How to Pick Your Perfect Hot Hatch

2014 VW Golf R 1 photo
Photo: Volkswagen
Back in January, with Europe in the grip of winter, I snuggled up to a cup of hot coco (more like 5 cups of really bad coffee I made myself) and brought you the story of “Best New Hot Hatchbacks to Buy for $20,000”. Of course, that’s basically referring to the US market only, not the perfect place to but a 5-door. US buyers believe hatchbacks are poorly made economy cars that won’t last more than a couple of years. Of course, that isn’t true, but it’s why Ford took so long to bringing the Focus ST.
To some extent, the hot hatch remains a European affair, to be savored over a cup of expresso in the morning, stout beer in the evening and Red Bull at night. With just about every major car company having revealed some sort of hot hatchback in the past couple of years, you really are spoiled for choice. In fact, I’d say the current lineup is the best we’re ever going to see. The only really major car that’s missing right now is the SEAT Leon Cupra. That’s going to be an interesting car, but I really isn’t my fault that the Spanish are coming in last.

I believe that a good couple of tens of thousands of people (maybe 50,000 if you count warm hatches) will negotiate a very tricky market and buy a hot hatch this year. There’s history to consider, technology, practicality of course the price.

Abarth 500, Alfa Romeo MiTo and Giulietta QV, Audi S3, BMW M135i, Citroen DS3, Ford Fiesta and Focus ST, Hyundai Veloster Turbo, Kia cee’d GT, MINI Cooper S, Opel Corsa and Astra OPC, Peugeot 208 GTI, Renault Twingo Rs, Clio GT, Clio RS and Megane RS, SEAT Ibiza and Leon FR and Cupra, the VW Polo GTI, Golf GTD/GTI and R and the Suzuki Swift Sport.

That’s a huge list. So which is best? None of them is “the best”. It all depends on what you’re after. Before you buy, ask yourself some major questions:
  • How much am I willing to spend?
  • Would I like a turbo engine?
  • How long am I going to keep this car for?
  • What do I want to use it for?
  • Is it going to be my only car?
  • What’s the service plan like?
  • Can I afford to put fuel in it every day?
  • How are the roads where I will drive it?

Unlike the days of the Clio Williams or the Peugeot 205 GTi, very few people can actually buy these joyrides with cold hard cash. That’s because they’ve been fitted with at least as many airbags as you have body parts, crumple zones, extra strengthening genders in the doors, powered windows, powered seats, powered
steering… powered power. And because they are expensive, you’re going to pay for these cars for about as long as you want to own them. Volkswagen, Ford and Renault know this. The Golf GTI is no longer a car for people in their 20s, it’s more for those in their late 30s or early 40s. Even something like the Clio RS can be too expensive for you, so weigh in your finances and maybe consider something like the Clio GT or Polo BlueGT. I know I would.

One car I would consider above the Clio RS, which is still a firm favorite, or the Fiesta ST is the new Kia pro_cee’d GT. It’s a very stupid name for a car that gives you a lot. Think of it not as a Golf GTI rival, but as an Opel GTC Turbo rival, not quite a hot hatch. What its 1.6-liter turbo engine loses in power, the car makes up for with superior trim levels. There’s an exhaust pipe on each side, LED DRLs, xenon headlights, a red stripe, Recaro seats, a digital speedo, parking sensors and a big handbrake lever with red stitching on it. That’s everything I want as standard on my car, and Kia is probable the first to put them on a €21,000-ish car. I know the price will be different in every single market, but trust me, the equipment on GT is pretty sweet. A similar price-to-performance balance is also achieved by the SEAT Leon FR III. In my opinion, the design isn’t as good and some of the interior plastics are harsh, but the 1.8-liter TSI engine is very smooth, not to mention efficient.

This might seem like a stupid question to ask, but have you guy thought about what sort of fuel it’s going to burn? The price of fuel is a really big deal these days. VW makes a really good case with the Mk7 Golf GTD. On paper, it’s only marginally slower than other hot hatches out there and yet it’s about as efficient as a 1.6-liter car.
However, these figures are misleading. The bad news is you’re dropping horsepower and you really are going to notice it. It’s never going to be as good as a GTI, but if you’re doing to do long highway miles it really will save you a lot of money. Once you’re above 60 km/h or so, the two cars are basically the same thing. That’s the trade you’re making: acceleration off the line for fuel economy. Now normally, you’re only supposed to buy diesel over petrol if you plan to use it on the highway and keep it for about 150,000km to balance out the cost. But there’s no cost to balance between the GTD and GTI, nor is there a reliability problem. Performance or fuel consumption, that’s it! Renault tried to make a diesel hot hatch, the Megane RS 175 dCi I believe it was called, but it failed because it arrived too early and it tried to be the racer it couldn’t. Golfs come with softer suspension and are best enjoyed in a controlled, leisurely manner.

