline is when simply tooling about. Body control is rock solid at speed, but there’s genuine compliance in the chassis too. Grip, meanwhile, is outstanding; and the accuracy, weighting and textural feedback from its electrically-assisted steering rack is easily up there with the best in class.

As a multi-talented hot hatchback, the A45 S is undoubtedly a triumph. But priced as it now is up beyond £50,000, it has wandered so far from the realms of relative affordability that hot hatchbacks are supposed to champion that crowning it class champion would have been a touch problematic. Still, what a fantastic machine it is.

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4. VW Golf R

Volkswagen's highly regarded super-Golf, the four-wheel drive Golf R, has taken a big step forward in this latest form. Unlike twenty years ago, when the V6-engined R32 vied with the Alfa Romeo 147 GTA to be the very hottest of hot hatchbacks that could be bought with a full factory warranty, the latest one isn't quite the fiercest car of its kind. Its 316bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine gives it bragging rights over its VW Group in-house rivals, but not quite over other key German opponents.

But it has other weapons. Having been made stiffer-sprung, wider and better-braked in this form than it has been before, the Golf R now combines adaptive dampers at each corner with a fully torque-vectored four-wheel drive system that can juggle drive not just front-to-rear but also asymmetrically across its rear axle. Tick the right options boxes and the car will even offer 'drift mode'.

The car has taken on a slightly different character as a mk 8 Golf than it had as a mk 7. While the just-so compromise of suppleness, stability and pace that made the last version of the car so popular has gone, even greater body control and adhesion has come in to make up the balance - and greater driver involvement too, albeit only if you really probe at the car's limits. For those who liked the 'one fast car for every journey' charm of the mk 7, the mk 8 may feel a little too serious, and perhaps just a touch aloof at lower speeds. But there's no denying that the car's outright dynamic capabilities have expanded by quite a way. 

Save money with new VW Golf deals from What Car?

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5. Renault Sport Mégane RS 300 & Trophy

The fourth-generation Mégane RS isn’t a hot hatch for pretenders; with Cup chassis specced, this is a hard-riding, sharp-edged B-road weapon that demands some serious commitment, and not a few wider compromises, if you’re to get the best out of it.

Four-wheel steering virtually shortens its wheelbase through tighter bends and makes for super-incisive handling, while hydraulic bumpstops ensure the suspension can take any punishment you’re prepared to dish out. Meanwhile the car’s 1.8-litre four-pot provides plentiful performance - though not quite as much outright pace or high-range flexibility as the very best turbocharged four-pots around.

Ergonomics aren’t great, neither’s the cabin in general. The shift quality of the manual 'box could likewise have been improved, although Renault has solved that problem by making the car a two-pedal 'EDC' automatic option only.

Still, on the right road, in the right conditions – or better still, on track - there’s a lot to like here. And if you’re confident enough to plough your own furrow, ignore the wider market’s preference for the firmer cup version of the car, and order a sport-spec car instead (with its softer suspension much better-suited to everyday use and fast road driving), you’ll get a Megane RS that knows moderation as well as thrill, and is that bit easier to live with.

Save money with new Mégane deals from What Car?

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6. BMW M135i & 128ti

You might think it odd that a 50 per cent drop in engine cylinders and a switch away from rear-wheel drive should have made the performance version of the new BMW 1-Series, the M135i xDrive, a better hot hatchback – but in many cases, that’s what happened.

By better, we clearly don’t mean more powerful or, at its very best, more exciting. The old M140i’s powertrain and chassis certainly both had their moments, but the M135i xDrive became a more composed performance car, easier to drive, faster along a testing stretch of B-road, and more communicating of its adhesive limits, when it came along in 2019.

BMW then refined the car's handling and specification, chucked away half of the four-wheel drive system, and gave birth to the 128ti in 2020: a car whose auto-only driveline is a bit of a turn-off and which doesn't excite as viscerally as some cars in this class, but which has plenty of high-speed purpose about it. If you like your hot hatchbacks desirable, usable and a shade more dynamically sophisticated than the norm, the 128ti is worth considering.

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7. VW Golf GTI mk.8

Previous versions of Volkswagen's long-lived Golf GTI have featured prominently in this line-up of the greatest affordable performance cars, but this one is a slightly different kettle of fish. VW went in search of greater handling response and driver appeal with the eighth-generation of its hot Golf, but had only questionable success in finding it. Meanwhile it adversely affected the sweet-riding, easy-to-use temperament that the GTI has traded on for so long, introducing an unwelcome firmess to its ride.

