The best junior hot hatches – past and present

From the retro Citroen AX GT to the brand new Volkswagen Up GTI, we pick our favourite pint-sized hot hatchbacks

  • Small and sporty

    Small and sporty

    © VW

    Today’s hot hatchbacks offer a level of performance once reserved for high-end sports cars, while many deliver their fun through all four wheels. In many ways, though, that makes the (more affordable and accessible) junior hot hatch more relevant than ever. Here, we list some of our favourites, including a few classic heroes from days gone by.

  • Volkswagen Up GTI

    Volkswagen Up GTI

    © VW

    The Volkswagen Up GTI is one of the best junior hot hatches you can buy. It’s not especially quick – 0-62mph in 8.8 seconds looks decidedly old-school – but thanks to its characterful soundtrack, ‘wheel at each corner’ design and a willingness to hustle along a B-road like a terrier after a ball, it’s terrific fun. It’s just been relaunched for 2020, too. 

  • Volkswagen Lupo GTI

    Volkswagen Lupo GTI

    © VW

    Here’s one they made earlier. The Volkswagen Lupo GTI was never a big seller in the UK – it was too expensive, for a start – but it’s now well on its way to classic status. It feels even more old-school than the Up GTI, courtesy of its 1.6-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine and ‘golf ball’ gear knob. You’ll need to part with at least £5,000 for a good one, but cherished examples can fetch considerably more.

    Search for a used Volkswagen Lupo on Auto Trader

  • Skoda Citigo Monte Carlo

    Skoda Citigo Monte Carlo

    © Skoda

    On the face of it, the Citigo Monte Carlo, launched in 2018, might appear a case of style over substance – it does have lowered suspension, mind – but this thing is an absolute hoot to drive. You can’t buy a new one any more, but used examples are still covered by Skoda’s three-year warranty.

    Search for a used Skoda Citigo on Auto Trader

  • Citroen AX GT

    Citroen AX GT

    © Citroen

    James May once described the Citroen AX GT as the best car in the world, but did concede that it would probably kill you in a crash. But the GT’s lightness was its strength, with the AX capturing the essence of what makes a great junior hot hatch. After years in the doldrums, the world is waking up to the brilliance of the AX GT. Just in time, too, because there are less than 40 on the road, with a further 200 listed as SORN.

    Search for a used Citroen AX on Auto Trader

  • Suzuki Swift Sport

    Suzuki Swift Sport

    © Suzuki

    The current Suzuki Swift Sport must have exceedingly strong shoulders because it has a formidable reputation to uphold. The fact is, there hasn’t been a bad Swift Sport, whether you opt for the original five-speed version (pictured) or the more grown-up second-generation model. The latest Swift Sport trades a naturally aspirated engine for a turbocharged motor. The result is a more grown-up take on the original recipe.

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  • Fiat Panda 100HP

    Fiat Panda 100HP

    © Fiat

    Some would claim, especially those with a fondness for cars with an Italian flavour, that the Fiat Panda 100HP is the best junior hot hatch of this millennium. It’s fun at any speed, practical, great to look at, and cheap to insure. Sure, you’ll need your chiropractor on speed dial to cope with the ride quality, and the steering is over-assisted, but the pros outnumber the cons. Buy one, then try to stop smiling.

    Search for a used Fiat Panda on Auto Trader

  • Mitsubishi Colt Ralliart

    Mitsubishi Colt Ralliart

    © Mitsubishi

    Its looks are an acquired taste, and it was overshadowed by the Swift and Panda when new, but we have fond memories of tackling the country lanes in this turbocharged nutjob. The Colt Ralliart is the perfect front-wheel drive accompaniment to the Mitsubishi Evo, with a terrific turn of pace and a sorted chassis. It’s so much fun, you’ll forgive the low-rent interior.

