Two-seater coupes are great fun and all, but when it comes to offering reasonable amounts of practicality — enough to make them useful as daily drivers — they tend to fall a bit short. Enter the hot hatch, a breed of car that offers a balance of a small footprint, a degree of practicality, huge driving fun, and a relatively low price tag.
While hot hatches have been around for decades, it has largely found a more enthusiastic welcome outside of the U.S. That’s starting to change, as American buyers are warming up to the little cars, which can add some spice to an otherwise dull daily commute.
Since we here at Wall St. Cheat Sheet haven’t driven the vehicles in question ourselves, we turned to the automotive expertise of Edmunds.com, Autoblog, and others for some insight as to the pros and cons of each vehicle. Here are eight excellent hot hatch options for 2014, the following are ranked alphabetically.
1. Fiat 500 Abarth
Base price: $22,095
Fuel economy: 28 miles per gallon city, 34 miles per gallon highway
Pros and cons: The Fiat (FIATY.PK) 500 Abarth offers the cuteness and adorable persona of the standard 500, but with more power, better handling, better brakes, and a more aggressive appearance. It boasts a peppy 160 horsepower inline-four, which produces 170 pound-feet in Sport mode. The cabin offers more space than would be expected, and a slate of exterior modifications — rims, aerodynamic bits — help differentiate the Abarth from its decidedly more feminine base model. However, the Abarth doesn’t offer as much cargo or passenger space as some of its rivals, and suffers from a rather dated 5-speed manual transmission, which Autoblog noted during its review of the 2012 model.
Options worth splurging on: For the avid driving enthusiast, the addition of the sport bucket seats ($1,200) might be a savvy investment; TomTom navigation ($600) might also be worthwhile, while the 17-inch forged rims in Hyper Black ($1,300, pictured) really pull the exterior together.
2. Ford Fiesta ST
Base price: $21,400
Fuel economy: 26 miles per gallon city/35 miles per gallon highway
Pros and cons: Edmunds lauded the Ford Fiesta ST’s “sporty driving dynamics,” and Autoblog’s review dubbed the Fiesta ST as “point-squeeze-go fun that reminds [us] of an era of small, fast, affordable cars [we’d] thought dead.” It has nearly 200 horsepower on tap, thanks to Ford’s 1.6 liter EcoBoost engine; the steering, brakes, and suspension have all been tinkered with to ensure that the Fiesta ST is greatly improved in terms of handling. On the downside, it doesn’t offer as much power as the more potent Focus ST, and also has less cargo and passenger space. If those things are not an issue, though, the Fiesta ST promises to be a great car.
Options worth splurging on: Like the 500, the Fiesta ST offers the more spirited drivers a choice of Recaro-brand sport seats ($1,995), which are heated (the price includes heated mirrors, too). Adding navigation will be another $795, but outside of those, the Fiesta ST comes impressively well equipped.
3. Ford Focus ST
Base price: $23,625
Fuel economy: 23 miles per gallon city, 32 miles per gallon highway
Pros and cons: Edmunds praised the Focus ST’s powerful turbocharged engine (252 horsepower), its “precise” six-speed manual gearbox, the car’s sharp handling and poised ride, and the “stylish interior” with “many high-tech options.” However, the Focus ST lost points for its “finicky” infotainment controls, the lack of an automatic transmission option (though realistically, that wouldn’t be very popular with the ST’s core crowd), and reportedly, the optional Recaro seats can be uncomfortable on long drives.
Options worth splurging on: Provided that you’re not going for long drives, the Recaro seats (about $2,395, as apart of a package) bring the sportiness of the Focus ST inside. Like the Fiesta, navigation will add $795; the Focus ST already comes well equipped with some nice premium features, so not a whole lot is needed on the options front. However, for those with kids, a dual-rear entertainment system runs $729; if only one is needed, it’s $349.
