7 Oct 2012

Hot hatches - Our guide to the best, on a budget

Everyone loves a classic hot hatch.  Small, light, quick, sharp handling and bags of fun for a small budget.  The best hot hatches can provide as much driving thrill as anything else on the road.

Don't just take our word for it - Evo Magazine, obsessive connoisseurs of handling prowess, put a hot hatch in their top ten Greatest Driver's cars -  in amongst the usual Paganis, Lotus and Porsches*.

The very first hot hatch was the MkI Golf GTi.  It first saw the light of day in 1979 and set the blueprint for everything that came afterwards. The emphasis was on lightweight construction, stiff chassis, a manual gearbox, a good but not overly powerful engine, front wheel drive, fantastic driving dynamics and a massive dose of fun.

Drivers of a certain age will remember the first flourish of the hot hatch - the eighties.  When car manufacturers saw what Volkswagen had done with the Golf GTi, and how many they were selling, and sought to emulate it.  

In the years since the hot hatch has grown in size, weight, power and cost with resulting examples often losing the quality that defined the term in the first place - oodles of fun to a budget.

The best hot hatches will handle like a go-kart, cost little to insure, have enough power to provide a thrill but not too much to overcome the capabilities of front wheel drive and put a smile on your face every time you go round a corner (preferably with the inside back wheel in the air).

We sought to find the best examples on the used market today that fit the original modus operandi of the hot hatch.  Our budget is £2,000 - enough for younger drivers to enjoy their first hot hatch but also for older drivers to consider as a second car.

Don't forget our golden rules when looking for a secondhand car.  You can read them here.  In this case we will add another - keep it original.  Nothing reduces the price nor dilutes the essence of a hot hatch more than well intentioned but ill-advised modifications.  See here for examples of that.

But we'd also disregard our own rule of not buying a used French car.  The French made some fantastic hot hatches.

Golf GTi MkII

Sadly the original MkI GTi is out of our price range.  It has achieved classic status and, therefore, the price of decent, unmolested examples is now way beyond our budget.  Don't for a moment consider the cabriolet version which survived until 1993.  Instead, the MkII Golf GTi provides the next best thing.

Golf GTi's have been diluted over the years but the MkII represents the nearest to the classic hot hatch formula.  The 8v version only had 112bhp but the stiff chassis, sports suspension and light weight more than make up for it.  It can be flung through corners with gusto and the front will only lose grip with excessive exuberance. 

The MkII GTi looks the business too - little touches such as the GTi badge in the grille, the integral foglights, the small spoiler at the front distinguish the GTi from its less desirable siblings.  Originality is key but try and buy one with a decent set of BBS alloys.  The interior is  the very essence of eighties Germanic functionality so don't expect to be pampered.

Peugeot 205 GTi

The French cottoned onto the GTi boom quickly and in 1984 Peugeot transformed its dull 205 by adding a rorty 1.6 engine, stiffer suspension, a more sporty interior and some GTi bling and thus the 205 GTi was born.  

The 205 GTi was true to the format.  Today it is hard, but not impossible, to find good quality, original examples.  A 1.9 engine was added in 1986 and it is this that is the jewel in the 205 crown.  The purists may argue otherwise but the extra horsepower turned the 205 GTi into a true hot hatch hooligan.

Unfortunately the cheapest, good quality, 1.9 GTi is way beyond our budget so we need to look at the 1.6 GTi.  It is possible to find a 1.6 with under 100,000 miles, a full service history and that has been cherished for under £2,000.  Most examples on the road today are well looked after but still, be on the lookout for rust and signs of age.  These cars are, after all twenty years old.

Renault Clio Williams

During the nineties Renault were riding high in Formula 1 and to celebrate their success with the Williams F1 team they brought out a limited edition hot hatch in 1994 - the Clio Williams.  Just 4,400 were made and sold almost immediately.  The Clio was built by Renault Sport.  And it showed.

With a 150bhp engine and weighing just 1010kg the Clio Williams is widely thought to be the best of the original hot hatches.  With razor sharp steering and masses of feedback through the chassis there are still a few to be found for around £2,000, making it the performance car bargain of the moment.  

You'll get a 1995 Clio Williams 3 for the budget.  Make sure it has original gold wheels and is painted in blue.  Many have been used for racing or rallying.  Check for signs of this and if it has been raced or rallied, walk away.  If you find one in prestige condition keep it that way.  The price of these cars will only go up as it becomes an appreciating classic.

