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Power To The People: Part 2

As I said in Part 1, for the vast majoirity of us, the dream of owning a Supercar is out of reach.  We can’t afford one.  Even if we could, the reality of owning one is quite different than the dreams we all had.  That said, I would still leap at the chance to buy one given the means; that has about the same chance of happening as Justin Bieber winning the UFC Heavyweight title though. This brings me to the Hot Hatchbacks.

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I love a Hot Hatch.  They embody everything I love about cars.  They are living proof (well, proof at least) that more horsepower makes everything better.  The concept of a Hot Hatch is simple.  Take a very sensible, economical and practical hatchback and throw as many “go fast” parts at it as you can get your hands on.  No turbo too big, no suspension too low, no brakes too massive.  They take the idea of fun performance and run wild with it.  And, since they’re based on an everyday hatchback, you can enjoy that fun without ending up on fire.  Better still, all this phenomenalness (Editor’s Note: not a word) costs about 1/10 the price of a Supercar.   In the end, you get a car that is more than capable of indulging you when you want to go for a blast on your favorite road, combined with good fuel efficiency and plenty of cargo space.  It really is drawback free motoring.

At this moment, I’d like to take a minute to provide a quick history lesson.  In the mid/late 70’s, Volkswagen had the bright idea to make a faster, sportier version of its Golf hatchback..  It was lighter, more powerful and handled better.  All wrapped up in a package of a practical hatchback. It only had about 105 hp, but thanks to weighing just 1700 pounds, it still got to 60 mph in just under 9 seconds.  When you consider that a Camaro of the era, sporting a 350 under the hood, took 10 seconds, that made the little GTI pretty damn quick.  It showed the world that you could still have fun in an everyday car despite what insurance companies, eco whackjobs and oil shortages attempted to prove otherwise.  Yes, the Mini Cooper had been around for years, but it couldn’t come close to matching the GTI’s performance.  What Volkswagen had inadvertently invented, was the Hot Hatch.

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The GTI was such a commercial success that other manufactures raced to make hot versions of their existing hatchbacks.  Flash forward to today.  Almost every auto maker that makes a hatchback has some sort of hot variant of it.  Below is a list of what I think are the top 5 on sale today.  Now, there’s a decent chance that some of you will not agree with me.  In fact, I know at least 2 of my colleagues will vehemently disagree with this list. I mean, they’re wrong, but one of the goals of ShiftingLanes.com is to promote automotive discussion.  So agree or disagree, we welcome your thoughts.  Now on to the list.

#5  Mazda Speed 3.

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As far as performance goes, the Speed 3 is difficult to beat.  263 hp and 280 foot pounds of torque allows for seriously quick acceleration. 6.3 seconds to be precise,  Like many of the cars on this list, all of that power goes directly to the front wheels.  A byproduct of that is torque steer.  There is no getting around it. Put your foot down and the car wants to turn itself all on its own.  All the front wheel drive cars on this list suffer from it.  It is unavoidable.  Sounds like these things won’t handle properly?  Truth be told, this is an area where the Speed3 excels. Thanks to sports suspension and a cleverly designed front differential, you can still carve up the corners.  The Speed 3 is one of the best handling Hot Hatches on sale today.  As a driver’s car and for the price, it is difficult to top.

Sadly, it drops the ball short of being the total package. Granted, the interior has an upgraded gauge pack from the base 3.  The sports seats are leather trimmed with cloth inserts. And you can even get a decent navigation unit.  It’s a good start, but compared to some of the other cars on this list, it just feels a bit unpolished.  As a result, it doesn’t feel as nice a place to be in as the others.  Which brings me to its biggest flaw:  I can live with a slightly cheap looking interior if a car performs like this one does, but what I can’t live with is how this thing looks.  Honestly, one of the best features of driving this car is that when you sit in it you cant see it.  Its the automotive equivalent of a “butter face.”  Great to drive, but you don’t want to wake up in the morning and look at this lump of hideousness.  The face of this car looks terrible.  It looks like a fish, not a shark or anything like that, like a flounder, a bottom feeder.  I’m sorry; it may be a great car underneath the skin, but for my money, there are better options out there.

