Now, more than ever, there’s a rich selection of everyday hatchbacks with stonking dynamic aptitude, yet all are pint-sized enough to park anywhere, squeeze down city alleyways and keep fuel costs in check. Supercars be damned, here are five affordable hatches across a range of budgets, all of which have genuine driver appeal and will still put a smile on your dial, even if you’re only driving to work.
FORD FIESTA ST – $25,990
The Fiesta ST is a veritable performance bargain. It’s the cheapest car here, a fact that has helped it win MOTOR’s Bang For Your Bucks trophy two years in a row. More than that, it’s one of those cars that just feels right, thanks in part to the generous range of adjustability in the steering wheel and seating positions. Drop into the bucket seat for the first time and you’re able to fine tune the ergonomics to your heart’s content.
Ford has powered the ST with a 1.6-litre turbo four-cylinder engine making 134kW and 240Nm. Moderate numbers on paper, but plenty in the real world. It’s a willing motor and sounds great as it reaches the top end of the tacho. Front-end grip is impressive, and when combined with the well-tuned steering it will have you telling your friends about how ‘chuckable’ your little Fiesta is.
Ford only offers the ST with a manual gearbox. That’s not a bad thing in our books as grunty hatchbacks are way more fun that way. Sadly, gearshift feel is only okay in the ST but not so bad as to detract from the whole experience. The sporty suspension is expectedly firm, happily though it deals well with lesser, high tempo bumps and remains comfortable over all but large knocks.
Exterior styling of the Fiesta has been called ‘catfishy’ in recognition of that wide-mouth grille up front. It’s not for everyone, but we wouldn’t call it ugly. We do think the Fiesta’s interior styling could do with a rethink, and if you’re a gadget freak you may be left underwhelmed by the infotainment system, or lack thereof. There’s no sat nav, and the small screen is not very easy to use. But the ST isn’t really that kind of car. It’s brilliant fun to punt around, and it’s the ST’s driving charisma that’s really appealing.
Click here to read the full review on the Ford Fiesta.
VOLKSWAGEN POLO GTI - $27,490
DIYers rejoice! Volkswagen has heard our cries and put a manual gearbox back into the Polo GTI. VW’s DSG automatic gearboxes are lightning quick, but for driving fun in a little pocket rocket like this, there’s nothing better than a clutch and a gearstick. That said, if you can’t live without an auto in traffic and this is to be your everyday car, you can option your Polo GTI with a DSG for an additional $2,500. Having a choice of gearboxes is one thing the Polo has going for it over the manual-only Astra, Fiesta and 208 GTi.
The Polo’s interior is the smartest of the five. The others fall a little short of the GTI’s premium materials and build quality. The front seats are great, especially trimmed in GTI tartan, and like the Fiesta there’s good range in the driving position, though it’s a little tight around the knees compared to the ST.
Satellite navigation isn’t standard, but is available as part of Volkswagen’s ‘Driver Assistance Package’ that includes parking sensors and other safety aids. On the plus side you do get a reversing camera for nix.
Dynamically the ace up the Polo GTI’s sleeve is its engine. Jumping in size over the previous generation you now get a 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine with boatloads of torque, especially in manual versions which get an extra 70Nm of the latter: 141kW and 320Nm, and boy is it quick. There’s a well of boosted shoving power on tap across a fat chunk of the rev range.
The GTI’s braking ability stood out as above average. Its electrically-assisted steering is quick but soft in feel, lacking feedback compared to the ST. We also found the ride to be jittery.
In typical VW fashion the Polo GTI looks handsome in a very safe and unlikely to offend way. A little more character would be a welcome addition and earn the Polo a few more points on our ledger. However, VW’s brand of austere design has drawn an army of fans, and an understated hatch with muscular performance does have its own unique appeal. It may be exactly what you’re looking for.
Click here to read the full review on the Volkswagen Polo.
RENAULT CLIO RS - $29,490
Of the five cars we’ve picked, the two French entries are by far the most characterful. First up is the Renault Clio fettled by RenaultSport, a branch of revheads who have built bonkers little missiles on Renault’s behalf for decades. The Clio is one of the most popular RenaultSport models and there are good reasons for that.
