Parked next to its great-grandfather, a 1988 Mazda 323 GTX, the 2021 Mazda3 hatchback looks every inch the highly polished machine that it is. Underneath, however, the vehicles share similar components: all-wheel drive, a spacious cargo area and a turbocharged engine.
No, the new Mazda3 Turbo isnʼt the rally hooligan that the limited production GTX was, but this version with its tailgate is a compelling new entrant in one of the most satisfying automotive segments out there: sporty compact hatchbacks. The term “hot hatch” (or warm hatch, depending on how spicy the performance is), first cropped up in Britain in the mid-1980s to describe cars such as the GTX and, retroactively, the Volkswagen GTI.
Offering a blend of practicality and performance, whatʼs not to like? Small, sporty hatchbacks are fun to drive, usually relatively fuel-efficient, and offer enough kid-carrying capacity to function as the family car. The Mazda3 is a more grown-up version of the original idea and is a much more buttoned-down offering than the loutish (but fun) Mazdaspeed3 hatchbacks that preceded it. Yet along with that poise and a generally upscale feel, this car still has some of that same DNA. Engage Sport mode on a twisty road, spool up the 250 horsepower, 2.5-litre turbocharged engine, and thereʼs still plenty of driving delight here on offer.
Still, the $35,775 Mazda3 Turbo has its work cut out for it. Even as crossovers dominate the sales charts, thereʼs still plenty of hot hatchback competition out there. Hereʼs an overview of the rest of the sporty hatchback market.
Volkswagen Golf GTI/R
There were a few semi-obscure French hatchbacks that beat Volkswagen to the segment by a few years, but generally the GTI is considered the first proper hot hatchback. The current version starts $35,995, features a 228-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-litre engine and front-wheel drive, and thereʼs the choice of either a six-speed manual gearbox or a snappy seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
If youʼre patient, however, you might want to wait, as thereʼs a new GTI on the horizon. The eighth-generation Golf will be slightly larger than the current model, and the GTI sees a power bump to 241 horsepower. At the top of the range will be the Golf R, which adds all-wheel drive and comes with 315 horsepower. Current or new, the GTI and R are both fairly subtle machines that donʼt shout about their performance. Donʼt expect big grilles and spoilers, but do expect to find a grin on your face as you hit the back roads.
Including the Bolt on this list might seem odd, what with its high roof and stubby shape, but the instant-on torque of electric power make it surprisingly good fun to drive. A low-mounted battery pack makes for a low centre of gravity and improving handling, and the performance specs are only tenths of a second behind what a GTI will do.
At $44,998 to start, youʼre going to want to take advantage of any available electric-vehicle rebates, but the Bolt makes for a great drive.
Honda Civic Sport/Type R
One of the wildest-looking cars on the road, the Civic Type R is probably the peak of front-wheel-drive performance. Even if youʼre a purist and prefer the handling characteristics of rear-wheel drive, you have to respect the way the 306-horsepower Type R can keep up with much more powerful machinery at the track.
However, it also wouldnʼt look amiss in a cartoon about giant robots fighting in space, is only available with a manual transmission and costs $46,200 before freight charges and taxes. The Civic Type R might not be the most pragmatic choice.
Instead, consider the Civic Hatchback Sport, which starts at a much more reasonable $27,980 and is still good fun to drive. With 180 horsepower on offer, itʼs no slouch on a back road and is quite a bit more practical day-to-day.
Mini Cooper S/JCW/SE
When it comes to compact fun, Mini always makes the list. One of the original pocket rockets, you can now get the Mini Cooper in a more practical five-door format or the classic two doors and a hatch. The latterʼs a lot better looking.
Whatʼs best about the Mini range is the number of options on offer. Not only can you totally customize your interior, but thereʼs a wide range of powertrains available, from a peppy 134 horsepower, three-cylinder engine thatʼs all you really need to the powerful John Cooper Works (JCW) version.
For a city car, the Cooper SE might be the best. The limited range, just 177 kilometres, is a disappointment, but the rabbit-quick performance and handling of this electric vehicle is lively.
Hyundai Elantra GT, Veloster N
Itʼs all too easy to overlook Hyundai as a performance-minded automaker because that certainly hasnʼt been the companyʼs heritage. However, you canʼt deny the ferocity of their Veloster N hatchback, preferably in the eye-catching Performance Blue. With 275 horsepower and either a six-speed manual or a new eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, this little shoe-shaped Hyundai really scoots. Its asymmetrical three-door layout seems weirdly unconventional but is surprisingly practical.
More sensible is the Elantra GT N-Line, which offers up some of the Velosterʼs performance in a much more practical four-door hatchback format. The 1.6-litre four-cylinder generates a healthy 201 horsepower, and thereʼs the option of a six-speed manual transmission or a seven-speed dual-clutch.
At $27,249 to start, the Elantra GT N-line is also $10,000 less expensive than the Veloster N. It drives really well, striking a good balance between performance and efficiency. The Elantra is not quite as quick outright as a modern Volkswagen GTI, but itʼs also more affordable, thriftier on fuel and just as much fun to drive.
Toyota Corolla Hatchback
To most people, the Toyota Corolla is little more than sensible and reliable transportation. However, the hatchback version is worth a look, as it comes with a 169-horsepower four-cylinder engine and a stiffer suspension than the sedan.
New for 2021 is the wild-looking Special Edition, which gets all sorts of aerodynamic-looking add-ons – but no extra power. Itʼs also a package available only on the CVT-equipped models. Performance is acceptable but not quite at hot-hatch levels. However, the reason the Corolla Hatchback deserves a mention are the rumours of a Gazoo Racing (GR) version coming to our market in a couple of years. This might get the 257-horsepower, three-cylinder engine thatʼs featured in the Europe-only Yaris GR and be priced to compete with the GTI.
The more hot hatchbacks, the merrier.
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