Mini Cooper

A more modern proposition but true to the breed.  The modern Mini Cooper came out in 2001 and prices of early examples are starting to dip under £2,000.

Incredibly agile handling, a small but perfectly formed engine and a slick gearbox give this hot hatch the necessary qualities to run with the best.  But not all Mini Coopers are the same.  Make sure you get one in the right colour (red, green, silver, black) and with a decent set of alloys.  And it is an absolute must to choose one with the chilli pack.  If not it will be poverty spec with no aircon, leather trimmed seats or even a decent stereo.

Despite being a massively popular car the Mini Cooper does have it's downsides.  The ride is firm, verging on the boneshaker, and it's the opposite of the TARDIS - it looks pretty big on the outside but is tiny on the inside.  

Seat Leon Cupra

Another, more modern, car.  The Seat Leon Cupra is essentially a sheep in wolf's clothing.   With 180bhp, stiffer suspension, a more sporty interior the Cupra is available in vast numbers so choose wisely.  It's drab exterior (alloys aside, no GTi trinkets here) has dragged the value down so you can get a well looked after 2002 model for less than £2,000.

The Leon shares it's underpinnings with the Golf MkIV but Seat have managed to extract a much more sporty car than VW did.  It is harder, faster and generally less lardy than it's MkIV cousin.  Badge snobbery aside this is a much more attractive proposition for the driver looking for a bit of hot hatch hoonery than the Golf.

Vauxhall Nova GTE

Don't laugh.  Vauxhall are perfectly capable of making hot hatches when they put their mind to it and in the late eighties the Nova GTE just that.  It had all the hallmarks of a hot hatch.  A decent power to weight ratio, sharp steering and, in typical Vauxhall tradition, loads of bling.

The GTE stood head and shoulders above its lesser Nova siblings.  It had 100bhp from a 1.6 engine but  weighed only 865kg.  Stiff suspension, a close ratio gearbox and sports seats gave the Nova GTE it's credibility.

Today there are very few GTE's left on the road.  If you can find one for under £2,000 look out for rust and make sure it has been cared for by an enthusiast rather than thrashed by a boy racer (that's your job).

Ford Sierra XR4X4

Our hunt for fast Fords under £2,000 was a frustrating one.  Great Fords tend to become classics quickly and the price subsequently rockets.  More recent examples are warm, rather than hot hatches, with the Ford Focus ST170 being the only real contender. 

In the eighties the Escort turned into a front wheel drive frump-mobile with the XR3i and then went even further downhill until it's demise and eventual replacement by the Focus.

However look a little deeper and a surprise contender emerges.  The Ford Sierra XR4x4.  In standard trim the Sierra was a horrible car.  But Ford have a long history of working miracles - taking boring cars and turning them into something much more attractive.

The XR4x4 takes the standard Sierra bodyshell and adds a 2.9 litre V6 engine, four wheel drive, sports suspension and just enough vim to create a half decent hot hatch - albeit not in the traditional sense.  It's just a pity Ford didn't pay much attention to the interior.  The standard issue spongy seats that Ford put in all of it's cars in the eighties provide about as much support as a paper bag and the dash and trim are not exactly sporty.  But nevertheless the XR4x4 is the best hot hatch Ford we could find for under £2,000.

Volkswagen Golf V6 4Motion

Last but not least is the Golf MkIV V6 4Motion.  The MkIV GTi was had a wheezy 150bhp and in such a weighty chassis struggled to pull the skin off a rice pudding.  But stick a 2.8 V6 lump and four wheel drive (essentially Audi's quattro system) in it and you get the performance hot hatch bargain of modern times.

Produced from 2000 until 2004 the V6 4Motion sold well but was overshadowed by the sportier R32 and, as such, the market is flooded with them.  It is impossible to spin the wheels on a dry road and with 208bhp this means the V6 4Motion shifts as fast as a Porsche Boxster - even though it doesn't go round corners quite as well.

The engine note is sublime, the interior classy, the seats firm and the engine powerful.  There is very little not to like about the V6 4Motion aside from the abysmal fuel consumption (25mpg at best).

Make sure you find as late a one as possible.  Make sure it has a full service history and make sure you can afford the fuel.  Otherwise there isn't much else to go wrong.

*at number seven was the Renault Clio Trophy