Hot hatch highs and lows – by the writers that tested them when new

by James Mills
7 March 2023 7 min read
Hot hatch highs and lows – by the writers that tested them when new
Photo: Dean Smith/Hagerty

Trying to name the best hot hatch is a fruitless task. With so many to choose from, and personal preference counting for as much as objective facts, stats and independent measurement, you’re on a hiding to nothing… but that didn’t stop us trying.

Admittedly, we aren’t here to try and identify one single model and put it to a vote of industry peers or owners. We just want to find out which hot hatches chimed for those that tested them back in the day, when they were new, and which ones dropped them into a ditch of mediocrity.

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And this is just the starting point. Because we want to hear your experiences, so be sure to share stories in the comments, down below.

Andrew English – Fast Lane, Auto Express, The Telegraph and more

Golf GTI Mk1

Define your terms. Hot hatches, not four-wheel drive, so rule out Volkswagen’s Golf R32. Not homologation specials, so rule out Lancia’s Delta Integrale which won Lancia six consecutive manufacturer world rally championships, or Nissan’s amazing Sunny GTI-R which won nothing. No, this has to be front-wheel drive (so rule out the fantastic rear-drive Talbot Lotus Sunbeam), so really we’re talking about 1976 and the Volkswagen Golf GTI, modest, fast, tiny, unbelievably nimble and my top, best-ever, brilliantest hot hatch. My friend Nick had one back in the day and it was just, just earth moving. With just 110bhp out of its 1.6-litre, fuel-injected engine, it was still quicker than anything else round a wet Gants Hill roundabout and it was also hilarious, reliable and affordable, for while we were mature students, we were still students…

The worst? That horrible 1992 Ford Escort Mark V XR3i, perhaps? And believe me, it was truly terrible. Or what about that terrible Mark IV eight-valve Volkswagen Golf GTI, which even Bernd Pischetsrieder, Volkswagen chairman, dismissed as “not a proper GTI”.  In February 1992, Angus Frazer, road test editor of Fast Lane magazine hauled this 1,060kg 115bhp fart box round Millbrook arriving back in to the office just in time for lunch – by taxi.

The gearbox had gone wobbly on him. “First gear isn’t in the right place,” he said, as I envisaged torque reaction moving the gear change gate around making it difficult to ‘figure’ (the black art of standing-start acceleration testing) and wondered about how, as Fast Lane’s editor, I would make that call to VW. Then he rolled a very oily first gear across my desk, explaining that the effort of getting a better time than our best 0-60mph for its predecessor had simply exploded the geared heart of that porky pretender.

“Its great years are behind it now,” he concluded in his test of the car and he was right.

Antony Ingram, evo and Hagerty

Renault Megane R26R vs Megane Trophy R

Don’t get me wrong, the 205 GTI is fantastic, the Clio Williams an all-time great, and my own Peugeot 106 Rallye is one of the most engaging cars I’ve ever driven. But having tried it on both great roads and on track, I really don’t think any hot hatch has ever topped the Renault Sport Megane R26.R. I don’t care if it’s a cliché: The R26.R is the Porsche 911 GT3 of hot hatchbacks.

The styling is iconic. The chassis is as good as front-wheel drive cars get: fluid even on rough surfaces, beautifully damped, balanced, grippy yet adjustable, and the steering is loaded with feel and response; the amazing Honda Integra Type-R hits some of these marks, but not all of them in my opinion. Bucket seats and harnesses ramp up the excitement, and while 227bhp sounds tame in 2023, it can put every bit of it down, and sounds like a fighter jet on reheat. Pure magic.

Mini Cooper Works GP3

As for my least favourite hot hatchback, this was a three-horse race between the Mini Cooper Works GP3, the 2012-2018 Focus ST, and the original Leon Cupra R for me. But while the Ford was unruly and the SEAT simply dull in a modern context, the GP3 launched in 2020 was incredibly disappointing for a car whose predecessors were among the best hot hatches of their kind.

It was fast: 302bhp and 332lb ft meant 5.2 seconds to sixty and 164mph flat out. It was agile and grippy too, and I quite liked the straight-off-a-motorshow-stand styling. But as well as being dressed like the class clown, it acted like it too. The ride was too stiff for UK roads and that power too much for the front axle, both conspiring with an aggressive limited-slip diff to fight you through the hyperactive but low-feedback steering. Oh, and it was auto-only, further removing you from the fight that engine was so gamely trying to start.

Nik Berg

Renault 5 GT Turbo

A Renault 5 GT Turbo was the first proper hot hatch I ever drove and that alone is enough to make it a favourite. Throw in the car’s propensity for lit-off oversteer, its, wait… for… it… turbo lag and accompanying wheelspin and it’s no wonder that it remains top of my list over 30 years later. It was lightweight to the point of flimsiness, but had cool decals, wide arches, sill extensions and a lip spoiler. I loved the feel of the dished three-spoke steering wheel and the way the bolstered seats held you up and in place. If ever there was a car to make me feel young and dumb again the 5 GT Turbo would be the one.

Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk2 project

I suspct this is going to be contentious, but the MkII Golf GTI was a car that never appealed to me. It was simply too sensible. The TV commercials bragged about “If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen” at a time when Peugeot’s print ads showed a 205 GTi caught mid-flight on a humpback bridge. The Golf was too big, too heavy and even if its 16-valve engine did raise the game, it wasn’t a game that I ever wanted to play. I didn’t care if the Golf was safer and more sturdy I was invincible and far too talented to have an accident. Or so I believed at any rate. There really was nothing that could win me over, no matter how good my peers told me it was. Except perhaps the BBS alloy wheels. They were pretty cool.

Gavin Braithwaite-Smith – Classic Retro Modern, Hagerty contributor

Photo: Volkswagen

I’m not saying that the Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR is the best hot hatch – it’s not even the best Golf GTI I have driven. But three years ago, the TCR –  essentially the last hurrah for the Mk7.5 Golf – treated me to one of those drives. It’ll live long in the memory as one of my favourite days ‘in the office’, when I was paid to have fun on the roads of Mid Wales.

I remember it like it was yesterday. The splendid isolation of the Abergwesyn Pass, the snow on the Black Mountain Pass and the ribbon of bends on the Rhayader to Aberystwyth mountain road. No phone reception and no need to be anywhere. Just 200 miles of hot hatch heaven on some of the best roads in the UK. I can’t write a drive story like Andrew Frankel or Henry Catchpole, but you can read my words here.

Ford Focus ST170
Photo: Ford

As for the least likeable, I should stress I feel bad for nominating the Ford Focus ST170. It is, by all accounts, a very good driver’s car, albeit one that will forever live in the shadows of the Ford Focus RS. My three-door ST170 was a good one; a former Ford management car with every box ticked, including heated Recaros, xenon headlights and a subwoofer in the boot. Unfortunately, it failed to hit the high notes.

I just didn’t get that feeling of being at one with the car. I can’t recall a time when I patted the top of the dashboard after a great drive or glanced back at it in a petrol station. Which is odd, because I loved the Mk1 1.6 Zetec, a car I rate as one of the best budget driver’s cars you can buy.

Before you @ me in the comments, I’m not saying that the ST170 is a poor hot hatch, merely that it failed to excite me in the way that cars like the ZX 16v, Xsara VTS and AX GT do. Not that you should listen to anything I say; I enjoyed driving a 2015 Nissan Pulsar… 

Andrew Frankel – Autocar, Motor Sport, The Intercooler, Hagerty contributor

VW Golf R 7.5

It wasn’t until asked to write these words and therefore think about the brief behind them that I realised a most extraordinary coincidence had taken place right before my eyes, which had remained unnoticed by me until this very day. Which is that if I think of the three best and the three worst hot hatchbacks I have driven in 35 years of doing this job, all six cars are not only sourced from the same three manufacturers, they all come from the same three model lines too.

The first pairing are both Volkswagen Golfs. The previous (seventh) generation Golf R, ideally a later ‘7.5’ post facelift car is probably the most broadly effective fast hatchback there has ever been. Quiet and comfortable when others are on board, enormous fun and implausibly rapid when they are not I genuinely think they count among the world’s great cars of any kind and any era. But its great great grandparent, the third generation Golf GTI was a disgrace to the name, a hot hatch in name alone and about as much fun as root canal surgery.

Yet the span of greatness (or otherwise) among Peugeot’s compact fast hatchbacks is no less great. You won’t need me to tell you just what a fabulous car the 205 GTI is, but the 207 GTI? I remember its ‘207 GTI’m back’ ad campaign and finding myself bellowing ‘no you’re not’ a bill board.

1990 Ford Fiesta RS Turbo review

But the greatest disparity of all? The Ford Fiesta. A current or previous Fiesta ST is a thing of the purest joy, outrageous fun wrapped on in a compact, cute and very affordable shape. Now cast your mind back to 1990 and the Fiesta RS Turbo, proof if ever it were needed that faster is not always funnier. Blighted by turbo lag, torque steer and stupidly heavy steering to this day I remember driving one and thinking that absolutely the only thing I liked about it were it fabulously chunky Recaro seats. The rest I’d be happy never to experience again. And, to date, that wish has been granted.

More hot hatch reading

The rise of the GTI: Is now the time to restore a hot hatch?
Get them while they’re hot: 9 GTI projects you could snap up
Opinion: If you only ever own one car, make it a hot hatch

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  • Pierre Noir says:

    Seeing the lead photo of a positively gleeful R5 GT only lends more credence to the recent article about angry- and mean-looking cars of the modern era.

    Bring back happy cars!

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