What’s better than a hot hatch? It’s the type of car that basically does it all – put a smile on your face, do the school run, looks awesome, holds its own on a track day?
But there’s so much choice, especially these days. While much of the car world has gone SUV mad, hot hatch fans are spoiled for choice, from entry-level, relatively affordable fun buckets to mega-powerful options from luxury brands that decided to join the party.
So to help you choose your next hot hatch, we’ve gone through the best options and ranked them. And we’ve added a few that we’re not quite so impressed by, just so you know too.
10. VW Golf GTI Clubsport
The Clubsport badge is back for the eighth-generation VW Golf, but this time, there isn’t any silly ‘overboost’ nonsense going on to avoid upsetting Golf R owners. Now, it’s good for 296bhp each and every time you stand on the throttle, plus 295lb ft of torque.
As with the old Clubsport and the Mk7.5 TCR, power goes through the front wheels via VW Groups ‘VAQ’ electronically-controlled locking differential. It makes for a capable, fun-to-drive hot hatch, if not one quite as entertaining as the raucous Civic Type R. You also can’t have it with a manual gearbox - the only transmission option is a seven-speed twin-clutch affair.
9. Cupra Leon 300
The Clubsport’s Spanish cousin is ever-so-slightly better to drive despite using much of the same bits in its construction. The steering’s a little sweeter, and although we’d need to get them both on the same road to be sure, we reckon the Cupra might have the edge in terms of traction too.
Not everyone will be keen on new Seat-less branding, though, and like the Clubsport, there’s no manual option. Curiously, this time there’s also a hybrid version and a lower-powered pure internal combustion derivative, each making 242bhp, along with a 306bhp all-wheel drive ‘ST’ estate. The 300 is the one to go for, though.
8. VW Golf R
Here’s the final part of the VW Group filling in the middle of our hot hatch sandwich. In times gone by, it would have been ranked lower than its front-wheel drive relatives, but for the Golf 8-based version, the R has taken a noticeable step forward.
Spec it with the Performance Pack, and the Golf R includes a new ‘R-Performance Torque Vectoring’ system. This is able to lob up to 100 per cent of available torque to a single wheel, making for a car that will actually step out at the back under power. For suitable locations, there’s even a drift mode.
The caveat with the Golf R and the two VW Group MQB products to come before it in our rankings is that the user experience has taken a knock. Some very un-VW decisions have been made, including the relocation of the climate controls into a sub-par infotainment system. The haptic control pads on the steering wheel (which thankfully aren’t on the Cupra) are pretty awful too.
7. Audi RS3
The RS3 has always been entertaining because of its big bucket of power under the bonnet, but when the latest model was released in 2021, it became the Best One Ever. Audi widened the front track on both Saloon and Sportback models, and widened the back of the latter, too. The brakes are bigger and the tyre contact patch is improved, but the real game-changer was the introduction of Audi’s Torque Splitter. This is basically a recalibrated version of the R-Performance Torque Vectoring found in the Golf R, and it’s worked wonders in the RS3.
Letting you send all the power to back wheels gets rid of the powerful-but-understeery character of RS3s gone by, and turns it into a proper pointy sports car that’s beautifully balanced through the bends, and adjustable too, thanks to various different modes that you can select and fiddle with. And obviously, it still has 395bhp to play with, which means 0-62mph in 3.8 seconds, which is faintly ridiculous.
6. Mercedes A45 S
It’s easy to get blinded by the raw performance of the Mercedes-AMG A45 S. 416bhp from a 2.0-litre engine allows for a 0-62mph time of 3.9 seconds, which was supercar pace not so long ago.
Indeed, it feels every bit as impressive when you put your foot down, but it’s more than just a straight-line missile. The A45 is extraordinarily capable in the corners, and unlike most other all-wheel drive hot hatches (save for the discontinued Ford Focus RS), it doesn’t just give you heaps of understeer when you do finally approach the limit.
The clever AWD system can and often does favour the rear wheels. There are times when it can feel a little unnatural and synthetic, but once you’re used to it, you’ll find the A45 S far more interesting to drive than the average AWD mega hatch.
It’s leagues better to drive than the old one, and even better to sit in since its minor 2023 update, which added new interior tech and a new dial to let you quickly switch between modes. The problem? The one you want, the A45 S Plus, is £63,285. Although we’re talking about hot hatches here, we feel compelled to point out that’s BMW M2 money. And as one of the smaller C-segment hatchbacks, it’s not like the A-Class is significantly more practical than BMW’s coupe.
5. Hyundai i20 N
Having made what is, in our view, the best all-round C-segment hot hatchback, Hyundai’s N division has tried to do the same in the smaller B-segment. And not quite managed it. The problem? The Ford Fiesta ST is just too damn good for the i20 N to top, and a front-wheel drive hot hatch isn’t ever going to trouble the dreamy Toyota GR Yaris (more on those two soon).
It has a capable, entertaining chassis and a surprisingly muscular 1.6-litre engine producing a handy 201bhp, but its report card is marked down by some unwelcome rev hang and an overly-firm suspension setup. It’s not that far away from the mighty Fiesta, though, and it’s well-priced at £24,995 despite being loaded up with kit.
