Honda Civic Type R
Ford Focus RS
Volkswagen Golf R
Seat Leon Cupra 300
Volkswagen Golf GTI
Skoda Octavia vRS
When it comes to the balance of performance, cost and practicality, no other type of vehicle does it better than the hot hatch.
The idea of taking a regular family hatchback and turning it into a performance car has proved hugely popular, especially in the UK. Volkswagen took ownership of the concept with the Mk1 Golf GTI of 1976 and, today, most manufacturers have one of these fundamentally enjoyable cars in their line-up.
The best hot front-driver of the moment is worth the financial stretch – this is a seriously involving effort from Honda, giving you grip when you need it and adjustability when you want it.
That combination yields sensational agility that, along with a turbocharged engine of formidable flexibility, invites you to exploit everything this car has to offer.
A prettier, less track-biased car with a greater focus on cabin amenities than mechanical matters might have been a bigger seller, but it wouldn’t have been half as compelling. Nor would it be the most exciting hot hatch that can currently be bought new.
To find something that corners with the same ability, breathtaking confidence and mind-bending mechanical trickery of the third-generation Focus RS, you'd have to look at a car such as the Nissan GT-R.
This is a Ford that democratises specialness to a degree that you might well buy one solely for weekend use. And yet, beyond a thirsty 2.3-litre engine and seats that are set to high, you can of course live with this car as a daily driver.
Our only qualm is that the limits of its handling prowess are set so high that opportunities to explore them can be fleeting.
Upping the excitement quota of the Golf GTI while delivering usability alien to the Focus RS is what the Golf R excels at. Indeed, here is a car that blends the sophistication that you’d expect of a Volkswagen with the rawness and sheer driver appeal of the best superheated hatches.
The ride can be a bit brittle and it lacks the aural drama of the old R32’s V6 but, for what it can do, it’s a bargain. In fact, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this 'ultimate Golf' is a cult classic in the making.
It’s not particularly surprising that Mercedes-AMG’s most junior offering is characterised by indecent levels of grunt, given that its turbocharged engine makes 376bhp from only two litres of displacement. That it remains driveable, and tractable, is a credit to the engineers.
It is a little short on character, though, and while the chassis develops quite magnificent levels of grip and traction, the A45 is certainly not the most balletic of hot hatches. If you want class-leading point-to-point pace, however, we doubt that will matter too much.
The quickest Leon that isn’t badged Cupra R combines a fizzing turbocharged engine with instant handling poise. With 296bhp, there’s plenty of performance value here, too, but bear in mind that this front-driven chassis is not as adhesive or exciting as some rivals.
You can also get the Cupra 300 with four-wheel drive; this broadens the car's dynamic repertoire, although it’s available only with the estate version.
The price of Audi’s most junior RS model is colossal, but what it gets you is a simply incredible 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine and dual-clutch gearbox. It’s a combination that allowed the 395bhp RS3 to hit 60mph in just 3.9sec during Autocar testing and dispatch 100mph in less than 10 seconds. That’s double-take stuff for a hatchback and puts the model into sports car territory.
If there’s a caveat, it’s a familiar one – the quattro four-wheel drive system still doesn't contribute much to handling appeal. That said, cross-country pace is mighty all the same. Fitting the optional adaptive dampers is a must.
The most iconic hot hatch of them all is not as powerful or hardcore as some – far from it – but it remains desirable, superb on the road and great to own.
Breadth is arguably its greatest strength. However, even in its Performance guise, this ultra-composed Golf GTI is no match for the dynamic finesse of a Renault Sport product. And while it’s perfect for every day of the week, it’s incapable of blowing off the cobwebs come Sunday.
If Volkswagen made the Golf GTI a bit more visually appealing and a little more interesting at its limits, then it could give the car the additional joie de vivre it needs to be a real thriller.
Endowing a hatchback with a turbocharged six-cylinder engine still makes for rather a lot of proper, old-fashioned fun and lessens the disappointment that this BMW isn’t as sharp as it needs to be to challenge the most rewarding cars in this class.
Indeed, the rear-drive chassis is nicely balanced but isn't quite the entertainer it should be, and neither does it generate enough grip and poise for the M140i to match the point-to-point pace of the Seat Leon Cupra or four-wheel-drive Volkswagen Golf R.
A little extra power and a dollop more focus make this big Skoda really rorty and engaging to drive. Be in no doubt: this is a car that should be taken seriously. With the optional Dynamic Chassis Control fitted, the estate version finally makes good on the long-running notion that a vRS might just be a no-brainer for anyone whose life has outgrown a conventional hatch.
A lack of all-wheel drive hampers its ultimate appeal, but this car still manages a good compromise between a plush ride and sharp handling.
In higher-end Performance form, it boasts enough grunt to stay at least in touch with the most powerful of its front-driven rivals and even packs a limited-slip differential and adaptive dampers.
However, it is still a car with some clear shortcomings, its biggest being that the commitment evident in its mechanical make-up hasn't been matched by the expert chassis tuning it deserved. There’s also some debate as to whether the i30N's looks are arresting enough.