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Hot Hatches, Burning Questions

Hot Hatches

Do you love big V8 engines with deep burbling exhausts, and smoking your rear tires with burnouts at every stoplight? If so, you are dismissed for the day. Today we’re looking at the opposite end of the performance spectrum. They are lightweight, they have high-revving 4-cylinder mills, propulsion is delivered via their front wheels, they are the econoboxes gone wild: the hot hatch.

Don’t worry, still plenty of testosterone to go around, fellas. They may look like toys compared to a traditional muscle car, but there are thrills aplenty behind the wheel. You can still generate blue smoke; it’ll just be from the front wheelwells instead of the rear.

With an increased concern for corporate fuel economy averages, more companies than ever are eager to offer an economical alternative for the performance enthusiast. Two new entrants have just entered to pool with a splash: the Ford Focus ST and the Hyundai Veloster Turbo. Let’s take a look the best in the field and ask the burning questions about hot hatches.


Volkswagen GTI

What is it?  

The GTI is the granddaddy of all hot hatches. First introduced in 1976, Volkswagen invented the segment by raiding the Audi parts bin to crank up the heat on the Rabbit. The current model is still based on their compact hatch, now the Golf, but that’s where the resemblance ends. VW’s brilliant 2.0 turbo enlivens not just the GTI, but a variety of VWs and Audis across the line.

Why do I want it?

The GTI is the closest thing you’ll find to a luxury car in this segment. VW’s controversial, yet oddly successful decontenting strategy was not yet in place when this generation was developed, so expect the Audi-like interior refinement Volkswagen was once famous for. Besides the aforementioned powerplant, the GTI offers their outstanding DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission; perhaps the only automatic that won’t draw dismissive snickers from driving enthusiasts.

MSRP: $23,995
MPG: 31 hwy/21 city 
HP: 200
Weight: 3034

Ford Focus ST

What is it?

It is Ford’s long-awaited return to the compact performance segment in the US. Europe, with their long-standing affinity for small cars, has always had multiple versions of a hot Focus, while stateside we’ve been pining for one ever since the demise of the Focus SVT. By all accounts, this one was worth the wait.

Why do I want it?

Ford has always done a great job with the driving dynamics of even the most generic Focus. Now drop a 2.0L EcoBoost mill into the mix and you’re in for a blast. Ford doesn’t intend to just match the GTI, they intend to beat it. Spacious and stylish as well, the Focus ST finally brings Euro flair to American roads. You’ll need to wait a bit, though. The Focus ST won’t be available until later this year.

MSRP: $24,495
MPG: 30 hwy/22 city (est)
HP: 252
Weight: 3130 (est)

Hyundai Veloster Turbo

What is it?

Hyundai took quite a flyer by producing the radically styled Veloster, a category-defying whatzit, virtually unchanged from the show car version. It sports a standard single door on the driver’s side, and a pair of doors on the passenger side, allowing easier back seat ingress/egress. The major gripe about the Veloster was that its looks made a promise that its engine couldn’t keep. The introduction of the Turbo answers that complaint.

Why do I want it?

There is nothing on the road quite like the Veloster Turbo. It sports the most bodacious interpretation of Hyundai’s “fluidic sculpture” design language yet, and it’s quasi-shooting-brake style turns heads everywhere it goes. Add to that the first factory application of matte paint on an affordable car, and you’ll be a stare-gathering style maven. Bonus points: Even with all the extra power, only a 2 MPG penalty in gas mileage.

MSRP: $21,950
MPG: 38 hwy/26 city
HP: 201
Weight: 2800

FIAT 500 Abarth

What is it?

Italy’s answer to the MINI Cooper and VW Beetle, the 500 harkens back to the iconic Cinquecento city car of days gone by. While the standard 500 will out-cute a basket full of puppies, the Abarth adds some snarl to the equation with its 160-hp turbo. It’s still plenty cute, but more like a basket full of Rottweilers.

Why do I want it?

