Right now, there’s an incredible amount of choice in the hot hatch market. Whether you want an all-wheel drive rally homologation special in the form of the Toyota GR Yaris or a traditional do-it-all performance car like the Mk8 VW Golf GTI, you’re covered. So long as, of course, you have the cash.
Not so long ago we picked our top 10 best hot hatches for 2021, but anyone not wanting to shell out tens of thousands of pounds or commit to several years of monthly payments is still spoiled for choice if going down the used route.
A realistic budget of £5k it enough to snag one hell of a hot hatch, so long as you’re aware of any potential pitfalls.
So, in no particular order:
Finding a good one of these that hasn’t been binned or thrashed within an inch of its life on circuit is easier said than done. The Clio 182 and the earlier 172 are popular low-cost track hack choices, but there are still tidy, well-cared for examples out there.
It’s worth seeking one out, as the 182 is peak Renault Sport. Low weight, a fine chassis and a zingy N/A inline-four work together to make a sublime driving experience.
On the flip side, the Clio isn’t particularly well built, the cabin is poor, and the tight engine bay makes the 182 difficult to work on. But hey, you can’t have everything.
A hot hatch with such legendary status for under £5000? You betcha, but for how long, we can’t be sure. For now, £5k is more than enough money to get a tidy EP3 with that peachy 2.0-litre ‘K20A’ inline-four under the bonnet.
It’s a classic VTEC lump, meaning you need to rev the hell out of it to get anywhere (peak power arrives at 7400rpm before an 8000rpm redline), but that’s half the appeal. The chassis is as joyous as the engine, with a determination to rotate each time you lift off the throttle.
The best part of all? It’s a Honda, so it’s properly built, and if looked after, perfectly reliable. You can get the simply solid FN2 for under £5000 too, but the newer Type R is slower and not as fun as the EP3.
The R53 has so much going for it. BMW’s first Mini Cooper S has bags of retro charm, is the only car here to feature a supercharger, and prices for the earliest cars start at around £1000. The 1.6-litre ‘Tritec’ engine is good for 178bhp in post-facelift form, and more power can be extracted with an inexpensive pulley upgrade.
They’re not particularly well built, however. It’s worth going for one of the more solid facelifted cars, but even then, you need to be wary of various pitfalls. Oil leaks are common, and at the 100,000-mile mark, you’ll need to complete a very labour-intensive supercharger surface.
The bottoms of the doors, the tailgate and the joins between the metalwork and the plastic body kit trim are all rust-prone, and the power steering pumps have a habit of failing.
Initial reviews for the Megane 225 weren’t exactly glowing, but it didn’t take Renault long to rectify things with the stripped out Cup package. For our imaginary £5000, you might just be able to snag an R26. Built to celebrate Renault’s F1 success, these cars feature a small bump in power, revised suspension and a standard-fit limited-slip differential.
A cambelt change is due at 72,000 and it’s an expensive job, so make sure this has been done before taking the plunge. The bodywork is pretty solid, but the electronics have a deserved reputation for being iffy - check that everything works before handing over the money. And make sure you can cope with that odd rear styling.
There’s no shortage of VW Golf GTIs in various forms for under £5k, but to get the most bang for your buck, look no further than the MkV. This is the car that got the GTI back on track following its wilderness years (although the 180bhp 20-valve version of the MkIV is better than you’d think), providing an engaging drive, good looks and a healthy serving of tartan trim.
£2000 now buys you a leggy one, meaning a £5000 budget is more than enough for a very tidy example. High mileages are fine so long as the service intervals have been stuck to, especially if you want one with a DSG automatic gearbox.
As USPs go, an inline-five turbo engine is a damn good one. Yes, this generation of Ford Focus ST may share its Volvo-developed 2.5 with the C30, but that wasn’t really a proper hot hatch. The Focus is, and there are now plenty knocking around for under £5000.
The ST’s version of the engine got variable valve timing, a lighter flywheel and a 222bhp/236lb ft output, which is shockingly easy to increase. This does also mean if you’re after a standard one, you’ll have a much smaller pool to pick from - the Focus is a very popular car to modify. It’s also not quite as nice inside as the Golf.
Given its Volvo roots, it should come as no surprise that the engine is a strong one. The ST’s bodywork is less robust, so keep an eye out for rust around the rear wheel arches.
The last time we drove an Abarth 500 (a 595 Essesse), we gave it a bit of a kicking. And rightfully so - it’s a horribly dated car which can be optioned to over £30,000 if you’re not careful.
Its age also means you can pick an old one up for a price that’ll make you happy to overlook its shonky driving position and painfully firm ride. For our sub-£5000 budget, it’s going to have to be an early Abarth 500 without the Essesse option, meaning you’ll have to make do with 133bhp instead of 168. There are plenty of companies around that offer to increase the stock figure for little outlay, though.
Like the Abarth, the Swift Sport in its early form is more of a warm hatch than a hot one. Don’t let that put you off, though - they’re great to drive and cheap, and there’s precious little to go wrong.
The initial version can be had for well under £2000, with a 1.6-litre, 123bhp naturally-aspirated four-pot providing revvy thrills. The Swift Sport that arrived in 2010 is referred to as the ‘second generation’ car, although really, it’s more of a heavy facelift.
Suzuki kept the 1.6 but raised the power to the heady heights of… 136bhp. Nothing to get too excited about, but the Swift does have low weight on its side, tipping the scales at around a tonne. You’ll need at least £4000 to buy one of these later cars. It was replaced by an all-new Swift Sport in 2018, which isn’t anything like as fun.
For a time in the mid-noughties, there were three main C-segment belligerents in the hot hatch battlegrounds: the Golf GTI, the Focus ST, and this. The Golf was the sensible one, and the ST was the entertaining middle ground, leaving the Vauxhall Astra VXR as the tearaway of the trio.
It was the most powerful with 236bhp offered up by its 2.0-litre inline-four turbo engine, at a time when anything over 220bhp was deemed a little silly for a front-wheel drive car. Its lack of finesse isn’t as off-putting these days, however, since you can pick one up for as little as £3500.
It’s not a household name as a lot of the cars here are, but don’t overlook the Mazda 3 MPS. With 256bhp and 280lb ft of torque, it was enormously powerful in its day, and can still hold its own amongst contemporary hot hatch options.
It’s not the excessively torque-steering beast some would lead you to believe, and if you want to go even quicker, it’s easy to extract further performance from its 2.3-litre inline-four turbo engine.
For under £5000 you are going to have to settle for a pre-facelift car, but it’s worth spending more to get the updated version. It has a better interior, it looks nicer, and it’s less rust-prone.