Here are the best compact hot hatches (and one wild card) you can buy now or are coming soon to Australia.
You can’t help loving a pocket rocket, can you?
In fact, a well-executed one is often just about the best way to have as much fun on the public road as possible without being in danger of losing your license.
While the ability to travel reasonably briskly in a straight line is of some importance here, it’s keen handling and an easily exploitable chassis that really marks out the best pocket rocket; as well as its ability to provide the most amount of laughs for the smallest amount of money.
So if you want a car that will spectacularly over-deliver on driver entertainment for minimum outlay, the pocket rockets included in this list would be the ones we’d go for.
Ford Fiesta ST
Price from $32,390 before on-road costs.
With the release of the latest Fiesta ST, Ford shoots back to the peak of the pocket rockets. True to previous form, the Blue Oval has excelled itself with its new fast supermini, which now offers an even more compelling mix of affordable handling thrills, surprisingly big-hitting performance and everyday usability – and all at a very competitive price (the incoming 2022 update might change that).
But it isn’t without its faults. The new three-pot motor, for instance, is plenty punchy enough and commendably smooth, but lacks some of that high-range feisty character you’d expect from a hot-hatch engine. The cabin is also typically plain and plasticky, while the ride on harsh B-roads can be excitably firm.
On the right roads and in the right conditions, though, there aren’t many other cars that offer such compelling pace and handling zest for as little money as the Fiesta ST. It’s a brilliant driver’s car.
Can Ford reclaim the hot hatchback crown with a Fiesta ST that’s missing a cylinder – or have rivals like the VW Polo GTI regained ground?
Hyundai i20 N
Price from $32,490 before on-road costs
Hyundai has suddenly become very hard to overlook as a purveyor of affordable performance cars, and the new i20 N rally-inspired supermini is the main reason why. This car is a simpler and more direct attempt at a classic hot hatchback than the bigger i30 N is. Being smaller and lighter helps, of course; but it also uses a conventional limited slip differential in place of an active one, a punchy but not domineering 1.6-litre turbocharged engine, a six-speed manual gearbox in place of any clever twin-clutch gearbox, and good passive dampers rather than adaptive ones.
The results are really very effective indeed. This car has the carefully honed, extra-purposeful character of a genuine rally-stage exile. Its body control, high-speed precision and composure and steering precision are all of an order you rarely find in a car this size, and its ground-covering pace is greater than you’d expect of a car with only 150kW to put to use.
The i20 is impressively roomy and well-equipped, too, given the strides its maker has taken these last ten years in drawing level with the best small cars are on offer. If the i20 N has a fault, it may only be that it’s too grippy, precise and composed; and some may want a fast supermini that takes itself a little less seriously.
Suzuki Swift Sport
Price from $27,990 before on-road costs
This third-generation Swift Sport marks something of a departure from its predecessors as its previously zesty naturally aspirated motor has been swapped out for a more charmless turbocharged unit, and it has also undergone a price increase. Although the likes of the Ford Fiesta ST are not only the better driver’s car but much more powerful too, the Swift remains competitively priced at under $30k for the stick shifter.
And there’s plenty to like here. The Suzuki feels just as agile as you’d expect a peppy supermini to be, and responds nicely to mid-corner throttle and brake adjustments. The driving position is pretty spot on, too, and there’s a heap of standard kit for the money; just not quite as much appetite for revs as once there was.
Volkswagen Polo GTI
Price from $32,890 before on-road costs
The latest Polo GTI is no longer just a spicier trim level for VW’s ever-popular supermini; there’s now a credible performance hatchback on offer here.
It shares its engine with the legendary Golf GTI – albeit here in a slightly lower state of tune – lending it a fairly potent level of performance, while the sophistication of its chassis allows for excellent composure and impressive dynamism on even the most battered Aussie roads.
It is a car that is typically rounded and desirable, and that inspires plenty of confidence in its abilities but, for all of its strengths, does leave you wanting just a little bit more in terms of character and fun. And that’s arguably what cars of this type are all about, isn’t it?