4. Ford Fiesta ST
As soon as we caught wind of the Ford Fiesta ST’s move to an inline-three engine, alarm bells started to ring. But unlike the lethargic three-pot engines we’re used to, the ST’s 1.5 is an absolute belter.
More to the point, the latest ST has somehow exceeded the handling greatness of its predecessor. The front end is a force to be reckoned with when the limited-slip differential-equipped Performance Pack is specced, but it’s arguably the rear axle which is the hot Fiesta’s pièce de résistance.
It uses, in the words of Ford‘s engineers, “directionally-wound springs to apply vectoring forces to the rear suspension”. In plain English, it means they’re banana-shaped and make the rear constantly want to rotate. Factoring in the ST’s love of tripodding, this makes for hilarious fun behind the wheel.
It’s the most satisfying car to drive on this list - the only reason it’s in second place is as a B-segment hot hatchback, the Fiesta isn’t as good an all-rounder as the bigger C-seg machines that dominate our top 10. And as - in typical fast Ford fashion - the initially tempting starting price quickly rose. The limited-run Performance Edition had a starting price of £26,825, while the standard ST - facelifted in 2021 - now starts at £25,250.
If you want one, be quick - owing to the demise of the Fiesta, the ST won't be around much longer.
3. Hyundai i30 N
Yes, with all things considered - performance, handling, fun factor, practicality and value - the second best hot hatch you can buy right now really is a Hyundai. Who could have predicted that a few years ago?
Snaring former BMW M Division boss Albert Biermann has done wonders for the South Korean company’s N division. The car that spearheads Hyundai’s foray into the performance car world - the i30 N - shocked us by just how good it was to drive at the launch back in 2018, and surprised us some more by continuing to shine even when put against much more established rivals.
It’s not perfect, of course. The driver settings are too complicated - with over 4000 possible combinations available - the suspension is brutally firm in its sportiest mode, and the infotainment system is far from the best out there. All forgivable, however, and a refreshed version is on the way which should solve that last point.
2. Toyota GR Yaris
Our one-time chart-topper has slipped down a place, but the GR Yaris is still a magnificent beast. It’s proved so popular that, at the time of writing, you can’t actually order one, such is the backlog. And that’s because it’s not just hype – the GR Yaris is one of the best hot hatches ever made.
The rally car it was supposed to homologate has been canned, but in a way, that merely makes the road-going version all the cooler. Particularly given the effort Toyota went to when developing this thing - it shares the light clusters and little else with the standard Yaris and takes 10 times as long to build.
With that in mind, while the £29,995 starting price sounds like a lot for a B-segment hatchback, the GR Yaris is something of a bargain. No wonder there’s a long waiting list.
1. Honda Civic Type R
Previous incarnations of this list have placed the Type R Civic in a very respectable place, but the new FL5 is so good that it goes straight to the top of the hot-hatch rankings. Sure, on paper it looks very expensive and not much more powerful than the previous FK8, but that in no way tells the story. It’s better and more fun in just about every way, from the quality of the interior and the way it looks to the way it drives. OK, we’re mostly interested in the way it drives.
Unlike in the FK8 you can fiddle around with the FL5’s settings to your heart’s content. Want the softest suspension with the most hardcore engine setting? No problem. You can tune it to any type of driving, and it’s wonderful – stiff yet supple, boisterous yet mature enough for everyday driving. The grip and poise through the bends is astounding, but it’s not just technically good, it FEELS good too. You get more engagement in this Type R than ever, aided by a tremendous, short-shifting six-speed manual gearbox.
This is the one, guys. This is the one.
What about the rest?
As you might have noticed, there are some omissions from this list. Hot hatches have been coming out thick and fast in the last few years, and there are some strong contenders that don’t quite make our Top 10. For instance, since driving the Clubsport, we’re convinced it’s the only VW Golf GTI petrolheads should just consider, so it’s usurped the standard one.
We’d probably rather have the more practical Skoda Octavia vRS over the regular GTI, although it isn’t quite spicy enough to work its way onto our list. Speaking of which, the Audi S3 is a little uninspiring, partly because it doesn’t have the Golf R’s torque-vectoring system, which also features on the RS3. The Mercedes-AMG A35, Mini John Cooper Works and Ford Focus ST meanwhile are all decent hot hatches that were previously shortlisted before being squeezed out by recently launched, more talented vehicles.
The Suzuki Swift Sport is warm rather than hot, while the VW Polo GTI is a perfectly competent hot hatch that’s not quite exciting enough to be here. The Abarth 595 and 695 meanwhile are strangely alluring, pseudo-exotic hot hatches, but are also ancient and uncomfortable. If you really must, go used.
A car we wish could have made it into the top 10 CT recommends list is the BMW M135i, but sadly, it just doesn’t cut it, because it somehow delivers its 306bhp with an almost complete lack of excitement. And the less said about the way it looks, the better. The front-wheel drive 128Ti is more enjoyable but hamstrung by a lacklustre automatic gearbox.
Updated in September 2023 by Phill Tromans