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Fastest hot hatchbacks 2023 – the top 10 on evo's leaderboard

The best hot hatches punch above their weight for sheer excitement and capability – here’s a list of the fastest we’ve ever tested

There’s no set formula for hot hatches in 2023, but one thing is clear – new heights for power, performance and sophistication have been reached in recent times. It seems unfathomable that a front-wheel-drive family car could lap faster than a two-seat, mid-engined Porsche around a track, but that is the way of the modern hot hatch. Platforms are being pushed right to the edge, and there’s arguably never been a more exciting period for the genre. 

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Over the years, we’ve tested numerous hot hatches against the stopwatch at our home circuit, Bedford Autodrome, to separate the good from the very best. The 1.8-mile lap of the West Circuit is a stern challenge for any road car, but particularly a hot hatch, due to its power-hungry straights, low-speed traction zones and long, steady-state corners. There are variables of course, not least weather, track conditions, and OEM tyre spec, but the cream usually rises to the top. Here’s a list of the fastest hot hatches we’ve ever tested – some of which could make a great used buy. 

> Best hot hatchbacks 2023 – the best everyday performance cars you can buy

The top 10 fastest hot hatchbacks we've tested at the Bedford West Circuit

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1. Honda Civic Type R Limited Edition (FK8): 1:23.0

Some hot hatches are more powerful, others have more advanced technology, but none have the poise of the Honda Civic Type R. The latest FL5-generation Type R blew us away with its tactility and speed, but we're yet to test it around Bedford. It's all the more impressive, then, that it’s the previous-generation FK8 model that occupies the top spot in our list of hot hatch lap times. In Limited Edition guise, the FK8 is a full six-tenths clear of the Mégane RS Trophy-R – and a smidge quicker than a Porsche 718 Cayman S

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Dig beneath the edgy, bewinged exterior and it's easy to see why. The brilliant FL5 is essentially a development of the old car, sharing the same fundamental engine, gearbox and chassis. The Limited Edition is the pinnacle of the FK8 though, with a 47kg weight saving, revised steering, reworked damping and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres to add focus and trim lap time. A 316bhp 2-litre turbocharged motor drives the front wheels through a delightful six-speed manual gearbox. 

2. Renault Mégane RS Trophy-R: 1:23.6

Renault has never quite replicated the brilliance of the Mégane R26.R from 2008, but then again, you could argue that no other manufacturer has got close either. The Mégane RS Trophy-R was the firm’s best effort in years, but you certainly paid for it: loaded to the hilt with carbonfibre wheels and ceramic brakes, the Trophy-R cost over seventy grand in 2019. 

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The base car's 296bhp 1.8-litre engine is unchanged, and instead the package is centred around reducing mass and extracting more from the chassis. A redesigned rear axle, thinner side glass, a carbon bonnet and a titanium exhaust contribute to a 130kg weight saving, with fully adjustable Ohlins dampers and lighter springs among the suspension upgrades. The Trophy-R can feel a touch ragged on bumpy roads, but it's ruthlessly fast on a circuit. 
 

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Volkswagen Golf R (Mk8): 1:23.8

The latest Golf R feels like a step back from its predecessor in some respects, but outright performance is not one of them. Clocking a 1:23.8 around the West Circuit, it's within touching distance of the extreme Mégane Trophy-R, which is some achievement for a tech-laden, daily-driveable hot hatch (however frustrating that tech may be to operate). 

Sending 316bhp to all four wheels, the Mk8's torque-vectoring rear diff is a key player in its dynamic toolbox, giving the driver more options on corner exit. The system can divert 100 per cent of rear-axle torque to either wheel, which massively alters the character of the car – no previous Golf let the driver indulge in power oversteer, but this one can. 

Golf GTI Clubsport S (Mk7): 1:24.1

Stripped-back, two-seater hot hatches might sound heavily nonsensical on paper, but if the final result is one of the best performance cars of our time, then there’s little to argue with. The Golf GTI Clubsport S is steeped in dynamic quality that is usually the reserve of the world’s greatest supercars, regardless of what its humble silhouette might suggest.

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Outputs of 306bhp and 280lb ft are certainly at the upper end of front-wheel-drive hot hatches achieve – even today – but it’s the Clubsport S’s bespoke geometry, tweaked dampers and 30kg weight saving that define it. It’s one of the greatest hot hatchbacks ever, and remains one of the most capable. 

