Looking for the best hot hatch for your first car? Then look no further as we’ve put together the best 10 first hot hatches right here…
Hot hatches have got a bit out of hand these days, haven’t they? The sort of performance the current crop of hyperactive hatchbacks can offer would put a lot of bona fide sports cars to shame – look at the Mk3 Ford Focus RS, for example: that unhinged tearaway has 345bhp and a drift mode, for goodness’ sake. The FK8 Honda Civic Type R will happily do 169mph, and it has a big ‘R’ button that makes everything inside glow an evil red. The Mercedes-AMG A45 S serves up an utterly bonkers 415bhp, and the whisperings in the industry are that its forthcoming replacement will have 400bhp+.
These are very silly numbers indeed, and it can easily make some newcomers to the hot hatch genre feel a little overwhelmed. Sure, if you grew up driving fast hatchbacks then the culture is ingrained, but if you’re new to all this then the supercar-chasing power levels are all a bit intimidating, aren’t they?
But fear not. We’re here to hit the reset button for you. After all, hot hatches have been around for generations, and the second-hand market is stuffed to the gills with decent and loved examples of these timeless hoon-machines; classics of the genre that represent the true meaning of what a hot hatch should be. An everyday shopping car, which has been honed and refined, with a stiffer and more capable chassis, perhaps a bit of weight removed, and just slightly more power than may generally be considered necessary. Throw on some alloys and foglights and Bob’s your uncle.
Think of the spirit of the 205 GTI or the Mk1 Golf GTI, but with modern refinements and without the silly collector price tags. Ladies and gentlemen, we bring you our best ten first hot hatches! If you’re keen to get involved with this sort of caper but don’t fancy getting a massive finance deal on a car that’s going to terrify you, here’s our pick of the affordable cars which prove that you don’t need a drift mode or a bunch of red lights to have a good time…
Ford Focus ST170
Number one on our best 10 first hot hatches is the first-gen Ford Focus, which was an absolute peach. It had to be, really – lots of die-hard enthusiasts were quite cross about the idea of the iconic Escort name being killed off after so many years, so its replacement had to be something a bit special. And it really was. The New Edge styling was ultra-modern in 1998, and the handling was just amazing; given that it was intended to cover a whole range of spec and trims levels with the money-spinners being the cheaper everyday runabouts, they could have put any old budget chassis layout in there, but Ford went all-out with the clever Control Blade multi-link rear suspension. This means that even the lowliest Mk1 Focus will handle really well. And the sporty versions? They’re just sublime.
One of the great unsung hot hatches of the early 2000s, it’s incredible that the ST170 is still available to buy for under £2,000. It’s fair to say that it didn’t exactly dazzle the market when it was launched in 2002, as its 170bhp output had to contend with a variety of competitors who were approaching and passing the 200bhp barrier (and it transpired that Ford had the Focus RS waiting in the wings, and didn’t want to overshadow the new halo model by making the ST170 too good…), but talking about this car in raw power terms does it a disservice – that engine and that chassis work beautifully as a whole. The ST170-spec Zetec had a lot of development work put into it; branded a Duratec, it’s actually a Zetec-R of the kind you’d find in a different state of tune in the Focus RS. Built on the base of the 130bhp-spec Zetec, it features a high-flow aluminium head with bigger valves and stiffer springs, higher lift cams, continuously-variable intake valve timing, high-compression pistons and forged rods, dual-state intake with long runners for low-end torque and short ones for peak power… it all adds up to 170bhp, hence the name. You also get a really sweet 6-speed Getrag manual gearbox, 15-spoke 17” wheels, and 300mm front brakes. You could get it in 3-door or 5-door form, or even as an estate, and its understated and classy styling really looks the part. A real driver’s car, and definitely a future classic.