Because seemingly everyone else does. FIAT has already sold out their allotment of 2012 Abarths. If you want one, get in line for the 2013 model. While the Abarth won’t beat out the other cars on this list during track days, the significant upgrades in power and handling from the standard 500 make it a genuine hoot for everyday driving, and its unique exhaust note will encourage frequent misbehavior. And did we mention it’s cute?

MSRP: $22,000
MPG: 34 hwy/28 city
HP: 160
Weight: 2533


Mazdaspeed 3

What is it?

Take the already fun-to-drive Mazda 3, plop 263 horses churning 280 lb-ft of torque between the front wheels, add a gaping hood scoop that looks like it could suck birds out of your path, and tack on a hefty rear wing to help keep the whole business planted. Suddenly, that widely-mocked silly grinning smiley face that Mazda grafted onto the front of the 3 looks like it’s getting the last laugh. The only bigger smile will be on the driver.

Why do I want it?

The people that put a little zoom-zoom into every vehicle they make just kept piling it on with the Mazdaspeed3. This is the most untamed of all the hot hatches and not for the feint of heart. The Mazdaspeed3 leads the pack in horsepower, and applying all that grunt to the road safely isn’t always a civilized exercise.  But if you are looking for maximum bang for the buck, You can’t do better than the Mazdaspeed3.

MSRP: $24,000
MPG: 25 hwy/18 city
HP: 263
Weight: 3281

MINI Cooper S

What is it?

MINI is the car that finally proved to America that small cars needn’t be cheap and flimsy penalty boxes, they could provide a premium experience, and even be highly desirable. The standard Cooper is a great drive in its own right, with razor-sharp responses and riding-on-rails handling. The Cooper S adds a turbocharger to the 1.6L 4-cylinder to up the fun factor.

Why do I want it?

Just as with the FIAT 500, the MINI Cooper S has a heaping helping of retro-modern pizzazz that makes you smile just walking up to it. And the smile won’t abate once you’re behind the wheel. The funky interior, with its dinner plate size speedo in the center of the dashboard and its array of oddly placed toggle switches may take some getting used to, but that’s alright; you’ll be enjoying the go-kart on steroids ride too much to care.

MSRP: $23,100
MPG: 35/27
HP: 181
Weight: 2668


There's great fun to be had in all these zippy little runabouts, but if you're a stats nerd that needs some whay to ranks these, we'll try to accomodate. Horsepower is great, we all agree, but one thing that's pertinent is how much weight those horses need to lug around.

  Horsepower Weight Lbs per HP
Ford Focus ST 252 3130 12.42
Mazdaspeed 3 263 3281 12.48
Hyundai Veloster Turbo 201 2800 13.93
MINI Cooper S 181 2668 14.74
VW GTI 200 3034 15.17
FIAT 500 Abarth 160 2533 15.83


Now, numbers are rarely the be-all-end-all; there are countless other factors and nuances involved in getting that power to the ground. For instance, despite the Veloster's advantage over the GTI in pounds per horsepower, nearly all experts would tell you the GTI is the better car to hustle around the track. Also, we're working with an estimate of the Focus ST's weight, so it could potentially dip below the Mazda. 

Let's look at one more metric: bang for the buck. How many grins are you getting for your dollar?

  Horsepower Price $ per HP
Mazdaspeed 3 263 $24,000 $91.25
Ford Focus ST 252 $24,495 $97.20
Hyundai Veloster Turbo 201 $21,950 $109.20
VW GTI 200 $23,995 $119.98
MINI Cooper S 181 $23,100 $127.62
FIAT 500 Abarth 160 $22,000 $137.50

Again, the Ford and Mazda are in the top two, while the FIAT trails the pack. Does that mean the FIAT is a dog? Or that the Mazda and Ford are the cars for you? Of course not. If you value the style of the 500 Abarth over the incremental performance of the others, good for you! You'll still have a blast every time you're behind the wheel.

As always, the best advice is to do your research, drive the cars, then decide for yourself.