The hot hatch is arguably the best kind of car. They offer the fun of a sports car in a practical, affordable package you can daily drive. The choice, however, is quite bewildering, with myriad options from multiple manufacturers coming in different sizes, prices and even cyclinder counts.
To help guide you through it all, we’ve selected what we reckon are the 10 best hot hatches available right now in 2020, and ranked them. Here we go…
Yes, with all things considered - performance, handling, fun factor, practicality and value - the 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.
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 priciest ST - the Performance Edition has a starting price of £26,825.
The latest ‘FK8’ Honda Civic Type R is sharper than the Hyundai i30 N and much more practical than the Fiesta ST. So why is it behind both in our rankings? For the most part, looks.
The standard Honda Civic is an already aesthetically challenging starting point, so adding wings, bulges and vortex generators has resulted in a wild-looking hatch that divides opinion. Not everyone is keen, and we have to take that into consideration. We also have to keep in mind that the infotainment system is poor, although the refreshed Type R has at least reclaimed some of its physical buttons from the touchscreen.
If you can live with all that, though, the Type R is an extremely rewarding car to drive. And don’t be sad that the even more focused Type R Limited Edition is sold out, because the base version is already brilliant enough.
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 the interior is streets ahead of the original’s cheapo cabin. The problem? The one you want, the A45 S Plus, is £57,165. Although we’re talking about hot hatches here, we feel compelled to point out that’s BMW M2 Competition 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.
Once upon a time, the Renault Sport Megane was the benchmark for driver engagement in the hot hatch world. Now, that mantle has passed to the Honda Civic Type R. So why buy the RS Megane?
Well, it’s still very quick and very capable, and - we think - quite handsome. It’s also great value; the cash price might be comparable to most other big hot hatches here, but there are some astonishing lease deals available for the car right now.
Renault has also simplified the range, making choosing a derivative much easier. There’s only one output - 296bhp - and there’s no longer the ‘Cup’ option. You either buy the standard version with an open differential and softer suspension or go for the firmer Trophy with its stiffer setup and limited-slip diff.
The Ford Focus ST has grown up. Leaving behind the unruly reputation of its predecessor - which torque steered hard enough to make the average country road drive feel like a gym session - the new one has a bespoke electronically-controlled limited-slip differential, trick adaptive dampers and even a (sort of) anti-lag system.
As you’ll have noticed, though, it’s quite a few places lower than its baby brother. Unfortunately, it still isn’t the one thing we’ve been craving for from Ford - a car that drives like a big Fiesta ST. Its main issue is the driving modes; the Focus is too limp in ‘Normal’, but in ‘Sport’, it’s too firm and the steering becomes unpleasantly heavy. There’s no way to mix and match, either, so you can’t turn the engine ‘up’ while leaving the suspension softer and the steering lighter. At £31,995, you’re also paying a lot for the added tech.
If nearly £60k for the A45 S is a stretch too far, you might consider the A35. It looks much the same, you get an almost-identical tech-filled cabin, and with 302bhp it’s hardly slow.
Importantly, it deploys that output with plenty of drama; the A35 emits all sorts of silly pops and bangs from the exhaust, while each of the dual-clutch gearbox’s seven ratios is hammered home enthusiastically.
Traction from the all-wheel drive system is good, although there is a sense that Mercedes held the A35 back slightly in this regard to make the A45 seem more special. And while it’s a lot cheaper than the ‘45 with prices starting at £35,580, that figure can be inflated significantly; in fact, the last one we tested was over £44,000.
If you want a fast Mini, the John Cooper Works is the one to go for. The Cooper S doesn’t quite hit the spot, and you’ll struggle to get hold of one of the limited edition JCW GPs. That leaves us with the standard JCW, which packs a lot of fun into a small package.
Its 2.0-litre inline-four turbo engine is good for 231bhp, making 0-62mph possible in 6.3 seconds (6.1 for the auto). That’s a lot of power to lob through the front wheels with no limited-slip differential, but the JCW handles it well using a brake-based torque vectoring system instead.
As well as being entertaining to drive, it’s also just nice to sit in. Not everyone will be a fan of the cabin’s retro vibes, however, but elements like the aircraft-style toggle switches make the JCW feel cool and exotic.
The hottest non-limited Mini is starting to feel its age, though, and it’s not cheap despite its small size. Prices start at £24,480, and once you’ve added must-have optional extras, you’re looking at over £30,000.
Being the only hot hatchback powered by an inline-five is quite a brag. The Audi RS3‘s warbly 2.5 is potent, too, developing 395bhp, which makes for a 0-62mph time of 4.1 seconds.
Once upon a time, the engine was pretty much the only thing Audi‘s RS3 had going for it, but the current version - yours for £46,310 and up - has shrugged off the understeering reputation of its predecessors. The front end is mega, and the steering - a stereotypically weak point for Audi - is decent.
Handling is fairly one-dimensional, though, and it’s an old car now. If your brand new hot hatch must have an inline-five, it might be worth waiting for the all-new one, which is currently in development.
Yes, it’s perhaps a little too sensible for its own good, but while we wait for the market launch of the next VW Golf GTI, the Polo GTI is a fine alternative. It’s well made, handsome, fast and capable. Oh, and you can get it with tartan seats.
With a starting price of £22,130, it’s comparable to the Fiesta, despite having a snazzier badge. You can’t have one with a manual, however; the three-pedal option wasn’t ever brought over to the UK, and appears to have been discontinued back in the Polo GTI’s home market of Germany.
A lot of the cars we’d normally expect to see in a list like this are absent while we’re awaiting new versions. The aforementioned VW Golf 8 GTI hasn’t been launched, while the Golf R hasn’t even been revealed. Elsewhere in the VW Group, there’s a new Cupra Leon, the fourth-generation Skoda Octavia vRS and a fresh Audi S3 on the way. We’re also excited to see where the Toyota GR Yaris fares against the hot hatch establishment
In terms of stuff that’s already here, the Suzuki Swift Sport is warm rather than hot, and the same goes for the Vauxhall Corsa GSI, which also happens to be dated and overpriced. The VW Up GTI is fun in its own way, but despite the badge and the tartan, it doesn’t quite justify its famous badge. The Abarth 595 meanwhile is a strangely alluring, pseudo exotic hot hatch, but it’s ancient and uncomfortable. If you really must, go used, because the ‘new’ Essesse version simply isn’t worth the £25,295 starting price.
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 delivers its 306bhp with an almost complete lack of excitement. And the less said about the way it looks, the better.
Would you make any changes to our top 10? Let us know in the comments.