This spring has been a renaissance for hot hatch testing here at Car-Revs-Daily. We’ve had the great pleasure of flogging the two reigning champs: the Focus RS and Golf R — and realized these pocket rockets are a speedfreak’s dream come true. So tight and nimble. So ferocious on throttle. And so affordable versus a big V8 in Camaro or Mustang! Affordable to buy and also to insure and own.
They make spouses less furious than an impractical two-seat coupe. And they are actually useful at transporting big things via their fold-down back seats.
The market for hot hatchbacks has never been more full in the USA. While we lack the Seat Leon Cupra and Megane RS, we finally have the two hottest Ford Focuses and the GTI-killer of a Golf R. And soon, the US market will gain a mean set of triplets from Honda. The Civic Si Coupe, Civic Si Sedan and TYPE R hatchback will all be in Honda showrooms by summertime.
This means it is high time to start making some real decisions. Which is best?
Here we have a ranker of the top 11 hot hatches in the US market for 2017. Each is linked to an in-depth review of that car. Links filled with 60 more photos of each and usually a few floored drive videos too.
All of these machines, from first to last ranked, will be a hoot to drive. A hoot of a commute and a fast companion around all on-ramps. And before you get salty on the details of being a hot hatch, keep in mind that we lump sedans like WRX STi and Lancer Evo into this grouping — trunks and all.
Finally, we have all these beauties listed on one page. None of that “arrow for next” nonsense here.
Ford Focus RS
Where to start with the Focus RS? How about its king-making 350HP and 350 pound-feet of torque. Its sprint pace to 60-mph in the mid 4-second range. And its drift-mode to lverage the ultra-intense RWD torque vectoring. This AWD system is so incredibly advanced that Ford even adopted it for its (perhaps) best-ever machine: the $75k new Lincoln Continental.
No Lincoln will be as sharp as Focus RS around corners. The Focus RS’s AWD system from a small supplier in Germany is instantly a class-best for how rear-drive it can make this car feel — on command with the tap of a drive mode. Normal, Sport, Track and Drift provide radically different moods on the road. From ultra-sharp racecar that needs no brakes before corners to a suitably smooth cruiser on the highway — as soon as you put the adjustable shocks back in Comfort mode, that is!
Focus RS stickers from about $36k to around $40k with the RS2 option package and its power seats and luxury goodies.
2. Volkswagen Golf R
The Golf R punches so far above its $36k pricing that it will instantly become a favorite for any driver. It also out-punches the 292HP peak power its EA888 turbo four delivers. On paper.
In the real world, this Golf R feels like a king on full throttle. It burbles and shoots itself to the horizon with zero turbo lag and zero fucks given. Just pure and fast at all times — with in-gear pace and boost like the best in the world.
Where Golf R is slightly less inspiring is its 10/10ths handling feel. Yes, the AWD system means it does have grip for days and rarely breaks traction even when provoked. This seemed stellar and mirrors the WRX STi for its velcro cornering mood. But Focus RS raises the game pretty dramatically.
A final note for Golf R is that the car feels much more rapid with the DSG automatic transmission option. The standard stick is about a half-second behind the twin-clutch due to the slightly pokey shift linkage delaying your 1-2 and 2-3 gearshifts — while DSG is virtually instant, and thus never loses boost.
3. Subaru WRX STi
We’ve only had a few delicious track laps to sample the latest WRX STi and still love it more than certain family members. Here is a car that takes the larger, more lux cabin of the latest generation and still pairs it to a savage boxer turbo and insanely grippy AWD system. While any AWD Legacy has grip, it does not have the sheer focus and seriousness of STi around corners. Here is a symmetrical awd system only in name. Power is moving constantly fore and aft as well as side to side. Keeping WRX STi on boil is easy and the tactile rewards endless.
4. Honda Civic Type R
The awesomeness of the new Type R cannot be overstated. How lucky are we? Lucky that Honda finally put more than 300HP in a CIvic. Lucky for its limited-slip diff for the charging front axle, and lucky for its imminent arrival to the USA! No longer is Honda pouring their best handling and best-made cars into the loss-making Euro market — and leaving the profit-flowing US market out to dry.
This new Type R is a global assault on the need for AWD. Based on Honda’s record-setting Nurburgring video (worth watching!) there will be no shortage of entertainment from behind the wheel. Getting laptimes as fast as many AWD hatches on track takes man-handling and serious balls.