4. Hyundai Veloster Turbo
Base price: $22,300
Fuel economy: 24 miles per gallon city, 33 miles per gallon highway
Pros and cons: The Hyundai Veloster Turbo adds a unique player to the hot hatch market, with its distinct design and peculiar layout — two doors on one side, one on the other. It produces 201 horsepower from a turbocharged in-line four, paired with 195 pound-feet of torque. That’s routed through a six-speed manual, while supporting some decent fuel economy in the process. However, the Veloster is front-wheel drive; Edmunds also pointed out that the Veloster suffers from noticeable road noise and limited rear seat access and headroom.
Options worth splurging on: The Technology package ($2,300) for the Turbo offers quite a bit, at a reasonable cost. It includes a 115-volt outlet, a panoramic sunroof, navigation, and rear parking assistance, among other things.
5. Mazda MazdaSpeed3
Base price: $24,200
Fuel economy: 18 miles per gallon city, 25 miles per gallon highway
Pros and cons: Edmunds complemented the Mazda on its “strong turbocharged performance” (263 horsepower make it one of the most powerful in the hot hatch class), its “precise” handling, the available premium features, the hatchback utility and its overall reasonable price. However, the MazdaSpeed3 lost points for its “pronounced” torque steer, a “tricky manual transmission,” its below average fuel economy, and a cheap-feeling cabin. It also hasn’t caught up to Mazda’s latest generation, so it still looks rather dated.
Options worth splurging on: Few options are offered on the MazdaSpeed3, but the all-weather floor mats ($100) can’t hurt. Included in the price, though, is the MazdaSpeed technology package ($2,485), which adds a whole slate of goodies, from a 5.8-inch touchscreen to a rain-sensing windshield.
6. Mini Cooper John Cooper Works
Base price: $30,100
Fuel economy: 26 miles per gallon city, 35 miles per gallon highway
Pros and cons: Edmunds has not reviewed the 2014 Mini Cooper John Cooper Works; however, the Mini Cooper JCW has been essentially redesigned with driving enthusiasts in mind, with many tweaks made to the engine, the aerodynamic profile, and suspension to turn the sleepy Mini into a track day machine. Power is up to over 208 horses, and the Cooper JCW boasts far more attitude than the base model. However, it’s rather expensive, even before hitting up the gratuitous options menu.
Options worth splurging on: It’s easy to spend well over $40K on the Mini JCW, but the car is already pretty well-equipped. The seats can be heated for $500, or the Cold Weather Package ($750) will add heated mirrors and washer nozzles. The City Pack ($1,250) offers a host of urban-friendly amenities, like rear parking distance control, an auto dimming mirror, and an alarm system.
7. Volkswagen Golf GTI
Base price: $25,095
Fuel economy: 21 miles per gallon city, 31 miles per gallon highway
Pros and cons: Edmunds enjoyed the lively engine (that’s a 200 horsepower 2.0 liter turbo), how the VW (VLKAY.PK) GTI’s DSG transmission “balances performance with convenience,” the hatchback versatility and practicality, its upscale interior, and a “compliant” ride. However, Edmunds noted that the competitors “have better steering feel and sharper handling,” and that the GTI suffers from “limited interior storage space.” Additionally, the two-door GTI has been dropped for 2014, presumably to make room for the hotter Golf R.
Options worth splurging on: Splash guards ($220) will help protect the car’s body paneling from the elements, while the Monster Mat kit ($235) will do the same for the interior. Virtually everything else is included as standard, though you can upgrade to the Driver’s edition GTI ($29,695), which adds touch screen navigation, bi-xenon headlamps, and sport seats with leather seating surfaces.
8. Volkswagen Golf R
Base price: $34,195
Fuel economy: 19 miles per gallon city, 27 miles per gallon highway.
Pros and cons: For the range-topping Golf R, Edmunds enjoyed the “strong turbocharged engine” (256 horsepower in this case), the standard all-wheel drive, the Golf R’s “sharp handling and composed ride,” the choice of two- or four-door configurations, and its interior sophistication. However, the site noted that the Golf R is “considerably more expensive than the GTI” and it lacks decent interior storage space, an automatic transmission option, or power seats.
Options worth splurging on: VW’s options menu was down at the time of writing, though we’d be willing to bet that many options are built in as standard equipment — especially given the Golf R’s lofty base price of over $34,000. Our advice? Wait for the far more potent 2015 model, which promises about 30 more horsepower.