Hot hatch contenders

* 17 categories of awards * All the winning models featured here * What Car? Car of the Year 2011 revealed...

Hot hatch contenders

What Car? Awards 2012 website

Best buy less than 15,000
Renault Twingo Renaultsport 133 Cup
List price 12,100
Target Price 11,451

Remember when hot hatches were all about cheap thrills? Renault clearly does, because thats exactly what you get from its Twingo Renaultsport 133 Cup.

This budget belter is only slightly longer than its nametag its powered by a 131bhp 1.6-litre engine that loves to be thrashed, and is an absolute hoot on winding roads.

Even the regular Twingo Renaultsport features a lowered and stiffened chassis,
but the Cup version drops it even farther, so it darts from corner to corner with virtually zero body lean.

Beefy 17-inch alloys and a chunky bodykit ensure it looks the part, too, while the no-nonsense interior features figure-hugging sports seats and other Renaultsport props.

True, you dont get many mod-cons (air-conditioning isnt even an option on the Cup), but Renault hasnt skimped on safety kit, fitting stability control and four airbags.

Fiats stylish 500 Abarth was also in contention in this price category. However,
the Twingo is almost 3000 cheaper after discounts, and its a lot more fun to drive.

0-62mph 8.7sec Top Speed 125mph
Running costs
Economy 40.4mpg CO2 155g/km
Insurance group 19
Best buy 15,000-20,000
Renault Clio Renaultsport 200 Cup
List price 16,810
Target Price 14,730

Take a look at the cars Renault has beaten to win this second sub-category and youll realise just how special its Clio Cup is.

The same sort of money buys Minis Cooper S, which combines go-kart handling with retro style and is now more desirable than ever, thanks to a new engine thats more efficient and more powerful.

Then theres Volkswagens Polo GTI a civilised yet fun hot hatch that looks every inch the mini Golf GTI and comes with an F1-style paddle-shift gearbox.

Neither gets your heart racing like the Clio, though. Power comes from a rev-hungry 197bhp 2.0-litre engine, so it feels brisk rather than blistering when the revs are south of 5000rpm.

However, drop a couple of gears and drive the Clio Cup like its meant to be driven, and its awesome pace, rib-crushing grip and razor-sharp steering will have you grinning like a dental model.

Sure, it likes a drop of unleaded, but if you haggle hard with your Renault dealer it starts to look like an absolute steal.

0-62mph 6.9sec Top Speed 141mph
Running costs
Economy 34.4mpg CO2 195g/km
Insurance group 30
Best buy more than 20,000
Renault Mgane Renaultsport 250 Cup
List price 23,650
Target Price 21,826

As we reach the highest price bracket, you might notice theres a bit of a theme developing. If youve got more than 20,000 to spend, the best hot hatch you can buy is yet another Renault.

For starters, the Mgane 250 Cup offers phenomenal performance and a beautifully balanced chassis that delivers masses of feel and grip. However, its not some track-focused special thats a pain to live with every day standard equipment is generous, its quiet at speed and the ride is reasonably comfortable.

If youre after something even more civilised then wed head straight for the nearest Volkswagen dealer because the latest Golf GTI mixes speed and agility with fantastic everyday usability and an impeccable image.

Alternatively, if power is your top priority then the Golf R and Seats Leon Cupra R should be on your list with their 260bhp.

Does this make them more entertaining than the Renault, though? Absolutely not. Its much lighter than both these rivals, so its not only more agile but also every bit as fast.

0-62mph 6.1sec Top Speed 156mph
Running costs
Economy 33.6mpg CO2 195g/km
Insurance group 34
Tester's view
Building a hot hatch can be a simple recipe: take a conventional model, stuff a hotter engine under the bonnet, make the suspension stiffer, then garnish with big wheels and a racy bodykit.

If the standard car isnt that good to drive, though, youve got your work cut out which makes Renaults triple success even more impressive. The stock versions of the Twingo, Clio and Mgane are hardly class-leaders, but with the expertise of Renaultsports engineers, theyve been turned into world-beaters.

A powerful, revvy engine; a chassis that combines poise with precision; steering thats alive with feedback; even how sensitive the pedals are every part of this trio has been honed to make driving them a thrill.

Thats why I love hot hatches and why I love all of these fast Renaults.
Barnaby Jones Deputy production editor