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20 Underrated Hot Hatches That Deliver Big Performance

Vukasin HerbezSeptember 4, 2019

Hot hatches are one of the automotive world’s favorite car classes nowadays. Small and affordable but powerful and quick, these pocket rockets are immensely fun, cool machines. Modern hot hatches are approaching the 400 HP mark, which means they are almost as powerful and fast as modern muscle cars. On the surface, that’s simply insane.

Over the years, many hot hatches have become legendary. But sadly, there are still some that are fantastic, yet forgotten. So we put together a showcase of the most interesting, underrated hot hatches ever made. Enjoy our breakdown below:

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20. Mini Cooper

Emerging in 1959, the original Austin Mini was an important, revolutionary car. It had compact dimensions, a transversely mounted engine, and front-wheel drive. The Mini Cooper was unique then, but today, all compact cars share this technical layout. It was a sales hit, and soon engineers started thinking about upgraded, performance versions. So in 1961, they introduced the Mini Cooper featuring a larger engine, disc brakes, and a close-ratio transmission. It had 55 HP, which was 20 HP more than the standard Mini. Despite the fact its power ratings sound diminutive now, the car weighed just over 1,100 pounds, making it lively and quick.

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With front-wheel-drive handling and precise steering, the Mini Cooper was nimble and easy to drive fast, making it a perfect candidate for racing. During the 1960s, Mini Coopers were extremely successful in rally championships as well as touring car races all over the world. Even though the Mini is not technically a hatchback since it doesn’t have a third door, this car was a blueprint for all other hot hatches that came after it. It has a compact body and is lightweight with a powerful engine, sporty details, and a ton of charm.

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19. Renault 5 Turbo

The 1980s started with a bang in the hot hatch world when Renault introduced the R5 Turbo. It looked like a regular Renault 5 compact city car, but it was a serious performance machine. This was the first time a car company presented this outrageous hot hatch with the performance and technology of a supercar. The essence of an R5 Turbo was a mid-mounted 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that delivered 160 HP.

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They redesigned and re-engineered the whole car to move the engine from the front hood to space behind the driver. The rear track was much wider and it had side scoops for better cooling of the engine. Of course, such an extreme car lost one of the main hot hatch characteristics and that is practicality. It was basically a pure racing car built for homologation purposes. However, it deserves an important place in hot hatch history as one of the craziest hot hatches ever produced and one of the coolest cars of the ’80s.

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18. Lancia Delta HF Integrale

Lancia introduced its compact model, the Delta, in 1979. However, it was on the market for five years before the company started thinking about a performance version. Lancia was always big in the rally world. After the banning of their Group B model S4, they wanted something that could work well on the street and track, so the HF Integrale was born. Initially, this model featured a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produced 185 HP, but later it went up to 220 HP. It had a permanent, well-balanced all-wheel-drive system. The Delta HF Integrale is an important hot hatch because it was the first with all-wheel drive.

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This marked the beginning of a transition from the front-wheel drive, simple hot hatches, to the high-tech, all-wheel-drive performance monsters we have today. The combination of a powerful engine, sharp handling, great traction, and low weight was intoxicating for magazine testers of the day. The Delta HF Integrale received nothing but praises. Over the years, the Delta HF Integrale has been a successful concept on rally stages all over the world and among hot hatch fans. They ceased production in 1994 after creating almost 40,000 of them.

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17. Volkswagen Golf R32

In Europe during the 1990s, the hot hatch class was under heavy fire from insurance agencies, earning the image of a hooligan’s express. This meant most car manufacturers stopped producing such cars. Some produced one mild model they considered a hot hatch. After the crazy ’80s and the high-tech Delta Integrale and RS Cosworth of the early ’90s, the rest of the decade lacked interesting models. Volkswagen’s Golf GTI was constantly selling well and VW was one of the companies that never abandoned the market. But the company was thinking of the future of the hot hatch class. The 21st century brought many technological innovations, electronic systems, and improvements in construction, so why not implement all that in a hot hatch of the future?

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This is how the R32 came about in 2003. Volkswagen took the Mk4 body shell and installed the best hardware it had in the early 2000s. That meant the R32 had intelligent all-wheel drive, a 240 HP 3.2-liter V6 engine, a luxury interior, and a host of electronic aids. This wasn’t the first AWD hot hatch or the fastest, despite its 0 to 60 mph time of 6.4 seconds. However, it was the first “Uber” hatch that combined luxury and effortless high-speed cruising with exciting driving dynamics. Also, this was the first hot hatch to use the DSG transmission, which is a standard in this class today.

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16. Ford Focus RS500

Famous for its affordable performance cars, Ford invested a lot of time and effort in the second-generation Focus RS that debuted in 2009. The car featured a 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine with 305 HP, delivering brutal performance. However, it was an old-fashioned hot hatch because of all that power going to the front axle.

