Best hot hatchbacks 2021
The best hot hatches offer giant-killing performance and a gripping drive, all wrapped in a user-friendly package
Britain loves a good hot hatch. They provide fun, useable performance in an affordable, practical, everyday package. But which are the best hot hatches on sale today?
The modern motorist has an excellent selection of hot hatches to choose from, ranging from the small and sporty VW Up! GTI, to the larger, faster Honda Civic Type R and Hyundai i30 N. Better still is that while the performance of hot hatches has increased, the running costs still remain fairly low, meaning you get a great balance of smiles per mile and miles per gallon. In fact, one of the cheapest cars on our list - the Hyundai i20 N - is our 2021 Hot Hatch of the Year.
Thanks to mechanical and electronic trickery, the latest hot hatches are able to deliver enough performance to embarrass sports cars and even some supercars. Cars such as the BMW M135i xDrive have four-wheel drive to boost their performance, while the latest Ford Focus ST and Renault Megane RS use trick electronics and front diffs to boost front-wheel traction.
What makes hot hatches so popular is their ability to mix fun and practicality - so which hot hatchbacks are the best to drive, while still maintaining their versatile side? Our top 10 reveals all…
Top 10 best hot hatchbacks
- Hyundai i20 N
- Honda Civic Type R
- Cupra Leon
- Ford Focus ST
- Mercedes-AMG A 45 S
- Ford Fiesta ST
- Renault Megane RS
- Hyundai i30 N
- BMW M135i xDrive
- VW Up! GTI
1. Hyundai i20 N
Hyundai is clearly serious about establishing itself as a maker of capable driving machines. Its first hot hatchback effort, the i30 N, was impressive enough, but the i20 N is even better. With ex-BMW M head Albert Biermann pulling the strings, the i20 N has been developed as a high performance road car that really delivers on the twisty stuff. Its ability to grip through hard cornering is astonishing and just inspires confidence as you get back on the power.
The 1.6-litre turbocharged, four-cylinder petrol unit, produces 201bhp and 275Nm of torque, and is paired with a terrifically smooth six-speed manual 'box. There's plenty of aural drama too, with the snarly engine sounding particularly aggressive and urging you to push on.
Hyundai's small hot hatch is all the more appealing when you consider its starting price of under £25,000. Factor in the generous levels of standard kit, and the i20 N is a package that really starts to make sense. In fact, we liked it so much the i20 N was our 2021 Hot Hatch of the Year.
2. Honda Civic Type R
The Civic Type R is about as close as it gets to the mega-hatch mantle without actually going over the top. While its price tag might seem quite expensive at face value, it’s actually phenomenally good value in reality given how much power the Honda has (316bhp), just how quick it is and, most important of all, how damn good it is to drive.
In days gone by Civic Type Rs were quick, yes, but also they were too stiff, too uncompromising in their everyday demeanour and therefore limited in their appeal to a fairly small audience.
The latest hot Honda is more capable than ever dynamically, but is also civilised and usable. Genuinely. Apart from the fact that it has only two rear seats rather than three, it’s as practical as any other Honda Civic.
Yet on the right road it could also slay most supercars, while that grunty, characterful engine is linked to one of the best manual gearboxes ever. Hence the reason it has been our outright favourite hot hatch for the past two years.
3. Cupra Leon
The Cupra Leon does everything you want a hot hatch to do - it's fun to drive, extremely rapid, with good looks and a reasonable price tag. What's not to like? Ok, the brand might be a bit of a mystery to some, but if you do your homework you'll know that the Cupra Leon outshines its Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport cousin where it counts and is the more focused driver's car.
Undercutting the GTI by around £3,500 is no small change, so the Leon makes a strong case for itself on price, too, while overall refinement is impressive. With good levels of standard kit and that exclusive image, the Cupra delivers across the board and is hard to beat.
4. Ford Focus ST
Yes, the latest Focus ST is very quick, but despite its attitude, the sophisticated tuned suspension, and the superbly quick steering that (combined with the chassis) gives the car its trademark agility, it’s also well mannered, which makes it easy-peasy to live with every day as a result. So don’t think that because it has a 0-62mph time of 5.7 seconds and a top speed of 155mph that the latest ST is any sort of a madman. In reality it’s quite the opposite and – freakishly brilliant Civic Type R aside – it’s probably the best hot hatch you can buy right now for around £30,000.
