Best hot hatchbacks 2021 – our favourite hot hatches right now
It’s a simple notion, but the hot hatchback can be as exciting as any supercar, and just as enticing
The last few years have been pretty tough for the hot hatchback. New tax regulations in France have essentially killed one of the hot hatch’s biggest markets, plus the wider European market continues to be pinched by tough emissions regulations of its own. Yet the hot hatchback and its buyers are a resilient bunch, which is why the class has never been stronger.
From Toyota’s rambunctious GR Yaris to Honda’s beautifully judged Civic Type R, each has its own way of going about things, which has resulted in a field as diverse as it is talented. As a result, there is now plenty to think about if a new hot hatchback on the drive is on the agenda.
Throughout the year we’ll also see plenty of new and updated models arrive, with highlights including two new additions to Hyundai’s N brand in the form of the updated i30 N and all-new i20 N, and the re-energisation of the Cupra Leon.
Below are our favourite hot hatchbacks on sale right now, but given the current rate of change, don’t expect this list to be static for long.
Best new hot hatchbacks on sale now
- Toyota GR Yaris
- Honda Civic Type R
- Hyundai i30 N
- Volkswagen Golf R
- Mercedes-AMG A45 S
- Ford Fiesta ST
- BMW 128ti
- Renault Sport Mégane RS
- Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport
- Ford Focus ST
1st: Toyota GR Yaris
The GR Yaris had quite some pressure on its pumped up haunches leading up to its arrival late last year. It’s the first ‘real’ WRC homologation road car in decades – a bespoke, highly tuned, finely wrought performance machine that many anticipated would become an icon, even before its wheels hit the tarmac. Good news for Toyota was that the GR Yaris didn’t disappoint.
If the waiting list for new orders doesn’t already tell you, the GR Yaris was such a sensation it quite nearly ran away with our eCoty crown, placing fourth behind some serious metal, but only 2.5 points behind the victor, so close was this year’s field.
Once back in the UK, further exposure to our long-termer has only re-established its utterly beguiling combination of elements that feel totally unique to the GR Yaris. And better still, it all feels like the fruit of its competition bones. It’s a package we’ve been asking someone to build for what feels like a generation. Now we’ve got it, we almost don’t know what to do with it...
2nd: Honda Civic Type R
Once again we find the Honda Civic Type R at the sharp end of our list, despite being on sale since 2017. Yet for 2021 it doesn’t just remain the front-wheel-drive benchmark, but has actually extended its lead after a subtle, but meaningful update in late 2020.
Quite simply, we rate it because it’s the most sophisticated front-wheel-drive hot hatch on sale right now. Not in terms of pure mechanics, or (certainly not) style, but the way it deals with any road surface, in any condition with the finesse, feedback and capability of any top-level supercar.
The ride is beautifully judged, with a fluidity over even the toughest road surfaces, while it has imperious traction, and robust, faithful response from the steering, brakes and powertrain that outclasses pretty much everything on this list. Yet the real magic in the Type R’s arsenal is that it doesn’t come at the expense of playfulness, the chassis willing to engage the rear axle as much as its driver. It’s an experience no other hot hatchback has been able to replicate, even now.
The latest update includes a set of finely executed changes that only heighten the driving experience, while also introducing the sublime Limited Edition model. It’s a masterclass in hot hatchback engineering, and three years on even the looks have begun to settle. Or is that Stockholm syndrome setting in?
3rd: Hyundai i30 N
Time has been kind to the Hyundai i30 N, as like the Civic above, it hasn’t aged a bit. Not to be deterred, though, it too will shortly be given an update, with a new version arriving with some key updates we look forward to putting to the test, not least a new, bespoke to the i30 N dual-clutch transmission.
Until then there is little reason to hold back jumping into the current model, as it continues to be one of, if not the most entertaining hatchback at its power and price point.
While there is no single standout element within the i30 N’s package, it’s the way Hyundai’s engineers have calibrated them all together that make it such a winner in our book. The engine is strong, responsive and has just enough top-end sparkle not to feel underpowered, its steering transparent and chassis playful, without being overzealous.
The feather in the i30 N’s cap is its ability to tailor each of its dynamic attributes to precisely suit its driver through the various driver modes and settings. Using such tools, the i30 N is able to morph into the ideal hot hatchback for any occasion.
4th: Volkswagen Golf R
So the new Mk8 Volkswagen Golf range is now complete with the new range-topping R joining the range in the UK. Like before, offers thee combination of more speed, stealth and sophistication than its front-wheel drive GTI siblings, but now promises even more with some trick new hardware.
While the package doesn't look overtly different to the previous model, the latest Golf R has collected a few upgrades that do in fact take it up yet one more notch in terms of excitement, featuring the most powerful variant of the EA888 with 316bhp, and a new torque-vectoring differential.
And it’s that differential that makes all the difference. There’s a new level of enthusiasm to its character, happily involving the rear axle into the driving experience a way no Golf has ever before. Keep it tidy and it’ll neutralise the Golf’s turn-in. Get greedy with the throttle and it’ll even start to rotate, and all in a more natural and measured way to the old Focus RS that always felt a little too synthetic.