    Search for a used Mitsubishi Colt on Auto Trader

  • Dodge Omni GLHS

    Dodge Omni GLHS

    © FCA

    The American take on the hot hatch recipe was very… American. None other than Carroll Shelby played a big part in its development. The GLHS featured a 2.2-litre turbocharged engine delivering 175hp – not bad for a mid-80s hatchback. ‘Thanks to what feels like a V12 under the hood, the Shelby in sedan clothing will knock the stuffing out of most of the V8s on the road. It zips to 60 in a mere 6.5 seconds, then keeps right on charging to a 130mph terminal speed. The athletic GLHS has the legs of a sprinter and the wind of a miler,’ said Car and Driver in 1986.

  • Daihatsu Charade GTti

    Daihatsu Charade GTti

    © Daihatsu

    Nobody does small and mighty quick like the Japanese. The Charade GTti was Daihatsu’s high-tech answer to the European hot hatches of the day, packing enough power to punch above its weight. The tiny 993cc three-cylinder turbocharged engine delivered 99bhp, or 100bhp per litre, making it, at the time, the most powerful 1.0-litre production car in the world.

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  • Daihatsu Charade Turbo

    Daihatsu Charade Turbo

    © Daihatsu

    Somebody at Daihatsu must have believed that a USP was a shortcut to success. The previous generation Charade Turbo was billed as world’s smallest turbocharged car, with its 993cc delivering a familiar three-pot soundtrack. In its day, the Charade was a proper giant-killer, with a bargain price tag to boot. Try finding one today, mind.

    Search for a used Daihatsu Charade on Auto Trader

  • Lancia Y10 Turbo

    Lancia Y10 Turbo

    © Lancia

    If the Charade Turbo was the world’s smallest turbocharged car, the Lancia Y10 Turbo took the crown in Europe. The Y10 was positioned as a luxury and avant-garde supermini, with the Turbo designed to add some power to its undoubted flair. Badged as an Autobianchi in Italy, the Y10 was never a big seller in the UK, but its Brazilian-built 1,049cc engine meant that it went head-to-head with the Charade in the battle for niche supremacy.

    Search for a used Lancia Y10 on Auto Trader

  • MG Metro 1300

    MG Metro 1300

    © Rover Group

    Flying the flag for Britain, the MG Metro was the choice of the populist, but left traditionalists scratching their beards and crying into their warm beer. This was a proper junior hot hatch, complete with red seat belts and one of the most famous sporting badges in the world. Great in 1300 guise, the Metro went chasing bigger fish when the 112mph turbocharged version arrived in 1982.

    Search for a used MG Metro on Auto Trader

  • Vauxhall Nova SR

    Vauxhall Nova SR

    © Vauxhall

    Pity the poor Vauxhall Nova SR. Rightly lauded as one of the best in breed when new, it soon spiralled into oblivion, its image tainted by joyriders and acne-ridden yoofs in ill-fitting sportswear. Twenty years ago there were around 30,000 SRs on the streets of Britain. Today, there are just 92 taxed and tested examples.

    Search for a used Vauxhall Nova on Auto Trader

  • Renault 5

    Renault 5

    © Renault

    A supermini in every sense of the word in Turbo, GT Turbo and Alpine/Gordini (pictured) guises, the Renault 5 is a fully paid-up member of the hot hatch big league. But junior performance credentials are delivered by some of the less familiar models, such as the TX and TSE.

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  • Fiat Uno Turbo

    Fiat Uno Turbo

    © Fiat

    The Fiat Uno Turbo might scream injustice at being labelled a ‘junior’ hot hatch, as it’s more than capable of holding its own against the heavyweights of the breed. Fiat left it late joining the rapid hatchback party, but it was worth the wait, with the 1.3-turbocharged engine and impressive chassis creating a terrific all-rounder.

    Search for a used Fiat Uno on Auto Trader

  • Peugeot 205 XS

    Peugeot 205 XS

    © Peugeot

    Every sorcerer needs an apprentice. Every stage performer needs an understudy. The Peugeot 205 XS will forever live in the shadows of its more illustrious – and increasingly expensive – sibling, but dismiss this upstart at your peril. It shares much in common with the AX GT – most notably the 1,360cc engine – offering a barrel-load of giggles in a wonderfully simple package.

