Greatest 2000s hot hatchbacks
We’ve racked our brains to pick our best hot hatches of the 2000s
The greatest hot hatchbacks of the 2000s are worlds apart from the models that kicked off the class in the 1970s. The new millennium saw massive advancements in terms of the technology, styling and even the level of safety on offer, but the crucial elements of excitement, practicality and affordability all remained.
Manufacturers didn’t all follow the same paths, though, so there’s a 2000s hot hatch to suit varying tastes. Models like the SEAT Leon Cupra cater for those who desire turbocharged brawn, while the Suzuki Swift Sport was tailored towards fans of lightweight agility - cheaper insurance meant this model was quite popular with younger drivers, too.
Whatever your preference, there were plenty of gems over the course of this decade. These are our favourite 2000s hot hatchbacks.
Alfa Romeo 147 GTA
When Alfa Romeo installed its glorious 247bhp 3.2-litre Busso V6 in its 147 hatchback – applying the Italian marque’s legendary GTA badge to its tailgate in the process – it was a recipe for hot hatch greatness.
True, the big, heavy engine in the nose of the 147’s relatively compact bodyshell did mean there were some dynamic shortcomings, but in a straight line the GTA sounded superb and delivered genuinely thrilling performance. As long as you were judicious with your throttle applications and kept wheelspin in check, the Alfa was a great, fun car to drive that is packed full of personality. Few cars sound better, too.
Stunning styling for a hatchback, a smart interior and plenty of Italian character meant the Alfa Romeo offered something a bit different when it was new around 20 years ago, and the same is true today. Time has meant the slightly softer edges of the GTA’s responses aren’t quite as important these days – instead, it’s the Busso V6 engine that’s the real star of the show.
Fiat Panda 100HP
When the Mk2 Panda arrived in 2003, we weren’t expecting it to be the base for one of the decade’s most fun hot hatches, but that’s what Fiat created in 2006 with the 100hp. The name denotes the 1.4-litre, naturally aspirated 99bhp engine. It doesn’t sound a lot these days, but the Panda 100hp only weighed 980kg, so it was just enough to have fun.
‘Just enough’ sums up the car’s approach to performance. It’s much more than simply a 9.5-second 0-62mph time and 115mph top speed; its qualities are found when you’re wringing its neck, going beyond the levels of grip and exploring what’s possible with a lightweight, responsive, front-driven hot hatch.
Almost as important to an Italian hot hatch’s driving dynamics is the way it looks, and the Panda 100hp’s bespoke tweaks look the part. Exclusive to the model are the 15-inch wheels housed in wider wheelarches, a slightly more aggressive front grille, a diffuser-style insert to the rear, tinted windows and red brake calipers. These are rather subtle tweaks individually, but together create a menacing little car.
Ford Focus ST Mk2
Ford almost created a class of its own with the hot version of its second-generation Focus. Shoehorning a 2.5-litre five-cylinder petrol engine into the humble family car certainly sped it up, but the undeniable bulk of the hefty motor made the Focus ST more of a mini GT than a genuine hot hatch. It was a slightly more sophisticated creation than the lurid launch paint scheme, Tangerine Scream, suggested.
That’s not to say there wasn’t involvement and excitement to be had with the fast Focus, though. Its heavy nose had a tendency to wash out in really twisty stretches, but when shown a fast, flowing road, the 225bhp ST had the pace to really exploit the Focus’s excellent chassis, demonstrating a wonderful fluidity and composure. All the while, the five-pot burble allowed owners to imagine themselves back in a rally-era Audi Quattro, helped further by gentle woofles from the exhaust on the overrun.
Flaws? The driver’s seat was too high – a result of the airbag placement, apparently. And even modest application of the throttle could slash the mpg figure down into the low twenties. The Focus ST was never a cheap car to run. But it was an exciting fast family hatch that could cruise lazily one moment, and be a B-road hooligan the next.
Honda Civic Type R EP3
The Honda Civic Type R – known internally at Honda as the EP3 – first graced our roads in 2001, and was the first proper hot Civic to be sold on these shores. It contained a naturally-aspirated 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine that produced 197bhp, although maximum power was available at 7,400rpm, meaning you had to really rag it if you wanted to go fast.
This approach was in stark contrast to some of the tamer hatches launched at the turn of the millennium, and the Type R was all the more refreshing for it. The dash-mounted manual gearbox was a joy to use, and the sharp, agile handling made it possible to dance along twisty roads.
MINI Cooper S R53
It’s arguable that there’s not a more successful reinterpretation of a classic car for the modern age than BMW’s reboot of the Mini Cooper. Launched in 2001, the MINI hatch was an instant hit thanks to its clever styling and superb engineering that prioritised sporty handling over anything else.
The brilliant Cooper S hot hatch arguably made bigger headlines by packaging a tiny supercharger underneath its bonnet. It gave the 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine a far more substantial 160bhp, and highlighted how brilliant the new MINI’s chassis was, with its super-low centre of gravity promoting a real go-kart-like feel to its handling.
