The best hot hatch needs to excel in several areas if it’s to be the best of the bunch.
First, it must be able to get the pulse racing on a twisty back road; if it can’t get you from corner to corner without the edges of your mouth turning up, it’s fallen at the first hurdle. Handling prowess and power delivery are key here.
Ride quality is also important. A firm ride is inevitable on something so sporting, but the suspension must be able to deal with the worst that British roads can throw at it.
Hot hatchbacks are likely to be used every day of the week, so a practical interior, reasonable running costs and comfort also need to impress.
Ford Fiesta ST
The standard Fiesta is great to drive, and the ST’s stiffer suspension and recalibrated steering makes it even better. In fact, the ST’s sharp handling is about as good as it gets, at any price. The turbocharged 1.6-litre engine’s 178bhp is more than enough; it pulls strongly from low revs right to the limiter and is at its happiest when being flicked up and down through the gears along a fast B-road.
Our pick: ST-2
The best of the rest
The M135i might sit between M Sport trim and the fully fledged M cars, but it’s closer to the original spirit of ‘M’ than any of the bombastic, overweight models that currently wear the badge. This is mostly thanks to outrageous pace, which is combined with a chassis that bristles with feel. It's crazily quick and handles beautifully, yet it provides just as much pleasure at moderate speeds.
Our pick: 3dr auto
Volkswagen Golf GTI
If you’re going to make a great hot hatch the standard Golf is a great place to start, with its quality interior and great build quality. Slap a turbocharged 2.0-litre engine under the bonnet, fettle the suspension and quicken the steering rack, and you’ve got an outstanding example of the breed. It has a far classier cabin than the Ford Focus ST and is much cheaper to run than the Renault Megane Renaultsport, and is one of the better all-rounders out there.
Our pick: 3dr
Seat Leon Cupra
The Seat Leon Cupra comes in two states of tune, the standard car puts out 261bhp while the Cupra 280 - the most powerful Seat ever made - produces 276bhp. We'd go for the standard car. It's considerably cheaper than its faster sibling but still manages to get to 62mph in under 6 seconds. Compared with the Volkswagen Golf GTI, with which it shares its underpinnings, the Cupra wins on price, specification and power output. However, the Golf feels better put together, will hold on to its value better and has more presence than the Cupra, which feels very similar to the standard car, especially on the inside.
Our pick: Cupra 265 3dr
Suzuki Swift Sport
Okay, you can’t expect blistering performance from the naturally aspirated 1.6 engine, but work the six short gear ratios and still it’s a rewarding car to drive right to its limits. The Swift turns, grips and generally scampers its way along B-roads, giving you confidence and loads of grins. Climate control, keyless entry and start, cruise control and xenon headlights are standard, which is impressive on a car costing around £14k.
Our pick: 3dr
The one to avoid
Nissan Juke Nismo 4WD CVT
The Juke Nismo just isn’t as sharp to drive as its rivals, and is not only considerably more expensive than the two-wheel-drive Juke Nismo, it’s also slower, heavier, thirstier and less fun. If it has to be a fast Juke, the two-wheel-drive manual 1.6 DIG-T foregoes 9bhp and the sportier touches, but is actually quicker to 62mph, comes with plenty of kit and costs around £4k less.