Up to £2,500...
Whereas some cars on this list represent a formula which has improved with age, it could be said that the very first Mini Cooper S of the 21st century was the very best exponent of the breed. It brought together fizzy supercharged performance, pert good looks, eager handling and delivered just the right amount of cool to 2002. Later Minis were faster and more capable, sure, but when you're talking about being small, light, fast and fun - i.e. being a bonafide Mini - the R53 takes a lot of beating. It's surely still the best looking, too.
Almost 20 years after launch, there are supercharged Minis available for the most modest of budgets. Chances are they won't stay that way as their numbers thin out and the current Mini continues to bloat - and at this money Cooper S you buy won't be perfect - model specific issues include oil leaks, cracked cylinder heads and driveshafts - though they remain tremendous fun. Look after it and you may even enjoy some appreciation.
Up to £5,000...
Another underrated gem, and conspicuously good value as earlier Clios begin to rise in value. Perhaps the best that the Clio ever got; raw and fast and sharp as a tack like earlier Renaultsports, with sufficient usability to make it viable for regular use even now. The 200 righted the wrongs of the 197 with altered gear ratios plus suspension and steering tweaks to really get the best from the chassis. The result was a car that walked every comparison test it entered - even once production has ended - beguiling all who drove it with its poise, balance and famously feisty 2.0-litre engine
While £5k has bought a lesser 197 for a while, it's now becoming realistic 200 money as well. These are cars that were made to be driven hard, and it would be daft to expect less from previous owners, but they're pretty tough as well. Make sure the cambelt changes have been done on schedule as well as regular services, and ask about fuel - Clios perform best on higher octane. Otherwise, time to party like it's 2009; these really are as good as you've heard.
Up to £10,000
The Ford Fiesta ST is not the fastest, the cleverest or the most advanced hot hatch of the past few years. Indeed, with a fairly humdrum 1.6-litre turbo, torsion beam rear axle and six-speed manual, it's a fairly basic recipe. But that, of course, was the joy of the ST; as rivals like Renault Sport sought to complicate the pocket rocket, Ford focused on nailing the basics. And created an icon in the process.
It certainly made us wait. By 2013, hope for it being good were very nearly dashed, and for one reason or another, previous fast Fiestas has never hit the spot. This one did, though - and then some. Dirt cheap, with brawny turbo power, chunky Recaros and the kind of persuasive 'feel the difference' handling that Ford does better than any other. Specifically, that meant the agility of a greyhound and the forgiving, playful edge of your family lab. With really nice examples at £8k, it'd almost be rude note to discover what all the fuss is about.
Up to £15,000...
Not content with having created a supermini legend in the Clio 200, Renault Sport set about doing the same for the C-segment at about the same time. In its original '250' guise, praise for the Megane III R.S. was generous if not effusive; partly dimmed by the proximity of the previous generation R26.R.
But over time the Megane evolved to become the doyen of its class; the hot hatch by which all other were to be judged. By the time the 265 Trophy appeared, it was unmatched: grip, traction and power in abundance (yet also in perfect harmony), with feedback and communication to rival the best sports cars and an ability to dissect a British B-road like little else.
The Megane was never the hot hatch to impress with interior trinkets or launch control, but those who cared about driving needed to look no further. They still don't, really, especially with good cars available, like the Clio, for so relatively little. Again, check they've been properly maintained if used on track (including the cambelt) and be sure to try both chassis options to make sure of your preference.
Up to £25,000...
More so than the Fiesta ST, there was little anticipation when it came to the Mk7 Golf R. The Mk6, the first four-cylinder Golf R, had proved a little lacklustre, arguably being short of the charm that its six-cylinder predecessor conjured up. But the Mk7 remedied the situation.
Its success was not in having one standout talent, like the Megane's relentless driver focus, but scoring very highly across the board. It possessed no glaring weak spot. It was quick, it steered nicely enough, rode very well on adaptive dampers and delivered unimpeachable traction while retaining all of the normal Golf bits that made the Mk7 as good as it was. And being well-built, stylish and easy to use gets you very far in this world. The Golf R required no sacrifice and demanded no compromise, even as it delivered huge pace in all weathers. It was a Golf when you needed, and a cross country missile when you wanted.
