Take a shopping trolley and whack in a big engine – hot hatches are meant to make the mundane fun. Here are 2020’s top 10 best hot hatches.
Ford Fiesta ST
This one’s going in first place because it’s the cheapest on the list and it’s an absolute rip snorter of a machine – it’s my absolute favourite. It’s huge fun, and while there have been plenty of quick Fiestas, Ford hasn’t missed a beat since it unveiled the Fiesta ST in 2004.
The Fiesta ST is as clever as it is mongrel. The 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine makes 147kW and 290Nm of torque and can shut down a cylinder when it’s coasting. It’ll get to 100km/h in around 6.5 seconds but it feels faster than that and you don’t need to lift off the throttle when you shift gear.
And there’s a limited slip differential from Quaife which means this thing can be driven properly hard through the bends without fear of wasting power because of wheelspin. It’s comfortable too although the front Recaro seats are tight-fitting.
In all, the Fiesta ST epitomises the meaning of hot hatch…it’s small, lightweight and powerful.
Ford Focus ST
The new Focus ST lobs in at second spot because it’s one of the newest on the market. Available with both an automatic and manual transmission it proves that you can have a performance car that makes tootling along the highway or to the supermarket as fun as a blast along a backroad. And that’s the big thing about the Focus ST…it’s not blindingly quick or even as aggressive as the Fiesta ST, but it’s incredibly capable, fun to drive and muscular enough to be towards the top of this list.
Until now, the ST versions of the Focus have been warm rather than hot but this one’s definitely a hottie. And it’s more sophisticated than models that have gone before it; it’s the first Focus ST to run adaptive dampers and an electrically controlled limited slip differential.
The engine is a 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol (it’s the same engine as the Focus RS with some tweaks like a different turbo) making 206kW and 420Nm of torque (up from 360Nm) which is more than both the Hyundai i30 N and Golf GTI. Stay tuned for our full reviews of both the automatic and manual Focus ST.
Hyundai i30 N
You can get this thing as a hatch and as a Fastback but it’s the hatch we like and is most at home on this list because it is an, er, hatchback…get it. Sheesh. The i30 N is a heavily tuned version of the regular i30 and so it gets an interior that’s practical but perhaps not quite as sharp-looking as some of the cars on this list. No biggie.
Because once you thumb the starter button and tip the i30 N in into the first corner you’ll be grinning like an idiot. The 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine makes 202kW at 6000rpm and 353Nm of torque from 1750-4700rpm with an overboost function that sees torque bump to 378Nm across the same rev range for about 18 seconds. It’s not quite as torquey (outright) as the Focus ST but peak torque hangs around for a long time so it’s an easy car to drive and it never feels like it’s straining at the leash.
Tip the thing into a corner and the body stays flat and you can absolutely feel the suspension doing its thing to keep the tyres pressed into the road. And, oh my, the grip. There’s almost no thump through into the cabin and despite the steering being totally unaffected by even the very worst roads or mid-corner thumps, there’s a directness and weight to the wheel that impresses.
We’ve lobbed it in at number three because for a brand with so little experience at making this type of vehicle, the i30 N is truly impressive.
Honda Civic Type R
This thing looks lairy. And it is. Sure, it’s a little pricey compared to the Focus, the Golf and i30 N but it’s easily one of the best hot hatches you can buy. It’s got a practical cabin with enough room for the family and a usable boot too.
Sure, like the Renault Sport Megane RS that’s further down the list, the Honda Civic Type R is more track focussed than tootling to the shops, the ride is quite firm although not as firm as the Megane. But this thing is properly quick and while it loves to be revved, like all good Type R models, it’s also pretty grunty down low in the rev range. See while peak power (228kW) arrives at 6500rpm peak torque (400Nm) is grunting away from 2500-4500rpm.
There’s no doubting the Type R’s ride has been tuned for performance and while leaving it in Comfort does take the harder edges off bumps and ruts in the road, you can feel a little jiggly on less than perfect roads. The active dampers do a good job of absorbing the worst of the road while still retaining razor-like control over the car when you go from, say, a straight line run into a tight corner at speed. There’s virtually no body roll and grip that seems like it’ll last for days. The acceleration out of dry corners, thanks to the limited-slip differential is immense.
Gone is the rear-drive focus of BMW ‘drivers cars’ and in its place is all-wheel drive (xDrive) and a smaller engine too. This car’s predecessor was more raw but harder to drive fast for many people. Not so the M135i XDrive.
Sharing its platform and engine with the Clubman JCW that’s also on this list, the Bimmer offers 225kW and 450Nm of torque and will get to 100km/h in 4.8 seconds. The all-wheel drive system is an on-demand unit and will only ever allow up to 50% of torque to go to the rear end. Hmmm. A limited slip differential at the front means that you can hustle the Bimmer through the bends.
Like a lot of these hot hatches, the M135i rides firm on its standard passive dampers; if you spring for the M-Sport kit you’ll get adaptive dampers. There are some who reckon it feels a little busy on mid-corner bumps but that’s the case with a lot of these higher-strung hot hatches which have been tuned for smooth roads.
