You'll likely recall that Six of the Best has tackled hot hatches previously, with the budget set a wallet-pleasing £10k. Of course that delivered all the usual suspects, and was as accessible as sliced white - as any list of mainstream hatchbacks should be. But in 2020 it hardly tells the segment's whole story. The previous decade tipped its hat to the concept of the hot hatch, and then steamrollered over it with something newer and quicker and vastly more expensive - the artisanal sourdough-grade hatchback.
That doesn't fit into the headline though so we've settled on the slightly tiresome mega prefix. But you know precisely what we mean: the upper tier of hatchback arguably pioneered by six-cylinder VW Golfs and RS-grade Fords, and then unequivocally owned by premium-brand German brands hoping to offer younger buyers a gateway drug into their respective performance divisions. Characteristically, the defining aspect of the new genre is power: in 2002 the Mk1 Focus RS had 212hp; in 2020, the latest Mercedes-AMG A45 S has 421hp.
As a result, there's a low bar to hurdle this week: all contenders must output 300hp, minimum. And they must cost no more than £25,000 - a substantial sum, yes, but only halfway to what the A45 S currently retails for. Needless to say that opens up the floor to plenty of contenders, including some of the UK's most popular performance cars. Happy hunting.
Remember the London motor show of 2008? I do, quite vividly. 17 years old and with hormones raging every which way (rather like a Mk1 Ford Focus RS, in fact, if what they say is true) here was the Mk2 Ford Focus RS. Painted in searing Ultimate Green. It was everything to a young, impressionable car nut at the time. I'd passed my test a month previously, driving Mum's Fiesta every spare hour there was and already learning to love Fords; Autocar had said nice things after my first work experience placement just a fortnight prior, convincing me that maybe this dream job could happen; and here was a 305hp Ford hot hatch for £25k, all pumped up arch attitude and five-cylinder punch. I was obsessed. Imagine having a job, I thought, where it was your responsibility to tell people what a Focus RS is like - that'd be cool...
A few years, one degree, lots of unpaid work and a Domino's stint later, it was my job. And it was brilliant. Then came the chance to drive, not just one, but two RS Focuses, back to back. And the old five-cylinder hero, the object of my affection for so long, the motor show starlet of '08, was... pretty great, actually. Truth told, my mega-hatch preference had evolved by that time to prefer a lightweight loony like a Megane R26.R (also at that London show), but it was hard to argue with the swaggering charisma of the RS. That engine fairly romped the car along the road, and the Revoknuckle front axle really could cope with it, and despite the extra weight, the RS retained the fluidity, engagement and adjustability that has characterised all great fast Focuses. It was a treat.
This one isn't Ultimate Green, sadly, but it is the same Performance Blue of the RS I drove - anything but white would be my preference. 65,000 miles means there's no need to be too precious about actually driving it, the Mongoose exhaust should liven up the surprisingly muted 2.5 and the strong residuals ought to mean that a chunk of the £20k will come back at resale. Lovely job.
Back when the Megane first came out Renault wanted to show us what a step change it was for the hot hatch market. We called Mr Palmer up, hired Bedford Autodrome for an evening, stuck on a BBQ, and got a load of PHers to come down and drive the thing. It didn't disappoint the assembled masses with its ability to put down all 260 horses on the hairpin exit, and I specifically remember how nimble it felt changing direction through the fast chicane on the south circuit. The comments on the 'Best hot hatch of the Century' results earlier this year had many a PHer cry scandal at the Mk3's exclusion; I agree, this is easily one of the best hot hatches I have driven on track.
Now 260hp I hear you say, that isn't the brief - well I have had to bend it a little to get this car in. Inside you'll find the rear seats replaced with a tube of metal, the gearstick swapped out for a quick shift ZPO assembly and a brace of even bucketier seats than normal. Under the bonnet it has a stage 2 hybrid turbo and a raft of upgrades from KTR themselves, giving the car a reported 340hp. And all in the perfect colour for a Renault. A stripped out track beast may not be the ideal fit for a mega-hatch brief, but frankly once you have 300hp+ the only place to enjoy that fully is on circuit - so why not go the whole hog and get something which was already amazing, now fully track dressed.
