Currently reading: Top 10 best pocket rockets 2021
Our comprehensive list runs down the very best hot superminis and compact hatchbacks you can buy today
Autocar
News
9 mins read
29 September 2021

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. 

So if you want a car that will spectacularly over-deliver on driver entertainment for minimum outlay, 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, surprisingly big-hitting performance 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 high-range feisty character you’d expect from a hot-hatch engine. The cabin is also typically plain and plasticky, while the ride on harsh B-roads can be excitably firm.

On the right roads and 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. Hyundai i20 N

Hyundai has suddenly become very hard to overlook as a purveyor of affordable performance cars, and the new i20 N rally-inspired supermini is the main reason why. This car is a simpler and more direct attempt at a classic hot hatchback than the bigger i30 N is. Being smaller and lighter helps, of course; but it also uses a conventional limited slip differential in place of an active one, a punchy but not domineering 1.6-litre turbocharged engine, a six-speed manual gearbox in place of any clever twin-clutch gearbox, and good passive dampers rather than adaptive ones.

The results are really very effective indeed. This car has the carefully honed, extra-purposeful character of a genuine rally-stage exile. Its body control, high-speed precision and composure and steering precision are all of an order you rarely find in a car this size, and its ground-covering pace is greater than you'd expect of a car with only 201bhp to put to use.

The i20 is impressively roomy and well-equipped, too, given the strides its maker has taken these last ten years in drawing level with the best small cars that Europe can offer. If the i20 N has a fault, it may only be that it's too grippy, precise and composed; and some may want a fast supermini that takes itself a little less seriously. 

Save money with new Hyundai i20 deals from What Car?

3. Caterham 170 S & -R

This may not be a hot hatchback, nor really anything like one - but no discussion of the affordable driver's car firmament ought to omit one of the true and enduring champions of having fun on a budget: the Caterham Seven.

The latest 'Seven' 170 is the lightest that the company has ever built. Using the latest version of the 660cc three-cylinder Suzuki petrol engine that the company first adopted for the Seven 160, the car's model-nomenclature-defining power-to-weight ratio rises to '170' by dint of the fact that the car itself weighs just 440kg, and also conforms to Japan's 'kei' car class criteria. It can be yours for less than £25,000 - with an option or two - if only you're prepared to do up the car's bolts yourself as a kit.

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This Caterham has a character all of its own, with an unassuming but likable power delivery and engine note. The live rear axle and modest power outputs make for a less naughty, throttle-steerable dynamic character than some Sevens have; with just 86lb ft on tap, there isn't enough torque here to move the driven rear axle around easily with power, and there's more fun to be had in simply carrying speed rather than deploying grunt through the contact patches.

As our 170 R first drive recorded, this car might not be the very best Caterham, and yet it would still be more fun than most other new cars you might get into for the same outlay and - depreciation considered - considerably cheaper to own overall too. It's clearly not as usable as a hot hatchback nor as quick, but would more rewarding when the occasion to drive it did come along.

4. Mini Cooper S

The modern fast Mini is a more upmarket and refined take on what a compelling pocket rocket can be, although the car's famously terrierish handling directness also still defines it just as vividly. 

The Cooper S a touch softer around the edges than the most focused cars in this class - the Fiesta ST is a far sharper, firmer package in this respect - but as an all-rounder, it does itself a lot of favours, and has a well-judged blend of grip, body control, performance and value.

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It won’t be as taxing or tiresome to drive about town as other cars in this list, 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 in size considerably.

Save money with new Cooper S deals from What Car?

5. Mazda MX-5 1.5

The pricing of most fast superminis invites comparison with one of the world's most famous sports cars because it can be had for around the same budget. That's provided you're happy enough to have a hard-working, free-revving, 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine in your Mazda MX-5, as well as a slightly simpler mechanical- and equipment specification that puts the focus of the car right where it ought to be: on the fine detail of the driving experience.

The MX-5 1.5 produces 130bhp these days, which is a slug more power than the famous first-generation 1.6-litre car had, while the smaller-of-two of the modern Mazda's engines also gives the current car more of the flyweight, rev-hungry charm of the mk1. Like the Caterham above, it's only a two-seater with a small, non-expandable boot; and although you could probably get quite a bit more daily use out of the MX-5 than you could a modern Seven, it would still fall well short of matching even a three-door hatchback for versatility.

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But there is a delicacy and a purity to the driving reward on offer here that no powerful front-driven car elsewhere on this list could equal. The kind of stride that a moderately sprung MX-5 can adopt over an enticing cross-country road is like little else in motordom: effortless, manually involving, and beautifully fluent at brisk but sensible real-world speeds. It's easy to get the best out of this car, and a bit of a revelation when you do.  

Save money with new Mazda MX-5 deals from What Car?

6. Volkswagen Up GTI

The Up GTI is clearly not the most powerful car to be included in this list, or the most sophisticated from a technical point of view. In fact, most of the cars included here would likely run rings around it on any instrumented performance test you can think of.

But to knock it down for such reasons would be to miss the point of its existence entirely. 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.

Its rorty and eager three-pot motor is charming, and its sheer willingness to be thrown about on twisty B-road, at speeds that’d pose no threat whatsoever to your licence, is something you could cherish for years. Fun really doesn't come in a more endearing package than this. That it looks as great as it does is an added bonus.

Save money with new Up GTI deals from What Car?

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7. 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; just not quite as much appetite for revs as once there was.

Save money with new Swift Sport deals from What Car?

8. 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 credible performance hatchback 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.

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

Save money with new Polo GTI deals from What Car?

9. 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. And then it goes and lends the steroidal city car impressive straight-line punch which, from a car of this size and type, seems just as unlikely.

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 and demanding more input and management from its driver at cornering speeds that its rivals would simply eat up. The interior is also relatively cramped, and the driving position isn’t great. 

Between one thing and another, then, this little bundle of boisterous trouble gets off to an imperfect start as a driver's car and, in strictly objective terms, it never quite recovers. And yet it's nothing if not a giggle.

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Save money with new 595 Competizione deals from What Car?

10. Mini Electric

All-electric superminis are, by and large, not the dynamic equals of the old, performance-flavoured special derivatives whose place in model lineup they have so widely assumed over the last decade or so, but if there is one that's worthy of a mention in passing in this chart, it's the darty and characterful Mini Electric.

Without a gearbox, a clutch pedal or a hard-revving piston engine to drag you into the driving experience, cars like this can struggle to really involve - but the Mini manages to with a combination of its usual flat, balanced and agile handling, its darty, instictive steering and its relatively taut control of its body. Mini opted not to chase outright range with this car but instead settled on only 60 per cent as much usable battery capacity as some rivals, which in turn saved weight, boosted performance and kept dynamic compromise to a minimum. The trade-off is a usable real-world range of only around 120 miles; but the gain is a car that accelerates and corners with a verve that makes it worthy of a Mini badge.

Save money with new Mini Electric deals from What Car?

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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.