Best supermini 2023 – our favourite fast small cars on sale right now
It’s a shrinking sector of the market, but the best superminis still offer plenty of thrills
Hot superminis might feel like an endangered species in 2023, but there’s still lots to like about the few that are clinging on. By combining potent turbocharged engines with light weight and relatively simple dynamic packages, the supermini hot hatchback often punches far beyond its weight, bringing top-level high performance engineering to a whole new audience.
Why are they under threat, you might ask? The reality of building a small, relatively inexpensive hot hatchback to comply with current safety and emissions regulations is a tricky thing to pull off in the modern era. Most of the traditional European brands have given up on the sector for now, leaving a small but still very potent group of contenders in the class.
Toyota’s brilliant GR Yaris is proof that despite the challenges, if you build a brilliant supermini hot hatchback the people will buy it. The sell-out success of the Hyundai i20 N is another proof of concept. This doesn't mean European additions are without value, though, as and while the Ford Fiesta ST is now pretty much extinct, it’s rarely been better.
So here is our short, but highly talented list of the best supermini hot hatchbacks.
Best supermini hot hatchbacks 2023
Toyota GR Yaris
Don't be fooled by its shared moniker with the dull and often hybridised supermini Toyota also sells, because the GR Yaris is almost completely unrelated, because this small and fiesty hot hatchback is actually the first true homologation special in decades. Unlike its direct rivals, it features drastic changes over its ordinary counterpart, with a widened track, roofline lowered hiding away a completely unique powertrain underneath. In fact, its lights and wing mirrors are all it shares with the regular Yaris...
Under the bonnet is the purpose-built G16E-GTS 1.6-litre turbocharged three-cylinder, producing 257bhp and 265lb ft of torque. This power is sent through a six-speed manual transmission and a unique GR-Four all-wheel-drive set-up shared only with the non-EU market GR Corolla. Combined with its compact footprint and correspondingly lithe 1280kg kerb weight, it monsters its supermini rivals against the stopwatch, reaching 5.5sec 0-62mph time and a 142mph top speed due largely to its super-short gearing.
Its trick all-wheel-drive system could in theory send 100 per cent of the torque to either the front or rear axles, but various drive modes allow for a 70:30, 60:40 or equal 50:50 split at the twist of a dial.
Being a homologation special, the GR Yaris was designed specifically to serve as a base for Toyota's current hybrid-powered WRC car. Of course, this doesn't make for an instantly brilliant road car, but aside from wanting slightly more steering feel or a tad more sophistication damping sophistication, we think it's an absolutely brilliant high performanc car.
Hyundai i20 N
Hyundai stunned the industry with the launch of its i30 N hot hatch in 2017, offering a true rival to the long-standing Volkswagen Golf GTI on its very first attempt. A few years on, Albert Biermann’s N division is back at it again, this time turning to the supermini segment with the i20 N.
Like the Toyota, the i20 N has a competition twin in the hybrid WRC era, but whereas the GR has been fundamentally re-engineered, Hyundai's gone down a slightly more pragmatic route through its development but is no less impressive as an entertaining road car.
Under the bonnet is a heavily re-worked 1.6-litre turbocharged four cylinder engine that's also found other far less exciting models. Its upgrades include a new and uprated turbocharger and intercooler, helping produce peak figures of 201bhp and 203lb ft output – near identical to that of the Fiesta ST. Power is sent through a six-speed manual transmission to the front wheels and a particularly aggressive limited-slip differential, helping it get to 62mph in 6.5sec, with top speed coming at 144mph.
Yet the i20 N's powertrain, despite its occassional theatrics, isn't the key to its brilliance. Instead, it's the stiffened chassis and limited-slip differential that gives the i20 N exceptional capability and a unique driving experience. Its styling might be a little on the extreme side for some, but the i20 N's fundamentals are sound, proving that Hyundai's N department is far from a one-trick pony.
Ford Fiesta ST
Ford Fiesta production has now officially ended, but that doesn’t mean the Fiesta ST isn’t still one of our favourite hot superminis. Ford’s decision is resulting in the loss of what’s long been the consummate small hot hatch to which all others are compared, but if you’re lucky, you might still find one for sale on a dealer forecourt until supply completely dries up.