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And although it had a trick front suspension to keep the front end in check, it still had a torque steer effect. Ford was getting ready to turn to all-wheel drive for the Focus RS MK3, but they wanted to say goodbye to the front-wheel-drive model with a bang. That bang was the Focus RS500, a limited production model with 350 HP. The Focus RS500 came with matte black paint and a plaque with the serial number on the dash. Also, the RS500 sold out in just a few days, earning its place as the most powerful factory front-wheel-drive hot hatch ever.

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15. Renault Megane R26.R

While Ford and other companies were competing in the horsepower wars, Renault, the hot hatch authority, went the other way. In fact, they constructed light, nimble, and extremely capable cars that were almost track-ready. They introduced the sublime R26.R in 2009. The Megane R26.R had the same 2.0-liter turbo engine with 230 HP as the regular Megane RS.

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But it was much lighter with a revised suspension, steering, and brakes. Also, the Megane didn’t have rear seats and they replaced the window glass with Plexiglas. The Megane R26.R was almost a racing car, as it handled sublimely and posted unbelievable track times. It held a record for front-wheel-drive cars on Nurburgring and beat the Porsche Boxster. And the Megane was faster than the BMW M3 CSL. Despite its limited production, this Megane earned a place on this list as one of the best driver’s cars in the hot hatch class. This car proves that record-breaking performance doesn’t always require high horsepower ratings.

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14. Fiat 500 Abarth

Even though the 500 Abarth has only 160 HP coming from its tiny turbocharged 1.4-liter engine, it is a seriously fast and fun little car. That is due to its small weight and compact dimensions. Also, it’s extremely practical in everyday driving and easy to park as well.

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Also, they completed the package with a small price and running costs. For drivers on a budget with an irresistible need for speed, this small but wicked car may be your answer.

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13. Renault Clio Williams

France always produced great hot hatch models, so in the early `90s, one of the most respected was the Renault Clio Williams. This car was a step up from the legendary Peugeot 205 GTI. Plus, it was a more modern, powerful, and faster vehicle.

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Under the hood was a high revving 2.0-liter engine with 145 HP, which was a high figure for the day. But, Renault added a stiffer suspension, bigger brakes, and several noticeable bodywork modifications on the car. They made it a true street fighter and a great basis for a successful rally car. Over the few years of production, Renault made around 12,000 of them.

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12. Mazdaspeed 3

The perfect example of an overpowered, brutal front-wheel hot hatch is the legendary Mazdaspeed 3. They introduced it in 2007, and it was powered by a 2.3-liter four-cylinder delivering 263 HP. And that was considered a crazy number of horsepower to send to the front wheels.

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However, despite severe torque steer, the Mazdaspeed 3 was a capable and rapid car. It even brought many customers back to the dealerships. Also, it reintroduced Mazda as one of the prime affordable performance brands on the U.S. market at that time.

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11. Subaru Impreza Sti

Subaru Impreza made its name in the 1990s with the highly capable combo of a boxer turbo engine, all-wheel drive, and loads of power and torque. However, no one considered the Impreza a hot hatch since they were all sedans or wagons. But in 2008, they introduced the Impreza as a five-door hatchback. It immediately set the hot hatch world on fire.

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Invading the hot hatch class was a smart move from Subaru. It brought a larger audience to the Impreza while keeping the performance and mechanical layout intact. With 305 HP and intelligent AWD traction, the Impreza was one of the best and fastest hot hatches money could buy in 2008.

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10. Renault 5 Alpine

After the introduction of the Renault 5 in late 1971, Alpine, the semi-independent racing department of Renault, started thinking of a new, hot version of the popular R5. They announced the car in late 1975 and introduced it in 1976 as the Renault 5 Alpine. It was a cool-looking mini with a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine producing 95 HP.

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It weighed just under 2,000 pounds, so the performance was good by the standards of the day. This was the first in a long line of performance Renaults they intended for the average buyer and the best was yet to come. In those days, Renault sold cars in the USA. They sold the R5 as the Le Car but didn’t offer the Alpine.

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9. Sunbeam Lotus

Introduced in 1977, the Sunbeam was a compact, modern-looking hatchback to compete with the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Escort. It had rear-wheel drive and low weight, which made it perfect for modification. So in 1979, Sunbeam approached the famed sports and racing car manufacturer Lotus to build a hot hatch that could go racing.

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Soon, they presented the Sunbeam Lotus, and it was a fast car for the day. It had a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine delivering 152 HP, a specially tuned suspension, and ZF close-ratio manual gearbox. With rear-wheel drive and Lotus-tuned driving dynamics, this car was a capable driving machine. In fact, it even won the World Rally Championship in 1981.

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8. Dodge Omni GLH

While Europe was embracing the hot hatch class and developing it further in the mid-1980s, America seemed uninterested. The Golf GTI sold well in the states but domestic manufacturers didn’t produce any models that were hot hatches. But the legendary Carroll Shelby teamed up with Dodge to introduce his version of a compact Omni model. They named it the Omni GLH, and it was a proper hot hatch. Better yet, it was one of the best affordable performance models money could buy in those days.

