Hot hatches have gone from small, fun, and practical cars to explore limits in corners to supercar baiting giant killers capable of embarrassing traditional sports cars while still managing to retain their practicalities.
If you’re on a budget, you’re less likely to reach those heights, however it’s still possible to experience what a hot hatch is really all about: a real-world level of performance. Add in a manual transmission and mechanical set ups devoid of too much electro-trickery and the cars that we’ll look at on this list start to look very attractive. Besides, you can go to town modifying and personalising which is another thing lost of today’s cars as they leave the factory in a “perfect” state complete with the likes of sophisticated suspension setups and forged wheels.
Most of these cars are from 2005-2015, just when things started to really spice up in the hot hatch scene. They might have quite a number of kilometres on them but don’t let that deter you as condition is a better gauge of the health of a car. However, it’s always best to get a qualified mechanic to inspect the car before buying to avoid any potentially large bills undermining your budget.
There are huge amounts of resources online to delve into the detail on reliability, running and repair costs, quirks and features, and model lifecycle improvements which is impossible to cover in one go, but the point of this list is there may be cars you have forgotten or not considered for under $20,000 AUD. Let’s get into it (in no particular order):
VW Golf GTI
Price when new (AUD): mkV $39,990; mkVI $38,990
The mk5 Golf GTI was a return to form for the car that arguably set the scene for hot hatches back in the day. A fizzing engine combined with a lively chassis willing to hustle unlike its predecessor meant it offered so much more than any other hot hatch at the time, especially considering its everyday sensibilities, build quality, and levels of comfort. You could say that the mk5 set the blueprint for every modern GTI thereafter. The introduction of DSG meant auto cars were no longer the poor cousin to manual ones but they were prone to failure so make sure you get a certified mechanic to check it over.
While the mk5 Golf GTI created that GTI recipe of sports performance, fun, and practicality the mk6 perfected it. Sharper in looks and just about everywhere else and a better gearbox meant the GTI was really hitting its stride. The later mk7 Golf GTI might be the high point but they are still commanding more than the $20k limit here. The standout of the mk6 range would be the Edition 35 which just falls under $20k but brings some nice added touches. Go for that and you’re laughing.
Others to consider on the cusp: mk6 Golf R, mk7 Golf GTI
Renault Megane R.S. 250/265
Price when new (AUD): R.S. 250 Cup $41,990
The big question with the Renault Megane is which Renault Megane. With a laundry list of variants it’s nigh on impossible to keep up but rest assured from the Megane II to Megane III, they are all fantastic handling drivers’ cars.
The older, oddball Megane Sport 225 now looks brilliant amidst a sea of fussy styled or conformist modern hatches and has the handling characteristics you’d be looking for in a hot hatch. They can be had for under $10k making them one of the bargains on the list but expect quite a big number in kilometres on the odometer.
The better option if your wallet extends to it, would be the Megane R.S. 250 or 265 in just about any configuration. The styling is bootylicious, the handling supreme, and the performance more than enough for most. The 265 is the newer of the two with more power and torque and class-leading handling further improved.
Across both the 250 and 265, the Cup is the standard car while the Trophy versions carry a bit more in their spec. But Renault also love a limited edition! The Australian Grand Prix, Monaco GP, Red Bull Racing, 8:08 and any other tie in or commemorative special edition you can think of is also worth looking at. All have differing features like gloss black finishes, fixed glass roof, Recaro seats, sat nav, and other features depending on which one you go for. Then you’ve got the Cup+, Trophy+, Premium…but fundamentally they are all brilliant.
VW Golf R32
Price when new (AUD): $58,460
If it isn’t already, this is going to be a modern classic. A big warbly 3.2 litre V6-cylinder engine stuffed into a hatch that produces an incredible sound helping it to transcend its humble roots.
The R32 wasn’t really much faster than the Golf GTI of the day, and with its all-wheel-drive setup, large 18” wheels at the time, it did persist with understeer requiring a different driving style to get the best out of it through corners.
These were also early days of VW’s DSG transmission which found issues at times so if going for an auto make sure it’s checked for faults.
Yes the GTI was probably more playful and the Golf R model that followed was faster and better on fuel, but they didn’t have that 6-cylinder soundtrack and for many, that many be enough. It’s not the most accomplished hot hatch on the list but it’s so hard to deny that engine and all-wheel-drive set up. And boy it looks good in any colour.
VW Polo GTI
Price when new (AUD): $27,490
Want something newer than an older generation Golf GTI? How about the Polo GTI? The 6R generation of Polo really shifted things up a notch for the little Golf brother, with an engine that pumped out respectable numbers.
You could go manual or auto, but manual is the one to have if you’re planning on doing more than commuting. Not just because manual is more fun especially in a small car like the Polo, but because the manual cars have 70Nm more torque than the auto models. The 0-100kph time is the same for both at 6.7 seconds but in gear the manual car takes advantage of that extra torque.
Handling is fun yet doesn’t have the sophistication of the Golf but then you’re not paying Golf prices. A little busy at times but to be expected.
Inside the Polo it is a little spartan but it feels like a premium micro hatch with VW getting into their stride with materials and controls, something that’s lost on the current crop of VWs.
