Best hot hatches 2023
What's the best hot hatch money can buy? Here, we count down our current top 10 – and reveal the models that are best avoided...
A great hot hatch needs to excel in several areas if it's to be crowned the cream of the crop.
First, it must be able to get your pulse racing on a twisty back road; if it can’t get you through corners without the edges of your mouth turning up, it has fallen at the first hurdle. So, handling prowess and power delivery are key.
However, hot hatches are likely to be used every day of the week, so they also need to possess a measure of practicality, have reasonable running costs and not be so firm that you quickly tire of them.
Below, we count down our current top 10 – and reveal the models to avoid. If any of them take your fancy, simply click on the relevant link to find out more or see how much you could save by using our free New Car Buying service.
While the BMW 1 Series is an excellent car in its lesser forms, with a great interior and a fabulous infotainment system, the range-topping M135i variant throws serious performance into the mix.
It combines a 302bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine with an eight-speed automatic gearbox and four-wheel drive, meaning the M135i can shift from 0-62mph in a snappy 4.8sec. It might not be the best-sounding engine, but it does pull strongly no matter what gear you’re in.
Just bear in mind that some rivals are more composed when driven close to their limits.
- Plenty of pace
- Classy interior
- Excellent infotainment
- Rivals are more fun and engaging
- You'll want to add options
- Rear head room not great
Volkswagen Golf GTI
Like the BMW M135i, the latest Golf GTI is outgunned by the very best hot hatches when it comes to outright thrills and speed. It’s also quite pricey considering the performance on offer.
However, it does nail the balance of everyday usability. The ride, for example, is surprisingly supple for a hot hatch (especially with the optional adaptive suspension fitted), and performance is closer to the more powerful Honda Civic Type R than you might think.
We also like the fact that it’s available with a manual or automatic gearbox – something that can’t be said for some rivals.
- Relatively strong performance
- Tidy cornering
- Quiet and comfy for a hot hatch
- Some rivals offer more thrills
- Quite pricey for the performance offered
- Woeful infotainment system
Ford Focus ST
The regular Ford Focus is one of the best-handling family cars on sale, making it an excellent starting point for a hot hatch.
So, where does the ST version differ? Well, the key differences include a 276bhp 2.3-litre turbocharged petrol engine that’s happy to be revved hard, plus a limited-slip differential to help you get the most traction out of corners.
In essence, it’s great fun to drive while retaining the practicality of the regular Focus. However, the steering can be inconsistently weighted at times, and the rather low-rent interior might put you off.
- Grippy and reasonably fun to drive
- Great driving position
- Well equipped
- Infotainment system can be fiddly to use
- Interior is a bit low rent
- Steering is inconsistently weighted
Hyundai i30 N
Hyundai went from zero to hero with the i30 N, because it had never previously built a hot hatch, yet managed to better the efforts of plenty of manufacturers who've been churning them out for decades.
Like the regular i30 family car, the i30 N isn’t the most spacious of hatchbacks, but it does come with precise handling, a responsive engine, a growling exhaust note and a snappy six-speed manual gearbox to really put a smile on your face. It's well priced and well equipped, too.
- Precise handling
- Responsive engine
- Well priced and equipped
- Not as fast as some rivals
- Bland interior
- Tight rear knee room
The 128ti is essentially a pared-down version of the BMW M135i, with front wheel drive rather than four-wheel drive and a detuned version of that car’s turbocharged 2.0-litre engine.
On paper, you might think these factors count against it, but they don’t; the 128ti is lighter and more agile, and it benefits from a bespoke suspension set-up, stiffer anti-roll bars and revised steering.
If you're looking for the most thrilling BMW 1 Series you can buy, and one that is guaranteed to have you smiling after every journey, then this is it.
- Superb build quality
- Sporty handling
- Class-leading infotainment system
- Mercedes A-Class is safer
- SE trim not that well equipped
- Road noise at speed
The Audi S3 may not deliver the ultimate driving thrills of some hot hatchback rivals, but it counters with impressive point-to-point pace.