Top 3 mods:Milltek cat-back, K&N Typhoon induction, BC Racing coilovers
MINI Cooper S (R53)
There’s a world of difference between the MINI Cooper and the MINI Cooper S. They look similar to the untrained eye, but that little red ‘S’ badge on the first-gen MINI entailed more than just a twin centre-exit exhaust and a big intake nostril in the bonnet. It may have been harking back to the iconic Cooper S badge of the 1960s, but in the case of the 2000-06 model, the ‘S’ stood for ‘supercharged’.
There’s a lot to love about this frantic little car. BMW build quality and retro-futurist design means they’re solid and quirky (albeit with slightly rattly dashboards), and that energetic 170bhp always feels urgent in such a light car. There was an LSD on the options list and this really transforms the way it puts the power down, and with a thriving scene around these cars, the aftermarket support is massive. Throw on a 17% reduction pulley and an uprated intercooler and you’ve got an easy 20bhp increase, fit a Scorpion cat-back for a few pops and crackles, then upgrade the suspension and have some fun. Proper little pocket rockets, these. Just remember to always, always switch the traction control off. Trust us.
Top 3 mods: Scorpion cat-back, Eibach coilovers, 17% pulley
RenaultSport Clio 182 Cup
Number three on our best 10 hot hatches is the RenaultSport Clio 182 Cup. There have been loads of hot Clios over the years. The first-generation is most fondly remembered for the Williams, but there was also the brilliant Clio 16v to enjoy. The Mk2 Clio saw the Renaultsport branding arrive on the iconic 172, a car which is universally loved for its outstanding chassis balance, but it’s the later 182 that we’re recommending here. Why? Because of the power hike, but also the choice of chassis options – the standard 182 was brilliant, but the 182 Cup had thicker anti-roll bars and stiffer, lower suspension along with dark graphite wheels to show everyone you’d bought the more hardcore variant.
The Cup was cheaper than the stock 182 thanks to all the stuff which was omitted (unlike Porsche, who’ll charge you more for a stripped-out RS spec!) – it lost the automatic Xenon headlights and headlight washer jets, climate control, rear footwell heater vents, illuminated sun visors, solar-reflective windscreen and automatic wipers; the carpet and headlining were downgraded to base-model spec, and it even had a smaller horn. The revvy 2.0-litre 16v engine was tuned for 182PS (that’s 180bhp to you and me) and will happily relinquish more with a few well-chosen mods, and in stock form it’ll do 0-62mph in 6.6-seconds. That’s a lot of hardcore hot hatch thrills for the money!
Top 3 mods: GAZ Gold coilovers, ITG Maxogen induction, Quaife ATB LSD
Vauxhall Corsa VXR
The key cornerstone of the Corsa’s success has always been its affordability. While Vauxhall have always made sporting halo variants, the Corsa’s cheap-as-chips base models are a major cash cow for the company. The aggressive pricing strategy helps a lot, as it means that the finance deals they offer can also be stretched to the hot hatch versions, and this is true of the slightly outrageous VXR.
The version we’re looking at here is the Corsa D, the one sold between 2007-14, and the spec was pretty decent from the off: while the styling upgrades were relatively modest (bigger wheels, weird-shaped door mirrors, more aggressive bumpers and a functional roof spoiler), under the skin was lower and stiffer suspension, tasty Recaros and a flat-bottomed steering wheel, a well as the option of AP brakes and a Remus exhaust. It may not be as mental as the fully-loaded Corsa E VXR that followed, but £3,500 buys you a tidy little Vaux with about 190bhp, which only has 1200kg-ish to shove down the road. Sounds like a classic hot hatch formula to us.
Top 3 mods: Dbilas manifold, Astra VXR K04 turbo, FMIC
Honda Civic Type R (FN2)
We agonised over which Type R to put into this list, because the EP3 Civic is basically one of our favourite cars ever; the original EK9 Civic and the DC2 Integra are both astonishing to drive too, although they’re commanding collector money these days. So we reckon the FN2 Civic Type R sits happiest as a first hot hatch. It’s got a K20Z4, nat-asp 2.0-litre VTEC with 197bhp that just revs and revs and revs, and it’s all wrapped up inside a package that looks like a spaceship. When this generation of Civic launched back in 2006, its looks were jaw-droppingly revolutionary, and it still has a lot of impact today.