Power comes from a 1.6-litre turbo four-cylinder engine making 147kW and 240Nm. As far as seat of the pants driving fun goes, the Clio gives its more powerful counterparts a run for their money. It sounds brilliant with its rorty induction growl, and it pulls like a puppy on a leash, always eager to get to the next corner, hoping to be lobbed in faster each time.
It should be mentioned the Clio RS is available exclusively with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, so it does lose points there from a driver involvement perspective. That said, the auto will be seen as a practicality advantage by some, as will the five door configuration (though the back seats are tiny), and flipping the paddles when in manual mode is still good fun.
It’s all French quirkiness inside with red seatbelts, rally-esque centre marker on the steering wheel and lots of not-so-discreet boy racer inclusions like the chime from the dash when you near the rev limiter. Tech specs are good with satellite navigation as standard and a quality display.
Where it lacks the outright performance of the Polo GTI it takes back some ground with its personality and fun factor. With all its charm, the Clio RS is a great option and will especially suit those who find the Polo a little too plain.
Click here to read the review on the Renault Clio RS.
PEUGEOT 208 GTI 30TH ANNIVERSARY - $35,990
Yes, the Peugeot 208 GTI 30th Anniversary is a wild looking thing. If it’s too much, you can option yours with a regular coat of duco, or there’s the normal 208 GTI that does away with the in-your-face paint job as well, but we quite like the quirky nature of the 30th Anniversary exterior. It suits the off the rails performance upgrades over the normal GTI.
Power gets a subtle boost to 153kW and 300Nm. It’s a fast little bugger, however most of the GTI 30th’s enhancements are found in the suspension, brakes and tyres. It’s stiffer and lower than the regular GTI, with revised geometry and wider tracks front and rear. Brakes are bigger with Brembo calipers on the front, and super sticky Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres are standard. It looks tougher as a result, and the driving experience is altogether better.
The GTI 30th feels the most focussed of all five. It’s a highly engaging experience with super pointy steering and a standard Torsen limited slip differential that works really well on a racetrack. That diff’ is a big selling point if you ever plan to try your hand at casual circuit days. With all that in mind, this car may be too much for every day. How much of its solid ride you can handle on the way to and from work is something to consider.
Standard equipment inside the Peugeot is good with standard satellite navigation and a high resolution screen. The dash cluster is unusually located up above the (very small) steering wheel. We recommend sitting in one to see if it works for your seating position. For some the dials will be hidden behind the top rim of the steering wheel. Those who find the narrow seats of the Fiesta and Clio a little on the tight side, the Pug’s more accommodating pews should feel better, while still offering good cornering support.
As in the other Frenchy talked about here, the GTI 30th has its fair share of eccentricities like red floor mats, uniquely styled dials, oh, and did we mention that paint? This is a hot hatch that may prove to be too over the top for some, but those thrill-seekers who ‘get’ the 208 GTI 30th Anniversary will welcome the return to form for Peugeot.
Click here to read the review on the Peugeot 208 GTi.
HOLDEN ASTRA VXR - $39,990
The Astra nameplate has a long and varied history in Australia. The current model is imported from Europe, so it’s a closer relative to the other four hatches on this page than you might think. The VXR variant is the hottest Astra on offer from Holden; in fact as hot hatches go it’s as searing as the ground of the beach car park in summer.
The Astra VXR is the most powerful of the five hatches we’ve picked and only comes with a manual gearbox for maximum driver engagement. Its 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine makes 206kW and a mighty 400Nm, so if outright pace is what thrills you, this car has you covered.
It has very tricky front suspension that separates the damper from the steering to reduce torque steer. You’ll thank the clever engineers who developed this when you delve into the VXR’s brawn. Steering turn-in is keen, and the chassis feels composed and able to deal with all those kilowatts.
Stylistically we think the Astra VXR is one of the best looking hatches out there. It has an imposing stance sitting over huge 20-inch wheels. There are lots of attractive design details, though it does have quite a long front overhang and low ground clearance which will punish careless parkers.
You’ll have to part with near on $40k to own a VXR, making it the most expensive of this bunch, but the spec for the money is excellent. You get all sorts of included equipment like sat nav, leather seats, performance brakes, LED taillights and more. Some elements of the car – the interior in particular – feel a little cheaply made, but with all that grunt and the Astra’s capable chassis, you’ll get over it quickly.
Click here to read the full snackable review on the Holden Astra.