5 Fiat 500 Abarth
Target Price 14,155
Used from 11,000
Talk about a transformation. In standard form, the Fiat 500 is as cute as a week-old kitten. The Abarth version is given claws.
Deep bumpers, gaping air vents, chunky alloy wheels and a rear diffuser transform its character. Then theres the turbocharged engine. An output of 133bhp might not sound like a lot, but in a car this small and light it gives proper hot hatch pace.
Stiffer, beefed-up suspension keeps you tidy through corners, while the steering is responsive and upgraded brakes help you stop swiftly.
As with any 500, the Abarths interior is a joy. It mixes modern and retro to great effect, and the smart materials and attention to detail are way beyond what you usually see at this price.
4 Audi A1
1.4 TFSI Sport
Target Price 15,670
Used from 15,500
Small and affordable it might be, but the A1 is clearly a product of the same company that produces brilliant sports cars such as the TT and R8. In all, its a stunning summary of everything that Audi is great at. In fact, its so good we named it our 2011 Car or the Year.
In character, the A1 is closest to the TT. It isnt as curvy to look at, but a wide range of colour and trim options allows buyers to make their A1 look totally distinctive. Its almost as much fun to drive as Audis coup, too. Sure, it isnt as quick, but the turbocharged 120bhp engine is stupendously flexible and the burbling exhaust note sets the tone for a car that delivers genuine hot hatch thrills. The steering is also light and communicative, and theres plenty of grip.
All this from a car that also has the classiest cabin and some of the best residuals in its class.
3 Renault Twingo Cup
1.6 Renaultsport 133
Target Price 11,485
Used from 7400
The Twingo Cup takes hot hatches back to the good old days of low-cost thrills, and it isnt only cheap to buy its also affordable to insure, which is just as important to young owners.
Power comes from a 131bhp 1.6-litre engine that loves to be thrashed, and theres loads of grip and sharp steering to make the Twingo a hoot on twisty roads. Even the regular Renaultsport features a lowered and stiffened chassis, but this Cup version drops the ride height further so it darts from corner to corner with practically zero body lean. Sure, some rivals are faster, but none is a patch on the Twingo when it comes to entertainment.
There arent many creature comforts (air-con isnt even an option), but Renault wisely fits stability control to help if you get a little over-enthusiastic. When a car is this much fun to drive, thats an easy thing to do.
2 Ford Fiesta
1.25i 82 Zetec 5dr
Target Price 11,448
Used from 7245
The Fiesta proves that you dont have to spend a lot of dough to enjoy your driving.
In fact, few cars costing twice its price will make you smile quite so broadly.
The ride is smooth over potholes and patched-up urban roads, yet body lean is so well controlled that you can scythe through a series of bends with total confidence.
Combined with strong grip, responsive steering and perfectly weighted pedals,
it means the Fiesta is an absolute joy, whether youre trundling through town, bustling down a B-road or cruising on the motorway.
Our favourite engine the 81bhp 1.25-litre petrol adds to the enjoyment, because it revs sweetly and performs with zest. Its even easy on the ear, so the Fiesta isnt likely to give you a headache on long journeys.
The majority of buyers will go for Zetec trim, and we reckon theyre right. Alloy wheels, front foglamps and a leather-trimmed steering wheel help to lift the Fiestas already sporty looks. Whats more, you get plenty of goodies for your money, including air-conditioning, a heated windscreen, electric front windows and a socket for your MP3 player.
The Fiestas interior is as sharply styled as its exterior, featuring a centre console design apparently inspired by mobile phones. Fortunately, its just as intuitive as anything Nokia or Apple have come up with.
You also get plush plastics and smart metallic inserts, while supportive seats and an excellent driving position add to the general feel-good factor.
1 Renault Clio Cup
Target Price 16,077
Used from 11,500
Sitting behind the wheel of a Clio Cup, its hard to believe that its related to an affordable, everyday supermini. Sure, the dashboard looks the same, but the rev-hungry, hard-edged enthusiasts machine youre driving feels a million miles away.
Thats the beauty of Renaultsport cars. These are hot hatches done properly;
more like bespoke models than the sporty range-toppers that others offer.
In the Clios case, bodywork changes including wider front wings complete with extra vents, and twin exhaust pipes turn it from urban runabout into mean and moody racer.
The way it drives is equally convincing. Central to the experience is a highly strung 198bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine. At low revs its gutless; mash the right pedal to the floor, however, and it screams into life, gunning you forward at a frantic pace. This is what a hot hatch is supposed to be all about: getting you involved and rewarding you when you do.
That goes for the chassis, too. Theres sensational grip and weighty, informative steering, as well as an unusually unflappable feel for such a small car. On twisty roads, its a revelation; this is quicker across country than many pricier, flashier motors.
As with the Mgane, we prefer the Renaultsport Clio in Cup form. You miss out on a few fripperies, but its hardly short of kit. Crucially, you get firmer suspension settings that keep the Clio glued to the road as tightly as possible, so its even more exciting. It doesnt hurt that the Cup is 1000 cheaper than the standard Renaultsport Clio, either.