The interior’s cool too, with its weird two-level dash thing. OK, some purists may argue that the FN2 doesn’t handle as well as the EP3 thanks to its simpler rear suspension setup, but it’s still a bloody entertaining steer with bags of potential. The Honda tuning scene is absolutely massive, and it’s a piece of cake to tweak an FN2’s chassis to turn it into a proper fast-road or track weapon. And if you like chasing big power, the K20 motor responds really well to supercharging…
Top 3 mods: Eibach Pro Kit springs and camber bolts, Tegiwa cat-back, ITG Maxogen induction
Toyota Starlet Glanza V
In the 1970s, Toyota Starlets were rear-wheel drive. When the company saw fit to switch the third-gen to a simpler and cheaper FWD package in the mid-’80s, a lot of people saw this as a retrograde step… but these people were forced to eat their bitter words when the 4th-generation ushered in the slightly bonkers Starlet GT Turbo. This rabid model set a precedent for sporting FWD Starlets that really came to a head in 1996, when Toyota brought us this little marvel: the Glanza V. The 5th-generation (P90) Starlet was a decent enough thing in its own right; it shared its platform with the Paseo coupé, and it was an honest and chuckable little runabout. In the UK we got a modest spread of spec levels – the base 1.3 Sportif, the slightly more upmarket CD, the sporty-ish SR, and the GLS which had all the option boxes ticked. But naturally the special stuff was reserved for the Japanese market: they had the Glanza.
This is a rather appropriate name for the model – Starlet itself, of course, denotes a small star that shines brightly, and Glanza is derived from the German word ‘glanz’ which means ‘brilliance’ or ‘sparkle’. The name alone suggests an effort to apply even more lustre to an already sparkling base, and the spec backs this up with a brilliant-cut glimmer. The Glanza S is an interesting curio, with its naturally-aspirated 1.3-litre 4E-FE engine producing 84bhp, but the real jewel is the highly-regarded Glanza V – this threw a turbo into the mix, the 4E-FTE creating a robust 138bhp.
Hot hatch enthusiasts who grew up in the nineties and noughties with a keenness for the Renault 5 GT Turbo will be well-versed in the recipe of taking a small engine, turbocharging it, and throwing it into a lightweight shell for B-road thrills – the crucial difference here is, while the Renault 5 will inevitably break down at some point, the Glanza boasts faultless Japanese reliability. There were also some interesting options: as well as the weird dual-boost settings (where you could switch between 115bhp low-boost or 138bhp high-boost, it’s not obvious why), you could specify an LSD, Recaro seats, ABS, and a rear strut brace. These were all JDM cars so if you want to find one you’ll be looking at an import – but there’s quite a few of them in the UK now; prices start around £3k, and £5,000 will get you a really nice one.
Top 3 mods: Japspeed front-mount intercooler, MeisterR coilovers, HKS Hi-Power exhaust
Volkswagen Golf GTI (Mk5)
The VW Golf GTI has been a hot hatch hero for generations. The Mk1 was an icon. The Mk2 made the platform even better (particularly in 16v guise). The Mk3 was… arguably a bit disappointing, the Mk4 was a mixed bag (the early 115bhp 2.0 was shite; the later 1.8T ones were better), but if you want a quality all-rounder today, you’ll be wanting a Mk5 GTI. This is the one they made from 2003-08, and it was a true return to form – the handling is just magical, the 200bhp grunt from the 2.0-litre turbo motor is beautifully delivered, the interior’s nicely screwed together with a mixture of useful toys and retro GTI embellishments, and of course it does the proper hatchback thing of being really practical.
