These are our favourite hot hatches currently on sale. But who will claim the top spot?
11 October 2019

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 has become hugely popular with buyers, especially in the UK. 

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. Honda Civic Type R

The best hot front-driver of the moment isn’t such a financial stretch when you consider the price of some of the other cars in this list. The Honda Civic Type R is a seriously involving effort from Honda. It gives you grip when you need it, handling adjustability when you go looking for it, plenty of control feedback, a spectacular turbocharged engine and outstanding practicality, too.

That combination yields sensational driver appeal that invites you to exploit everything this car has to offer as often as you can get away with.

A less aggressive-looking track-biased car with a greater focus on cabin quality than hardcore dynamism might have been a bigger seller, but it wouldn’t have been half as compelling to drive. Nor would it be the most exciting hot hatch that can currently be bought.

Our Verdict

Seat Leon Cupra

New hot hatch promises to outgun its rivals, including the Volkswagen Golf GTI

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2. Ford Focus ST

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 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.

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 the playful handling adjustability of other fast Focuses of recent memory. 

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 – but either way, it’s not quite enough to make this car our ultimate hot hatchback of the moment.

 

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2. BMW M135i xDrive

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 precisely the case.

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 new M135i xDrive is a more composed performance car that’s easier to drive, faster along a slippery, testing stretch of B-road, and communicates its adhesive limits and involves its driver just as clearly.

With the VW Golf R now out of production, the Mercedes-AMG A35 a shade less sophisticated and compelling in its ride and handling, and both the A35’s more powerful -45-branded counterpart and the Audi RS3 Sportback much more expensive, this is the four-wheel drive hot hatch we’d pick at the moment for extra-secure, all-weather, any-road, year-round driver entertainment. It is certainly no backward step from BMW.

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4. Volkswagen Golf GTI & GTI TCR

The most iconic hot hatch of them all is not as powerful or hardcore as some – far from it – but it remains singularly desirable, really convincing on the road and great to own and drive daily.

Breadth of ability, near-flawless dynamic polish and all-round versatility are its greatest dynamic strengths. However, even in its GTI Performance guise, this ultra-composed Golf has no answer for the agility or incisiveness of a Megane RS or a Focus ST. It’s perfect for everyday, real-world use each day of the week, however, and it’s also well capable of blowing off the cobwebs come Sunday morning.

If Volkswagen made the Golf GTI a bit more visually assertive and a little more interesting at its limits, then it could give the car the additional joie de vivre it needs to be upwardly mobile in this list. The mk.VII run-out TCR model was as attempt to do that, but despite its stick cup tyres and running gear makeover, it failed to elevate the car’s potential to excite to quite the levels that the GTI Clubsport S once hit.

As it is, though, few GTI devotees would change this singularly successful, long-lived, cannily positioned performance icon – and plenty of rival car brands would very happily clone it in replacement of their own alternatives.

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5. Renault Sport Mégane RS 280 & 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 as much outright pace or high-range flexibility as a Civic Type R .

Ergonomics aren’t great, neither’s the cabin in general – and neither is the shift quality of the manual 'box (though it’s preferable to the clumsy paddleshift auto). 

But 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.

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6. 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 has offered more than three-hundred horsepower before – 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.

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7. 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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8Mercedes-AMG A35 4Matic+

We’re currently between model generations of the walloping Mercedes-AMG A45 mega hatch – but that doesn’t mean there’s no fast A-Class in Mercedes showrooms. The A35 4Matic+ is Affalterbach’s slightly cheaper and more accessible lure for anyone looking for pace, everyday usability, driver appeal and premium brand cache from their hot hatchback.

Using a detuned version of the A45’s turbocharged 2.0-litre motor that produces just over 300-horsepower, and channelling its power to the road via a seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox and both axles, the A35 doesn’t drive like a subordinate performance derivative. It’s seriously fast, surprisingly firm-riding and quite aggressive-feeling for a car intended to be used every day. And yet it also has plenty of on-road handling precision and poise, and a chassis and drivetrain that always combine to find excellent grip and traction, even in slippery conditions.

Add to that the established technoglare appeal of the A-Class’ gadget-laden cabin and Mercedes’ brand allure and you’ve got a package that’s sure to find plenty of showroom success – even if it wouldn’t quite be the car we’d recommend for the ultimate in hot hatchback thrills or for any-weather, any-occasion usability.

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9. Audi RS3 Sportback

Audi Sport’s superheated A3, the RS3 Sportback, is now back from its emissions-related hiatus at the moment, with an updated WLTP-emissions compliant version now offering buyers fully four-hundred metric horsepower for just under £50,000.

