Hot Hatches - A (Slightly Cynical) US Market Guide

The hot hatch isn't exactly a recent trend in the US, but it never really caught on here like it did in Europe. Sure, we've had the GTI here forever, the Civic SI could sometimes be had in a hatch, and the MazdaSpeed 3 has been tearing up our streets for the better part of a decade now, but we still never had the selection that our European friends did. That is starting to change now, though, and we have more hatches to choose from than ever before.

I'm not exactly a stranger to these micro wagons, as I drive a relatively "lukewarm" hatch ('97 318ti) right now, but I figured it was time for an upgrade, mostly because the term 'hot hatch' is so much catchier. I just happen to be in the market for one of these little beasts, and have been doing what I always do when I'm shopping; researching the ever loving shit out of anything that has to do with what I'm buying. With this being the case, I figured it was my duty to pass this information on to you. Yes, I know, how noble of me, right?

So. Here I have compiled a list of all the cars (in no particular order) we have available that meet the criteria with some quick notes about how they drive and how well equipped they are, along with some tech specs. Why? Because we all love tech specs, Tex Mex, and more tech specs, that's why. I have driven most of these cars, either on multiple test drives from dealerships, generous colleagues/friends, or a few counts of good ol' grand theft auto (don't worry, I brought them back. Eventually).

Note: All prices shown below are as of writing this article, and will be shown below by the Jalopnik standard of "how many V6 Mustangs you can get for that much," which is currently $22,510 starting.

Mini Cooper S

Hot Hatches - A (Slightly Cynical) US Market Guide

Who says you can't buy a BMW hatchback in the US anymore? Yeah, yeah, the new Mini isn't actually all that mini anymore, and it certainly isn't British, but they're damn fun cars. I have never been a huge fan of the styling — especially not the interior (which is now greatly improved for 2014) — but I can appreciate it as a driver's car, which comes first and foremost for this list. The Mini was just refreshed for 2014, so I haven't driven the new generation, but I spent some time behind the wheel of a 2012, and it was a lot of fun. It totally changed my mind about the car, and now I just get it.

This one isn't exactly the fastest on this list, but that speaks more to the quality of contenders rather than the shortcomings of the Mini. Acceleration is quick. Not mind boggling or violent, but it's very consistent. There is no turbo lag to speak of, and the little turbo 4 pulls strong throughout the rev range. Throw this thing into some twisties, and it all comes together. Suddenly it makes sense why these flood autocross courses. The ride is pretty stiff in normal driving, but feels just right when you toss it into a corner. There is surprisingly little body roll, and you get that characteristic go-kart feel when you crank it around a turn. It just... works. When it comes to living with the car, I could see its small interior space becoming a problem, due to the fact that there really isn't any. The back seat remains a challenge for most any adult, and there isn't a whole lot of room for gear, so plan ahead.

Also, they finally took the gigantic speedometer off of the center of the dash, so, you know, 20 points to Gryffindor, or something.

Specs:

  • Horsepower: 189
  • Torque: 207 ft-lbs
  • Curb weight: 2,760 lbs
  • MPG: 23/36 city/highway
  • 0-60: ~6.5 sec
  • Top speed: 136 mph
  • Price: 1.05 V6 Mustangs or $23,800

Reviews:

Ford Fiesta ST

Hot Hatches - A (Slightly Cynical) US Market Guide

This little guy has quickly become a bit of a favorite in the auto journo world, and for good reason. It's a small, practical, and light little hatch with nearly 200 ponies stuffed under the hood, and some severely underrated torque figures twisting its tires. The best part about it, though, is its price. Add in a few grand for some of the best OEM seats this side of $40k, and the Fiesta ST is an absolute steal. Anything that can come out favorably against an E46 M3 has to be good (take this time now to argue in the comments, I'll wait).

