Hot hatches are some of the best used cars to buy. They are fast, practical, and often cheap to buy and run. Here’s a guide to the best used hot hatches to buy in 2023.
Over the years, there has been much debate over what was the first true hot hatch. For certain diehard fans, it all began with the VW Golf GTI, or the Peugeot 205 GTI.
Let’s not get bogged down in semantics though. These everyday pocket rockets have become a vital ingredient in the motoring stew, the idea of shoving a load of horsepower and agility into a sensible shopping car having grabbed the buying public’s attention and affection for generations. And so we’ve pulled together the top-ten hot hatches you can buy today, from the aspirational retro to the on-trend new-wave. It’s a list that’s bound to annoy some people but we’ve thought about the models that we feel best represent the modifying scene, both yesterday and today.
Subaru Impreza WRX STi
When you think of fast Subarus – and in particular, of Imprezas wearing WRX and/or STI badges – it’s natural to conjure up images of three-box saloons hooning through forests. Usually blue ones, with gold wheels and voluminous mudflaps. But Subaru were clearly gagging to get onto this hot hatch list of ours, as in 2008 they made the radical move of throwing all of their hard-won rally heritage in the back of a cupboard and instead gluing the treasured Impreza badge to a hatchback, of all things.
And, unsurprisingly, it turned out to be an amazing little car; alright, the looks were polarizing (particularly to a hardcore of somewhat annoyed die-hard fans who were adamant that Imprezas should always be sedans [or, at a push, station wagons]), but people who saw past that found themselves tearing up the country lanes in something splendid: four-wheel-drive, easily tuneable turbo engine, and an eager aftermarket ready to shower them in go-faster parts.
You rarely see standard ones today, because they’re so easy to get hilarious power out of. And even in stock form they’re pretty ballistic – JDM models had the 2.0-litre EJ motor with a twin-scroll turbo, whereas export ones had the 2.5-litre boxer with a single-scroll snail, and either way you’re looking at the thick end of 300bhp+. Lovely stuff.
US price: $12,000-$25,000
UK price: £14,000-£30,000
Interested in purchasing one? Make sure to read our dedicated Impreza hatch buyer’s guide first.
Volkswagen Golf GTI 16v (Mk2)
Here’s one for the old-school. And, since fashions always go in circles and 1990s culture is bang on-trend right now, it’s really one for the new-school too. Heck, Mk2 Golfs are for everyone – they’re just really, really cool.
The Mk1 Golf GTI may be the archetypal hot hatch for many, but it’s the Mk2 GTI 16v that really characterized the Fast Car generation back in those analogue days. The original Mk2 GTI 8v carried over similar performance figures from the Mk1 but in a slightly bigger and heavier shell, but don’t think of this as a retrograde step – more as simply paving the way for the bombastic icon that the later 16v would become. A peak power figure of 137bhp doesn’t tell the full story, as these cars delivered blistering acceleration and heavenly handling in stock factory form, and the aftermarket swooped on the valver like vultures on a freshly stunned zebra.
Sure, there were other arguably spicier Golfs in the range, and the Rallye had wide box-arches and the G60 had a supercharger, but the GTI 16v was the affordable-ish bruiser you saw racing away from every set of traffic lights back in the day, usually rocking 17” Momo Arrows, a hot TSR motor and brightly-colored Hella clusters. We’ll take ours in Oak Green please.
US price: $6,000-$28,000
UK price: £5,000-£25,000
Honda Civic Type R (FK8)
The legend of the Civic Type R has been rolling on since 1997, but it was 2017 when the model went truly global, with the FK8 being the first CTR to officially go on sale in the USA.
Built from 2017-2021, the FK8 was all about the numbers. Before it even hit the showrooms, Honda was boasting of its benchmark-setting Nordschleife time – a frankly unbelievable 7:43.8. For a smidge over thirty-grand, buyers were furnished with a tasty platter of figures – 316bhp, 169mph, 0-62mph in 5.7s, 1,380kg. And yes, we can assure you that the bonkers 169mph top speed is genuine… we tried it out on the autobahn, and it sits quite happily at that speed! You can really hear the aero working too, there’s a terrific sucking noise from the rear wing when you get past about 140mph.
