Do you remember when the three-door hot hatch was a thing? To some of you, this simple styling attribute made a car more desirable purely as it was less practical.
But in 2019, a three-door hot hatch is a rare thing with only a handful of cars produced in this format. Why is this the case? Simple, good old fashioned bean counting.
As the task of building a special souped-up variant of a five-door hatchback with fewer doors that won’t sell in huge numbers is a costly affair. As for every hot three-door model sold, a carmaker will shift many more garden variety models with five-doors making the lesser doored model a loss leader in the sales stakes. And before you start uttering “it looked much better as a three-door,” you should remember that if every carmaker offered a three-door halo hatchback, the price of entry would be enormous.
As an example, the previous-gen Ford Focus RS was a five-door only model – much to moans of despair from hardcore fans. But if Ford had produced a lesser doored version, the fans would soon be moaning about the £50k price tag.
Here, we comb through this nearly extinct era of hot hatch history with our picks of the greatest three-door hot hatches of the modern era – including some that you can still buy.
Renaultsport Clio 197/200
The second-gen of hot Clio was a cracker of a car to drive superseding the old one in almost every way. More power, a wider track, and burly looking visuals making it stand out from the standard model.
Power came from a free-revving 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engine with a redline of 7,250rpm. This gave it 194bhp going to the front wheels via a slick six-speed gearbox giving it a 0-62mph time of 6.9 seconds.
It also had large Brembo brakes all round in a car that was well known for its deft, and precise handling. A Cup chassis upgrade pack was also available, sitting 7mm lower, and stiffer by 27 and 30 per cent at the front and rear respectively with red brake calipers and grey alloy wheels.
Visually, the Clio 197 got wider looking bodywork to house the wider wheels, with later models getting a longer sixth gear, a slight power bump to 197bhp (200PS), an ECU remap and even a functional rear wing helping to lower its 0-62mph time down to 6.6 seconds.
Ford Fiesta ST
As an example of downsizing done right, the current Ford Fiesta ST is a piece of engineering brilliance with a growling, popping and banging turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine. This gives it 197bhp, which makes its way to the front wheels via a brilliant six-speed manual gearbox, and an optional electric limited slip differential sprinting from 0-62mph in 6.5 seconds onwards to a top speed of 144mph.
The tech innovation continues with the way the ST handles. Thanks to the banana-shaped rear suspension, it is one of the best handling hot hatches ever built. With agile and accurate handling that no longer unsettles it on bad surfaces like the old car.
All of these factors combine to make the ST one of the best driving cars ever to wear a blue oval, in fact, it is one of the very best hot hatches you can buy in 2019.
Ford Focus RS500
The Focus RS500 was a standard RS with a new haircut and a considerable dose of steroids with Ford pushing 345bhp through the front wheels. With an additional 44bhp on tap over standard 0-60mph was done in 5.4 seconds thanks to a front differential keeping the front wheels from scrabbling around under full throttle. All of this thrust came from the turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine, that got a remap and a larger intercooler and all of the exhaust barks and pops you’d ever wish for as standard.
Styling wise, the RS500 sported matte black bodywork, which was actually a wrap over standard black paint. Only 101 were sold in the UK at £7,000 more than the standard 301bhp model, making it ultra-rare.
Being the ultimate version of an already very good car – the RS 500 was a comically savage thing to drive leaving you grinning with its engaging handling and burbling five-cylinder soundtrack. As the very last three-door RS model, its place in history is assured.
Renault Megane R26.R
The Megane R26.R was the result of taking the standard Renaultsport special and turning everything up several notches.
Among the wealth of go-faster changes was a limited slip differential at the front, 312mm front brake discs and optional Toyo track tyres. As if this wasn’t enough, the back seats were thrown away, a roll cage was added, and plastic rear windows were fitted to replace the weighty glass items. In total, a whopping 123kg was removed over standard spec.
Proving that less weight does, in fact, equal more speed, the R26.R made do with the same 2.0-litre turbocharged engine producing 227bhp as the standard car managing to quicken the 0-62mph dash to 6.0 seconds. Journalists of the time praised its driver-focused handling and prowess, as one of the best hot hatches ever seen.
It also managed to earn the Nurburgring front-wheel-drive lap record for a few years with a time of 8:16.9. Ensuring it is a car that is practically deprecation proof, costing the same today as it did when new in 2009.
