What is a Hot Hatch?

Economy cars made better with performance upgrades, these hatchbacks deliver affordable driving fun.

Blue VW Golf R in the sunset in desertVolkswagen

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If you’re looking for a fun-to-drive car that’s small enough to be sensible but big enough to be practical, you’re looking for a hot hatch. Typically based on a subcompact or compact model, a hot hatch is an economy car that’s been injected with spirited handling and a more powerful engine. It needs to be quick, but more importantly, it needs to feel lively whether it’s cutting through city traffic or carving up country back roads. This segment is also one of the last places where you’ll find manual transmissions available in affordable new cars.

Since these are hatchbacks, they tend to offer more cargo room than similarly sized sedans. In recent years, automakers have steered away from two-door models in America and focused on four-doors that can reasonably act as family vehicles. They’re ideal transportation for enthusiasts that can’t bring themselves to buy an SUV or crossover.

The origin of the modern hot hatch can be traced to European models like the 1973 Simca 1100TI and the 1976 Renault 5 Alpine, but the idea only crossed the Atlantic and landed in the U.S with the arrival of the 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI. That VW and its successors (now known as the Golf GTI) set the template that’s still followed to this day.

In recent years, hot-hatch aficionados have watched cars like the Ford Focus ST and Fiesta ST, the Mazdaspeed 3, and the Subaru WRX (which is still offered as a sedan) come and go. But there are still new vehicles out there ready to offer up a pulse-quickening experience in a package that can also haul an Ikea dresser. Here’s a rundown of the hot hatches on sale in American showrooms today.

Yellow Honda Type RHonda

Honda Civic Type R

Honda’s venerable Civic is currently sold in both sedan and hatchback body styles, but the performance-tuned 200 hp Civic Si is only sold with a trunk hanging off its back end. The hatchback lineup leapfrogs the Si model and lands on the wild $38,910 Civic Type R. It’s simply amazing how this car manages to drive 306 hp and 295 lb.-ft. of torque into the ground through only the front tires. Honda is in the process of refreshing the Civic family, and the 2021 Type R is based on the outgoing generation, but the company has confirmed that a new model is coming for 2023.

Blue Hyundai Veloster NHyundai

Hyundai Veloster N

Hyundai launched its N performance sub-brand in the U.S. with this firecracker of a car. Starting at $33,545, the Veloster N elevates the driving experience with excellent steering and a theatrical exhaust note. The turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder makes 275 hp and can be paired with a six-speed manual or eight-speed dual-clutch automatic. On top of its dynamic charms, the Veloster stands apart from the rest of the pack with its odd three-door configuration; there’s only a rear door on the passenger side.

Black Mini anniversary editionMini

Mini S and Mini JCW

The term go kart gets tossed around liberally when people talk about the Mini, and for good reason. The pocket-sized Mini offers a stiff, responsive chassis that eagerly changes directions. Mini sells two-door hot-hatch fun in two flavors. One step above the base model, the $31,750 Mini S cranks out 189 hp and can be had with a manual or automatic. At the top end, the performance-built, race-tuned John Cooper Works two-door hardtop costs at least $36,750 and delivers 228 hp to the front wheels exclusively through a six-speed manual transmission.

Gray VW Golf GTIVolkswagen

Volkswagen Golf GTI and Golf R

Volkswagen recently stopped importing the mass-market Golf to the U.S., but it continues to sell two hopped-up versions here. The $30,935 Golf GTI makes 241 hp and drives only the front wheels while the 315 hp $44,640 Golf R puts down 315 hp via all-wheel drive. Both are available with a 6-speed manual transmission or a quick-shifting dual-clutch automatic transmission. Only the GTI, though, is offered with plaid seats.

*Availability is subject to specific trim level selections

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Roberto Baldwin
Roberto Baldwin is an automotive and technology reporter based in Northern California. In addition to traditional car coverage, he has focused on the emergence of electric vehicles and driver assistance features in vehicles and the eventual launch of autonomous vehicles. Over the past seven years he’s sat in more autonomous test vehicles than he can remember but still reminds the average driver to keep their eyes on the road. He currently owns a Subaru BRZ, Hyundai Kona Electric, and a Vespa GTS 250.