The transition from the outgoing FK2 to the FK8 saw the existing turbocharged K20C1 engine being carried over to the new model, with torque remaining the same and horsepower increased by 10bhp – but the chassis was entirely reimagined to create something a lot more cosseting and friendly than the often harsh-riding FK2. Standard trim was impressive too, with carbon fiber sideskirts and rear diffuser, and a distinctive triple-exit exhaust. A hot hatch hero, with genuine sports car performance coupled with proper usability and practicality.
US price: $32,000-$45,000
UK price: £19,000-£35,000
Be sure to check out our Honda Civic Type R FK8 buying guide.
Toyota Corolla GT (AE86)
This mightn’t be the first car that springs to mind when people reel off lists of legendary hot hatches – but look, it’s got a hatchback and it’s oodles of fun to drive, so it’s on the list of the best hot hatches to buy.
The iconic and legendary hachi-roku is a classic example of a car that wasn’t overly appreciated in its time, and now everybody wants one. The AE86 has become a darling of the stance scene as well as the modern poster boy for the retro drift scene, as people have realized that what the twin-cam Corolla basically represented was the Japanese Mk2 Escort. It boasted a revvy and highly tuneable engine, rear-wheel-drive, light weight, effortless folded-paper style, and it was just buckets of fun. People turned them into rally cars and circuit racers in period, but nowadays they’re largely seen going sideways, quite quickly, billowing tire-smoke, as people live out their Initial D fantasies with shouty vibrancy. You’ll pay a handsome sum for a good one, and rightly so. The only question is – do you want the fixed-headlight Levin model, or the Trueno with the pop-ups?
US price: $10,000-$40,000
UK price: £11,000-£30,000
Mini Cooper S (R53)
Deleted: The R53 Cooper S is a car that enjoys widespread perennial appeal, for good reason: it’s the classic hot hatch formula, a little point-and-squirt pocket rocket, and it’s got a supercharger. Why wouldn’t you want that? Precisely why it sits on our list of the best used hot hatches to buy right now.
As with so many cars approaching (or passing) their 20th birthday, the R53 is a car that you can very easily pick up for not a lot of money… but you probably shouldn’t. Yes, it is easily possible to find one for a couple of thousand, but buying one for closer to double that figure with a decent history will be less painful in the long run. And once you’ve found a good base, you’re free to go crazy with the mods. The R53s really loves modifications, they respond so well to upgrades.
These cars are an absolute blast on road and track even in standard form, and the thing we’d recommend first of all is to downsize the supercharger pulley. There are various percentage options but there’s no point mucking about – go for the full-on 17% pulley, combine it with an Airtec top-mount intercooler and some colder spark plugs, and your stock 170bhp will suddenly rise to around 200bhp. Plus the blower will be wailing like a banshee! It’s not cheap, but the next step for the serious track fan is to swap in a full Eibach chassis makeover – coilovers, top-mounts, anti-roll bars, the lot. It makes a world of difference, and turns a really good car into a great one. Hot hatch heaven, right there.
Be sure to check out our Mini Cooper S R53 buyer’s guide for advice on what to look our for when buying one.
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 backward 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.
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.
There were also some interesting options: as well as the dual-boost settings (where you could switch between 115bhp low-boost or 138bhp high-boost), 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 outside of Japan now, and they’re becoming properly collectible.
US price: $5,000-$13,000
UK price: £5,000-£14,000
Fiat 500 Abarth Esseesse
The nostalgia-tastic 500 has been a vital thread in the worldwide automotive fabric for quite a while now, but you know how the old saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Of course, there have been loads of hot versions of the 500 over the years that deserve a place in this list. The frankly insane 695 Biposto is an astonishing little thing, with 190bhp, a 997kg kerb weight, buckets, harnesses and a Bacci Romano dog ring gearbox. The 500 Tributo Maserati had posh leather and Maser-style wheels, and the 500 Tributo Ferrari was like a scaled-down F430 Scuderia. But the real everyman hero for our money is the 500 Abarth SS (or ‘Esseesse’, to be proper).
