Best hot hatches

On your marks, get set, go... These small cars all have pace, but it will take something special to outsprint VW’s reigning champ

Being the fastest against the clock is one of the founding principles of the athletic competition. However, there’s more to a great hot hatch than being top dog in the sprint from 0-60mph. The best cars in this class need to be great everyday choices as well as talented all-rounders.

1st Gold

VW Golf GTI

Price range: £25,320-£29,440

It’s fast, fun and well engineered. Yet it’s comfortable, subtle and stylish, too – the Golf GTI is the consummate all-rounder, and takes a well earned spot on the top of our podium. It’s been among the best for decades, yet the current GTI more than lives up to the legendary status of its predecessors. For starters, it looks the part. Subtle yet sporty, the beautiful detailing helps this raciest of Golfs stand out, without the need for garish wings and spoilers. The experience from behind the wheel is equally sophisticated.

The chassis delivers a brilliant compromise between handling prowess and comfort. Many hot hatches are ruined by a hard ride, yet the GTI has a level of compliancy you don’t normally find in this sector – especially when it comes fitted with optional ACC adaptive dampers. Yet even if you plan to drive sedately, this grown-up attitude doesn’t mean the car is short on ability.

Body control, steering and grip are all excellent. The standard manual and optional twin-clutch DSG boxes are equally good, while the smooth yet punchy 2.0-litre turbo engine delivers a fine blend of performance and refinement. Better still, the sportiest model is as spacious as any other Golf. But despite that practicality, it’s the fun-packed experience from behind the wheel that really earns the gold medal in this class.

2nd Silver

Renaultsport Clio 200

Price range: £16,930-£21,695

If medals were awarded for fun alone, the Clio would have scooped the gold. Renaultsport is the strongest team in the hot hatch world, and the Clio 200 is arguably the finest example of its work. Cup-spec models have a harder ride, which is tough to live with every day, but both this and the basic version deliver razor-sharp reactions, taut body control and incredible grip. However, it isn’t just the  car’s chassis that’s a delight – the high-revving 2.0-litre engine punches well above its weight and delivers plenty of performance. Strong brakes and a snappy gearshift complete a hugely accomplished package.

Plenty of cars costing three times as much will struggle to match the driver engagement, feedback and sheer enthusiasm of this little hot hatch. Our silver-medal winner was a photo finish away from taking gold in this hard-fought class.

3rd Bronze

Renaultsport Megane 250

Price range: £24,020-£27,820

The Clio’s big brother gives the hot hatch podium a very French feel. The Renaultsport Megane is faster, with its 2.0-litre turbo engine, and the engaging chassis is equally as good. Body control is superb and the steering weighty yet accurate. Despite being heavier than the Clio, the Megane turns in with nearly the same eagerness, and higher grip levels help it stick to the road. The chassis is so accomplished that it’s hard to push the Megane to its limits.

Cup trim delivers an even sharper set-up, but the more forgiving suspension and less rigid ride of the standard car is best for everyday motoring. Plus, the coupe-inspired styling helps the biggest car in the Renaultsport line-up look arguably best.

Runner up

MINI Cooper S

Price: £18,075

In a category as competitive as the hot hatch market, finishing just off the podium is no disgrace. And it’s a mark of how talented our medal winners are that the superb MINI Cooper S is only a runner-up. Fun to drive on every type of road, the MINI offers excellent body control, a beautifully judged balance between front and rear grip and great traction. Most impressively, the controls stream with feedback and are perfectly weighted. A snappy gearshift and willing engine are other plus points, while the huge range of colours, trims, options and wheels is unmatched in this class.

Runner up

Suzuki Swift Sport

Price: £13,499

This old-school hot hatch sticks to the long-established formula of low weight, stiff chassis and responsive controls to deliver a fun driving experience. Affordable yet superbly engineered, the well built Suzuki grips with bite and delivers plenty of feedback. The cabin is simple, the engine is eager and performance is lively. A small boot and tight rear legroom limit practicality, but the Suzuki Swift Sport is great value for money.

False start

Brabus Smart

Price range: £15,000

It’s got a rear-mounted engine that drives the rear wheels, but the Brabus Smart can’t live up to its promise. For starters, it’s expensive. And while there’s no faulting the talents of its well tuned three-cylinder engine, the driving experience is ruined by the unforgiving suspension, numb controls, slow-witted gearshift and over-active stability system.

In this review

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