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Shelby took a 2.2-liter four-cylinder motor and added a turbocharger to create a total output of 175 HP. The 0 to 60 mph acceleration time was fewer than seven seconds, which was impressive and highly competitive for the times. Of course, the Omni GLH had suspension modifications and other improvements so it could handle all that power.

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7. Ford Escort RS Cosworth

The Ford Escort was always an active model when it comes to affordable performance. From the legendary RS 1600 Mk1 to the Escort RS Turbo of the mid-80s, this was always a competitive yet obtainable choice. However, the best Escort RS was the 1992 to 1996 RS Cosworth model. They built it using Sierra RS Cosworth parts. So although the Escort was smaller, it featured the improved 2.0-liter turbocharged engine pumping out 227 HP.

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The exterior meant business with flared wheel arches and hood cooling vents. Also, it had a massive rear wing that was adjustable. But one of the main features was the rally-proven all-wheel-drive system. In fact, it proved necessary since the car developed over 230 lb-ft of torque. The Escort RS Cosworth was fast for its day. With a 5.8 second 0 to 60 mph time, it could beat most sports cars of that time period.

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6. Hyundai Veloster N

The regular Veloster is an odd-looking hatchback with an unusual three-door layout. It includes two doors on the right side and one on the left. Apart from this quirky feature, the Veloster in its standard guise is a somewhat boring car without any real significance for car fans. However, the N version is a whole different story.

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The Veloster N provides 250 to 275 HP with its turbocharged engine. Also, it has a trick front differential, different suspension, and an exterior design package. With all of this, the car went from a boring economy hatchback to one of the best hot hatches on the market. Unfortunately, some car enthusiasts are somewhat suspicious, so Hyundai needs to invest more in marketing.

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5. Mazda Familia GTR

The early ’90s were the perfect time for the introduction of those rally homologation specials. In fact, many European and Japanese companies did just that. They called it the Mazda Familia GTR for the Asian market and 323 GTR for the European market. It was a competent and fast version of the popular Mazda compact car. But the GTR meant more than just a cool nameplate.

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The Familia GTR was a highly tuned version of a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with special all-wheel drive. The power output was high at 205 HP, and the AWD system helped this little compact handle like a dream. Today they are rare, so hurry up and snap up this obscure piece of rally history.

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4. Volkswagen Scirocco R

In 2008, VW revived the Scirocco nameplate, introducing a fresh new model for the twenty-first century. And again, they built it on a Golf platform with a wide arrange of engines. They included a turbocharged four-cylinder from the Golf GT and the mighty 300 HP unit from the Golf R. However, in Europe, you could get a Sirocco R with all-wheel drive and a performance-tuned suspension.

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The VW Golf is one of the world’s best-selling compacts. Also, the GTI and R versions are highly regarded as one of the best hot hatches. So, it is safe to say the Sirocco is even better since it features a more aggressive and beautiful design. Although it would have a large audience on the American market, Volkswagen thought the Sirocco would cannibalize their Golf sales. Sadly, they decided to leave it in Europe.

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3. Ford Focus SVT

Popular in the early 2000s, the Focus SVT was one of the best affordable hot hatches you could buy in America. Today, most people have forgotten about it, but the SVT offers plenty of excitement for a few bucks.

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Best of all, you can tune the 2.0-liter, 170 HP straight-four engine to produce more than 200 HP. But the suspension and brakes need a little work to handle all that power. And if you can lose some of the weight, you will get the perfect autocross car for weekends. So, if you are looking for an affordable hot hatch with great potential, the Focus SVT is it.

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2. Volkswagen Corrado VR6

Today, the Volkswagen Corrado is a forgotten model. However, in the early ’90s, this was the fastest Volkswagen you could buy. VW envisioned the Corrado as a replacement for the popular Sirocco coupe, but they designed it to be much more. Volkswagen wanted something closer to the Porsche 944 in terms of styling and performance than another sporty looking Golf derivate. So, the Corrado had a revised front-wheel-drive platform, special suspension, and brakes.

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Also, they gave it a new, aggressive-looking exterior design and an interesting and powerful VR6 engine option. The VR6 was a high-revving 2.9-liter V6 engine they mounted to a close-ratio five-speed manual that delivered 190 HP. That was a high number for the early ’90s when the Corrado was for sale in the USA. The VR6 could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, which made this little coupe one of the best driving cars of the period.

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1. Fiat Ritmo Abarth

The original Italian hot hatch was arguably the Fiat Ritmo Abarth 130. It was the ultimate version of the standard Ritmo compact model. But when they presented it in 1983, the Ritmo Abarth 130 was one of the fastest, most powerful cars in its class on the European market.

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Better yet, under the hood was a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with two carburetors and eight valves. It delivered 130 HP, which was more than enough for its 2,000-pound curb weight. Also, the power went to the front wheels over a five-speed manual transmission. To top it off, the Abarth racing department set the suspension for aggressive driving.

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