    Search for a used Peugeot 205 on Auto Trader

  • Volkswagen Polo G40

    Volkswagen Polo G40

    © VW

    Can a supercharged Polo be classed as a ‘junior’ hot hatch? Possibly not, because much as we love the Polo G40, it fell just short of the standards set by the likes of the 205 GTI. But let’s look at the positives: Club G40 estimates that around 600 cars were sold in the UK, and the styling is so subtle you’ll surprise many hot hatches in the traffic light grand prix.

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  • Innocenti De Tomaso

    Innocenti De Tomaso

    © Innocenti

    Is this the coolest Mini-based car ever built? It’s a three-door hatchback version designed by Bertone, with De Tomaso adding the pumped-up version when it purchased Innocenti in 1976. A turbocharged version arrived after the company switched to Daihatsu engines.

  • Mini Cooper

    Mini Cooper

    © Rover Group

    No, it isn’t a hatchback, but many of the cars featured here owe much to the original Mini, which is arguably one of the greatest junior hot ‘hatches’ of all-time.

    Search for a used Austin Mini on Auto Trader

  • Fiat Cinquecento Sporting

    Fiat Cinquecento Sporting

    © Fiat

    Back in the mid-90s, the Cinquecento Sporting was Fiat’s answer to the increasingly dated Mini Cooper. In 1995, Autocar said: ‘Don’t bother looking for a new car to put a bigger smile on your face for six grand. You won’t find one’. It also said that build quality was ‘merely reasonable’, but you can’t have everything.

    Search for a used Fiat Cinquecento on Auto Trader

  • Fiat 127 GT

    Fiat 127 GT

    © Fiat

    The Cinquecento felt like a Fiat 127 GT for the 90s. It shared much in common: a bargain basement price tag, a willingness to entertain, and a sense that, to the Italians, build quality was a problem for somebody else.

    Search for a used Fiat 127 on Auto Trader

  • Citroen Visa GT

    Citroen Visa GT

    © Citroen

    The Citroen Visa GT was the archetypal French performance car, combining razor-sharp handling with the ride comfort of a luxo-barge. The old adage that ‘they don’t like ‘em like they used to’ is encapsulated by this much-missed hatchback. One source claims the last Visa GT was seen on the road in 2014. The Visa GTI was even better, but is just as scarce.

    Search for a used Citroen Visa on Auto Trader

  • Renaultsport Twingo

    Renaultsport Twingo

    © Renault

    OK, so it turns out they do make ‘em like they used to. If you’re left feeling disappointed that the new Twingo GT isn’t quite the pocket-size Porsche 911 you hoped for, the outgoing Renaultsport version will leave you rivalling the Cheshire Cat for grinning supremacy.

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  • Daihatsu Cuore Avanzato TR-XX R4

    Daihatsu Cuore Avanzato TR-XX R4

    © PetrolBlog

    We owned one of these tiny tearaways and christened it ‘the box of frogs’. That tells you all you need to know about this fun-size, Japanese entertainer. Mad and magnificent.

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  • Fiat Punto GT

    Fiat Punto GT

    © Fiat

    The Fiat Punto GT wasn’t the greatest junior hot hatch of its era, but it had an ace up its sleeve: tremendous pace. ‘Not since the demise of Renault 5 Turbo has so little money bought so much performance,’ said CAR in 1994. The feisty Fiat could hit 60mph in just 8.2 seconds, while its rivals were scrabbling for something that started with a ‘10’. We make that 10 points, Punto. Or something.

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  • Peugeot 106 XSI

    Peugeot 106 XSI

    © Peugeot

    A lot of nonsense is written about Peugeot failing to deliver anything to match the 205 GTI. We offer the 106 Rallye and GTI, along with the equivalent 306 models as evidence to the contrary. But while the more illustrious versions of the 106 might grab the headlines, there’s an undiluted joy to be found in the XSI. Catch one if you can, before it’s too late.

