We in the UK have something of a love affair with the hot hatch. In fact, last year, hot hatches made up a significant portion of the one and a half million new cars sold. No doubt the root cause of the enduring popularity of the hot hatch is that they offer the same function and practicality of a regular car, but with a heck of lot more fun stuffed under the bonnet that’ll handle track days and school runs with equal ease.
Although it was the British who coined the phrase ‘hot hatch’ in the early 80s and who popularised the format, it’s actually a team of bored German engineers who we have to thank for it.
The notion of dropping a powerful engine into a standard car model was no new concept by the 1970s; after all, it was this that spawned the birth of the American muscle car in the early 60s, beginning with the Pontiac GTO. However, while US buyers were more interested in quarter-mile straight line race times, the trend in Europe leaned towards light cars that could handle well around a corner.
Enter a group of Volkswagen engineers, who put their spare time to good use by modifying a standard Golf in an effort to make it faster in both straight lines and also zippier around the corners. The results proved encouraging and so by 1975 this Frankenstein’s monster had gained new wheels and a flashy red trim and the very first Volkswagen Golf GTI made its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
The Golf GTI would send huge ripples through the motor industry and spawned a range of competitor cars built by other manufacturers, including the Ford Escort XR3, Renault 5 Turbo and Peugeot 205 GTI. Europe had been bitten by the hot hatch bug.
Skip to the present day and the hot hatch format is as popular as ever, appealing to drivers of all ages, abilities and with all needs. In honour of these muscular but practical machines, here’s our pick of some of the best on the market right now…
Ford Fiesta ST
Ford have a fierce pedigree for hot hatches and the Fiesta ST is no different. We described it as a cracker in our review back in February and we wouldn’t say anything different now. It comes complete with excellent performance that’ll leave many more expensive and more powerful cars in the dust, great practicality and an affordable price that starts from just £16,995.
With its 180bhp turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol engine, it can get from 0-60 in a measly 6.5 seconds and has a top speed of 137mph. The suspension might be ever-so-slightly firmer than the standard model, but with stylish features, direct steering, incredible agility and a fuel economy that’s not to be sniffed at, the Fiesta ST is everything you could want in a hot hatch.
Renault Megane Renaultsport
In terms of sheer performance, the Renaultsport Megane is a real powerhouse. Its razor-sharp handling is coupled with a turbocharged 2.0-litre engine that smashes out an impressive 258bhp and can hit a top speed of nearly 160mph. It may not be the most ideal choice as a family car as it’s only available as a coupe and has a somewhat limited boot space, but it’s revered by driving enthusiasts and rightly so. Where the Renaultsport Megane really excels is offering maximum bang for your buck; pricing begins from £17,570 with bucket seats and SatNav included as standard, while an optional Monitor Pack add-on allows drivers the ability to record their lap times.
Ford Focus ST
The Focus ST offers more straight-line performance than its smaller Fiesta cousin, boasting a 0-60 time of 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 154mph thanks to its 247bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, which can be boosted to around 272bhp with a Ford-approved tuning pack available for an extra £1,200.
It may be larger than the Fiesta, but it’s just as nimble with precise and responsive handling. Despite the fact that it’s only available as a five-door, the larger boot space and easier back seat accessibility makes it an ideal contender for anybody who’s looking for a family car with just the right balance of striking aesthetics, power and practicality. The Focus ST is available in three versions, the ST, ST-2 and ST-3, with prices starting at £21,995 for the basic model.
Peugeot 208 GTI
The Peugeot 208 GTI’s inception was a move on the company’s behalf to capture some of the magic of the old 205 GTI, still considered one of the best hot hatches ever built. In our review last year, we praised the 208 GTIs smart styling with its rear spoiler, chrome-effect body trim and GTI badging, and it’s no slouch on the road either.
Its 1.6-litre 200bhp turbocharged engine offers a 0-60 time of 6.7 seconds with a top speed of 143mph and the car’s confident and able through the corners. It might be slightly more expensive than the Fiesta ST, with a starting price of £18,895, but it feels more upmarket with 17-inch alloy wheels and DAB radio as standard among other features, making it the perfect mix of form and function.
SEAT Leon Cupra 280
The most powerful production SEAT to date, the Leon Cupra recently beat the Nurburgring Nordschleife lap record for a front wheel drive car, with an incredible time of 7:58.4 it has become the first FWD car to ever dip below the eight-minute mark. Beneath the bonnet, the Cupra 280 packs a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine that bellows out 276bhp, offering a ballistic performance that’ll take it from 0-62mph in just 5.8 seconds in manual form, while the addition of an optional direct-shift gearbox shaves that time down to 5.7 seconds.
With a starting price of £28,525, the Cupra 280 is a little pricier than its rivals but it’s still shy of the price of a Golf GTI and comes with additional options as well as a tasty 59bhp power advantage.
Light steering and a limited slip differential fitted to the front axle allows the Cupra 280 to slice through sweeping bends and whip around tight corners with minimal effort while its brash and aggressive styling ensures that it’s a head-turner. It may look slightly out of place on the school run but the Cupra maintains the same spacious back seats and boot space as the regular Leon model, making it a worthy family car nonetheless.
Vauxhall Astra VXR 280
Sleek styling meets premium performance in the Astra VXR 280, with a 280bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine that’ll haul ass from 0-62 in just 5.9 seconds, with a top speed of 155mph and 400Nm of torque that’d make any diesel engine quiver in its boots.
It comes complete with bucket seats and VXR styling as standard, along with a ‘sport’ button that causes the dials to glow an evil red when it’s pressed, but the VXR 280 also is also reasonably spacious on the inside despite its three-door design, meaning that there’s plenty of room for five people as well as their luggage.
It’s not as cheap as some of its rivals; starting prices for the VXR 280 begin at £26,995 but it comes with power, torque and acceleration advantages over many of its stablemates, with a good measure of safety features and a commendable 35mpg fuel economy to boot.