#4 Subaru WRX STI

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 NOTE**  Greg will be bringing you a full review on the STI’s little brother the WRX,  so I will do my best not to steal too much of his thunder here.

Let’s get something straight from the start, the STI is the best pure performance car of the group.  It has the most hp and torque, routed through all 4 wheels.  Limited slip diffs at the front and back allow for near perfect power delivery at all times.  None of that torque steer nonsense here.  0-60 in 4.5 seconds.  That is Porsche Carrera territory.  Add in a brilliant sports tuned suspension and this thing really carves up the corners.  Ok, so it understeers a little at the limit.  That’s ok, cause a little lift off the throttle will help bring the back end around.   The pedals are perfectly placed and the transmission ratios are pretty much spot on.  As a pure driving machine, for real driving enthusiasts, it’s at the top of the charts.

Unfortunately, there are 1 or 2 issues with it that keeps it from being at the top of this list.  Like the Speed3 this has a less than spectacular interior.  Way behind the likes of Ford, Mini and VW.  Again, if that was its only issue, I’d be ok with trading some interior imperfections for these levels of performance.  Like the Speed3, there are more things wrong. If the Speed3 has an ugly face, the WRX STI has a fat, unattractive rear end.  It doesn’t look proportioned correctly.  It really lets the whole car down.  Don’t take my word for it, let’s see what Jeremy Clarkson thinks…

It’s not as bad as the Mazda, and might be something I could live with if required.  However, at the price this car costs, I can’t.  It is too expensive to have such an underwhelming interior, and to have those looks.  If I’m going to be dropping nearly $40k on a car,  I want it to be the total package.  Not just performance, it has to be good looking.  Here’s where buying a Certified Pre Owned model might seems to make sense. By reducing cost, it begins to look like a good idea.  But, if you are planning on going that route, a quick word of caution. Subarus tend to be driven quite hard, especially the WRX STI.  That brilliant awd system is absolute murder on clutches when driven hard by the average driver.  Trust me, this is not a cheap or easy fix.  (Want to see what replacing the clutch on a Subaru entails, click here)  If you accelerate hard, eventually you are going to have to brake just as hard.  Even with the excellent brakes on the STI, punish them enough and they will wear out quite quickly.  So, the money you save going preowned will more than likely be thrown back into maintenance and repairs .  Sadly, when all things considered, at that price with that ass, I can’t rate it higher than 4th.

# 3 JCW Mini Cooper S

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Sure, its smallest, least practical car on the list… and it is a bit pricey.  If you were to go on a golf vacation, for example, you’d only be able to take one of your friends along for the ride.  But, do you want 3 middle aged guys in the car with you?  Really?  It’s not as quick as the Subaru, but then again, nothing on this list is.  All you need to do to understand why this car is so good, is to drive one.  Seriously, go out and drive one, and it will all become clear.  The phrase “Go Cart Handling” comes to mind (so much so that they use it in their advertising). The JCW Mini Cooper handles exactly how a Hot Hatch should.  The Mini grips and grips and grips, and just when you think it can’t grip any longer, it grips some more.  It has predictable easy to manage lift off oversteer.  The Mini, to my mind is easily the most fun to drive.

Sure at this point you’re thinking $45k for a top of the range model is ludicrously expensive; and you’d be correct.  But, that top range model is the Mini GP.  Which is basically code for, “Give us $6,000 more of your money and we will give you a small car capable of breaking your spine into many many parts.”  It is simply not worth it.  A nicely appointed version with all the stuff you would actually want will cost about $35k.  Not cheap, but when you consider how this thing drives, worth it.

#2 Volkswagen Golf R

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A VW had to be high on the list.  Unfortunately, the normal GTI, while a great car, doesn’t quite have the firepower to make this list.  Worry not, because the Germans sent in their re-enforcements in the form of the Golf R.  Like the WRX STI, it is AWD, so no need to worry about the ever present torque steer problem.  While down on power to its Japanese rival, it more than makes up for it in styling both inside and out..