Peugeot 208 GTI
Said by some to have captured the legendary spirit of the 205 GTI, the Peugeot 208 GTI was heralded as a return to form for the French carmaker after a dark period.
Power comes from a turbocharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine producing 205bhp in its most powerful state of tune. This gives it GTI pace with a 0-62mph time of 6.5 seconds and 143mph of top speed. Equally as important is the way the little Pug drives, which is highly involving, and a hark back to the 205 of old with deftly precise handling worthy of the GTI badge.
Add to this, that the 208 in GTI guise looks the part as well with loads of go-faster details on the inside such as chunky sports seats and a tiny steering wheel. This fast-ness continues in the outside with an aggressive looking body kit, retro-looking rear quarter badging and a chunky front grille giving it the looks to match all of that pace.
Volkswagen Golf GTI
There are a few ingredients required to make a Volkswagen Golf GTI, such as plaid seats, a golf ball gearstick, agile handling and a great, but not excessive amount of power. The current Mk7.5 GTI has all of this and more, as its one of the most rounded drives you can buy, that shows little compromise during normal spirited road driving.
The Golf GTI’s power figure of 242bhp from its 2.0-litre turbocharged engine might sound a bit weak by modern hot hatch standards, but with a 0-62mph sprint time of 6.4 seconds and 155mph of top speed on offer, there is no doubting the way it goes.
Drive one though, and any reservations of slowness disappear in the first few corners. If ever there was a template for the most complete driver’s car that can do it all, then the VW Golf GTI is it. When specced with a proper manual gearbox, the drive is involving and more importantly, lots of fun. Drive it hard, and the differential and suspension work away up front, never leaving you wishing for more power.
Abarth 595 Competizione
The 595 Competizione might look like a Fiat 500 that’s had a lot of go-faster bits chucked at it. But if you were describing it in three words, barking, scampering and tiny spring to mind. Under the bonnet sits a turbocharged 1.4-litre engine, good for 178bhp and a 0-62mph time of 6.7 seconds – making it as swift as a wealth of much larger machinery.
As proof that tiny cars deserve big power figures, the 595 Comp shows it can live with the bigger boys by being a cracking drive, with a pop and crackle soundtrack from its quad exhaust setup and those toy car looks which will make you look back every time you park it. OK, so it may not be as practical as some cars on this list. But telling a few family members or friends that you can never give them a lift ever again is a small sacrifice to drive such a great car every day.
Ford Focus ST
The second-gen Focus may have forgotten some of the radical stylings of the original version, but in ST form everything came together with an absolute yob of a car.
Introduced in 2006, the muscle came from a turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine under the bonnet, a unit borrowed from Volvo with 222bhp of thrust to play with. The performance was quick, with a 0-62mph time of 6.6 seconds and a top speed of 150mph. Giving this generation of ST enough pace to live with 2019 cars.
What defined this generation of Focus ST though, was its character, from its engine to the way it drove. In a car where every prod of the throttle was greeted with a guttural five-pot warble from the front end, it was the only hot hatch of the era with an engine this large, and the precision handling to match with the suspension design helping to minimise torque steer making it a joy to drive.
Every car listed here so far has one thing in common – all are front-wheel drive. The exception to this the M140i, which with a BMW badge on its nose pushes power to the rear wheels instead.
Before you slate it as a warm M division wannabe, its stats speak for itself, with a turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six engine producing 340hp. You can also get a proper six-speed manual gearbox, and with all of that substantial grunt on tap, 0-62mph is dispensed with in 5.1 seconds.
The real party trick for the M140i though is the way it drives, with the rear-wheel-drive chassis and super torquey engine providing a great soundtrack to match the honed chassis that is properly quick to drive in the real world.
MINI Cooper S Works 210
If you want a MINI that is a bit on the evil side, then the Works 210 (JCW) is the one to pick. Packing a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine producing, you guessed it, 207bhp (210PS you see) all of which goes to the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox. This propels it from 0-62mph in 6.3 seconds onwards to 153mph.
The evil part comes from the speed and noise part of the car. As thanks to the ‘John Cooper Works Pro Tuning Kit,’ the works 210 gets a growling sounding exhaust that emits delicious sounding crackles on the overrun. It also comes with a Bluetooth controller that lets you open the exhaust valves by putting it into ‘Track’ mode – louder than UK road regulations will allow.