The final-generation Fiesta ST introduced a myriad of technical changes over the previous Mk7 ST, including a characterful new 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine and a revised chassis. These built on the Mk8 Fiesta’s superb foundations, culminating in an exciting, exploitable small hatch that’s eminently usable day-to-day.
The final iteration of the Fiesta ST was only available in high-specification ST-3 form, which came with the Performance Package as standard. The most recent update for the Fiesta introduced a restyled front end, excellent new bucket seats and a bold new green exterior colour option.
The revised ST-3 didn’t quite have the brilliance of the pre-facelift ST Edition, a European-specific model that brought with it lighter flow-formed wheels and adjustable coilover suspension, but it was still an involving and capable low-cost performance car. At the end of its production run the Fiesta ST-3 cost £27,320, and it remains one of the best pound-for-pound driver’s cars of all.
Mini Cooper S
The Mini Cooper S is often overlooked in today’s performance car market, but it still comes with plenty of performance for a car of its size, even if it’s not quite as exciting or engaging as it once was.
The Cooper S and Cooper S Works both feature BMW’s 2-litre four-cylinder B48 power plant, producing 176bhp or 228bhp respectively. What these power figures don’t reveal is how torquey both engines are, with a flat-top of turbo-augmented torque making both feel considerably quicker in a straight line than the figures suggest.
Weight is on the higher side and although it can’t come close to the dynamics of the Ford Fiesta ST, it does retain some of the Mini’s trademark go-kart handling. This is achieved through the use of a quick-ratio steering rack, composed suspension tuning and a predictable handling balance.
The issue is that there’s no real pizazz to the Mini. Its handling is solid and safe, but doesn’t encourage you to really push it in the way of a Fiesta ST or Hyundai i20 N. The engine and transmission don’t help, either, with a delivery that’s effective but lacks a spritely top end or any sense of real character. Mini’s coming out with a new all-electric variant later in 2023, and we suspect it will be working on a hot JCW model alongside, but until then the last petrol-powered Mini Cooper doesn’t quite live up to the reputation its predecessors built.
Volkswagen Polo GTI
The Volkswagen Polo GTI has always had trouble living up to both its badge and supermini rivals. The ingredients all seem to be there, but the recipe has never quite worked, giving us smart styling and decent performance, but a notable lack of engagement.
The latest Polo is certainly an improvement, but still doesn’t quite hit the heights we know VW’s engineers are capable of. Once again, it’s handsome, well built, performs well and should prove a pleasure to use day to day, but it isn’t capable of entertaining like our favourite supermini hot hatches are.
Perhaps it’s a case of holding back a car that otherwise might give the more expensive Golf GTI a run for its money – after all, the Polo GTI sits on the same MQB platform as the Golf and uses its EA888 2-litre four-cylinder engine, albeit detuned.
The control weights are good, and the Polo rides well and steers quickly. But it falls down in the details – the lack of steering feedback, the benign, unexpressive balance, and the ineffectual electronic differential compared to the mechanical diffs in several rivals. A good car then, but not a great hot hatch.
The Honda e might not immediately stand out as a particularly hot supermini, but there’s more to it than just its cute exterior styling and quirky cabin. The Honda e is a highly bespoke small electric car with those typically high standards of engineering we expect from Honda that we think previews the future of the hot supermini.
It’s powered by a 152bhp electric motor mounted on the rear axle, and will reach 62mph in 8.3sec, topping out at 90mph. Yes, these figures aren’t exactly worthy of a hot hatchback, but the e is about more than power.
Of more interest is the level of engineering Honda’s put into this little car, as the e has independent suspension front and rear, helping make it an extremely capable and dynamically refined EV. This much is felt instantly on the road through its sophisticated handling balance.
The Honda e previews the form that the supermini hot hatchback might take in the future. Renault Sport has been reborn as Alpine, which will bring out a hot version of the upcoming 2024 Renault 5, while Abarth has already revealed its all-electric 500e. All we need now is a Honda e Type R.