Naturally, it is the most understated looking car in the group, but it works. The smooth lines, subtle mounds, and aggressive tweaks set it apart from GTI, all while make the R look fantastic; more grown up too.  It’s the Hot Hatch for the adult in us.  The interior is truly a nice place to be.  It’s contemporary without being flashy.  The seats support you, but don’t attack you with scissors like the STI.  It is the nicest interior of the group.

Don’t think because the interior is so luxurious that it is some soft, boring, sorry excuse for a Hot Hatch. Remember that VW invented the Hot Hatch, and if anyone gets the core values of Hot Hatchery, it’s them.  It’s comfortable for long road trips and commutes, it’s easy to drive, and the awd system is fantastic when the weather (or you) isn’t.  While not a track day weapon like the STI, it is still more than capable of being fun when you feel like it.  The only down side to this car is its expense.  It is the most expensive of the group.  Getting even costlier if you’re a complete idiot and opt for the DPG transmission.  Really VW, a Paddle Shift transmission on a Hot Hatch?  Ed Lover would like a moment of your time…

All joking aside the Golf R defines all around-er.  It does everything at an, unsurprisingly German, high level.  If it wasn’t for the cost, it would be taking its rightful place at the top of the list.  Which brings me to this.
#1 Ford Focus ST

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Admittedly I am a Ford Focus Fan.  As I previously stated, I have owned 2 of them.  The latter one I even transformed into a rudimentary Hot Hatch.  For years I have been wishing, hoping, praying they would bring the hot Focus’ over from Europe.  Being a huge Top Gear Fan too, I was constantly reminded of how the Britts got a car from an American car maker and us Americans did not.  They were everything I envisioned my Focus could be.  Finally coming to their senses, Ford has brought the ST over to the states.

It does all the other sort of stuff as the others and is anywhere from 5-10 grand cheaper.  Ok, so it’s about the same price as the Speed3, but in every single possible way it’s better than the Mazda. Unlike its chief Japanese rivals, I think it looks fantastic, both inside and out.  The engine makes a wonderful throaty sound,  and it handles like a dream. Sure it torque steers, and the electronic limited slip diff takes some getting used to.  Though, anytime you put 200+ horsepower through the front wheels only it is going to take time to come to grips with it.

The Focus ST provides just enough interior comfort and style without breaking the bank like the VW, and the interior space and overall practicality is better than the Mini. Plus, its a whole lot cheaper than both.  It embodies everything a Hot Hatch should be:  It’s fast and fun to drive, its practical, it’s cool, and it is inexpensive. It best represents what the original GTI was back in the day: a practical powerhouse that us average joes can enjoy.

So there it is.  5 Great Hot Hatches.  Even though each has its little issues, you can’t go wrong with any of them.  Any of them will provide you with years of great driving experiences.  Unlike their Supercar cousins, each one of these cars is within reach.  That, at the end of the day is what makes these cars truly great.  All the fun we envisioned a car could be, but at a price we can actually afford.  

Thanks for reading.

Agree?  Disagree?  Let your voice be heard.  Love it or hate it, I want to hear it!

Written by Chad Kennedy

Chad burst from the womb wearing a racing suit and a helmet. Chad's passion for cars is in his very DNA. His father was a gear head and passed on the tradition through owning such classics as a '66 Mustang and a '59 Corvette all while taking him to various race tracks in the area. Chad likes to wrench on his rides whenever possible, forgoing the stealership. Chad is an avid motorsports fan with particular interest in endurance/sports car racing. When not online writing for Shifting Lanes, you can find him working at the local golf course teaching people how to swing or hooning a golf cart at impossible speeds.

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  1. I’m gonna make this fast or I’ll be late for work… But you are wrong. VW didn’t have the first hot hatch that set the world on fire. Saab did. The Saab 99’s started in the 60s. They were fast, turboed hatched. Then they had the 900. They rallied them and they were the starters.

    Thanks for making my car number 3. If you drove the new model that I have you would see it would at least be your second choice. Does all of the R series over heat? Everyone I have known with one sells it because it is not practical and has a list of issues. My car is perfect except for two stupid things. Wiper speed and that it locks itself randomly.

    Now, I have to go to work or I won’t be able to pay for my hot hatch. 🙂

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