MANY OF us have at some point enjoyed sharing our life with a hot hatchback. Putting a powerful engine and sporty suspension in a small and affordable car is a recipe for fun, and cars such as the new Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen Golf GTI – reviewed in this Sunday’s Driving section – show that manufacturers think there’s still plenty of mileage in it. They’re fast and fun enough to get you out of bed at sunrise on a Sunday morning, yet practical and comfortable enough to handle the daily slog to the office.
Are they affordable, though? The Focus ST will set you back a minimum of £22,195, and the Golf GTI at least £26,580 – not exactly impulse buys. So we at Driving have scratched our heads, reminisced about good times at the wheel of a hot hatch and come up with five fun models that will put a great big smile on a driver’s face, as much for their price as their wheel-spinning abilities.
Bargain basement: Peugeot 306 GTI-6
What you’ll pay: £1,000
What you’ll get: 1998 S-registered 306 GTI-6 with 120,000 miles
The 306 GTI-6 is such a hoot to drive that having more fun for less money would surely have to involve activities that are not fit to be discussed here. For £1,000 or even less you can bag a car with a sweet-revving 2-litre 16-valve motor that kicks out 167bhp and a short-ratio six-speed manual gearbox that keep it buzzing away. That may not sound much but in 1996 it set new standards.
Its engine and six-speed gearbox set the standard in 1996
In its day independent tests showed it could accelerate from 0 to 60mph in 7.9 seconds. What those figures couldn’t show is how enthusiastically the 306 GTI-6 tackled a winding road: it was as graceful as a ballerina, pirouetting from bend to bend with a delicacy that no other hot hatch could match.
Today, GTI-6s are few and far between. If you’re considering buying one, ask for proof of frequent cam-belt changes. Test electrical items such as the alarm and windows, check for air-conditioning leaks and make sure the clutch doesn’t slip when the car is pulling away.
Big bruiser: Ford Focus 2.5 ST
What you’ll pay: £6,000
What you’ll get: 2007 Focus ST-2 with 65,000 miles
The Focus ST is not terribly pretty to look at and its interior is hardly the last word in luxury, but there are five things to love about it: the five cylinders lurking beneath the bonnet. Unlike any other hot hatch in this price range (unless you count Volvo’s lukewarm C30 T5), the ST has a five-cylinder engine, which gives it a big, brawny character.
You’ll have as much fun driving one of these as you will a Golf GTI and it’s cheaper
The 2.5-litre lump has a distinct sound and plenty of go: 222bhp and a hefty 236 Ib ft of torque from just 1600rpm. It pulls enthusiastically from low in the rev range and zips the ST past slow traffic with ease. The handling is not as precise as that of the Mégane Renaultsport, below, mainly because of that big, heavy engine, and the steering is almost too keen for its own good, but you’ll have as much fun driving one of these as you will a Golf GTI, and it’s a lot cheaper.
We found 2007 models with less than 65,000 miles for sale at Ford franchised dealers for under £6,500; haggle and that will fall to £6,000.
The early, pre-2008 engines were prone to splitting their cylinder liners, and there was a recall for faulty driveshafts. The clutch, brakes and suspension bushes wear quickly, so check them all carefully or your bargain fast Ford could start costing a fortune. And make sure the car you’re considering is free of weird and wonderful modifications – something ST owners like to indulge in.
Racetrack special: Mégane Renaultsport 230 F1 Team R26
What you’ll pay: £6,000–£7,000
What you’ll get: 2007 F1 Team R26 with 60,000–70,000 miles
The 230 F1 Team R26 version of the Mégane Renaultsport is not only known for having an absurdly long-winded name; it marked the moment that Renaultsport’s engineers came back from their two-year lunch break and transformed the Mégane into a fantastic driving machine.
The Renaultsport Mégane was launched in 2004, but, truth be told, it was a disappointment. It took until late 2006 for things to get interesting: the engine was tuned to 227bhp, the suspension was improved and a limited-slip differential was added. The result was one of the most fun hot hatchbacks money could buy.
You’ll buy this because you prioritise the thrill of the drive
Today, you’ll buy this because you prioritise the thrill of the drive over creature comforts or stylish design. The Mégane does not have the robust, luxurious feel of, say, a Golf GTI; nor is it as mechanically sophisticated as the Impreza WRX. But that doesn’t matter: it does the most important thing of all for a hot hatch – it puts a big smile on the driver’s face.
A budget of £7,000 buys a tidy 230 F1 Team R26. Only look at cars with a full service history, and be mindful that at 72,000 miles the cam belt and auxiliary should be changed, which is an expensive job. Also check on the remaining life of the Brembo brake discs and pads, and of the tyres, as you can expect them to have led a hard life.
All-weather hero: Subaru Impreza WRX
What you’ll pay: £8,000
What you’ll get: 2008 WRX with 40,000 miles from a Subaru dealer
It’s easy to forget about Subaru. For a little while in the mid-1990s, when men wore anoraks with badges stitched on them and stood shivering in the cold for hours on end just so a rally car would spray them with mud on the Network Q RAC rally, Subaru’s Impreza was one of the most lusted-after cars on the road.
By the middle of the Noughties, that was a dim and distant memory; rallying had fallen out of favour and the Impreza had morphed into an ugly hatchback. But there was one version that was spectacularly good fun to drive, if you could look beyond the undesirable styling: the Impreza WRX.
Spectacularly good fun to drive, if you can look beyond the undesirable styling
With a 2.5-litre horizontally opposed four-cylinder turbocharged engine, permanent four-wheel drive and a manual gearbox, it can cover ground at an impressive rate regardless of the weather conditions. And where front-wheel-drive hot hatchbacks with similar power to the Subaru fight a losing battle with the laws of physics, spinning their tyres in a cloud of smoke, the WRX gets its head down and charges for the horizon.
Subaru dealers offer approved-used 2008 Impreza WRX models for about £8,000, with just 40,000 miles on the clock. You’ll have to be prepared for distinctly average fuel consumption (27mpg at best), and the cars need regular oil changes for the engine, transmission and differentials, as well as a cam belt replacement at about 45,000 miles. Check for worn suspension bushes, which sound and feel like something is knocking beneath the front of the car.
All-round performer: Volkswagen Golf GTI
What you’ll pay: £9,000
What you’ll get: 2008 GTI with 58,000 miles
Before 2004 the Golf GTI had a reputation as something of a laughing stock. It was the sort of car that was appreciated by London estate agents rushing from viewing to viewing; its spongy suspension soaked up speed bumps, and the smart appearance of the interior disguised all manner of problems lurking underneath.
Word must have filtered back to Volkswagen’s boardroom that all was not well with the Golf GTI. And in its fifth generation VW’s hot hatch got its mojo back.
The MkV GTI set the hot hatch standard and VW hasn’t lifted off the throttle since
The 2-litre turbo engine was a cracker, it had an expensive independent rear suspension system, the steering behaved as you expected and the ride and handling set the class standard. VW hasn’t lifted off the throttle since.
You can pick up a Mk 5 GTI from Volkswagen’s approved-used car programme for less than £10,000. The version to hunt for is the one with the manual gearbox, as it’s bulletproof (whereas the control unit for the DSG automatic version can fail) and good fun too. Ask whether the follower for the camshaft of the high-pressure fuel pump has been replaced, and make sure that during the test drive the turbocharger kicks in hard at 2000rpm – if it doesn’t, there could be a split diaphragm in its pressure release valve.