Seven of the most underrated hot hatches

20th March 2023
Ethan Jupp

The hot hatch world, as with supercars and any other hotly-contested performance segment, gets dominated by the big hitters. Golf GTI, Civic Type R, Fiesta ST – all are so good the others rarely get a look in, in terms of exposure and sales. It is the way and always has been, but that does mean there are some unsung heroes that are unjustly forgotten about. 


1. Toyota Corolla T Sport

In the early 2000s, it was either about absolute turbo power, or revs. Honda were the kings of revs, with the incredible VTEC-equipped Civic Type Rs revving to 8,250rpm. Many don’t remember however that Toyota did the revvy naturally-aspirated four-cylinder thing too, so well that Lotus borrowed its engines for their Elise and Exige sportscars. At home, that engine was featured in the Celica and indeed, the Corolla T-Sport, which is our first entry as an underrated hot hatch. The chassis might not have got as much attention as the Civic and indeed, the gearshift may not have been a patch, but that engine was a mound of muscle, displacing 1.8 litres and putting out a massive 190PS (139kW). That’s over 100PS per litre.


2. Peugeot 306 GTi6

French hot hatches aren’t usually what you’d call underrated. They’re if anything famed, for their effervescent engines, willing chassis and overall punchy personalities. But some don’t get the love they deserve. Peugeot hot hatch? You think of 106 GTi, 205 GTi. You don’t necessarily think of the 306 GTi-6. Here is a larger car than Peugeot is famous for, with more than 170PS and – rare for the mid 1990s – a six-speed gearbox. They’re fast, good-looking and – save for the larger footprint over the 205 and 106 which adds stability – a lot of fun.


3. Renault Clio 172

Some hatches don’t just have one hot version. Some are a family. Such is the way with the Renault Clio, which of course in its second-generation, is considered an all-time great hot hatch in 182 Trophy and 172 Cup form. The sheer level of attention the Trophy gets rather casts the others in a shadow, which is a shame. Nearly as good as the Trophy and ultimately forming its basis, are the standard 182 and the 172s that preceded it. They’re 95 per cent as fast, 90 per cent as fun and great hot hatches in their own right. They’re just not quite the Trophy.


4. Peugeot 308 GTI

Like its 306 GTi-6 predecessor, the 308 GTi got good reviews, but sort of slipped into the background. French hot hatch? You want the Megane RS. At least, that’s what everyone says. If you want four-door practicality and driving fun bunged in, the 308 GTi is a fantastic choice. With more than 260PS, a limited-slip diff, a well-resolved chassis and quality seats, it’s a proper machine. Not as extreme as some rivals and as a result not as celebrated but a great car all the same.


5. Seat Leon Cupra R

Everyone remembers very fondly the last Cupra Leon, the one that ushered in the era of Cupra as a brand all of its own. A great-looking, great-to-drive car that all round was anything other than underrated. It got no more and no less than the absolute adoration it deserved. Its predecessor though, doesn’t. Granted, the blobbier item that ran from 2006 to 2013 doesn’t have the sharp looks, but there’s a Spanish bodaciousness to it that has its appeal. What also has appeal is how damn fast it was. Effectively a sister car to the Mk6 Volkswagen Golf R, the Cupra R packed 265PS (195kW) and could get to 62mph in 6.2 seconds. The last Cupra R only jumped by 45PS. This remains a rapid hot hatch.


6. Rover 200 BRM

This… doesn’t, but it could be the definition of an underrated hot hatch. The old K-Series was a strong mill in the Rover 200 BRM, with its strange orange lipstick aping the outfit’s F1 machines from its golden racing era. More than 145PS was not to be sniffed at in the 1990s, nor was a close-ratio five-speed transmission and limited-slip diff. The latter only recently became the norm throughout hot hatchdom today. It’s just a shame such a compelling package was wrapped in Rover 200 garb, with a very red interior.


7. Nissan Almera GTI

It’s hard not to be underrated when, to appearances, a car is just a sad Japanese econobox. Such was the way with so many commendable pocket rockets from the land of the rising sun and we’ve chosen the Nissan Almera GTI as their collective representative. They’re a rare beast now, given what happens to Japanese cars from the 1990s in our salty wet climate. Plus, what hides under the bonnet makes them ripe for organ harvest: a little-known 2.0-litre twin-cam engine good for 143PS (105kW)called an SR20. Race wars anyone? Decent power, a tighter chassis, what’s not to love?

  • list

  • Cupra

  • Seat

  • Leon

  • Rover

  • Peugeot

  • 308 GTI

  • renaultsport

  • Clio

  • 306

  • Toyota

  • Corolla

  • Nissan

  • Almera

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