Speaking of enjoyment, have you thought about how hardcore you want your car to be? It’s natural to think that firmer suspension leads to a faster car, but a revelation is going around the auto world right now. It seems the human can’t sense speed, only acceleration, so to make us think we’re in a fast car, the suspension is made intentionally hard.

Renaultsport’s hot hatches are among the firmest in the business, but not in the fake way I just mentioned. The rebound is sometimes very hard, so be careful what you wish for when you say you want the sportiest. The Megane RS with the Cup chassis is a wonderful expression of what you can do with a 2-liter engine. It’s the cheap-ish car that will do what everybody dreams of doing: race a BMW 3-Series on a really tight budget. The downsize is, as I mentioned, the suspension clonks over bigger bumps and the gearbox will feel like it’s about to break and you’ll go through clutches really fast. The upside is Renault’s service costs are dirt-cheap compared to a BMW. I was pleasantly surprised to see just how cheaply you can replace the discs and pads on this car.

Speaking of clutches, Volkswagen’s are very strong. Every time you try to do something sporty with them, they just complain and stink up. Opel has problems too, the Corsa and Astra OPC suffer from a bit of turbo lag and the gearboxes are from 2005, not 2015.

If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford a €40,000 car for the first time in your life please don’t make the mistake of going for a Mitsubishi Evo X or a Subaru STI. They clonk, bonk, leak oil on a daily basis. The Germans do it best and while everybody is concerned with the new AMG A-Class, I think you should only be looking at the BMW and the Audi. Both area cheaper and are built on a solid bead of experience in the business.

The BMW M135i is at its fastest when equipped with xDrive and the eight-speed automatic, but then it’s really expensive. However, that 3-liter engine is unlike anything else on the market. It’s like churning natural organic butter in a blender while getting a massage from all the Victoria’s Secret models at the same time - it’s really smooth and pleasant, but really expensive at the same time. Still, it’s the only car in this lineup that drifts.

The Audi S3 does the normal car things a little bitter because it was born out of a normal car. The interior feels a bit more spacious and it’s cheaper as well. However, the Stronic6 gearbox is a much needed resource that cost €2500 extra.

This is why I think the ultimate hot hatch of the next couple of years is going to be the S3’s cheaper brother, the recently revealed Golf 7 R. We’ve been promised the exact same 300 hp, 380 Nm turbo engine, optionally fitted with a DSG6 gearbox that teleports the car from 0 to 100 km/h in 4.9 seconds. Can you imagine how many sportscars you’re going to smoke? If you’re not impressed by the 300 hp people’s car, that’s because you’ve been desensitized. Remember the Ferrari Testarossa you had on your bedroom wall? That had only 390 hp and less torque. It was also slower to 100 km/h with a time of 5.4 seconds. How impressive is it to compare a Golf with a supercar!

The Germans have already announced domestic pricing will start at €38.325 for a 3-door with a manual. Even though that comes very close to the cheaper BMW M135i, the fastest Golf in history could be good reason to hold onto your money for a few more months and maybe contemplate the choices I’ve given you.

As a last side note of this story, The Golf R and the Audi S3 are a perfect description of the dichotomy between what people actually want and what auto journalist say we want. Andres Valbuena, product manager at VW USA, struggled for years to bring the Golf R stateside. People said he was crazy, that the R had was too expensive, had too much traction control and was just bad all-round compared to an Evo. But people actually loved it and bought it in big numbers. What I’m trying to say is that hot hatches are not meant to give you the ultimate driving experience. You buy a sportscar only because you want to have fun. You buy a hot hatch because you want all the other stuff a car does.

Remember, Europe is buyer’s market right now. I’ve seen as much as €2,000 off on some cars in this group. Even with discounts, your dealer is probably making at least 5% profit, so there’s room to haggle €500 in options on models that aren’t selling so well.
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About the author: Mihnea Radu
Mihnea Radu profile photo

Mihnea's favorite cars have already been built, the so-called modern classics from the '80s and '90s. He also loves local car culture from all over the world, so don't be surprised to see him getting excited about weird Japanese imports, low-rider VWs out of Germany, replicas from Russia or LS swaps down in Florida.
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