Ford Fiesta ST
Price when new (AUD): $25,990
The Ford Fiesta ST charmed the socks off the motoring press when it first came out. Here was a great handling little pocket rocket that was sensibly priced.
Recaro seats and other “RS” influenced touches inside the cabin lift it beyond the regular Fiesta. But it’s the sub-7 second 0-100km/h time, manual gearbox, and ability to have fun at lower speeds (fast becoming the new performance marker) make it a desirable little thing.
Overseas in the UK Mountune offered hotted up versions which raised the bar again. And this is one of the great things about the little ST, you could have a hell of a lot of fun modifying it.
For the price you’re able to get a relatively modern Fiesta ST and all the features and connectivity that comes with it. But that’s not why you buy the Fiesta. You buy it because you want to laugh, thrash it, and have fun at every opportunity.
Honda Civic Type-R
Price when new (AUD): $39,990
The 4th gen Honda Civic Type-R (FK2) isn’t exactly the most attractive car Honda have ever produced yet its smooth shape is the antithesis of the latest Civic Type-R, itself criticised for its looks. Did Honda design peak with the older Integra Type-R?
One of the benefits of this gen Civic is the lack of a turbo charger. Yep, it’s naturally aspirated and responsive as hell and a point of difference with many of the others in this list. That doesn’t mean it will fly at the press of the throttle, this is after all a VTEC engine where most of the engagement happens after 6000rpm and manages a very respectable 0-100km/h time of 6.6 seconds.
It also handles sharply and really started to trouble the Golf GTI at the time for driving thrills. The firm suspension may not be for everyone and if that’s a problem, a Golf GTI should be top of your list.
Mini Cooper S
Price when new (AUD): $39,900
Forget the bloated modern Minis, the Frank Stephenson designed R53 Cooper S is the purist incarnation of a modern Mini.
And you can pick one up for under $10,000 AUD but the Mini really started to hit its stride from 2006 onwards, and those R57 designated cars will start at $11,000.
Minis were never about acceleration and the 0-100 km/h time takes a reasonable 7.1 seconds which is plenty fast enough most of the time. 2008 saw the introduction of the Mini John Cooper Works (JCW) model which raises the performance of the standard Cooper S considerably and you may find one or two for sale under $20,000.
If it’s nimble handling and chuckability you’re after then the Mini should be near the top of your list. And that’s what hot hatches should be all about, right? The Mini retains much of the hot hatch ethos, yet the trade off is a slightly jittery ride compared to rivals. Some might call it fun.
Peugeot 208 GTi
Price when new (AUD): $29,990
Volkswagen may have mastered the idea of the hot hatch with the original Golf GTI but for a long time Peugeot owned the crown with the 205 GTi, but since has been unable to repeat its success. But the 208 GTi came very close to replicating that magic recipe which gave the 205 its legendary status.
Ok, the 208 didn’t have the World Rally Championship titles and wins to its name like the 205, but in 208 T16 guise (a completely reworked car for competition) it did win the Pikes Peak hillclimb in 2013. Some kudos then, if in name only.
0-100 km/h in 6.8 seconds is plenty rapid for a small hot hatch and competes with older generation Golf GTIs, and similar to the VW Polo GTI. But Peugeot were never ones to beat their chest about big power, rather their ability to make a chassis fun and handling lively is their forte. So these performance attributes combined, and the fact it is relatively modern compared to others on the list, makes for one of the best little Peugeots you can buy for under $20,000 AUD, and a well styled one at that.
BMW 130i Sport
Price when new (AUD): $62,900
The idea of a 6-cylinder BMW hot hatch lasted roughly 14 years. This was back when BMW’s point of difference and brand signature was a glorious straight-six engine. But with increasing emissions and the huge push for electrification, they’ve had to let go of that idea.
The 130i Sport hatch may not have the better looks of the coupe but once inside it’s all about the drive, or rather the engine.
You might be thinking that the big engine and little car formula should produce impressive 0-100 km/h times but 6.3 seconds isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire. Still, it’s a BMW straight six so the sound should compensate.
The ride and handling came in for plenty of stick at the time and despite it being rear wheel drive, doesn’t quite live up to BMW standards.
Mazda 3 MPS
Price when new (AUD): $43,290
When the Mazda 3 MPS launched it carried a lot of hope for hot hatch enthusiasts as a viable alternative to the established players of VW, Ford, and Renault. With plenty of power and an impressive 0-100 km/h time of 6.1 seconds it provided plenty of excitement.
But they way it went about its business wasn’t quite up to scratch. Scrambling for traction meant that power wasn’t getting to the road effectively. Ride and noise left a bit to be desired as well.
Mazda have improved considerably in all areas but we haven’t seen a true hot hatch replacement for the 3 MPS. Come on Mazda!
Price when new (AUD): $65,500
Towards the top end of the $20,000 AUD limit is Audi’s S3 Quattro. If you’re after classic Audi luxury, this is a fine place to start. Around this time Audi were really hitting their stride. But it’s the punch from the engine that you’ll be enjoying most of the time with a 0-100 km/h time of 5.7 seconds plenty fast enough for everyday driving and faster than most on this list.
Use the all-wheel-drive grip to your advantage and you’ll be rocketing out of corners with plenty of grip although typically with understeer ever-present. More sophisticated than the VW Golf R32 without the soundtrack.