The hot hatchback is revered among car enthusiasts. It represents the best of two worlds that are usually at odds with each other: performance and practicality. What more could you possibly want from a car?
Yes, I know the Volkswagen GTI is responsible for popularizing the genre, which is why I’ve excluded it from comparison here. It’s an obvious choice, and a great choice, but there are others on the market worthy of consideration. After all, you don’t buy a hot hatch to be like everyone else.
It makes sense that BMW would enter the hot hatch fray at some point, even though the company up until recently went out of its way to extol the virtues of rear-wheel drive and smooth, naturally aspirated engines. The Mini Cooper S is a frenetic turbocharged scamp with lots of power going to the front wheels. But for as little as $10,000, you could have a 2007 or newer Mini for some cheap thrills.
Part of what makes the Mini such good fun is its handling prowess. Sure, it torque steers like a maniac and the ride is harsh in the best situations. But accelerating and pulling out of corners puts smile on your face.
What the Mini lacks in space it makes up for in style and personality. Unlike some retro shapes that appeared around the turn of the century, the Mini has been able to go on because it’s also a good design. It made superminis fashionable again. And it doesn’t look like you only spent $10,000 on one.
Spend a bit more money and you could have a Mazda. It’s not just any Mazda, though, but the Mazdaspeed3. That’s a lot of Mazda for around $15,000.
The Mazda3 is an incredibly sound purchase on the used car market, reliable and loaded with space. It’s also one of the most fun to drive cars in its class. Add “speed” to the name and the Mazdaspeed3 is one of the most lunatic cars in its class, thanks to 263 turbocharged horses being funneled through the front wheels through a manual gearbox only. It’s not for the easygoing.
For all of its virtues, the Mazdaspeed3 is a left-field choice among hot hatches. Finding a clean one can be a little difficult. But when you do come across one with a clean history and low mileage, it’s worth it if you have a sense of humor, but still need something with four doors so you can pick your kids up from school.
For a hot hatch that’s relatively rare and definitely more plush than the other two, there’s the Volkswagen R32 . When is a GTI not a GTI? When it’s this.
The R32 gets a mixed reaction in plenty of circles, and deserves some of it. It’s expensive, not just because of its rarity. And the fifth-generation model, offered here for 2008, takes the Mark 5 GTI’s lovely chassis and instant-torque turbo four and throws it away in favor of a buttery smooth VR6 engine with a burly exhaust note, the predictability of four-wheel drive and a DSG automated gearbox. This is the civilized hot hatch.
And, frankly, it all works better than it should.
Like the Mazdaspeed, an unmodified R32 is a bit hard to find. It’s also an incredibly rare car, with just around 5,000 being brought to the U.S. in the first place. That scarcity keeps values pretty high compared to a similarly aged GTI or even an Audi A3 3.2, which shares its powertrain. But that should mean that if you score a clean R32 and keep it that way, it’ll hang on to its value better than most hot hatches.
Don’t think of any hot hatch as an investment, though. They’re meant to be enjoyed on a thrilling Sunday drive. As a bonus, they come in handy when that drive leads you to buy an enormous piece of art, and they’re still practical enough for your daily commute.