Currently reading: Top 10 best pocket rockets 2020
Our comprehensive list runs down the very best hot superminis and compact hatchbacks you can buy today
Autocar
News
7 mins read
2 January 2020

You can’t help loving a pocket rocket, can you?

In fact, a well-executed one is often just about the best way to have as much fun on the public road as possible without being in and danger of upsetting the local constabulary.

While the ability to travel reasonably briskly in a straight line is of some importance here, it’s keen handling and an easily exploitable chassis that really marks out the best pocket rocket; as well as its ability to provide the most amount of laughs for the smallest amount of money. 

When it comes to giving a supercar a bit of a bloody nose on a winding Welsh B-road, the pocket rockets included in this list would be the ones we’d go for.

1. Ford Fiesta ST

With the release of this latest Fiesta ST, Ford shoots back to the peak of our pocket rocket top 10. True to previous form, the Blue Oval has excelled itself with its new fast supermini, which now offers an even more compelling mix of affordable handling thrills and everyday usability. 

Not only did it take the crown at the 2018 Britain’s Best Affordable Driver’s Car shootout, it also only narrowly missed out on a full five-star road test rating. It’s been a pretty good innings for the Fiesta ST so far, then.

But it isn’t without its faults. The new three-pot motor, for instance, is plenty punchy enough and commendably smooth, but lacks some of that feisty character you’d expect from a hot-hatch engine. The cabin is also a bit ho-hum, while the ride on harsh B-roads is still a touch too busy.

On the right roads, in the right conditions, though, there aren’t many other cars that offer such compelling pace and handling zest for as little money as the Fiesta ST. It’s a brilliant driver’s car.

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2. Volkswagen Polo GTI

The latest Polo GTI is no longer just a spicier trim level for VW’s ever-popular supermini, there’s now a very credible performance car on offer here.

It shares its engine with the legendary Golf GTI - albeit here in a slightly lower state of tune - lending it a fairly potent level of performance, while the sophistication of its chassis allows for excellent composure and impressive dynamism on even the most battered British roads.

It is a car that handles with supreme confidence in its abilities but, for all of its strengths, does leave you wanting just a little bit more in terms of character. And that’s arguably what cars of this type are all about, isn’t it?

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Can Ford reclaim the hot hatchback crown with a Fiesta ST that’s missing a cylinder - or have rivals like the VW Polo GTI regained ground?

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3. Suzuki Swift Sport

This third-generation Swift Sport marks something of a departure from its predecessors. For starters, its previously zesty naturally aspirated motor was first swapped out for a more charmless turbocharged unit, and that has now evolved with electrification. Moreover, an increase in pricing now sees it facing off against the likes of Ford’s excellent new Fiesta ST, which is not only the better driver’s car, but much more powerful too. 

Still, there’s plenty to like here. The Suzuki feels just as agile as you’d expect a peppy supermini to be, and responds nicely to mid-corner throttle and brake adjustments. The driving position is pretty spot on, too, and there’s a heap of standard kit for the money.

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4. Mini Cooper S

A more upmarket and refined take on what a compelling pocket rocket can be, though this spot could just have easily been occupied by the new electric Mini E, whose poor range undermines good B-road ability.

It’s a touch softer around the edges than the most focused cars in this class - the Fiesta ST is a far sharper package in this respect - but as an all-rounder, it does itself a lot of favours.

It won’t be as taxing or tiresome to drive about town as those cars, while out on some proper B-roads there’s still an abundance of the go-kart handling characteristics that Mini has always been renowned for, despite the fact these BMW-era ones have grown considerably.

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5. Volkswagen Up GTI

The Up GTI is by no means the most powerful car to be included in this list, or the most sophisticated from an engineering point of view. In fact, most of the cars included here would likely run rings around it on a twisting B-road.

But to knock it down for such reasons would be to almost miss the point of its existence. The fact that it can extract a huge amount of laughs from its driver at reasonably low speeds is what the little Up GTI is all about. And despite the fact the asking price has risen from just under £14,000 to just over £16,000, we'd still recommend you try one out (and, of course, a lightly used Fiesta ST…).