This car was a massive seller when new – for obvious reasons, it’s brilliant and got rave reviews – which means that the used market is flooded with them, so you can choose your ideal spec and find a well looked-after one. The amount of stanced and/or big-power Mk5s on the scene today demonstrate just what a popular platform this is for people like us, and with masses of available upgrades it’s a blank canvas. The Golf GTI may be the default choice for many, but there’s a reason for that. It’s just great.
Top 3 mods: RamAir induction, Milltek exhaust, Revo remap
Peugeot 306 GTI-6
A slightly more retro choice here, for the discerning fast-road hooligan. Peugeot have been synonymous with unrivalled hot hatch prowess right from the start; the 205 GTI is an all-time fave, although the values of those have started to go a bit nuts recently. The 106 GTI and Rallye are going the same way, but it’s still possible to pick up a 306 GTI-6 for pin money if you know where to look (i.e. owners club forums, Facebook groups etc) – and you really should, because it’s a cracking little car. The ‘6’ in the name tells you that it has a 6-speed gearbox, which isn’t really an impressive boast nowadays but it was a real headline-grabbing feature back in 1996.
And the GTI-6 is about more than just a gearbox – its 2.0-litre 16v engine produces 167bhp with revvy enthusiasm, while the steering and suspension are scalpel-sharp; it only weighs 1,215kg, it has passive rear-steer, and the engine is mounted really far back, so what weight the 306 does have is in the right place to make it handle. And the best part is that you can still pick up a 306 GTI-6 for about fifteen-hundred quid – so you can feel smug as you overtake a 205 GTI, in the knowledge that they paid five times more than you did and they don’t have air-con.
Top 3 mods: Jenvey throttle-bodies, Cat Cams, Pug1Off remap
Citroën Saxo VTS
This is another old-school French throwback, but we couldn’t leave it out because it’s such a legend. There was a time when you couldn’t pick up a copy of Fast Car (or any of those lesser tuning mags that didn’t survive the noughties…) without seeing a modded Saxo. The combination of low prices and attractive finance options meant that the Saxo VTS – and the less-powerful 8-valve VTR – was everywhere. All you needed to do was throw on a huge induction kit, a set of lowering springs and some phat wheels and you’d be king or queen of the cruise.
Today? They’re a bit thinner on the ground. A lot of them went the way of any hot hatch (i.e. driven really hard until they either exploded or spanged into a tree), many more went from fibreglass-clad show car to scrapyard crush fodder, while most of the remaining good ones were either turned into Stock Hatch racers or rally cars. But you can still find the Saxo VTS for reasonable money, and that’s good – this is a car that taught a generation of modifiers about tuning, styling, and cruising. We owe it to hot hatch posterity to keep at least a few of these bad boys on the road.
Top 3 mods: Piper exhaust, K&N induction, Konis
Renaultsport Twingo 133
Another Renaultsport product here, and perhaps not one you’d expect us to be recommending. A Twingo, with 133bhp? Doesn’t sound all that exciting, does it? But stick with it, as it’s actually a good idea. The second-gen Twingo was a quality little thing, based on the Clio II platform, and the launch of the Renaultsport 133 in 2008 brought a welcome shot in the arm to the junior hot hatch market.The Twingo 133 Cup enjoyed £700-worth of chassis upgrades that provided stiffer springs and dampers, a lower ride height, and 17” anthracite alloys with 195/40 tyres; it also boasted various weight-saving measures, including a single-piece rear bench instead of the independent-sliding rears, and with such fripperies as the air-conditioning, automatic wiper and headlamp operation being unceremoniously thrown in the bin, along with even the tint film on the rear windows.
However, it was also possible to buy a 133 with the Cup pack, which was basically the full-fat car along with the wheels and suspension upgrade. Either way you get a perky chassis, eager performance, plenty of equipment, and a surprisingly rare car. When’s the last time you saw a 133 at a car show? This little puppy’s got a lot of potential…
Top 3 mods: K-Tec manifold & exhaust, Cat Cams, BC Racing coilovers
Feature first appeared in Fast Car magazine.