On the inside you’ll find room for a family although the boot isn’t the biggest in the segment at 380 litres. If you’re looking for a rapid, premium hot hatch, the BMW 135i is worth a look.
Volkswagen Golf GTI
With the eighth-generation GTI just around the corner and promising to be a step ahead of the current car we’d expect it to move ahead of some of the vehicles on this list. As it is, while the Golf GTI might not be as mental as some hot hatches, it offers refinement and quality as well as capability. It’s an all-round performer.
The Golf GTI lacks the outright agility or enthusiasm of, say, the Focus ST but the thing that the Golf GTI has going for it is its pedigree and the fact it’s so approachable. It can be driven and enjoyed by just about anyone and won’t try and snap your neck off if you’re too hamfisted with the thing.
And the interior is utterly lovely from the quality of the fit and finish to the tartan seats, the Golf GTI screams quality. The eighth-generation model looks like it’ll be turning the wick up on the theme, so it might finally have sharp enough teeth to tear apart the competition. You can read more about the eighth-gen GTI by clicking these blue words.
Renault Sport Megane RS Sport
This is not a hot hatch for delicate drivers. Where the likes of the Focus ST and the Golf GTI walk the line between family performance car and track weapon, the entry-level Renault Sport Megane RS Sport edges more towards track weapon than family runabout, especially if you go for the Cup variant.
For instance, and it pains me to mention this in a piece about hot hatches, but the backseat is one of the tightest for legroom in the sector. But if you’re buying this thing just for you then who cares whether there’s room or not in the back. Moving on. The front seats are rippers with the right amount of grip without being too snug. And they look good too.
The engine is a 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder which makes 209kW and 380Nm of torque which is down on the Focus ST but pips the i30 N, although this thing is a lot more expensive than both those vehicles. Like the Focus, it’s available with both manual and automatic, opinion is divided on which one to go for; the manual is probably the pick.
The suspension is very good on the Megane RS Sport and it’s a whole lot easier to live with than the Cup variant which is just too stiff legged in general driving. The four-wheel steering means the thing is incredibly agile and decisive through corners.
Whatever flavour of Megane RS you go for you’re getting a hot hatch that’s a little more focussed on performance than some of the others on this list and thus a little less livable on a daily basis…Geez, must be getting soft in my old age; can’t believe I just wrote that.
Mini Clubman JCW
Take the mental engine from the BMW M135i and shove it under the bonnet of the Clubman and you get a hatchback that’s both fast and practical. Indeed, this is the fastest JCW to go on-sale in Australia.
Yep, the engine from the Bimmer (this thing is built on the same platform) offers up 225kW and 450Nm of torque meaning this thing is plenty fast enough. And with all-wheel drive it means that grip ain’t a problem either.
Some writers have suggested a skittishness to the way the Clubman JCW rides but it’s no harder than some of the other vehicles on this list, and this adds to its ability to turn in with speed and accuracy. Indeed the ride and handling is in keeping with the Mini ethos, even if this one isn’t quite as “go-kart like” as ones that have gone before it.
Where the Clubman scores points is in its interior space. You get that Mini flavour in the cabin and enough room for a family with plenty of space in the back seat. The Clubman JCW holds to its brand and the badge on its bonnet, yet combines family practicality with it, something it hasn’t always offered as a brand.
Mercedes-AMG A45 S
Okay, this is one that might divide opinion, not least because of the ‘fart noise’ it makes on gear changes, according to one commenter on our FB page. And if you like numbers and aren’t worried about fart noises then the A45 S is the car for you.
See, this is currently the world’s most powerful production four-pot with its 2.0-litre turbocharged engine thumping out 310kW and 500Nm of torque. Sure, it cost a whole lot of cash at $93,600+ORCs but it’ll get to 100km/h in just 3.9 seconds which is thanks to the engine and the all-wheel drive system.
In our review of the A45 S, Toby wrote: Even in Sport+ the adjustable dampers don’t try to give you double vision. Yet you’ve still got the immense cornering ability, helped in part by super sticky 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres.
The clever all-wheel drive system diverts plenty to the rear but still claws its way out of tight corners beautifully. The way the A45 fires out of a hairpin reasserts its performance credentials. It’s point and shoot motoring, in some ways missing some of the nuances of more focused performance cars, but making up for it with sheer pace.
Abarth 595 Competizione
Okay, this one’s more of a warm hatch than a hot hatch but it’s a hell of a lot of fun to drive and it sounds great. We’re suggesting the Competizione variant as it gets a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder makes 132kW and 250Nm of torque and it’s available with a manual and clumsy Duologic automatic and will get to 100km/h in 6.7 seconds which is none too shabby.
Look, the Abarth is no rocketship but the noise it makes while it’s going about its business more than makes up for any missing horses. And while the ride is firm indeed, very firm, even crashy across less than perfect roads, all of that can be forgiven when you’re thrashing it along a stretch of good-nick twisting road. It’s engaging, noisy (in a good way) and just a loony-grin fun.
It’s worth adding that the Audi RS3 will be back Down Under this year, so expect some movement on this list.
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