Currently reading: Top 10 best hot hatchbacks 2023
There are no hitches with our top 10 hot hatches. But which pocket rocket claims the number one spot?

If you’re after the Swiss Army Knife of high performance cars, then look no further than the hot hatch. Blending pace, poise and practicality with a welcome dollop of affordability, these do-it-all adrenaline pumps are hard to beat.

The recipe is fairly simple - take a compact family hatchback and drop in a bigger, more powerful motor before uprating the suspension and brakes to cope. If you’re doing it properly you’ll also want to add some natty body kit parts, not to mention the odd red stripe. The result is a car that can slip as easily into your life as its less muscular siblings, yet can turn that frown upside down when you take the long route home after a testing day at the office.

Of course, there’s nothing new about the idea of the hot hatch, but nearly half a century after VW popularised the genre with its Golf GTI (although long defunct firms Simca and Autobianchi claimed they had the idea first), the pocket rocket concept remains as popular as ever, with many brands having a superheated family runaround on their books. 

However, increasingly strict emissions regulations mean the full-size hot hatch (if you’re looking for smaller supermini-based models, then we’ve got them covered here) is changing. Internal combustion still rules the roost, but there’s a definite sense that these petrol-powered machines are the last of the breed, and as if to prove the point there’s an entry in our list that runs on electrons rather than super unleaded. 

As a result, there’s never been a better time to buy one of these quick and versatile machines before they’re legislated out of existence. The question is, which one do you pick? Well, read on as we reveal our top 10 hot hatches.

1. Toyota GR Yaris

We’re arguably stretching the definition of ‘full-sized’ for the car that tops this list, but the Toyota GR Yaris is so far removed from the supermini with which it shares a silhouette that we reckon that’s okay. Sure it’s not as roomy and practical as others lower down this ranking, but in terms of scorching performance, handling elan and pure sporting intent, few come close to matching this jewel-like Japanese machine.

Developed initially as a rally homologation special, the Yaris GR was almost dead on arrival when a WRC rule change effectively meant there was no longer any need for such a car. In fact, in the past a car like this would have been pushed into the corner and forgotten about, but current Toyota boss Akio Toyoda is a proper petrolhead and couldn’t see this motorsport-inspired pocket rocket left to rot. We can only imagine what it cost to develop this bespoke piece of high performance art, but the brand’s renewed commitment to delivering desirable driver’s cars meant that it was clearly worth rummaging down the back of the sofa for the extra cash.

Underneath its steroid-ally enhanced body, the Yaris 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.

Back to top

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.

1 Toyota gr yaris top 10

Save money with new Yaris deals from What Car?

2. Honda Civic Type R

The outgoing version of the hot Honda hatchback was one of our favourite hot hatchbacks, so expectations for this all-new Civic Type R were high - and happily it doesn't disappoint. In many respects that's because it's not quite as box fresh as you'd expect. Like the 11th generation Civic it's based on, the exterior and interior are new, but the platform is an 'optimised' version of its predecessor's, and that includes the oily bits too.

Under the bonnet, the familiar turbocharged 2.0-litre motor gets a lighter flywheel, revised intake and freer-flowing exhaust that help lift power from 316 to 325bhp, while the six-speed manual gearbox has a tweaked gate for even slicker shifting. The dual-axis front suspension and multi-link rear axle are very similar but the car's track in now 15mm wider, which works in partnership with the 15% stiffer bodyshell to combine even sharper handling with greater compliance - this Civic feels like a more grown-up proposition than the old car, even if the BTCC-style rear wing still suggests it's a bit of a hooligan.

Back to top

As you'd expect, it's still a quick car, with 0-62mph done and dusted in 5.4 seconds and 170mph just about within reach. Yet it delivers this performance with real sophistication and civility. There's no torque steer unruliness and the chassis combines tenacious grip and cast iron control with a rare adjustability that allows you tease and tweak your line through a corner by either lifting off the throttle or trailing the brakes. It's still a car that gets your heart racing and synapses snapping, but it's also one that doesn't make the commute a chore or motorway trips a test of endurance.

So why doesn't it top this list? Well, for starters Honda has hiked the Type-R's prices, and significantly so. The previous version started at around £33,000, while you'll need (are you sitting down?) a few quid under £50,000 for this one. Just take a moment for that to settle in. And even if that figure doesn't put you off you'll struggle to find one, as Honda has revealed UK imports will be in the hundreds rather than thousands.

2 Honda civic type top 10

3. 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 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.

Back to top

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 the Track Pack upgrade option with its very special, manually adjustable coilover suspension, bigger brakes and lightweight alloy wheels wrapped in Pirelli P Zero Corsa rubber. It takes the ST's dynamic recipe to even greater heights for body control and handling incisiveness, although at £3,000 it's hardly cheap.