    Search for a used Peugeot 106 on Auto Trader

  • AMC Gremlin X

    AMC Gremlin X

    © AMC

    Here’s another American wildcard: the AMC Gremlin. At the time, the US car industry was waking up to the fact that young Americans quite fancied a low-cost, cheap-to-run and stylish car. Brilliantly, American Motors decided to add a V8 option, which must have been lively in a lightweight, rear-wheel-drive car. Oh, and we know that strictly speaking, a hot hatch should be front-wheel drive.

  • Seat Ibiza 1.5 GLX

    Seat Ibiza 1.5 GLX

    © Seat

    The team responsible for the design and development of the original Seat Ibiza reads like a who’s who of the motoring industry. Giorgetto Giugiaro, Karmann and Porsche all played a part. Oh, and it was based on the Fiat Strada. Contemporary reviews used words such as ‘lively’ and ‘capable’, but we maintain that the original Ibiza was one of the best-looking hatchbacks of the era.

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  • Renault Clio

    Renault Clio

    © Renault

    The Williams is not only the best performance Clio, but it’s also one of the best performance cars of the 90s. But it doesn’t exactly meet the junior hot hatch criteria. But fear not, because the original Clio was a delightful drive, even in a more cooking variant. Pick of the bunch: the Clio RSI and Clio 16v, with the latter powered by the 1.8-litre 16v engine from the Renault 19 16v.

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  • Autobianchi A112 Abarth

    Autobianchi A112 Abarth

    © Autobianchi

    The Autobianchi A112 was one of the world’s first superminis and a precursor to the Fiat 127. The Abarth might have been small and lacking in power, but it was used to tremendous effect in rallies and hillclimbs.

  • Suzuki Ignis Sport

    Suzuki Ignis Sport

    © Suzuki

    Suzuki built the Ignis Sport to enable it to go racing, which is something it did to great effect in the Junior World Rally Championship. Which makes the Ignis Sport a junior hot hatch with genuine pedigree. It also has yellow fishnets in the head restraints. Perfect.

    Search for a used Suzuki Ignis on Auto Trader

  • Ford SportKa

    Ford SportKa

    © Ford

    Some cars just look right. Step forward the Ford SportKa, which wears its junior hot hatch credentials with pride, right down to a reversing light that resembles a centre exhaust. Its 1.6-litre engine delivers just 94hp, a figure that seems unfathomable in the context of today’s turbocharged city cars and superminis, but the SportKa is a willing entertainer and a proper fast(ish) Ford.

    Search for a used Ford Ka on Auto Trader

  • Nissan Micra 160SR

    Nissan Micra 160SR

    © Nissan

    ‘Put your cynicism on hold for a second – this is a genuinely fun little car.’ Not our words, Carol. The words of Richard Meaden in EVO magazine. You know you want it. No, really, you do. Amazingly, these things start from as little as a grand. Now you’re tempted.

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  • Ford Fiesta Zetec S

    Ford Fiesta Zetec S

    © Ford

    Either through mass appeal or genuine credentials, the hottest Fiestas have always sat at the top table of the hot hatch elite. But some were largely forgotten, such as the Zetec S, which led a sheltered existence while the Puma took all the plaudits. It shared its chassis and gearbox with the pert coupe, but the 1.6-litre engine wasn’t a match for the Puma’s 1.7 unit.

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  • Toyota Yaris GRMN

    Toyota Yaris GRMN

    © Toyota

    With a £26,295 price tag and a supercharged engine producing 212hp, the Toyota Yaris GRMN edged close to full-fat hot hatch territory rather than a junior plaything. Our man Tim Pitt reckons it offers ‘plenty of smiles per mile’ and that Toyota has ‘transformed an ordinary car into an extraordinary one’. High praise.

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  • Toyota GR Yaris

    Toyota GR Yaris

    © Toyota

    We end with the Toyota GR Yaris, a junior hot hatch we haven’t driven yet. However, with a 257hp engine, lightweight bodywork and four-wheel drive – plus input from World Rally Championship team, Tommi Makinen Racing – who’d bet against it being one of the finest driver’s cars of 2020? We’ll find out soon.

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