Abarth 595 Competizione
Price from $32,950 before on-road costs
If there’s one thing the Abarth 595 Competizione isn’t short on, it’s character. On start up, its 1.4-litre turbocharged four-pot burbles into life with an aggressive timbre that seems entirely at odds with the beefed-up Fiat 500’s rather cutesy image. And then it goes and lends the steroidal city car impressive straight-line punch which, from a car of this size and type, seems just as unlikely.
However, it’s not quite as dynamically well-sorted as some rivals, often washing into understeer and demanding more input and management from its driver at cornering speeds that its competitors would simply eat up. The interior is also relatively cramped, and the driving position isn’t great.
Between one thing and another, then, this little bundle of boisterous trouble gets off to an imperfect start as a driver’s car and, in strictly objective terms, it never quite recovers. And yet it’s nothing if not a giggle.
Toyota GR Yaris
Price from $49,500 before on-road costs
It is the priciest hot hatch on this list with a conventional engine but it would be amiss not to mention it when listing some of the best compact hot hatches. Toyota’s GR Yaris isn’t a regular Yaris on steroids, instead the Japanese maker redesigned parts of the chassis and changed the body to ensure the road-legal version closely mimics its world rally car competitor.
The GR Yaris punches far above its weight with the bespoke 1.6-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol engine developing 200kW and 370Nm to the all-wheel-drive system. With rally-inspired engineering it feels at home both on and off the road, eating up gravel with fun flicks and very sharp response.
While a brilliant hot hatch, it is pricey, and there’s over $15k between this and something like the Fiesta ST or i20 N.
Mini Cooper S
Price from $42,250 before on-road costs
The modern fast Mini is a more upmarket and refined take on what a compelling pocket rocket can be, although the car’s famously terrierish handling directness also still defines it just as vividly.
The Cooper S a touch softer around the edges than the most focused cars in this class – the Fiesta ST is a far sharper, firmer package in this respect – but as an all-rounder, it does itself a lot of favours, and has a well-judged blend of grip, body control, performance and value.
It won’t be as taxing or tiresome to drive about town as other cars in this list, while out on some proper B-roads there’s still an abundance of the go-kart handling characteristics that Mini has always been renowned for, despite the fact these BMW-era ones have grown in size considerably.
Price from $54,800 before on-road costs
All-electric superminis are, by and large, not the dynamic equals of the old, performance-flavoured special derivatives whose place in model lineup they have so widely assumed over the last decade or so, but if there is one that’s worthy of a mention in passing in this chart, it’s the darty and characterful Mini Electric.
Without a gearbox, a clutch pedal or a hard-revving piston engine to drag you into the driving experience, cars like this can struggle to really involve – but the Mini manages to with a combination of its usual flat, balanced and agile handling, its darty, instictive steering and its relatively taut control of its body. Mini opted not to chase outright range with this car but instead settled on only 60 per cent as much usable battery capacity as some rivals, which in turn saved weight, boosted performance and kept dynamic compromise to a minimum. The trade-off is a usable real-world range of only around 230km; but the gain is a car that accelerates and corners with a verve that makes it worthy of a Mini badge.
Price from $36,090 before on-road costs
The pricing of most fast superminis invites comparison with one of the world’s most famous sports cars because it can be had for around the same budget. That’s provided you’re happy enough to have a hard-working, free-revving, 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine in your Mazda MX-5, as well as a slightly simpler mechanical and equipment specification that puts the focus of the car right where it ought to be: on the fine detail of the driving experience.
The MX-5 1.5 produces 97kW these days, which is a slug more power than the famous first-generation 1.6-litre car had, while the smaller-of-two of the modern Mazda’s engines also gives the current car more of the flyweight, rev-hungry charm of the mk1. It’s only a two-seater with a small, non-expandable boot that falls well short of matching even a three-door hatchback for versatility.
But there is a delicacy and a purity to the driving reward on offer here that no powerful front-driven car elsewhere on this list could equal. The kind of stride that a moderately sprung MX-5 can adopt over an enticing cross-country road is like little else in motordom: effortless, manually involving, and beautifully fluent at brisk but sensible real-world speeds. It’s easy to get the best out of this car, and a bit of a revelation when you do.