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Cupra Leon 300: 1:24.1

Taking the same basic ingredients as the Mk8 Volkswagen GTI Clubsport, Cupra has produced a desirable (albeit still slightly unfulfilling) hot hatch that in some ways beats its VW stablemate. With 296bhp from the ubiquitous EA888 four-cylinder motor, the Cupra 300 matches the Clubsport for power, but unique chassis tuning pushes it ahead for precision and agility.

It’s also surprisingly quick on track relative to Volkswagen’s offerings, falling within a whisker of the more powerful, four-wheel-drive Mk8 Golf R and equalling the time of the highly regarded Mk7 Golf GTI Clubsport S. The Cupra's electronically controlled limited-slip diff works to deliver power to the front wheels as efficiently as possible, with a safe, approachable balance making it accessible on the limit. Those searching for absolute thrills should look elsewhere, though. 

SEAT Leon Cupra 290: 1:24.2

Is the SEAT Leon Cupra 290’s one-tenth deficit to its successor a mark of the former's strength, or the latter’s mediocrity? In reality, it’s neither – the Cupra 290 arrived with a set of sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres – an official option – to record its lap, while the Leon 300 used road-biased Hankooks. 

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The old car is still capable in its own right, though, with 286bhp and 258lb ft of torque from its 2-litre turbocharged four-pot, plus adaptive dampers and a Haldex limited-slip diff. For track use, the Ultimate Sub8 option pack added Brembo brakes, a weight-saving diet and the aforementioned Cup 2s to raise the Leon’s performance ceiling. 
 

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Ford Focus RS (Mk3): 1:24.6

That the four-wheel-drive, 345bhp Michelin Cup 2-shod Ford Focus RS gives up nearly half a second to the Leon Cupra 290 is a bit of a shock. There’s no doubt that it's an extremely effective hot hatch, but it falls short of the very best – and the top half of our leaderboard – by virtue of its somewhat contrived feel on the limit. 

The RS feels firm and extremely direct, and in typical fast Ford fashion it pivots around its centre on the limit rather than being nose led. However, the four-wheel-drive system can be difficult to read at times in the way that it manages torque at the rear axle, requiring an unconventional driving style to keep the RS in check. 

Honda Civic Type R (FK2): 1:24.6

Setting the tone for subsequent generations, the FK2 Civic Type R was the first to adopt turbocharging, and it was seriously rapid as a result. A 0-62mph time of 5.7 seconds slashed nearly a second from the old FN2’s best effort and accelerated the Type R into the big leagues. 

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Interestingly, the FK2’s 306bhp output isn’t miles away from that of the latest Type R, but it's in the chassis department that newer cars pull clear. Put simply, the FK2 can feel uncompromising and uncouth at times, with a serious edge to its ride in +R mode. Things do come together on track, but the FK2 still lacks the ultimate pace of the Leon Cupra 290 – even when fitted with Cup 2 rubber.

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Toyota GR Yaris: 1:24.66

Despite what the optional 'Circuit Pack' might imply, the GR Yaris hasn't been tailored for the track like some of the hardcore, limited-run hot hatches on this list. Instead, it's a rounded all-weather performance hero that packs a mighty 257bhp punch from its 1.6-litre three-cylinder engine. 

Weighing in at 1280kg, the Yaris uses a four-wheel-drive system with limited-slip diffs at the front and rear to conjure huge pace, feeling secure and efficient no matter the conditions. Yes, the GR requires serious provocation to get it moving around beneath you, but for the business of setting a lap time, it's very handy. 

Renaultsport Mégane 275 Trophy-R: 1:25.1

Like its successor further up this list, the Mégane 275 Trophy-R is a stripped-out track fiend that claimed the front-wheel-drive Nürburgring lap record at launch, thanks to a comprehensive lightweighting programme, Cup 2 tyres and upgraded suspension hardware from Ohlins. An Akrapovic titanium exhaust, lighter brakes and the removal of interior luxuries saved 100kg over the standard car. 

This single-minded attitude is enough for the Trophy-R to sneak into our top ten, albeit without troubling rivals from Ford or Honda. Its 1.8-litre turbocharged engine is the second least powerful unit here, though, ahead of only the GR Yaris’s three-pot, which could explain that deficit. 

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