What that money gets you is a simply incredible 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine and dual-clutch gearbox. It’s a combination that allowed the pre-facelifted 395bhp RS3 saloon to hit 60mph in just 3.9sec during Autocar testing in 2018, and dispatch 100mph in less than 10 seconds. That’s double-take stuff in this class and puts the model well into proper sports car territory on acceleration.

If there’s a caveat, it’s a familiar one – the quattro four-wheel-drive system still doesn't contribute much to handling appeal. That said, cross-country pace is utterly mighty and handling is ever-secure. Fitting the optional adaptive dampers is a must if you want a daily-use ride.

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10. Seat Leon Cupra

Seat’s Cupra-branded hot Leon range has been through plenty of change of the last couple of years, having climaxed with the limited-series, now-defunct Cupra R.

Now you can choose between a front-wheel drive chassis and 286bhp of power in the shorter five-door hatchback version, or four-wheel drive and 296bhp of the stuff in the more practical ‘ST’ estate. Neither version is any slouch, though – and unlike the VW Golf R to which it’s otherwise quite closely related, the front-driven version of the Seat uses an electronically locking front diff.

The Leon’s handling is crisp, agile and fairly grippy, though not quite as communicative, balanced or adhesive as some in the class. The engine’s a strong suit for the car, revving hard right to the redline and sounding hard-edged.

Added to all that is a pretty convincing bang-for-buck argument for this car, with the five-door version available from just under £30,000, and smart, sharp-edged styling that isn’t too chavvy. It makes for plenty to like – though perhaps not quite the incisive driver reward needed to bother our top order.

 

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Join the debate

Comments
29

28 February 2018

lol no Peugeot 308 GTI and Megane 4 RS but crap like Golf GTI, Octavia RS and I30N, your french bashing makes you lose the little credibility you had

28 February 2018
SuprêmeLion wrote:

lol no Peugeot 308 GTI and Megane 4 RS but crap like Golf GTI, Octavia RS and I30N, your french bashing makes you lose the little credibility you had

Considering Evo Magazine commended both the Peugeot and Renault for their highly involved driving experiences, it’s a shame that autocar continue to undermine these excellent hot hatch offerings in favour of the completely dull Octavia RS. The consistency just doesn’t add up when they give the i30N a three star review and the Peugeot a four but yet don’t list it in the top ten. Both Autocar and their sister site Whatcar? are always bashing French made cars, which is quite confusing when other magazines like Evo have spoken so highly of them. Hopefully the new 508 might change some minds.

10 February 2019

can't beat these german machines, golf r and golf gti are excellent cars.

i think what youve forgotten is that cars also have to be judged on their comfort, reliability and interior (besides the extras).  vw have thrashed every time on this (that includes audi, seat and skoda) with mercedes coming in close pursuit then the likes of honda and hyundai giving a good try at getting there.

practicality puts this list in a right order apart from 1 and 2 need to be swapped....

maybe next time autocar:

1. VW Golf R

2. Honda Civic R

3. Hyundai i30n

4. Mercedes-AMG a35 4matic+

5. Audi RS3 Sportback

6. Skoda Octavia VRS 245

7. Seat Leon Cupra

8. VW Golf GTI

9. Renault Sport Megane RS 280

10. BMW M140i

11 February 2019
i know a lot about cars wrote:

can't beat these german machines, golf r and golf gti are excellent cars.

i think what youve forgotten is that cars also have to be judged on their comfort, reliability and interior (besides the extras).  vw have thrashed every time on this (that includes audi, seat and skoda) with mercedes coming in close pursuit then the likes of honda and hyundai giving a good try at getting there.

practicality puts this list in a right order apart from 1 and 2 need to be swapped....

maybe next time autocar:

1. VW Golf R

2. Honda Civic R

3. Hyundai i30n

4. Mercedes-AMG a35 4matic+

5. Audi RS3 Sportback

6. Skoda Octavia VRS 245

7. Seat Leon Cupra

8. VW Golf GTI

9. Renault Sport Megane RS 280

10. BMW M140i

have to agree with you on that.  if i were you though i would remove the renault all together and put a Seat Leon Cupra 280 in there, after all it would whip every time.

11 October 2019
i know a lot about cars wrote:

1. VW Golf R

2. Honda Civic R

3. Hyundai i30n

4. Mercedes-AMG a35 4matic+

5. Audi RS3 Sportback

6. Skoda Octavia VRS 245

7. Seat Leon Cupra

8. VW Golf GTI

9. Renault Sport Megane RS 280

10. BMW M140i

Ah 50 shades of VAG but no room for a Fiesta or Focus ST... 

9 February 2019

 Now that we’ve decided or Autocar has are the top ten, what’s top three ugliest...?

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