306HP to the front wheels will be a handful of joy every time you drive this hilarious pocket rocket.
5. Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
Evo still ranks high on this list for its pace and feel in hard driving. There are still a few 2015 Final Edition models in showrooms in 2017 thanks to an extra-large last shipment. The Evo is not returning to the US range in its current, and highly evolved, turbo AWD compact format. The next Evo is widely believed to be a) very delayed until the 2021 model year and b) a part-hybrid. Eek, say the loyalists.
And all the better reason to snap up this puppy before there are none left.
6. Ford Focus ST
The ST ranks high on this list for being fun and attainable. Pricing less than $30k is totally do-able for a car that feels a world above any Corolla, and perhaps even the Toyota 86, for how frisky it is to drive.
Just over 250 ponies scoots the ST to 60-mph in the high five-second range. The exterior of the ST is seriously aggressive – and in the right colors does a great RS impression. It mostly looks far cooler than any standard Focus hatch or fleet Focus sedan on the roads.
Tangerine Scream is the color of this sexy front-wheeler in the photos.
7. VW Golf GTI
We almost left the GTI off this list due to its imminent redesign arriving later this year. But the point of this article is to find fun and affordable wheels. FAST is important too. And for these three metrics, the current GTI might be better than ever. Yes, the next model has slightly tweaked looks and tech inside. But it is still this core powertrain with a very-modest bump in power. So the last few 2017 models in stock over the summertime might let you get all the options like DSG gearbox or the Performance Pack — and still keep pricing under $30k with incentives.
8. Subaru WRX
The WRX is tweaked for 2018 with new tech, wheels and bumpers. Enhancing what is a seriously grown-up package these days. Like if the Evo had, in fact, kept evolving since its 2007-ish refresh. 10 years of cabin roominess, premium feel, road refinement and tech.
The 2018 model’s new touchscreen adds CarPlay and Android Auto to a compelling four-door sedan.
Stick or CVT automatic are offered for the WRX in its pricing from the high 20’s. The stick will nearly match the STi to 60-mph with a big clutch drop – scooting under 5 seconds easily and with a boxer growl.
The CVT is for auto-only folks. It runs a different engine tune that is slower and sounds less like a Subaru. Paddle shift is sharper than any CVT you’ve tried, but still lags notably versus the Golf R’s DSG.
9. MINI Cooper S
The new Mini Cooper S and its hopped-up John Cooper Works trimline are bonkers fun. They are wider, more potent and more BMW-like than ever before. This is a car that will run faster laptimes than most 3 series sedans.
The new Mini Cooper is available in three-door or five-door guises.
Its looks are almost too evolutionary for some tastes, however, on the outside. Inside, upgraded materials and tech have a mod and cool feel. Go easy on the options and upgrades to keep pricing around $40k.
10. Honda Civic Si
How far has Civic come in just two years? Even the 1.5T in the Civic Sport looks the business. Boosts the business. And handles the business.
A ground-up redo of the Civic line brings a racy new Coupe with Si-exclusive rear wing, a five-door hatch (Civic Sport and Type R only) and a fastback sedan available as the Sport or the Si. All sexy, and all affordable.
The Si is the best of the bunch for backing up its giant front intakes with good power. Around 6.2-seconds to 60-mph might make the new Si a hero when it arrives in showrooms in May 2017.
11. Fiat 500 Abarth
No hot hatch list would be complete without the delightful Abarth 500. Cinquecento tuned to the max! This machine is seriously tiny in length. But actually pretty wide and tall, curiously. This layout makes the Abarth 500 a riot on throttle as the body moves wildly in corners. The front end and its sticky diff keep the lead tires in charge. Of everything. The nose bites and can clip apexes with accuracy, and also lets you control the tail. A bit of trailing throttle around corners or when braking is the key to the Abarth’s back end.
One in motion, the Abarth 500 will hang its rump around fast corners even without the handbrake.
Screeching tires will be perfect complements to the Abarth 500’s best-in-class exhaust note. Bella machina.
Tom Burkart is the founder and managing editor of Car-Revs-Daily.com, an innovative and rapidly-expanding automotive news magazine.
He holds a Journalism JBA degree from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Tom currently resides in Charleston, South Carolina with his two amazing dogs, Drake and Tank.
Mr. Burkart is available for all questions and concerns by email Tom(at)car-revs-daily.com.