The Fiesta is at its best on twisty canyon roads, but it makes its power so early that launching out of any corner or stoplight is equally fun. It sits right at the sweet spot of power where you can hammer on the throttle any time you want, and not really have to worry about getting into too much trouble. Steering feel is excellent and very direct, allowing you to swoop in to tight turns at higher speeds than your gut tells you feels safe. There are some drawbacks, though. Those excellent Recaro seats take a bit of breaking in, especially for bigger guys/gals, and interior space in general is just a bit tight. Get used to brushing your passenger's knee when shifting (could be good or bad), and don't plan on packing too much gear in the back if you plan on carrying more than a few passengers.

Also, the driving position is a little off. You sit up pretty high, and the shifter is way down low below your knees. Though this could just be more of a problem for me, as I am a fair bit taller than average. Still, for the price, it's hard to complain. This might be the best performance deal in the industry right now, and that's saying a lot.

Specs:

  • Horsepower: 197
  • Torque: 202 ft-lbs (Matt Farah says otherwise)
  • Curb weight: 2729 lbs
  • MPG: 27/35 city/highway
  • 0-60: ~6.4 sec
  • Top speed: 137 mph
  • Price: .95 V6 Mustangs or $21,400

Reviews:

Ford Focus ST

Hot Hatches - A (Slightly Cynical) US Market Guide

For years Ford Europe has been taunting us with these cool, properly fast hatchbacks that we thought we'd never get here on the correct side of the Atlantic (that's right, shots fired). But Ford finally got their act together, and now we have two hot little potatoes from them that are causing quite a ruckus. All they need to do is bring the Focus RS over here and we would be able to stop complaining, but until then, we'll have to make due with the ST. This is just fine by me. This new Focus body style is the first one I ever had a reason to pay any real attention to. Before, the Focus was just as 'meh' as a base Civic or Corrolla, but they really stepped up their game with this latest generation.

Compared to the Fiesta (because brothers are always compared), this car feels a bit more... fire breathey. Stomp on the skinny pedal in this, and you're immediately met with two things; One, the headrest on the back of your head, and two, the steering wheel jerking to the right. The torque steer isn't as bad as the Speed 3, but it's most definitely there. Surprisingly, I actually kind of like it. It's enough to let you know it's packing some serious twist, but not so much that I'm worried about the guy in the lane next to me. The handling here is just excellent. I have never driven a car with a more direct and responsive steering than this. The turn in is incredibly precise, and coming out of a corner brings something not many people are used to in a front drive anything: lift-off over steer. This sounds like a bad thing, but it's surprisingly manageable, and makes it a ton of fun to toss around. The interior is very well appointed here, with nothing feeling super cheap, and MyFord Touch is finally not terrible (just in time for them to can it). Once again, you get some bespoke Recaro seats if you pony up the extra dough (and you should), and while they aren't quite as tight as the Fiesta's, they will still take some getting used to.

The driving position in the Focus just feels perfect, though. The pedals are arranged perfectly for some easy heel toe action, and the steering wheel and shifter are exactly where they should be. Once the seats break in, this will make for a great (if a bit stiff) cruiser.

Specs:

  • Horsepower: 252
  • Torque: 270 ft-lbs
  • Curb weight: 3196 lbs
  • MPG: 23/32 city/highway
  • 0-60: 5.7 sec
  • Top speed: 155 mph
  • Price: 1.04 V6 Mustangs or $23,625

Reviews:

Volkswagen Golf GTI

Hot Hatches - A (Slightly Cynical) US Market Guide

If you looked up the term 'hot hatch' in the dictionary today, it wouldn't be in there. But if it was, there would be a picture of a GTI right next to it, which would be weird because dictionaries don't typically have pictures in them. This is because VW basically invented the market in 1976 when they first introduced the 108 hp GTI, which was good for a blistering 0-60 run of 9.0 seconds! That sounds a bit less than stellar these days, but that was pretty quick at the time.