Its rorty and eager three-pot motor is charming, and its willingness to be thrown about on twisty B-roads at speeds that’d pose no threat whatsoever to your licence is something you’d find difficult to get tired of. That it looks as great as it does is an added bonus.

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6. Mazda 2 GT Sport

The little Mazda might be stretching the term 'pocket rocket' to its limit (or at least transports it back to the 1980s and 1990s), but this Japanese supermini is on this list and reasonably high up it despite the fact its 1.5-litre SkyActiv petrol engine makes only 89bhp. 

Truth is, the 2's dynamic package feels wonderfully consistent, and has traces of the genuis that makes the MX-5 roadster such an entertainer. The roll rates are well matched the steering, which is geared just so, and while it lacks oomph, the engine's linearity makes it surprisingly satisfying to spin out on good B-roads. 

Looks past the raw specs and you'll find an usually well conceived car in the Mazda 2. 

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7. Abarth 595 Competizione

If there’s one thing the Abarth 595 Competizione isn’t short on, it’s character. On start up, its 1.4-litre turbocharged four-pot burbles into life, with an aggressive timbre that seems entirely at odds with the beefed-up Fiat 500’s rather cutesy image. That it lends the steroidal city car rather impressive straight-line performance is an added bonus.

However, there are a few flies in its ointment. For starters, it’s pricey next to more accomplished pocket rockets, and it’s not quite as dynamically well-sorted - often washing into understeer. The interior is also cramped, and the driving position isn’t great. 

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It’s a bit of an exercise in form over function, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had here.

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8. Renault Clio 130 RS Line

Strange that on a list of the best pocket-rocket hatchbacks, arguably the greatest exponent of the breed over the past three decades can manage no better than eighth place.

In truth, the Clio 130 RS Line is merely a stopgap until Les Ulis gets its chance to set the record straight and right the percieved dynamic wrongs of the outgoing Renault Sport Clio with an all-new hot model expected to use the 1.8-litre turbo engine from the RS Mégane. We'd expect that car to manage quite a bit better than eighth, and even challenge the incisive handling and strong performance of the Fiesta ST.

None of which is to say the RS Line doesn't deserve consideration in the meantime – it's a supermini that feels likealbly light on its toes, and with 129bhp packs decent if not outstanding performance. You'll also benefit all the strengths of the fifth-generation Clio: seriously attractive design inside and out, and build quality that feels German.

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9. Audi A1 35 TFSI

The 35 TFSI is not actually the top-ranking A1 – that honour belongs to the 197bhp 40 TFSI, which is only available in S Line Competition trim and costs an eye-watering £27,300.

The 35 TFSI is considerably more affordable and still quick enough for us, thanks to 148bhp propelling its pint-sized package. Along with the Mini, it's the only traditionally premium offering on this list, though most of our testers prefer the interior of the Clio – and not just in terms of design, but also perceived quality, in places. The A1 represents something of a miss for Audi, no doubt.

The Audi can also only muster ninth place because it lacks the joie de vivre of the old S1, despite the fact that it goes with front-wheel drive rather than four and could therefore feel even more adjustable. Ride-quality is also poor, given the upmarket remit.  

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10. Kia Picanto GT-Line S

Kia’s funky little city car has received a sporty new exterior and punchy 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder motor in a bid to turn it into something of a Volkswagen Up GTI rival.

With just 99bhp on tap, the Picanto GT-Line S isn’t the fastest car on this list, but in this application that motor feels plenty punchy enough, while its short wheelbase and upright body don’t prevent it from feeling well tied down on the road.

While it’s not quite as fun on the road as the livelier Up GTI, but the Picanto GT-Line S still makes for a well-sorted, attractive pocket rocket.

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5cylinderT 2 January 2020

what car from this segment

what car from this segment wasnt included! all here all included type thing.

some of the vehicles are amazing though and deserve to be at the top of the list.

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