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, but it's a very strong contender all the same. News that the Focus is soon to die means this could be the last fast Ford of its kind that we see.

3 Ford focus st top 10

Save money with new Focus deals from What Car?

4. 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 £60,000 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.

Back to top

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. And if such a pricy Merc hot hatch is a step too far, then the 302bhp A35 offers much of its more powerful sibling's pace and poise for a little over £50,000 (although this is still far from beer money).

4 Mercedes amg a45s top 10

Save money with new A-Class deals from What Car?

5. Volkswagen 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', as well as increase in the speed limiter's ceiling to 168mph (both are part of the R Performance Pack).

New for the end of 2022 is the special edition R 20 Years model, which as the name suggests celebrates two decades since the original Golf R, the V6-engined R32. Featuring a power boost to 328bhp it's the most muscular version of the brand's evergreen hatchback to turn a wheel. It also features some natty '20 R' puddle lights, lowered suspension and the R Performance Pack as standard. The 0-62mph time is shaved by a tenth of a second to 4.6 seconds, yet the price jumps by over £5,000 to a whisker under £50,000, which is a lot of dough for a Golf.

Both it and the standard car take 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.

Back to top

5 Vw golf r top 10

Save money with new Volkswagen Golf deals from What Car?

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 mix of creamy straight-six and rear-wheel drive meant it had unique character, but the M135i xDrive was 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. Effectively, it had more of an ‘up-and-at-em’ hot hatch character. 

A very subtle update in 2022 further sharpened the driving experience, with enhanced torque vectoring and stiffer springs and dampers, plus an extra two degrees of negative camber for the front suspension. The result is a pointier and more agile car than before, although the trade-off is a fairly firm ride. Better to add the £500 adaptive dampers that give away a fraction of outright control at the limit but help make the M135i a more habitable everyday choice. More importantly, with a price tag that's just a biscuit over £40,000, the BMW undercuts the Audi S3, Mercedes-AMG A35 and, unbelievably, the Golf R.

Speaking of which, BMW broadened the 1 Series hot hatch appeal with the 128ti, which debuted in 2020. Shorn of half of the 135i's four-wheel drive system and with a reduction in power, this a more affordable rival for machines such as the VW Golf GTI. The BMW's auto-only driveline is a bit of a turn-off doesn't excite as viscerally as some cars in this class, but the 128ti 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.

6 Bmw 1 series top 10

Save money with new 1 Series deals from What Car?

7. Volkswagen Golf GTI

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 firmness to its ride.

Back to top

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 do 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. Crucially, in all its forms the GTI has lost its chameleon-like ability to match your mood whatever the road or occasion.

7 Vw golf gti top 10

Save money with new Golf deals from What Car?

8. Hyundai i30 N

Ascendant Korean car-maker Hyundai clearly wasn't interested 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. There's also arguably too much choice in the fine-tuning, with Hyundai proudly boasting of thousands for possible settings, which can prove overwhelming when all you want to do is drive. 

Back to top

But at its best – when set up for pragmatic ease-of-operation rather than out-and-out grip level – it's an involving, balanced, genuinely appealing driver's car. Even so, it’s a shame that the brand no longer offers the slow-selling entry-level 247bhp version that featured smaller wheels and was shorn of some of the more powerful model’s sharper edges. Sure it lacked the bar room bragging rights, but it was a sweeter and more balanced package.

8 Hyundai i30n top 10

Save money with new i30 deals from What Car?

9. Skoda 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, its blend of speed and subtly making it a true modern day Q-car.

9 Skoda octavia vrs top 10

Back to top

Save money with new Octavia deals from What Car?

10. Cupra Born

It doesn't quite have the outright muscle of the others in this list, but the Cupra makes this top 10 on merit rather than as a makeweight that has any positives suffixed with the phrase 'for an EV'. Not only does the Born look the hot hatch part, it drives it too - there's real talent here.

Based on the same platform as the VW ID3, the Cupra gets a rear-mounted motor that delivers up to 227bhp and instant torque. It feels genuinely quick up to 60mph, and while accelerative force diminishes beyond this point few fast car fans will be disappointed. It also steers keenly too, with quick turn-in and poised, low roll handling that allows it to scoot through a series of corners quickly and accurately - although a little less intervention from the electronic safety net would help unleash some of the car's rear-drive balance.

Elsewhere it does the other hot hatch things well, with a spacious and versatile interior plus decent everyday comfort and refinement. Better still, with the larger 77kWh battery the Born promises a very respectable 341 miles on a charge.

10 Cupra born top 10

What car new buying red 381


Join the debate

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


- Renualt (Since Facelift)

- Audi

Spotted the common issue?

Peter Cavellini 9 February 2019

What about....?

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