There are clever adaptive dampers available, a fruity exhaust that enhances the 2.3-litre EcoBoost motor’s sound signature, an electronically controlled limited-slip differential and even features such as flat shifting and launch control, depending on what options you spec.
More to the point, it’s also available as an estate if you need the extra practicality a fast wagon offers – and there’s nothing cooler than a performance estate.
5. Mercedes-AMG A 45 S
There was a time, not too long ago, when around 200bhp would've been more than enough to qualify for genuine hot-hatch status. Mercedes ripped up the performance playbook with its first A 45 model, which boasted 376bhp, and has now re-written the manual completely by putting its 415bhp A45 S into production.
AMG literally couldn't squeeze any more power from the previous model, so started from scratch, boosting power and torque to supercar levels. Four-wheel-drive helps the A 45 S sprint from 0-62mph in 3.9 seconds, so you have a family hatchback that is quicker off the line than its AMG GT sports car sibling.
The engine is the world’s most powerful four-cylinder production motor and loves to be revved. Fortunately, Mercedes provides a manual mode with the eight-speed automatic gearbox, which means you can have even more fun pushing the car right to its limits.
What's also unique about the AMG 45 S compared to other hatchbacks in this list, is its luxuriously appointed interior. Although maybe not the most important area of consideration for keen drivers, it does add to the car's premium feel.
6. Ford Fiesta ST
Early versions of the previous Fiesta ST were great little cars to drive when you were in the mood for it, but a bit of a pain in the you-know-what when you weren’t. Yet the latest ST, with its Ford Performance-tuned suspension and a surprisingly powerful but also economical 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine, is a more sophisticated animal than its predecessor.
But it is still quite some animal, with a 0-62mph time of 6.5 seconds and a three-stage drive mode programme but also claimed fuel economy of 47mpg, thanks in part to a world first: cylinder deactivation on a triple.
It’s the chassis that truly defines the Fiesta ST as something just a little bit special, though. The steering is electrically assisted but has major amounts of feel, plus Ford has managed to engineer in proper old-school lift-off oversteer but without the fear factor of a Peugeot 205, so it’s playful, but not petrifying to push hard. It’s firm but rides relatively well, has a great amount of standard equipment in all its various forms and comes with a five-door bodyshell for an extra hit of practicality.
The latest Fiesta ST is a modern but also great hot hatchback, and its affordability puts this incredible package into focus.
7. Renault Megane RS
The Mégane R.S. comes in various different forms, and at various different price points. If you get seriously carried away, you could spend more than £70,000 on the 300 Trophy R version, having also specified the optional lightweight carbon-fibre wheels and carbon- ceramic brake discs that were fitted to the car that holds the front-wheel-drive production car lap record at the Nürburgring circuit.
But we reckon the sweetest version overall is the basic model, which still comes with a 276bhp 1.8-litre turbocharged engine but a price tag the right side of £30,000. There is one caveat, though: go for the optional Cup Chassis Pack that the non-R Trophy model gets as standard. It brings a limited-slip differential for improved traction and more focused, clever suspension. The chassis has four-wheel steering and highly entertaining handling. True, the interior isn’t perhaps the most exotic of hot hatchback cabins, but the steering feel is good and there’s a lot of grip.
Although the Renault’s basic performance lags slightly behind some of its rivals’, the focus here is on the chassis ability, so as an overall package the R.S. still has bags of appeal, even if it isn’t quite as near the cutting edge in this class as it once was.
8. Hyundai i30N
Five years ago the idea of Hyundai producing a front-line hot hatchback seemed laughable. But then the South Korean manufacturer hired the man who used to run BMW’s M Division, Albert Biermann, and since then Hyundai’s N brand has taken off and will continue to head for the stars, you suspect.
The current hero is the i30 N, and some hero it is, too. With a 271bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine (only a very small proportion of customers opted for the less powerful, non-Performance Pack model, according to Hyundai, so the brand no longer offers it in the UK), the i30 N has enough straight-line performance to mix it with all but the most hardcore hot hatches.
