Best superminis 2021 – quick compact hatchbacks reviewed and rated
The best high-performance superminis on sale now, offering hot hatch thrills in more compact and affordable packages
The hot hatchback has made a resurgence, and while recent offerings pack mind-boggling performance, the simplicity of the supermini is becoming increasingly attractive. The combination of smaller dimensions and lower weight lend themselves to the thrill of driving, with more palatable price tags also hard to ignore.
The good news is that there’s plenty of choice at the hotter end of the supermini spectrum, with the exciting new Hyundai i20 N and GR Yaris offering true competition for the long-standing Ford Fiesta ST. To find out which of the current crop we rate highest, read on.
Best superminis to buy now
1. Toyota GR Yaris
Launched as the first true homologation special in recent times, the GR Yaris has fast become the most desirable hot hatch on the market, and one of the most sought after new performance cars entirely. Unlike any of its rivals, it boasts drastic changes over its ordinary counterpart, with track widened, roofline lowered and a permanent all-wheel-drive system installed – the 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 a substantial 257bhp and 265lb ft of torque. This power is sent through a six-speed manual transmission and its GR-Four all-wheel-drive set-up, making for a 5.5sec 0-62mph time and 142mph top speed.
Designed to be the ideal platform for an all-out WRC car, it should come as no surprise to find that it’s a rather entertaining machine. A slight increase in steering clarity, sound and damping sophistication wouldn't go amiss, but for £35,000 you can’t do much better.
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, 30:70 or equal 50:50 split at the touch of a button. Opt for the most rear-biased set-up and the result is a playful machine that provides entertainment no matter the conditions. It’s a gem.
2. Hyundai i20 N
Hyundai stunned the industry with the launch of its i30 N hot hatch, 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.
True rally routes aren’t what you’ll find at its heart, but old-school hot hatch thrills make up for it. The hot i20 is one of the few superminis we’ve seen in recent times to offer the same raw, unadulterated driving thrills of models from years gone by.
You won’t find the i30 N’s power plant at its heart, but instead a 1.6-litre turbocharged four cylinder boasting an uprated turbocharger and intercooler for a 201bhp, 203lb ft output – near identical to that of the Fiesta ST. Sent through its six-speed manual transmission (there’s no automatic available), 0-62mph takes just 6.5sec, with top speed coming at 144mph.
Straight-line performance isn’t its purpose though, with sheer entertainment the highest priority. The i20 N has it in abundance, with a stiffened chassis and limited-slip differential allowing for incredible cornering speeds and predictability. As is apparent from images from our first drive, it certainly doesn’t struggle to lift a rear wheel...
Granted, styling might be a little on the extreme side for some, and the raft of hefty cabin niceties is something we could do without, but the i20 N proves that Hyundai is far from a one-trick pony.
3. Ford Fiesta ST
It was with a certain amount of trepidation that we approached the latest Fiesta ST. Would it recapture the effervescence of the previous generation? Could its three-pot turbo cut it in this fiercely contested class? Would it still be a class leader? Happily the answer was a resounding ‘yes’ in almost all areas.
The engine certainly sounds different, but with 197bhp and 214lb ft of torque on tap (just shading the old four-pot’s output) it’s quick enough – the 0-62mph sprint happens in a brisk 6.5sec. Speakers artificially augment its exhaust sound, but nonetheless it produces a better sound than almost anything in its class.
It was in the handling stakes that the old car really excelled, though, and this trait has been carried across. The steering (the fastest rack of any performance Ford) is sharp and well weighted (if a little lacking in feel) and the ST feels agile and lithe in virtually all circumstances. The ride, while better than before, can be a little firm at times.
Though beginning to show its age, the Mk8 ST is streets ahead of the old car inside, and ST-2 and ST-3 models are loaded with standard kit. The bigger body brings more interior space too, but despite the increased footprint it’s still as absorbing as ever to drive.
4. Mini Cooper S
The Mini Cooper is often overlooked in today’s performance car market, but with strong dynamics and three levels of performance catering to different budgets, it’s not one to be forgotten. The extreme, range-topping GP is the best of the bunch, but the Cooper S offers very healthy performance for the money.
Starting from £23,105, it features BMW’s now ubiquitous 2-litre four-cylinder ‘B48’ power plant, producing 176bhp and around 200lb ft of torque for a sub-seven-second 0-62mph time and 146mph top speed – impressive figures given its modest power output.
Weight is on the higher side thanks to the inclusion of a number of interior amenities, and although it can’t come close to the dynamics of the Ford Fiesta ST, it does retain the Mini’s trademark go-kart handling. Achieved through the use of a quick-ratio steering rack and backed up by a solid chassis, it’s a chuckable machine that encourages a spirited drive.
5. Audi A1 35 TFSI
As is the way in 2021, the hot S1 and three-door options were cut from the Audi A1 range with the introduction of the new model, but nonetheless the range-topping 35 TFSI is still a supermini worth considering. Built on the same MQB A0 platform as the Volkswagen Polo and SEAT Ibiza, it boasts a marked increase in refinement and tech over the previous car.
Opt for the 35 TFSI and you'll receive a 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder producing 147bhp and 184ft ft of torque. Predictably, performance isn't in the same league as that of the S1, with 0-62mph coming in 7.5sec and top speed at just 137mph – the more potent S line Competition offered figures similar to the Polo GTI’s, but this is no longer on sale.
Exterior design was given an overhaul for the new model, with a sharper, more aggressive aesthetic and those Quattro-inspired bonnet vents helping it stand out from the crowd. The cabin also received similar treatment, with standard tech also given a boost.
Though it's capable and no doubt agile, a simple front strut and torsion beam rear suspension set-up mean you'll have to look elsewhere for entertaining dynamics. The electrically assisted steering is lacking in feel, too. Where the A1 does come into its own is refinement, with levels ordinarily reserved for cars in the class above.
6. Volkswagen Polo GTI
The old VW Polo GTI – in fact, every previous Polo GTI – was a bit of a disappointment. The ingredients all seemed to be there, but the recipe didn’t quite work, giving us smart styling and decent performance but a notable lack of thrills.
The latest car 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.