Hot hatchbacks are special. They’re not the most powerful vehicles on the market, nor are they the quickest or necessarily the best-handling options available, but just like hatchbacks are designed to be the ‘everyman’ car that has five seats, (usually) five doors, and a sizeable cargo area behind the back seat, the hot hatch is designed to be the everyman sports car. The Honda Civic Type R is at the sharp end of this argument, with a former front-wheel-drive record of 7:43.8 around the Nürburgring’s Nordschleife (set in 2017), but the segment also includes the likes of the tamer buyer favorite Volkswagen Golf GTI, and the diminutive but fiery Mini John Cooper Works.
Relatively affordable and fuel-efficient, but still rapid between the traffic lights, they prioritize one thing above all else, and it is that most sacred of things to gearheads – they aim to be fun as heck to drive. Now, when you think Honda, you probably think Honda sedan and ‘fun to drive’ doesn’t exactly spring to mind in that instance, but take a closer look at the Civic Type R and you’ll see that being fun to drive is what this thing is all about.
First up, there’s a 306-horsepower turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder VTEC powerhouse under the hood that delivers 295 lb-ft of torque and sends this significant grunt through a purist-pleasing six-speed manual transmission to the front wheels only. It’ll sprint from 0-60 in around 5.4 seconds and head onto a top speed of 169 mph.
As mentioned, back in 2017 Honda took the Civic Type R to the Nürburgring where it dispatched the challenge posed by the Nordschleife in a front-wheel-drive record that stood for three years until the Renault Mégane RS Trophy-R, a car that’s not available in the USA, bested it by 3.7 seconds over the 12.94-mile circuit for a new record.
If you’re keen on this Japanese jet, the 2021 Type R has an MSRP of $37,895 and will set you back a further $6,100 if you opt for the Limited Edition, which is available only in Phoenix Yellow as an homage to the Type Rs of yore. The real selling point of the Limited Edition is that weight reduction measures have been taken, including forged-aluminum wheels as well as recalibrated steering and tuned dampers that turn this already-impressive hot hatch into a track-focused hyper hatchback.
The perennial favorite when it comes to hot hatches is the Volkswagen Golf GTI. It boasts all the practicality, ease of use, and reliability that the Golf so well known and loved for, but adds a fair whack of performance to the package, courtesy of a two-liter turbocharged four-pot. There are three trim levels available in the GTI range, namely the S, SE, and the Autobahn, but all are powered by the same motor in the same state of tune. It delivers 228 hp and 258 lb-ft to the front wheels through either a six-speed stick-shift or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic and it’ll dispatch the 0-60 sprint in 5.6 seconds.
The S kicks off at $28,695, while the SE will set you back $32,665 and the Autobahn $36,945. The difference between the configurations is purely spec-related. The base model offers cloth upholstery as well as relatively decent standard comfort features, while the SE offers leather upholstery, a panoramic sunroof, keyless access, and a larger infotainment unit. Possibly the most notable addition to the Autobahn variation is the Fender premium sound system. But really, you should be listening to that turbocharged mill revving up and the dump valve dropping excess air on every shift!
An automobile that offers quite possibly the closest on-road experiences you can have to real kart racing is the Mini John Cooper Works GP. It is deceptively quick and, although torque steer is notable to say the least, it delivers a hard-sprung, low-slung hot hatch experience unlike any other. One feels closer to the action behind the wheel of the $44,900 JCW GP than in the insulated (although still impressive) GTI mentioned above.
The highly tuned two-liter turbo under the hood pumps out 301 hp and the GP will hit 60 mph from a standstill in five seconds flat – and you’ll feel every involving second of it. It’s 70 hp more powerful than standard JCW models and is the fastest road-going mini to date. Shove that kind of performance into the hood of a car whose name also describes its size, mate it with an incredibly stiff set-up and you’re in for a hoot whether you’re stringing together tight turns or barrelling down the open road. Unfortunately, the Mini doesn’t come with a manual transmission, which does detract somewhat from the element of involvement that hot hatches are known for.
Ultimately, that last point sums up the hot hatch’s very raison d’ȇtre: they’re all about making the driving experience as fun as possible, but more than that, they involve you in every ounce of that fun. They need not have the most potent engine, the most lightweight chassis, the most aerodynamic body, because they do one thing and they do it well. They remind us exactly why we love driving in the first place.