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Β£10k hot hatches | Six of the Best

Last week it was sports cars, this week we argue about hot hatches - not all of them French, either...

By PH Staff / Saturday, May 23, 2020

So, we all had fun last week. Finding a rear-drive sports car for less than £30k is hardly work, after all. We even enjoyed being deservedly roasted for the failure to select a TVR - which is a fairly significant oversight when you consider (as some of you pointed out) that Matt Bird hadn't actually gone to the trouble of picking a sports car in the first place.

Still, onward and upward, and this week we've done two things differently. For one thing, we've gone for £10k hot hatches as the search criteria, which is obviously a perennial point of discussion on PH. Secondly, we've brought Racing Pete into the fold, and instructed him not to let us do anything stupid again (like completely ignoring famous British manufacturers).

Of course, there aren't a whole host of flag-waving opportunities here - the segment mostly dominated by French and German efforts. Moreover, we've deliberately kept it front drive to a) promote simplicity and b) prevent Sam Liggett from choosing a BMW. That still leaves plenty of space for something special to turn up, given the hot hatch concept now extends back nearly fifty years. And, if nothing else, it's a thinker for another long weekend in semi-lockdown...

For PH-minded folk, Renault Sport has made the best hot hatches for the past 20 years. Alright, nearly the past 20 years - we'll leave out the past few. Point being that if you wanted it fast, front-wheel drive, civil enough for everyday and wild enough for the track, you bought a Renault. There was no other option.

So that's what exactly I've done. This amount of money throws up all sorts of options, spanning three generations of Clio in fact, but my heart was on a Megane from the off. In the real world it is, too, for its unbeatable blend of stonking performance, dynamic panache and alluring value for money - so many racy Megane projects exist for very good reason.

This one is so perfect I'm inclined not to let the others even choose. This 250 Cup was bought as the basis for a track car (told you) that's never actually seen a pitlane; therefore it's mechanically tip top, with a fresh cambelt and dephaser pulley, new dampers, discs and pads, four barely used PS4 Michelins and a service, but it's cosmetically imperfect. So one or two more scuffs ain't gonna hurt. With a pair of Recaros up front it'd be good to go - handily, there's still £1,250 left over.

Obviously Matt Bird wins no originality points at all for picking the ugly generation Megane - although sadly nor do I: choosing the Ford Fiesta ST is like selecting Switzerland for your Nazi gold stash. The car is not without its faults, it's true - I still can't get totally comfy on Ford's unyielding seats, and even if I could I'd still be sitting too high - but all concerns are quashed under the weight of its exceptionalism. It just drives tremendously well. Which is to say like a well-sorted hooligan. As all front-drive hot hatches should.

When it was new, I remember it being very nearly as much fun as it's possible to have on MIRA's water-logged low-grip circuit, certainly without power going to ground behind you. The lift-off oversteer potential of most hot hatches is hilariously oversold, even in the wet, but the Fiesta pivots like a shopping trolley - all benign and easily catchable. There are obviously multiple generations of Clio which are more capably damped and better suited to life on track - yet as a compromise between comfort, usability, thrash-ability and relative value, the seventh generation Fiesta is tough to beat.

Consequently, it sold by the bucketload. In 2020 for £10k, you have your pick of several - and that's if you disregard all the lower tier 1.0-litre Ecoboost stuff (which you shouldn't out of hand, because the 140hp Red/Black Edition was very decent, too). For £9,740, you get a 2015 ST2 with all the kit and only 32k on the clock. Granted, you won't standout much. But you won't care either.

The Japanese and Americans have a habit of keeping the best things for themselves. We're often teased with all new models and special editions from around the globe, only to discover they won't be going any further than their domestic market. Come on, America - haven't we already proven the popularity of RHD muscle cars with the Mustang?

Quite rightly, individuals and businesses alike make a point of importing the best models that aren't made available in the UK. Case in point, my selection for this week, a Japanese Domestic Market import of an EP3 Honda Civic Type R. Differences were myriad, but the most significant were a power hike to 220hp with uprated engine internals and new manifolds, a factory limited-slip differential, revised gear ratios and a red Recaro interior. To make the situation more galling for UK fans, JDM EP3s were made here in Swindon and then shipped out to Japan.

This fine-looking example has found its way back to Blighty and looks cooler than the underside of your pillow. At £8,250, I have enough left over for some overnight parts from Japan and a handful of track days to make the most of that 8,500rpm redline.

Back in the early 2000s, I was joined as a teammate by the son of John 'smoky' Rhodes. John was a one-race F1 driver and pushing on a bit in the 2000s, but was more famed for his driving ability in a works Mini Cooper S in the 60s. Smokey got his name from his unique driving style, spinning up the unloaded wheel through corners and heading down the straights in tyre smoke.

In tribute to Rhodes I have gone for this sweet little R53 Mini Cooper S, fitted with one of the first John Cooper Works kits - number 14, no less. In fact, there are two in the classifieds, but going for the Minilite-style wheels and white roof is the more traditional option. The JCW upgrade brought an extra 40hp and could hit 60mph nearly a second quicker than the standard 'S'. Throw in a limited-slip diff, improved stopping power and a JCW emblem, and this is definitely the racing choice as well as an obvious nod to the UK's racing past. It's also far more British than most of the other choices here. (Knew it was worth bringing Pete in - MB.)

As you will no doubt want to recreate the '60s like me, I've left you with a good chunk of the £10k left to stock up on tyres and smoke your way round track days (well, as much as a modern limited-slip diff will allow, that is). Find a Mustang, get a mate to film in black and white, and you could be back at Crystal Palace!

If Nic's Fiesta ST is the obvious choice, then where does that leave the VW Golf GTI? Whether you think the Golf kicked off the whole genre or not, it's been around since the mid-seventies and only mildly let us down halfway through its non-stop run. It's directly after that fall from grace that my pick, the Mk5 GTI, was born, returning the Golf to the forefront of hot hatchery.

Let's start with its engine, a turbocharged 2.0-litre which cracked 200hp, and still seems refined and frugal by modern standards. The car's ride is good as well, the steering direct and the cabin notoriously smart. Moreover, this is the Mk5, which means genuine chassis prowess, with confident damping alongside modest adjustability - features inherited by every Golf GTI since.

I'll confess to being unexcited about the Mk5 before I drove one. Ten minutes later, that all changed - but the real reason I'd consider one is that I hadn't stopped enjoying it 200 miles later. It's just so perfectly rounded, which is exactly what family-sized hot hatches should really be all about. That this particular car adds to that special edition rarity and a power enhancing remap is an added bonus. But not an essential one.

So being last to the party is a big disadvantage in this game as my first two choices were taken by the others (a lesson learned; must open Nic Cackett's emails quicker). Initially I was tempted to go for a leggy Mk6 Golf R until I realised the criteria insisted on front-drive only (second note to self: read Nic Cackett's emails properly).

I have to confess I haven't driven a Mazda 3 MPS, but I can console myself with the knowledge that not many other people have either (it's safe to say the car was not a roaring success). But on the basis that these lists should be about what we want to try and not just about what we've already been in, I reckon there's plenty to shout about - not least the fact that the MPS can go toe-to-toe with any other contender here on the power front.

Moreover, I gather it can be safely upped to 300 with a light remap so that could be interesting. At the very least it would help the type shop at the end of my road return to rude health post lockdown. It has notably few miles on it too, and is said to be in immaculate condition. So perhaps the salient lesson here is to not open Nic Cackett's emails at all.


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