Luckily, VW has kept up with the times since then, and the GTI is a very quick little machine still today. Its specs may seem a bit more modest than others on this list, but you would never know it from driving one. This is probably the most mature, and well sorted platform of the bunch, but it remains one of the quickest, and is certainly up there in terms of handling as well. VW surprisingly has managed to keep any semblance of torque steer out of the equation (I'm looking at you, Mazda), and all four tires keep firm grip in the corners. Plus, for 2015, you can get it with the Performance Package that boosts the power up significantly. For all that performance, it doesn't exactly skimp on practicality, either. Trips to Home Depot are still very doable here, which is part of what has always made the GTI so great.

It would be nice if we could turn the traction control completely off, though. Someone slap VW on the wrist for me.

Specs:

  • Horsepower: 210-220
  • Torque: 207-258 ft-lbs
  • Curb weight: 3113 lbs
  • MPG: 24/34 city/highway
  • 0-60: ~5.7-6.1 sec
  • Top speed: 150 mph
  • Price: 1.11 V6 Mustangs or $25,095

Reviews:

MazdaSpeed 3

Hot Hatches - A (Slightly Cynical) US Market Guide

Mazda refreshed the 3 for the 2013 model year, but they haven't carried the Speed 3 over to the new body yet, so this is still the second generation, which is getting a bit long in tooth. When the first Speed 3 hit the scene in 2007, it immediately earned it's reputation as a rip snortin' little beast of a sleeper. Even in its second generation, it doesn't look so much different from the standard trim, given how aggressive the styling already is. Once you hear it wail at wide open throttle, though, you'll be smiling almost as wide as that gaping grill in the front — well that's my theory on the design, anyway.

This is definitely one of the most powerful contenders here, and it isn't shy about letting you know it. The term 'torque steer' seems to have been borne of this car, but it's manageable when you know what to expect, thanks to a real limited slip differential and the fact that they actually limit boost in first and second gear. Handling is plenty competent, but has a tendency to understeer pretty hard under throttle. The steering just feels heavy in general, but is very responsive. Power is surprisingly sparse coming out of corners, and needs to build more revs to hit its sweet spot, at which point it launches like a champ. Interior space is great, and everything you touch has decent-for-the-price materials, and the steering wheel is pretty nice — but the interior is starting to feel a bit dated.

The clutch, like the MazdaSpeed 6, is very binary. It's either engaged completely, or not at all, which takes some getting used to. Also, it should be noted that this engine is largely unchanged since its introduction, so while it makes great power, you're paying for it in comparatively low mileage — lowest of the bunch, actually.

Specs:

  • Horsepower: 263
  • Torque: 280 ft-lbs
  • Curb weight: 3223 lbs
  • MPG: 18/25 city/highway
  • 0-60: ~5.8 sec
  • Top speed: 146 mph
  • Price: 1.07 V6 Mustangs or $24,200

Reviews:

Chevy Sonic RS

Hot Hatches - A (Slightly Cynical) US Market Guide

Hah! But seriously, GM, bring the Vauxhall Corsa/Astra VXRs over here. Ford's making a killing on their hot hatches and you have this as your only competition. Come on.

Fiat 500 Abarth

Hot Hatches - A (Slightly Cynical) US Market Guide

File this one in with the Mini under cars that surprised the hell out of me. I'll be completely honest and say that I really hate the styling of the 500. I seem to be somewhat alone in that, but I could just never get past its bubblegum looks. The Abarth adds some cool logos and paint, but it still just looks like a K-pop Smart Car to me. When I went out to lunch with a guy from work one day, he offered to drive, and we walked up to an Abarth 500. I chuckled and asked if it was his wife's car, to which he just laughed and told me to get in. What happened next is we peeled out of the parking lot and by the time we got to the restaurant 47 quite illegal seconds later, I had a hell of a time pulling my size 14 foot out of my mouth.