It’s absurdly rapid in a straight line, and there’s always plenty of grip on offer in corners. That’s partly down to the accuracy of the S3’s steering, and the assured nature of its four-wheel drive system. It never feels intimidating, unlike some rivals.
While the closely related Volkswagen Golf R is a better all-rounder, the S3 isn't far behind – and it has the obvious allure of a premium badge and a more upmarket interior.
- Very fast and capable
- Easy to live with
- Slow predicted depreciation
- Not the most engaging hot hatch
- Fiddly infotainment system
- BMW M135i has a classier interior
Ford Fiesta ST
With a turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine under its bonnet, the Fiesta ST isn't short of punch; in fact, it puts out 197bhp, meaning you can cover the 0-62mph sprint in just 6.5sec.
And crucially, it's brilliant fun in the corners. All models get three driving modes (Normal, Sport and Track) to cater to different conditions, and a standard-fit Performance Pack includes a limited-slip differential to help maximise traction.
The Fiesta ST may not be the bargain hot hatch that it once was, but it remains one of the best to drive.
- Fun to drive with loads of grip
- Cracking engine
- Great driving position
- A firm, bouncy ride
- Rivals have better reliability
- Steering could be better
Volkswagen Golf R
Like the original Volkswagen Golf R, this latest version combines immense grip with a comfortable ride, but unlike that car, it also offers a playful handling balance.
It can carry a similar amount of speed through corners to the mechanically similar Audi S3, and noticeably more than the BMW M135i. The four-wheel drive system also aids traction, yet you can feel power being sent to the rear wheels to help the car rotate on the way out of corners.
Indeed, if it had a smarter interior and a less frustrating infotainment system, the latest Golf R might well rise even higher up this list.
- Savagely fast
- More fun than the Audi S3 and BMW M135i
- Comfortable ride, especially with optional adaptive suspension
- Won’t thrill you like the very best hot hatches
- Lacklustre interior and infotainment for a car of this price
- Relatively expensive to buy and run
Mercedes-AMG A45 S Plus
Is there a bigger compliment that you can pay to a hot hatch than setting an early morning alarm just to go for a drive? Well, that’s what you'll find yourself doing with the Mercedes-AMG A45.
That addictive nature is partly down to the A45 S Plus’s 415bhp engine, because it thrives on revs and gives jaw-dropping performance. It's quicker in a straight line than many sports cars, and the natural, precise steering and minimal body lean mean it only gets more fun on a twisty road.
The AMG sports seats, flat-bottomed sports steering wheel and AMG-specific digital dials also add to the already special feeling that you get from the driving experience.
- Savage acceleration
- Immense grip
- Quick-shifting automatic gearbox
- Very expensive
- RS3 is more comfortable and quieter
Hyundai i20 N
This stablemate of the Hyundai i30 N proves that car was no fluke. It feels much sharper than the Volkswagen Polo GTI and is both more civilised and easier to drive close to its limits than the Ford Fiesta ST, yet, it's cheaper than both of these rivals.
What’s more, it should be relatively cheap to run (we averaged 40mpg during our time with one) and reliable. Plus, it comes with the benefit of Hyundai’s five-year, unlimited-mileage warranty.
In short, the i20 N harks back to the days when hot hatches kept costs low and enjoyment high, and that's why we love it.
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- One of the cheapest hot hatches
- Easygoing neutral handling plus lots of grip
- Faster than a Ford Fiesta ST
- Slightly less playful handling than the Fiesta ST
- Smaller boot than rivals
- So-so infotainment system
And the hot hatches to avoid...
The go-faster version of the Fiat 500 is startlingly quick and wonderfully stylish. Unfortunately, this isn't backed by composure in corners and the bouncy ride can become extremely wearing. Read our review
If you're looking for a swift and practical family car, the Octavia vRS might appeal, but it doesn't excite in the bends, which is a serious problem for a hot hatch. Read our review
Best small SUVs 2023
Thinking of buying a new small SUV? Then make sure you read our rundown of the top 10 cars in this booming sector – plus, find out which ones we'd avoid
Audi RS3 Sportback long-term test
Back in January, we named this 394bhp rocketship the best hot hatch for daily usability, but we've since been putting that verdict to the ultimate test by actually living with an RS3