The hot hatchback has long been a bastion of performance for those whose car needs preclude more focussed machinery. Fast, practical and reasonably economical, they offer driving thrills for those who need their cars for things as mundane as taking the kids to school or sitting bumper to bumper on the morning commute.
Times are changing in the hot hatch world. With owners of larger saloons looking to downsize to a more sensible set of wheels, premium manufacturers, namely Mercedes and BMW, are getting in on the act by offering sporty versions of their compact models. These have significantly raised the performance and luxury expectations in this market, but have come with the associated increase in overall running costs.
Thankfully for those who value hot hatchbacks for their city liveability and unassuming performance rather than supercar baiting thrust, a new wave of ‘junior’ hot hatches have filled the void, that despite their smaller engines, serve up driver thrills with greater agility and playfulness.
What’s more, the range of models available caters across the board, serving up everything from hooligan specials to more upright and sensible tyre smokes. Here are Motors.co.uk’s top five junior hot hatchbacks, where we’ve selected the best of the breed right now.
Renaultsport Clio 200 Turbo
Renault’s performance arm Renaultsport has quietly been working magic on the company’s so-so hatchbacks for years. Taking a deliciously focussed approach, they favour razor sharp dynamics and rev-happy engines over comfort and liveability. Which is why fans were so concerned when Renault changed tack with this latest model, fitting a paddle operated automatic and softening the car up to appeal to a larger audience. There’s no doubting some of the edge has been lost, but the Clio counters with a punchy 198bhp 1.6-litre turbo engine and with suspension better suited to our unique roads.
You can always search for the harder previous generation Renaultsport Clio here
MINI John Cooper works
You’ll either love or loathe the retro pastiche design and cabin styling, but there is no doubting the MINI JCW is a credible fast hatch. Drivers sit low in the pill-box cabin – the best place to exploit the grippy, sure-footed stance and towering 209bhp urge. It’s not cheap, though, starting at £22,460 and the ride quality is firm; bearable on smoother roads, but uncomfortably jarring over more rutted tarmac.
Search for a used MINI John Cooper Works here
Ford Fiesta ST
Ford has a long history in offering good-value drivers’ cars and it certainly wasn’t going to drop the ball with its latest hot Fiesta. It successfully distils the supple dynamics of the Focus ST into a usefully smaller package and is well endowed with a 180bhp turbocharged 1.6-litre Ecoboost engine. It’s good value too, starting at £16,995. If you prefer used, Ford’s back catalogue is littered with performance icons that you can browse here.
Suzuki Swift Sport
Suzuki isn’t perhaps the first brand that pops into mind when you think about performance cars, but they have nailed it with the Swift Sport. It uses a simple recipe of an old-school 1.6-litre engine mated to a manual gearbox and quick steering for maximum smiles per mile. It feels rough and ready compared to some rivals, but has a sense of eagerness and enthusiasm which has been lost somewhat in its more powerful competition. At £13,749 it’s also something of a bargain, and has a generous standard equipment list meaning you won’t pay over the odds for the necessary creature comforts.
Search for a used Suzuki Swift here
Audi A1 Quattro
Audi’s range-topping A1 doesn’t really conform to the hot-hatch rules of value performance for the masses – with an asking price of £39,930 – but we’ve included it here just for its sheer lunacy. Designed as an expression of the ultimate compact hatchback, the A1 Quattro is fitted with a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine for a class-dominating 256bhp. That power is sent to all four wheels through Audi’s signature Quattro system for maximum grip in all conditions. It’s a rare and impressive machine that shows how far the fast family car concept can be taken.
Unfortunately you can’t buy one, not new anyway. Only 19 examples came to the UK and even these were all left-hand-drive. With such exclusivity, don’t expect them to make a great bargain in the classifieds for some time yet. You can however look for the slightly milder 180bhp version here.