On the road, nothing felt like a Cooper S with its singing supercharger and flat, composed handling. This isn’t the sort of hot hatch to lift a rear wheel or slide into a four-wheel drift, but it has an enviable ability to entertain even at low speeds.
The Cooper S cost thousands more than any rival. Yet buyers went mad for it, helping unpick the notion of a small car being an inexpensive one.
Renaultsport Clio 182
The Renault Clio 182 launched in 2004, following on from the already brilliant Clio 172 a couple of years earlier. The facelifted car saw power rise by 10bhp, with styling tweaks inside and out and a revised suspension for better handling.
And boy did it handle well. The Renault Clio RenaultSport 182 was the ultimate hot hatch in this regard at the time, with a superb chassis giving it huge amounts of grip and feedback through corners. Yes, the ride was a little on the firm side, but even so the Clio 182 managed to soak up the b-road bumps remarkably well.
With 182bhp from the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine, peak torque of 200Nm arrived at 5,250rpm, while 0-62mph took 7.1 seconds on the way to a top speed of 139mph. Unthinkably given today’s three-cylinder domination of the supermini class – you could also get the Mk2 Clio with mid-mounted V6 in full-fat competition form. The 182 paved the way for the 197 hot hatch version of the Mk3 Clio that arrived in 2006 and was held in similarly high regard.
Renaultsport Megane 230 Renault F1 Team R26
Renaultsport is rightly known for its hot Clios, but the performance division has also delivered some stellar versions of the Megane. Its first effort was 2004’s 225, which took the controversial second generation of the family hatch and showcased the Dieppe engineers’ chassis-tuning skills, as well as a revised engine with 222bhp.
A couple of years later came the utterly sublime Renaultsport 230 Renault F1 Team R26. Engine tweaks boosted its output to 227bhp and 310Nm of torque. But the biggest change came in the chassis, where the engineers slotted a limited-slip differential from the back of the US-market Nissan Maxima into the front of the Megane and made a far better fist of making it work than Ford managed with its Mk1 Focus RS.
The end result was a sensational everyday hot hatch that could pootle around town happily or be a stupendous point-to-point weapon, depending on your mood. And all while still offering decent five-door practicality.
SEAT Leon Cupra
The Cupra name stands alone as an independent manufacturer these days, but the term was born in 1996 when it featured in the Mk2 Ibiza GTI Cupra Sport. The 2000s saw increased use of Cupra branding on SEAT’s larier models, including on the first-generation Leon hatchback.
The Leon Cupra contained a 1.8-litre turbo engine boasting 177bhp, propelling it to 60mph from a standing start in 7.5 seconds and then onwards to a top speed of 142mph. On paper it doesn’t really stand out, but crucially it was more controlled through corners and had quicker steering than the Golf GTI upon which it was based, making it the better of the two to drive.
A faster, more powerful version called the Cupra R used the same engine from the first generation Audi S3 resulting in 207bhp or 222bhp on later models. This hike in power made the R able to crack 60mph in 6.9 seconds and raised the top speed to 150mph. A new front and rear bumper and exclusive 'R' wheels help set it apart visually from the regular Cupra.
Suzuki Swift Sport
The Suzuki Swift Sport was something of a bargain when it arrived in the UK in 2006, costing just £11,499. For that you’d be rewarded with a 1.6-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine with 123bhp, and a driving experience that could match any hot hatch. The ride was, naturally, very firm thanks to its stiff suspension, but that meant the car was eager to turn into corners with minimal body roll. Strong brakes made it a B-road delight, too.
The Swift Sport was an attractive little thing as well. Black A-pillars, gunmetal front bumper inserts and a tidy rear wing added to the kerb appeal, and inside the interior had a clear, modern design. A generous amount of standard kit made buyers feel like they were getting a lot for their money, which was important given that it struggled to reach even 30mpg.
Volkswagen Golf GTI Edition 30 Mk5
The original Volkswagen Golf GTI was launched in 1977, and so to commemorate the car’s 30th birthday, VW commissioned this Edition 30 of the Mk5 with – yep, you guessed it – 30bhp more than standard car could manage with its 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
With 227bhp under the bonnet, the Golf GTI Edition 30 could hit 0-62mph in 6.8 seconds en route to a top speed of 152mph. The extra power meant it needed slightly more revs than the standard GTI in order to flex its muscles, but beyond 2,300rpm that extra punch hit home. Even at a standstill, there was still an air of anticipation thanks to the exhaust’s distinct burble.
There were design tweaks to distinguish the Edition 30 from the pack, too: a unique chin spoiler, 18-inch alloys and a golf ball-style gear knob completed the special look. A memorable birthday, if there ever was one!
Which 2000s hot hatch is your favourite? Tell us in the comments section below...
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