22,000 - 30,000 part 2
* What Car?'s 'fun 50' * From a Fiat 500 to a Ferrari 458... * ...we've got all budgets covered...
5 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo
X2.0T FQ-300 GSR
Used from 20,000
It might be called an Evolution, but in truth it hasnt evolved much at all. Its still a four-wheel-drive saloon with a highly strung 2.0-litre turbocharged engine clad in the body of a humdrum saloon, as it has been for years.
Thats because the original recipe still works. The 291bhp engine doesnt come alive until 3500rpm, but youll love it when it does.
The on-off power delivery also means youll be constantly changing gear to keep it on the boil.
However, the stars of the show are the chassis and four-wheel-drive system. They work in perfect harmony to transmit all that power to the road even in torrential rain while the sharp steering keeps you totally involved in whats going on.
4 VW Golf GTI 3dr
Used from 18,220
The Golf GTI is a more grown-up choice than other hot hatches, but its still huge fun.
Power comes from a turbocharged 2.0-litre engine that pulls strongly from below 2000rpm and has a mighty mid range, so a flex of the right foot is all thats needed to flash past traffic. Specify the DSG semi-automatic gearbox and the exhaust also pops when you shift at high revs.
The steering adds to the fun, because it lets you know exactly how the front wheels are faring without transmitting any nasty kickback to your palms. Whats more, theres little body lean and the GTI rides beautifully.
Itll do everything lesser Golfs will, although the sculpted rear seats make the GTI suitable for only four occupants. It even has a sense of humour: the tartan seat trim and the grilles red pinstripes are throwbacks to the original car. All thats missing is a golf ball gearknob.
3 Audi TT
2.0 TFSI 211 Sport
Used from 23,425
While the original TT was basically just a stodgy MkIV Golf in a fancy frock, the current one is a proper sports coup.
Theres no need to splash out on one of the pricier four-wheel-drive versions, because the basic front-drive model is a peach.
The way it demolishes straights, turns into corners and grips through them is stunning.
It makes you want to repeat a journey over again for the sheer enjoyment of it.
The TT is also the perfect companion when you need to get from here to there effortlessly, because the steering is light and easy, and the ride comfortable.
Its not just its driving manners that will make you smile, though. The TT makes financial sense thanks to its strong resale values, and its cabin is one of the best, with a classy dashboard, beautiful metal detailing and supportive leather and Alcantara seats.
2 Lotus Elise
Used from 27,000
Minimalist: the only way to describe the Lotus Elise. Its perfect if youre prepared to put up with the odd inconvenience such as having to bend yourself double to get into the thing, and being deafened on every journey.
It has an engine, a body, a couple of seats and suspension. Thats about it. You wont find any electrically operated roof here, or much in the way of safety provisions. Thats because theyd add weight, the antithesis of everything the Elise stands for.
The CR takes things a step further, because Lotus has ditched the air-con, the radio, airbags, stability control and even the roof to pare back the Elises weight by another 24kg. It works. From the moment you get in, it feels just so. The steering doesnt adjust because it doesnt need to; the pedals sit exactly where your feet need them to and the thinly padded seats hold you and your passenger in place securely.
The Elise is all about getting you in the right frame of mind for a good thrash.
The 1.6-litre Toyota engine has only 134bhp, but thats plenty in a car that weighs just 852kg, and its quite happy to work hard. Its performance figures, while good, arent exactly those of legend, so you need to plan ahead more to conserve momentum.
Just as well that the chassis allows you to. The Elise turns and grips like few other cars can, and offers a degree of feel that others can only dream of. Its steering feedback is so detailed you could almost be running your palms along the road surface itself. It really is that good. Just get in and drive, and youll soon forget all its foibles.
1 Renault Mgane
Used from 17,995
Renaultsport engineers must possess special powers. How else can you explain their ability to transform a fairly average family runabout into possibly the finest hot hatchback ever built?
Whats most remarkable is that the whole DNA of the Mgane seems to have changed: its like Peter Parker being bitten by a spider, or the Incredible Hulk getting angry.
The visual makeover sets the tone. There are bulging wheelarches, splitters, spoilers, sills and big wheels, as youd expect, but theres also an overall harmony and menace that the driving experience more than fulfils.
A good engine is central to any good hot hatch and the Mganes 247bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre unit is a peach; docile at low revs, but brutally effective when you turn up the wick. The clutch pedal needs a delicate touch, but theres immense satisfaction to be gained from banging up and down through the slick six-speed manual gearbox, keeping the rev counter pointing at the big numbers.
What really sets the Mgane apart from its peers is the way it drives. From the moment you pull away you can tell its going to be special; you feel everything thats going on through your hands and posterior and that sense of involvement is what makes it so enthralling. Cup trim is a must: yes, you lose some of the luxury kit of the standard car, but get stiffer, tweaked suspension and a limited-slip differential, which add to the feeling that youre surgically attached to the road. Tackle a favourite B-road and the only cars likely to keep up will cost two or three times the price. Really, its that good.