So it's not that this thing is all that fast in comparison to anything on this list, it's how unexpected its power is, and how well it corners — which is not unlike a magnetic slot car. The 500 is relatively tall and narrow, and the seating position feels pretty high, but there is only the slightest hint of body roll around turns. The 500 grips harder than I ever would have given it credit for, and can it stop on a dime. There are of course some drawbacks to all this. The ride is pretty stiff, and there isn't a whole lot of weight to keep it from bouncing around over hard bumps or pot holes. Interior space is of course quite lacking, but you knew that by just looking at it. The back seats are strictly a toddler affair, and I'm pretty sure I've seen more storage space in single cab trucks than what the 500 has in the back. Still, like I said, you know what you're getting into, here.

The interior is kind of a mixed bag. Any Abarth additions are very nice, but there are definitely some chintzy feeling materials in there, as well as some very love it or hate it styling. The Abarth steering wheel, though, is seriously a work of art. Much nicer than the price tag would suggest.

Specs:

  • Horsepower: 160
  • Torque: 170 ft-lbs
  • Curb weight: 2564 lbs
  • MPG: city/highway
  • 0-60: ~7.0 sec
  • Top speed: 27/32 mph
  • Price: .98 V6 Mustangs or $22,095

Reviews:

Hyundai Veloster Turbo

Hot Hatches - A (Slightly Cynical) US Market Guide

This is at the bottom of the list simply because I have never even sat in one, let alone drive one. Still, it would be irresponsible of me to ignore it completely, so here you go. Most car guys seemed to just laugh this car off when they first saw it in 2011, but when Hyundai crammed 201 horsepower in it a year later, there was nothing to laugh at anymore. Well, except for maybe that weird third door. What's the deal with that again?

Whereas the base Veloster made it to 60 mph in about the same time my '91 Cherokee did (seriously, over 9 seconds), the Turbo sprints up to speed so fast that... Oh wait, no, OK it's still the slowest one here. BUT, from what I read, it can out slalom an FR-S, which is mighty impressive. Other than that, the suspension doesn't seem to be much to write home about, and it has none of the traction trickery that the rest have to keep the front wheels in line. After reading a few reviews, I'd say this is more of a "pretty warm" hatchback, as opposed to being a true hot hatch. Or, as Edmunds put it, it's "Sporty VS Sports," and the Veloster seems to sit firmly on the side of the former. Still, the optional matte paint is kinda cool, and I'll be honest, it looks pretty damn good from a side profile.

If you want a proper sports car with that illustrious slanty H badge (as we all do), I would suggest looking at a Genesis Coupe, which is excellent.

Specs:

  • Horsepower: 201
  • Torque: 195 ft-lbs
  • Curb weight: 2800 lbs
  • MPG: 24/33 city/highway
  • 0-60: ~7.3 sec
  • Top speed: 139 mph
  • Price: .99 V6 Mustangs or $22,300

Reviews:

Wrap up

So, you might be wondering why I left out anything that I left out, well I'll give a few reasons. First, I'm just looking at the "cheap" hot hatches, so anything below $30k. This leaves models out like the Golf R and the John Cooper Works stuff, and I didn't want a bunch of overlap like how almost every Mini has an S model, and they're all kind of hatchbacks. Then there is the Subaru WRX (or as I like to call it, the Sub Dub), which is no longer available in a hatchback (yet), and any number of similar cars that really are competition for these, but aren't quite hatchbacks like: the Toyobaru twins, Genesis Coupe, Civic Si, Dart GT, Scion TC, and of course, the Mustang V6.

So which one did I decide on for myself? I'm pretty sure I'm going with the Focus ST. It seems to have just the right mix of insanity and practicality for me, as I need the ample rear space for weekends (ladies). The Fiesta was my first choice, but it's just too small for my 6'4" 245 lbs frame for every day life, and cargo space was a bit limited. The GTI was also high up there for me, but after spending years around various years my friends have owned, I wanted to try something a bit different. Honestly though, with choices like this, it's hard to argue with almost anything you could pick.

Hopefully this compilation helps someone out. If I save just one poor Jalop from a Sonic RS or Veloster Turbo, I've done my job.