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 2021, and ranked them. Here we go…
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 manual gearbox was also dropped not so long ago.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You knew this was coming, didn’t you? As the new darling of the motoring press, we simply have to place the GR Yaris at the top. Yes, there are plenty of other all-wheel drive hot hatches out there, but none have a proper permanent system which can bias the rear wheels without electronic fakery like the Mercedes-AMG A45. It’s an absolute riot to drive, and the 267bhp turbocharged triple is very punchy.
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.
As you might have noticed, there are some omissions. With stacks of new hot hatches coming out over the last six months or so, some strong contenders have been pushed out of the original 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 new torque-vectoring system, which is reserved for the incoming 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, and the same goes for the VW Up GTI. From the same stable we have the VW Polo GTI, a perfectly competent hot hatch that’s not quite exciting enough to be here. 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 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.
Would you make any changes to our top 10? Let us know in the comments.