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None of which need suggest that this GTI wouldn't make a good, enjoyable everyday driver. The car's 242bhp 2.0-litre engine remains a little short on power compared with the rest of the cars here, and it could feel a little keener-revving at times, but it makes for strong and responsive thrust, which the chassis allows you to deploy pretty freely. The car's new firmer springing makes it work better on smoother surfaces than typical UK country B-roads, but adaptive dampers so allow for some adjustment of the ride. Steering is newly pacey but still a little light and numb; undemanding in everyday use, but not as absorbing as it might be.

In GTI Clubsport trim, the car's key vitals rise to 296bhp and 295lb ft, its final drive ratio is reduced and its suspension is firmed-up. It becomes a more grippy, direct and incisive-handling car without losing much by way of everyday cruising habitability, but still not the best-balanced, or the most exciting or involving driver's car in this list.   

Save money with new Golf deals from What Car?

8. Hyundai i30 N

Ascendant Korean car-maker Hyundai clearly wasn’t interesting in half-measures with its first N-branded performance model, the i30 N. This was the car it hired former BMW M Division engineering supremo Albert Biermann to help make, and then poured huge R&D resources behind.

And, although there are one or two caveats to admit, it didn’t go to all that trouble in vain. The i30 N has surprising hardcore temperament and a real sense of performance purpose, neither of which you expect from a car-maker with so little previous experience in the segment. There’s a really old-school flavour to the weight in its controls, and about the gravelly boost in its power delivery and the increasing firmness in its damping.

If anything, Hyundai went too far with the hardcore tuning of this car – as the i30 N’s firmest and most aggressive suspension, steering and drivetrain modes are too uncompromising, and make it a hard car to read. But at its best – in modest trim level, and set up for pragmatic ease-of-operation rather than out-and-out grip level – it’s an involving, balanced, genuinely appealing driver’s car.

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9. Mini Clubman JCW

Built on exactly the same model platform as the BMW M135i and using the same engine, gearbox and four-wheel drive system, the Mini Clubman John Cooper Works is a bit of a landmark performance car for its maker. No hot Mini offered more than three-hundred horsepower before it, and few have matched the real-world pace, real-road handling smarts and daily usability of this one.

Like most Minis, the Clubman JCW rides low and close to the road, offering an appealing sporting driving position and a natural dynamic advantage over many of its peers. It’s also more directionally responsive and level in its cornering manners than the hot hatch norm, and firm-riding – without feeling quite as famously ‘go-kart-like’ as some fast Minis have traded on being over the years.

With enough room for adults in the back seats and a usable, full-size boot too, the Clubman offers comparable practicality with full-sized hatchbacks – but it retains much of the dynamic flavour required to make it handle with the appealing immediacy to make it seem authentic to the brand on its bonnet. In range-topping JCW form, it’s one of the more convincing and complete performance cars that Mini has yet built.

Save money with new Clubman deals from What Car?

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10Skoda Octavia vRS

Skoda's warmed-up Octavia, the vRS, has always been the answer to a question asked by drivers of a certain age and stage in life, who find themselves in need of greater practicality from their daily driver but also not quite ready to give up driving something a little bit exciting.

Versatility is what this car brings to the affordable drivers' car scene. You can have one with a 242bhp 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine or a 197bhp 2.0-litre diesel if you prefer; the former can be had with three pedals and a manual shift lever, the latter with four-wheel drive if you so desire. There are five-door hatchback and estate bodystyles to choose from, too. And there's now also a 1.4-litre petrol plug-in hybrid to chuck into your thinking, too, if you do plenty of short-range driving and you're interesting in cutting your benefit-in-kind tax bill.

While the hybrid is a little bit of a limp and alienating driver's car, the manual-equipped turbo petrol combines family-appropriate ride suppleness and space with just enough performance and handling agility to keep you interested. The four-wheel drive diesel makes a great foil for that petrol option, meanwhile, offering greater traction and everyday usability, as well as the prospect of greater economy and cruising range.

If you're looking for the kind of hot hatchback you could just about get away with, be that in the office car park or for wider family motoring, the Octavia vRS might be the one.

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Join the debate

Comments
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Add a comment…
si73 27 September 2021
Surprised the i20N isn't listed after it fared so well in the road test and best affordable drivers car test.
jameshobiecat 27 July 2021

The following cars should be removed from the list as they are not hot hatchbacks:

- Mercedes

- BMW

- Renualt (Since Facelift)

- Audi

Spotted the common issue?

Peter Cavellini 9 February 2019

What about....?

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