Achingly cool retro styling and 160bhp for an affordable price, in a car that makes all the right noises and loves being thrown down winding country lanes and mountain passes. It’s the sort of readily accessible performance that really characterizes the hot hatch genre, and that’s why this peppy little hatchback proves to be so popular even after all these years. Quite simply, Fiat got it right.
US price: $5,000-$16,000
UK price: £4,000-£18,000
OK, perhaps we’re stretching the boundaries of the term ‘hot hatch’ a little here. The Sera was never particularly quick. But what it lacks in speed, it makes up for in visual drama. While too big to be a Kei car, the Sera is still a pretty compact proposition, and its main hook is the fact that its huge glasshouse all hinges upwards from the middle to give you a really widescreen view of the interior. Admittedly it’s not a particularly exciting interior, but the doors themselves are pretty amazing.
And while the only engine on offer was a 1.5-litre offering around 110bhp, it is easy enough (relatively speaking) to swap in the engine from a Starlet Turbo, which gives you 135bhp right out of the box, and then uprating the turbo, intercooler, and fueling can get you up to 250bhp, which would be very entertaining in a car that only weighs 930kg.
This car’s coolest boast? Gordon Murray himself cites the Sera’s door design as his inspiration for the doors on the McLaren F1. Genuine supercar design for hatchback money? That’s why the Sera’s on the list.
US price: $4,000-$18,000
UK price: £4,000-£10,000
Volkswagen Golf GTI (Mk5)
Hey look, it’s another Golf! We had to include this one because the Mk5 was the car that heralded a return to 1970s form: a proper hot hatch, with ample exploitable power and a hilarious chassis. It even had the retro tartan seat fabric. The previous Mk4 has a keen following and there were many desirable versions offered over its lengthy lifespan (long story short: don’t buy the 115bhp nat-asp 2.0-litre GTI, it’s not a proper GTI), but the Mk5 has earned itself a place in the pantheon of proper modern classics.
Now, you’ll know what happened to most of the Mk5s on the modding scene: ‘The Treatment’. Posh rims and air-ride. It was everywhere, and still is. But while the naysayers will tell you that this ruins a focused performance car, they clearly haven’t been paying attention: modern air-ride systems can be every bit as good as (or even better than) traditional spring/damper setups, and quality forged wheels are strong and light. A stanced Mk5, then, can be seen as the ultimate fusion of form and function. And with oodles of Mk5s out there to choose from, you can be properly picky about the spec.
US price: $4,000-$12,000
UK price: £3,000-£11,000
Looking to buy one? Visit our VW Golf GTI Mk5 buying guide.
Nissan Sunny/Pulsar GTI-R
Well now, this was a surprise. While European manufacturers were dabbling in high-revving 1.6-litre motors and front-wheel-drive in the early 1990s, Nissan had other ideas. They stood back, biding their time with a smirk on their face, then barreled in with the Pulsar (Sunny) GTI-R and basically smeared egg all over everybody’s faces. Here was a hot hatch boasting a 2.0-litre turbo motor and four-wheel-drive, with attitude in spades and a bonnet vent that every aftermarket bodykit manufacturer wanted to copy. It was a homologation car for Group A rallying, offering 227bhp as standard, and the presence of an SR20DET naturally meant that it was easy enough to see 400bhp+ without anything going pop. Bit of a game-changer, this one. People often refer to it as ‘the baby GT-R’, and you can see why.
US price: $8,000-$20,000
UK price: £12,000-£30,000
Need something a bit bigger, a bit more luxurious? Here are the best used sedans instead. Or, why not check out the best fun cars we could think of for less than 10 grand?