When the Six of the Best email arrived this week I was the first to seize upon it and shotgun my choice. In my eyes, the FK8 Civic Type R is a work of art in every sense. Granted, the looks are as divisive as the FK2, but I think it's stunning. The way it drives is even better, with its limits well out of the reach of mere mortals like me.
We hacked around Goodwood circuit in one for a day and it didn't even break a sweat. It hit 140mph down the Lavant straight before I had to stand on the brakes into Woodcote, without even a sniff of a shuffle and that was on factory brakes. Its poise and capability on track was astounding, and it's still one of the best manual gearboxes I've ever experienced.
The Megane Trophy-R may have reclaimed the FWD Nurburgring lap record, but the record-setting car was more than double the price of the Civic. At £25K it's certainly not as cheap as some of the other cars listed, but as a used prospect but it's totally worth the extra outlay.
The Golf R has become arguably the defining model of this 'bigger is better' segment - which makes its inclusion here rather predictable. But you'll forgive me for picking the one car with tremendous performance at one end and unrivalled day-to-day usability at the other. Its rivals have had a go at challenging the format; the Golf R is the reason why Renault softened off the Renault and Mercedes introduced the A35. But it remains curiously unique.
And that's from someone who adores the FK8 Civic Type R, a car that's exceptional on the limit and brilliantly comfortable when slackened off to its softest mode. But in design and infotainment and basic functionality Honda's finest still can't match the top tier Golf. Hot hatches are supposed to be easy to live with as well as fast and the R nails the brief ten times over. And don't believe the naysayers; Rs are genuinely fun on the limit, too.
This one stands out in a sea of leasemobiles and looks the part, coming with the all-important DCC (for maximum talent at both ends of the chassis spectrum) and a racy shade of red, to contrast those optional 10-spoke 19s. It's the mega-hatch in its smartest, most compelling form. Nom Nom.
It says much about the A45 that we don't really ponder its existence much anymore. But back in 2013 when it launched, the car was one-big-shaky-step-from-the-Apollo-Lunar-Module type move for AMG. Mercedes' famed performance division had never done a hatchback before. It had never stooped to building a four-cylinder engine before either. And the W176 generation of A-Class was mediocre at best. The A45 might conceivably have been a disaster.
It wasn't. Affalterbach stepped up the plate in characteristically bullish form. Plainly it had spent much time benchmarking the Audi RS3, equipping its own hatchback with a similarly tenacious level of grip courtesy of a 4Matic all-wheel-drive system. But it hadn't fallen into quite the same unrelenting trap as its rival - the first generation A45 was impressively well rounded and deftly drivable. It was also savagely fast.
The 2.0-litre motor might not have produced the giant sonic riffs that Ingolstadt's inline five conjured from all engine speeds, but it summoned speed with even greater vigour. The A45 wasn't the best hot hatch ever made - as some thought it should be, given the price Mercedes were charging - yet it was easily among the quickest. Both its price and its power have increased in the intervening years, but the original retains much of the same charm - and for much less money. For less than £25k you get one in good condition with below average miles. In many ways it remains the definitive mega-hatch.
Being an ex-M135i owner, answering this week's brief was quite straightforward. I really do miss my car and massively regret selling it - so were £25k thrust at me with the caveat that I HAD to buy a hot hatch, my money would only be going one way.
This one ticks a lot of the boxes: Estoril Blue, Harmon Kardon, five-door, all the things I wanted before but didn't have. I'm definitely sticking with the automatic transmission, though. That might be controversial to some, but I would heartily recommend that anyone tempted to buy an M140i try out both gearboxes before signing on the dotted line.
At only 15,000 miles and little more than a year old, with one previous owner and a couple years of manufacturer warranty left, it seems like great value. I haven't driven the new four-pot version; the closest I've got to that is the Mini JCW 306hp, but that set up left me a little cold. So as one last hurrah for the 340hp straight-six, wedged into a hatchback and driving the rear wheels - you won't find better.
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