But it’s the steering, chassis, brakes and interior spec that set the i30 N aside; in all these respects it’s right up there with the very best. And for less than £30,000, it’s also exceptionally well specified inside, making it great value for money. It features myriad customisable settings accessible through its eight-inch touchscreen, including an electronically adjustable limited-slip diff, adaptive dampers like the Civic Type R, a switchable exhaust and even rev matching for the six-speed manual gearbox.
Out of nowhere, Hyundai has produced one of the great hot hatches of our time with the i30 N, and this is just the beginning.
9. BMW M135i xDrive
The new BMW 1 Series is front-wheel drive, but if the idea of a hot hatchback from the German brand sending 302bhp to its front axle fills you with anxiety, then fear not, because the M135i xDrive is, as its name subtly suggests, four-wheel drive only.
This means that, like a few other cars in this list, it has superb traction, so serving up this power, and the not-so-small matter of 450Nm of torque that its 2.0-litre turbo engine generates, is just fine. This is enough to send the latest M135i to 62mph from rest in just 4.8 seconds with the help of launch control, then on to a top speed of 155mph. But the more interesting side of the all-wheel-drive M135i is, of course, its chassis.
It’s good, it’s composed, it works well, it’s fine, but rarely does it ever seriously entertain like the best cars in this class. Whether this actually matters or not is a question that will be argued about for quite some while, but you can’t argue with the BMW’s basic composure, its speed – or its much-improved packaging – all of which are big steps forward.
The truth is, the purists might not fully approve of the new M135i xDrive, but it’s a better car than of old. Even if it doesn’t have the appeal of its predecessor’s six-cylinder, rear-wheel drive powertrain.
10. Volkswagen up! GTI
The Volkswagen up! GTI is a hot hatch that does things a little differently; it could well be closer to the very top of our list, but for a few crucial considerations.
Despite its 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine only having 113bhp, it’s an absolute scream to drive, with agile but not computer-controlled handling thanks to its low kerbweight and compact footprint, and an engine that sounds a little like a Porsche 911’s.
Our only problems with the up! GTI are that its steering lacks a bit of genuine feel, you can’t switch its ESP system off, and the regular up! is not a lot less fun.
Overall, though, this GTI is a car that make you smile when you drive it, which is the key benchmark for any hot hatch.
What is a hot hatchback?
Over the past 40-years, manufacturers have perfected the hot hatch formula, but the forefathers from the 80s remain hugely popular. Many will say that the best of them all is the Volkswagen Golf GTI, which intoxicated drivers with its small body yet big engine. The original Golf GTI was an after-hours project undertaken by some of Volkswagen’s engineers and was initially only sold in Germany. But word soon spread about the brilliant little car and the likes of the Peugeot 205 GTI, Renault 5 GT Turbo and Vauxhall Astra GTE soon followed in its tread marks.
It wasn’t just your everyday motorist that fell for the wily charm of the hot hatch either, thieves and joyriders loved them, pushing insurance costs through the roof and temporarily slowing sales in the 90s.
Today the hot hatch is back to full power, and they come in a variety of guises from a number of manufacturers. Most are still front-wheel drive, although 4WD is gaining traction, and BMW still goes its own way with rear-wheel drive. Most models get a four-cylinder turbocharged engine, and a lot of those are 2.0-litres. But again, there are variations, with smaller 1.6-litre units delivering just as much performance. Most come as three or five-door hatchbacks, but there are estates, compact saloons and convertibles too.
The latest breed of hot hatches use all sorts of mechanical and electronic trickery to deliver the sharpest performance ever seen from the class. Performance levels have reached new heights as a result, and so have prices, with models like the Audi RS3 Sportback and Mercedes-AMG A45 pushing £50,000. But performance is just one aspect of a hot hatch, because the best models deliver the kind of everyday usability that means a hot hatch should be the only car you'll ever need. The most extreme models have stiff suspension and a rock-hard ride that picks up every bump in the road, but those models fitted with adaptive dampers - either as standard or an option - offer the best compromise between comfort and handling.
Boot and passenger space are also big selling points, and while the original hot hatchbacks were generally three-door cars, the latest breed come with three or five-doors, and there are even fast estate variants of cars such as the SEAT Leon Cupra and VW Golf R.