It’s all about how they make you feel, not how fast they are
Watching lots of online reviews, you’d be forgiven for thinking the hot hatch is witnessing a new renaissance, as there are more such models than ever and they’re also faster than ever. And yet all is not necessarily well in the segment, because with their gain in numbers and performance, they’re slowly losing the frantic, seat-of-the-pants experience that made them appealing in the first place.
One great example to illustrate this (one which remains valid for the entire pool of manufacturers wanting in on the hot hatch pie) is how Renault chose to update its Clio RenaultSport from the previous 197 to the current 200 and 220 TCe: the new car was made available exclusively with a dual-clutch automated gearbox, it was made considerably quieter and more restrained, all while losing its frantic naturally-aspirated engine.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a turbo whooshing extra power out of an engine, but the turbo engine combined with the duller overall driving experience just seems like a step back if you got a change to drive its predecessor.
Fret not, dear reader, as there are still hot hatch models available that tick many of the old school boxes that I’m sure many drivers still want ticked. So I made a list of five such models, ones you can still buy today (just), especially since most are older models that will soon phased out by faster yet duller replacements.
5. At number five we have the newest, fastest, most advanced and most expensive car here: the Honda Civic Type-R FK2. It is one of (if not) the most focused contender here, a car that quickly dispatches any kind of corner at speeds which will make you squirm before it does. It feels like a precision instrument, one that goes about its business with little fuss and minimal electronic intervention – its grip is mechanical.
When you’re driving the FK2 Type R, you genuinely get the sensation of being part of the machine, definitely a feeling you want to be having when driving a racy hatch. It also feels very mechanical in its operation, even if part of that mechanical character is… electronically reproduced. It’s a great driver’s car, one of the fastest ways to dispatch a B-road and were it not to have the dull-sounding engine, it would definitely have been ranked higher.
4. Next up is the Renault Megane RS 275 Cup, arguably the most track focused car in this company. Interestingly, while it may be down a few dozen horsepower compared to the Civic, some Japanese reviewers actually found out it was faster on a Touge course than the FK2, so when it comes to actual performance, it’s neck and neck between the two.
The Megane is definitely worthy of being here as it has superbly feelsome steering, a feisty, playful character (a definite old school hot hatch trait), an engine that sounds like it’s farting thunder (I mean that in a good way) and, well, it feels even more mechanical than the Civic. There’s a lot to like here, especially since it’s also a simpler, more conventional car than the Japanese one, keeping true to the classic hot hatch ethos of not overly-complicating things.
3. Smack-bang in the middle we find the tail-happy Ford Fiesta ST200. It’s the latest and most powerful version of the much-loved backroad blaster, and it too is on its way out of Ford showrooms (an all-new larger, more grown up Fiesta has just been revealed and it will get its own all-new ST).
The ST200 does so many things right: it doesn’t look overly flashy, it’s not overpowered and it doesn’t cost all that much. It has one of the best steering systems of any sporty car in the business, its turbo engine is peppy and sounds fruity too. It’s handling is the stuff of fantasy and once you learn it, you’ll have the confidence to attack any corner at nearly any speed (not that you should!) – this is the kind of confidence-infused lunacy that we want to see from a hot hatch, and this is why the Fiesta ranks higher than the other two.
2. However, turbochargers really just get in the way of instant throttle response. Sure, you get all kinds of power from a turbo car, but you have to plan for that power and adjust your entire driving style. That’s why something like the feisty Suzuki Swift Sport is in second spot.
It’s very simple and unfussy, yet it will hold its own on a twisty road against cars much more powerful (yet less agile) than it. It’s the car you can rent at the Nurburgring to have fun in without really going too fast, which is definitely part of the ideal hot hatch character in my book – it’s a car which you can derive pleasure from driving at five tenths all while being reassured by the knowledge it’s an inexpensive little hatch.
1. The winner in this company is an utterly surprising one at first glance, but once you have the full scoop, you too will validate its place here. Great news (!), it’s the Renault Sandero RS… that’s only sold in South America.
I’ve never seen one in the metal, and chances are I never will, but on paper it sounds delicious: being a Sandero, its underpinnings are related to those of older Clio models, which means it should be nimble and light on its feet, the engine is a big, naturally-aspirated unit and the gearbox is a manual.
The engine powering the Sandero RS is the tried and true 2.0-liter four pot which in this application makes 150 hp. It’s not scorchingly fast, but it doesn’t need to be if it’s as enjoyable to drive as Renault’s Brazil market ads would have you believe. So if it is as good to drive as the facts surrounding it say it should, then it’s definitely the most authentic old school hatch that you can still buy today, the one which most closely follows the formula set by the very first such vehicles of their kind.