With plenty finding homes over half a dozen years, buyers are now spoilt for choice. The 2017 facelift updated the styling and introduced a more modern interior, and is worth seeking out; for this money, an approved used '7.5' Golf R is available, with fewer than 20,000 miles and a manual gearbox if you so wish. It might not be thrill a minute, but there aren't many cars as broadly capable as a Golf R.
Up to £35,000...
Make no mistake: the FK8 is as significant a front-wheel drive achievement as anything built by Renault Sport or VW in recent years. The FK2 was a joyous return for the Civic Type R, but not quite cohesive enough for class honours. Its successor smashed through that glass ceiling, tweaking the formula to implausible effect just a couple of years later.
There really is nothing else like it: one of the best manual gearboxes on sale, traction like you wouldn't believe, in gear performance to make rivals blush and an enormous boot. Granted, the Civic's styling is divisive, but there is no finer purveyor of the idea that you cannot see the outside while driving it. And its ability in the latter regard is without question.
For this money, it's just about possible to get in a brand spanking new, recently revised Civic Type R GT from Honda. And you should seriously consider that because the tweaks are delivered to good effect. However, at around £30,000 or maybe even less, there are a host of approved used cars with minimal mileages recorded. They are among the best value buys anywhere in the current market.
Up to £50,000...
Here's where it starts to get really serious. Having now been around in one form or another since 2011, the RS3 has found a dedicated legion of fans who have fallen for its array of talents. Namely prodigious speed from Audi's glorious five-cylinder, impeccable quality and stupendously surefooted handling.
Even the most ardent RS3 fan, however, would concede that later models have significantly improved upon the original. Engine tweaks have not only liberated more power, they've also reduced weight over the nose, duly improving the balance. The introduction of a saloon model broadened the RS3's appeal, too, delivering super saloon performance in a fairly unassuming four-door Audi.
Still, it's that inline five which earns the car its place on the big money podium. Wrapping it in Audi ambience and neat styling ensures the combination feels worth the outlay, but it's the bass-addled thrum which underwrites the whole experience, delivering a hot hatch like no other. Its reputation and desirability has kept values buoyant, although this budget will access the best of the outgoing car. There will be a new one soon, but expect much the same recipe until Audi is forced to finally retire its 2.5-litre throwback.
Up to £75,000...
The Audi's nemesis, and back stronger than ever in its second generation. Indeed, the latest A45 S has shown all the areas where the next RS3 needs to improve. Because it's proven that small turbo engines can be enormously exciting, that transverse four-wheel drive hatches can be properly fun and that these typically quite stoic five-doors can really cut loose when required. The Audi is going to have to do all that to match the A45 - it really is that good.
The original A45 was enormously fast but dynamically buttoned down; this car is somehow even faster again and way more interesting to drive. The incisiveness and handling resolve certainly remains, only now with proper driver engagement and an impish sense of fun as well. With such a healthy budget, buyers will have the choice of pre-registered new cars with the all options on tap - or even indulge in a tailored order from the manufacturer. At this vaunted level, depreciation certainly becomes a factor, but the A45 is an experience like no other and befits the ground floor of proper AMG ownership.
Up to £100,000...
Spending this much money on a hatch requires some creativity, because even Audi and AMG haven't figured this one out yet. Instead you need to turn to the classic market, where homologated models now command crazy values. In previous years it seemed like the bottom might fall out of Delta Integrale, but no. For the really special cars, more than £75,000 is still being asked.
And if you need the Delta's significance explained, where have you been for the past 30 years? The original hero car of Group A rallying captured hearts and minds on stage and street like nothing else at the time. The culture continued into the nineties and beyond with Imprezas and Evos, but it's likely that those cars wouldn't have existed without the popularity of the WRC - and the desire of carmakers to beat Lancia at its own game. From 1987-1992, a Delta won either the Manufacturers' or Drivers' championship - or both.
With serious homologation long behind us, you'll pay for the privilege of Integrale ownership now. This money buys one of the very last Evo 2s, most likely a Martini special if that's your bag. Though the financial appreciation is surely complete, a good Delta still looks a safe enough bet. And is quite the tick in anyone's car history.
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