5th: Mercedes-AMG A45 S
Mercedes-Benz didn’t start the hot hatchback game off particularly well with the original A45 AMG. It was certainly powerful, trading blows with the Audi RS3 for the hottest hot hatchback title over the years, but it was also dreadfully inert and not at all what we consider a good hot hatch. The same cannot be said for the all-new A45 S though, as this model is as far removed from its predecessor as you could possibly imagine.
Gone is the harsh wooden-like suspension, inert steering and utter disinterest in anything other than its task of putting up to 387bhp to the ground. Now, with even more power under the bonnet (415bhp) the A45 S is shockingly supple and considered, and even interactive when the right modes are selected.
It’s expensive, and rather more than a hot hatchback in the traditional sense, but as a performance car its talent and interaction made it one of the real shocks of 2019.
6th: Ford Fiesta ST
A firm favourite in the evo office, the Fiesta is proof that four cylinders, independent rear suspension and other expensive ‘big car’ tech isn't required in the making of a fun hot hatchback. STs with the performance pack are the smart choice, as the Quaife limited-slip differential adds an extra notch of performance.
More preferable is the limited-run Performance Edition, which brought changes to the dampers that add an extra layer of sophistication to the quite stiff base model. The blue paintwork and lighter 18-inch forged wheels only add to the overall package, although its near-£27k price point does hurt it as a value proposition.
When so equipped, there are few performance cars more adjustable or involving at this price point, all the while still underpinned by the ST’s energetic three-cylinder engine, agility and sheer grin-inducing tendencies.
7th: BMW 128ti
BMW’s first hot hatchback from the current 1-series range, the M135i, might not have gone down particularly well amongst enthusiast types, but that hasn’t stopped BMW adding a further model to the range.
This new variant is known as the 128ti, which aside from a reintroduction of the iconic ti moniker, also takes a distinctly different approach than its more expensive sibling. Now, rather than gunning for the Golf R, the 128ti instead rivals the Golf GTI, ditching its all-wheel-drive system, slackening off the front suspension and engineering some oversteer-led balance back into the package.
The rest is as one might expect, with power being motivated from the B48 turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine. Transmissions are limited to a single eight-speed automatic, with no manual available, but the 128ti still shines more than brightly enough to attract our attention.
8th: Renault Sport Mégane RS
The Renault Mégane RS is another favourite to have been given a gentle update in 2020, and just like the Civic it’s been a worthwhile exercise. The changes themselves are pretty gentle to say the least, comprising only small styling tweaks and updated tech, but it’s the new forms the Mégane RS comes in which make all the difference.
The previous 279bhp-spec 1.8-litre engine is gone, replaced by two models – RS300 and Trophy – both powered by the 297bhp motor and a six-speed dual-clutch transmission. While the loss of the manual might sound like a problem, the old transmission was a notchy affair, one replaced with the slick-shifting, responsive and dare we say it charismatic dual-clutch.
It’s most impressive when combined with the ‘Sport Chassis’ in the base RS300, retaining all the previous Trophy’s excitement, energy and playfulness, but with an extra layer of fluidity and sophistication from its softer chassis.
Full-house Trophy models are still available, but we’d hedge our bets that the standard car will appeal to most buyers unless their front drive is as smooth as the tarmac on a Formula 1 circuit. Speaking of which, this will also be the last model under Renault Sport yellow branding, which like the F1 team, will boast Alpine's blue in future.
9th: Volkwagen Golf GTI Clubsport
So 2021 will bring no less than three new hot Golfs, with the standard GTI, R and this new Clubsport straddling the ground between them. Like the TCR it replaces, the new GTI Clubsport takes a high-powered version of the GTI’s EA888 engine, throws in a limited-slip differential and dials up the chassis attitude a few extra notches.
And the result has been, well, mixed. Our early example suffered a few non-ideal specification misses, including dynamic chassis control and a decent 19-inch wheel and tyre package the Clubsport was predominantly developed on.
With final judgement still pending, we do know that the Clubsport does at least partially fulfil its brief of being a more dynamic, aggressive and spirited version of the already impressive GTI, but there’s still room to improve.
10th: Ford Focus ST
The Focus ST has always struggled to outshine its smaller Fiesta sibling, and unfortunately this is also the case with the latest-generation ST. Don’t be mistaken, it’s far more capable and rounded than it ever has been, but it exhibits one or two key flaws that chip away at the overall dynamic package.
Power and poise are certainly there – it’s fantastically involving on track as the Focus’s trademark rotation makes itself felt – but on the road the driver modes that now so distinctly affect the handling balance can’t seem to strike a good balance on the rougher tarmac, being too stiff in sportier settings and a little under-damped and loose in the more benign ones. Add to this a vague steering set-up and its on-road performance is just too compromised in a class that doesn’t forgive any dynamic flaws.