Despite the extra 18bhp over the standard non-JCW fettled Cooper S, the Works 210 sits on the same chassis making it a riot to drive with maximum go-kart feel and fun for days.
SEAT Leon Cupra
The SEAT Leon Cupra may well be a Volkswagen Golf R shorn of its German suit and all-wheel-drive system, but it is a brutally quick performance hatch in its own right.
Available in 280, 290 and 300 (296bhp) spec, with the most potent variant the one you obviously want. Powered by a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder TSI engine 0-62mph takes only 5.6 seconds when specced with a DSG box, with the six-speed manual taking a tenth longer at 5.7 seconds.
Losing 120kg in weight over the Golf R helps with the way it drives too. With cornering that is playful and accurate (thankfully). Drive it like a normal human being, and it becomes a regular car feeling composed and civilised that also feels pretty similar when you mash the fun pedal.
Vauxhall Astra VXR
The Vauxhall Astra VXR has always been a bit of a crazed lunatic of a car. Its response to its rivals gaining more power was to try and put 280bhp through the front wheels blowing away its competitors of the time.
It was quick too with a 0-62mph time of 5.9 seconds and 155mph top speed – blimey. All of which suggests it likes eating front tyres regularly.
To accompany all of this brutality was a whole host of VXR themed body styling including an epic looking central exhaust and massive brakes and wheels – making it look the part.
When driving an Astra VXR, you were greeted with a wooshing popping 2.0-litre turbo motor and six-speed manual gearbox that was anything but subtle. The handling was well balanced, thanks to a sophisticated chassis with a limited-slip diff and adaptive dampers on later cars.
Volkswagen Up! GTI
The second smallest car here, the VW Up! GTI also has one of the smallest engines with a 113bhp 1.0-litre three-cylinder motor with a turbocharger. Despite its diminutive size, the Up! GTI can sprint from 0-62mph in 8.8 seconds with a considerable top speed of 113mph.
From the moment you get behind the wheel, the Up! GTI is pure fun. OK, it may be a bit spartan inside, and mostly copied from a Golf GTI with matching plaid seats and all – but why shouldn’t VW exploit their rich history.
Driving it is obviously masses of fun as well. In a car that is both light and agile to drive that you can really chuck (or scamper) around the corners with ease making 35mph in the twisty feel like four times as much.
Making it a fun, light and easy to drive hot hatch with a chock load of heritage engineering and visuals – what’s not to like?
Toyota Yaris GRMN
Have no doubt that the Toyota Yaris GRMN is a seriously hardcore thing. From its striped up hunkered bodywork to the growling exhaust note it’s all very serious looking with a hard edge to it. The cars co-creators, Gazoo Racing, know a thing or two about racing having bestowed all of their formidable knowledge into it.
For starters they gave it a supercharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine, producing 212bhp, which is a lot for a car that usually ferries around pensioners. There are no fake engine noise enhancers here either with a natural whining supercharger that sounds like an angry dinosaur trapped in a confined space.
Even better is the weight that all of this power has to lug around which comes in at 1135kg, making the Yaris GRMN a very light and easy to drive despite its hardcore nature. While not the easiest to get off the line due to its front-wheel-drive layout, once you’re going 0-62mph comes around in 6.3 seconds hitting 143mph at the top end – pretty swift times I’m sure you’ll agree.
Renault Twingo Renaultsport 133
In a world of increasing kerb-weights, the Twingo Renaultsport 133 was a shining light for small performance hot hatches back in 2008. Boasting a line-up of a standard car, the option of a ‘Cup’ pack and an actual ‘Cup’ model variant the little Twingo was a hark back to the era of small and light hot hatches that we all miss so much.
Weighing in at 1120kg, with a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine producing 131bhp. Power went to the front wheels via a proper old-school five-speed manual box pushing this tiny car to 62mph from standing in 8.7 seconds.
Getting to the limit on the road in the Twingo Renaultsport was an easy task, but once you’ve reached the edge, it allows you to back off the power before you realise your only doing about 40mph. If you find some great driving roads though, this little car provides so much fun – like grinning from ear to ear fun.
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