POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Ever since the Volkswagen Golf GTI pioneered the concept of hot hatchbacks in the mid-Seventies, the shopping rocket concept has found widespread appeal as a way of owning a really practical, yet really affordable sports car.
Today, there are hot hatches based on city cars, superminis and family hatches, plus really high performance hatches with as much power as Grand Prix F1 cars had back in the Seventies. If you’re shopping in this market, you might find it useful to have an expert’s starting point to what’s available. Which is where this guide might help.
Affordable – Volkswagen up! GTI
Some junior shopping rockets require you to thrash the engine within an inch of its life if you’re to release respectable performance. The up! GTI isn’t like that. The 1.0-litre TSI turbo three cylinder powerplant beneath the bonnet is a reworked 115PS version of the 90PS unit in the ordinary up! and like that unit, develops most of its punch in the mid-range. So you won’t be thrashing about, ramming the rev limiter in the way you would in some rivals. But that doesn’t mean this dinkier GTI can’t charm you in a different way.
Power on and it delivers a fizzy, effervescent feel thanks to sharp throttle response, super-light weight and an engine note boosted with surprisingly realistic drama by the stereo speakers. By modern hot hatch standards, you’re not actually going very fast – rest to 62mph takes 8.8s and the top speed, at 122mph, is not much more than your local sales rep’s Ford Focus. But you quickly forget about that and adjust to a different brand of performance motoring.
Supermini – Ford Fiesta ST
It isn’t often with a small hot hatch that the engineers get things absolutely right. Either compromises are made for day-to-day driveability that rob you of that last ultimate length of response when you’re really pushing on. Or you get a race-bred rocket that loves a smooth circuit but’s so firm that it simply gets on your nerves in everyday motoring. Let’s cut to the conclusion here: with this Ford Fiesta ST, the balance between these two extremes is as good as it’s probably ever going to be. Under the bonnet, there’s a 1.5-litre EcoBoost engine putting out 200PS. And it sounds great too, particularly if you switch into the two dynamic drive modes provided, ‘Sport’ (which sharpens the acceleration and steering) and ‘Track’, which delivers an even firmer response at the helm and slackens off the stability control for circuit use.
More Grand Prix-style gadgetry features in the optional ‘ST Performance Pack’ we’d highly recommend which includes a Quaife limited slip difference for extra cornering bite, plus ‘Performance Shift Lights’ and a ‘Launch Control’ set-up. Frequency-selective race-style dampers and special ‘force vectoring’ springs have allowed the engineers to improve the previous model’s unyielding ride quality whilst still keeping the taut cornering feel.
Family Hatch – Renault Megane R.S.
Fast Renault Meganes have always been brilliant and this one still is. Under the bonnet, the world's most powerful 1.8-litre engine delivers 300hp and 390Nm of torque. If you’re quick with the paddleshift auto transmission, 62mph from rest takes 5.7s en route to a 158mph maximum. Two different types of chassis are on offer - 'Sport' or 'Cup'. The straightforward ‘Sport’ chassis we’d recommend is fitted to the standard model and provides easy sporty driving, with impressive ride compliance thanks to special rally-derived all round hydraulic bump stops that also enable optimum control of tyre-ground contact.
The 10% stiffer Cup chassis of the top ‘Trophy’ variant offers greater, more focused performance for track and fast road use and includes a Torsen Limited Slip Differential for greater cornering traction. Either way, you'll be able to get all this Megane’s grunt onto the tarmac a more easily thanks to standard '4CONTROL' four-wheel steering. As usual with these sorts of systems, the rear wheels steer slightly in the opposite direction to the fronts at low speeds to shorten the turning circle. And slightly in the same direction as the fronts at higher speeds to improve cornering stability.
Super Hatch – Audi RS 3
Most really fast hot hatches use rather uncharismatic four cylinder powerplants, but with the RS 3, Audi Sport gives you a gloriously emotive 2.5-litre five cylinder unit that has a lightweight all-aluminium block and 400PS on tap. That’s enough to fire you from rest to 62mph in just 3.8s, to the accompaniment of a glorious metallic howl on the way to a maximum that would see you hitting 180mph if the speed restrictor were removed. So it’s fast. But is it also agile and involving? The original first generation version of this car never was, but Audi Sport put in a lot of work to the original version of the MK2 model to try and change things – and this MK3 version is better still, thanks to the addition of an 'RS Torque Splitter', which makes sure that the right amount of torque is optimally distributed along the rear axle when cornering at speed.
At the wheel of this machine, you’re suddenly transported into a world where you complete a twisting section of your favourite country road and wonder whether a Hamilton, an Alonso or a Vettel could really have driven it much quicker. It’s a route you might perhaps have covered a tenth or two quicker in, say, a BMW M3 – or indeed any supercar - but at the end of it, your palms and forehead would likely be sweaty, your heart pumping furiously. Instead of which your mind is still, Mozart’s on the stereo and you’re free to return to rumination on the kind of day whose toil has doubtless made purchase of a £50,000 hot hatch possible in the first place.