31/08/2007 00:00 | By By Christopher Hubbard

Used Car Guide: hot hatches

Renault Megane 225 Cup (© Image © Renault)

The hot hatch is cool again. Just like the very first time around, it seems Volkswagen’s Golf GTI is key – blending sophisticated visuals with entertaining performance and an ‘affordable’ price tag; ideally we would take ours in white, please, with tartan seats. Thanks.

Unfortunately, when affordable means the thick end of £19,000 these days, we are probably not the only ones left dreaming. But help is at hand – as this week’s MSN used sector guide explains, you don’t need to spend a fortune to have fun in a hatchback.

GALLERY: complete hot hatch buying guide

From cheap laughs for a few hundred quid to peachy pride-and-joys for much more substantial sums, we highlight the cars that should be on any shortlist. This is a packed sector, so there is plenty to choose from – whatever your budget. And in this instance we’re very happy to put our money where our mouth is: examples of three of the cars mentioned in the top buys below are personally owned by team members here at MSN. Hot hatches are great. Here is our guide to finding one of your own.

Autocheck: our new low cost way to check a used car's history before you buy it

£0 - £2,000

Unusually, this is a great price point to be looking in. The cars won’t be immaculate, but there is plenty of choice (so there’s no need to settle for anything too horrible), and some real classics can be had for not very much money. And they don’t come very much more classic than the original GTis from Volkswagen and Peugeot. Both have very strong followings, and for really well kept examples you will need to spend more, but whatever you want to spend there is plenty of advice, information and availability. In fact, the trickiest thing is finding unmodified versions.

Citroen ZX Volcane (© Image © Citroen)

With the Golf you will find more Mk2s than Mk1s, and more Mk3s than Mk2s – though we would avoid the 3s as they are no-where near as good to drive. 16v-engined Mk2s offer the most performance as standard, but the 1.9-litre Peugeot 205 GTI is still quicker. Decent, low cost (and slower) French alternatives come from Citroen; the AX GT and ZX Volcane won’t rust much as they’re mostly made from plastic. Barring fond memories of the Vauxhall Astra GTE, there’s not much else to consider at such classic vintages.

Used Citroen AX GTs less than £2,000

More modern machinery to make you laugh includes cheeky Italians like the Fiat Cinquecento Sporting, Punto GT 1.4-litre turbo, and even the Alfa Romeo 145 2.0-litre Twin Spark. The Mk3 Vauxhall Astra GSI is very fast, but not sophisticated. For best reliability, go Japanese. The Honda Civic offers excellent engines but dull handling and a curious image. The Nissan Sunny 2.0e GTi is a surprisingly good all rounder, and very subtle. Daihatsu’s insane turbocharged Charade GTti is hard to find, but still fun.

Used Daihatsu Charade GTis less than £2,000

Cars to avoid

Less unusually, there are plenty of cars to avoid at this price point, too. Cheap turbocharged hatches are generally a bad idea – if you fancy a Renault 5 or Lancia Delta Turbo you would be wise to spend more, and don’t even think about the forced-induction Fiat Uno. Old twin-cams from Toyota and Suzuki aren’t really very exciting, while we shouldn’t really need to tell you to steer clear of cars like the Ford Fiesta XR2 and the Vauxhall Nova SRI/GTE/GSI. The dodgy image clichés speak for themselves – plus the chances of finding a nice one are exceedingly slim.

Top 3 Smart buys

Peugeot 205 1.9 GTi (© Image © Peugeot)

Peugeot 205 1.9 GTi

  • We found a… 1991 Peugeot 205 1.9 GTi 3dr hatchback, 74,300 miles, £1,200
  • Best bits – fabulous handling, very fast for the time, still look good thanks to great original design, excellent packaging, doesn’t rust much
  • Worst bits – handling too fabulous for some (notoriously snappy under certain conditions), not so good in an accident, driver’s seat edge wears out, many thrashed and crashed so examine carefully

Used Peugeot 205 GTis less than £2,000

VW Golf GTi (© Image © Volkswagen)

Volkswagen Golf GTi

  • We found a… 1990 Volkswagen Golf GTi 5dr hatchback, 123,000 miles, £800
  • Best bits – the car that made the Golf’s image, better ownership proposition than Mk1, faster 16v engine sweet, torquey 8v engine, solid
  • Worst bits – lots wear out over time (but parts are cheaply available), check door seals, central locking, clutch, regular belt changes a must, make sure interior condition matches miles

Used VW Golf GTis less than £2,000

Nissan Sunny GTi (© Image © Nissan)

Nissan Sunny GTi

  • We found a… 1992 Nissan Sunny 2.0e GTi 3dr hatchback, 60,850 miles, £1,995
  • Best bits – unassuming styling hides 143bhp, fast, far more fun than you would credit, reliability, previous ownership less likely to be suspect
  • Worst bits – for unassuming read ‘bland’, interior, listen for driveshaft knocks, service history preferred to low mileage, rust a possibility

Used Nissan Sunny GTis less than £2,000

£2,000 - £4,000

Peugeot 106 GTi (© Image © Peugeot)

Like much of this guide, the French dominate this price band. Take Peugeot for example; not only can you find top quality 205s, but you might also be tempted by the 106 GTi Rallye, or the last properly decent handling Pug hatchback, the 306 GTi-6. Both 106 and 306 were also available as lightweight Rallyes. Boyracer at heart? Then obvious candidates for attention are Citroen Saxos in VTR and VTS form – fun, too, though the essentially identical Peugeot 106 has a much less abrasive image. For something with a higher pedigree (and future classic status), check the Renault Clio Williams. Versions I (rare, pricey) and II are best – buy one and save it from ignominious extinction via the local Maccy D’s car park.

Used Peugeot 106 GTis between £2,000 and £4,000

Ford Fiesta Zetec-S (© Image © Ford)

Here’s a car that might slip under your radar: BMW’s original 3-Series Compact. All are rear-wheel drive, which is highly unusual in this sector, but the 1.9-litre 318ti is the real hot hatch choice, and good value. The oriental contingent is best represented by the Honda Civic VTi-S (ace engine, dodgy image), the Nissan Almera GTi (really genuinely very good), and the Mazda 323 4x4 turbo (import mostly, bonkers), while more ‘home-grown’ talent comes flying out of Essex in the shape of the Ford Fiesta Zetec-S – which isn’t that quick but offers a great front-wheel drive chassis. Seat’s Ibiza Cupra 2.0 16v is good honest fun.

Used Ford Fiesta Zetec-Ss between £2,000 and £4,000
Used Seat Ibiza Cupras between £2,000 and £4,000

Speaking of which, the MG ZR offers the biggest new-plate value here. 02 and 03 models are abundant in this price bracket; with up to 160bhp and a thuggish, old school feel, they shouldn’t be dismissed.

Cars to avoid

The Fiesta Zetec-S (and the first generation Focus – which is fun to hustle even in cooking guise) were integral parts of rebuilding Ford’s reputation for handling prowess. This price bracket also sees some less than shining examples of the blue oval’s past, however. They have a certain old-worlde charm now, but avoid the Fiesta and Escort RS Turbo (you might just get away with a Series One), and also later shaped RS2000, which has far too much of a chav chariot image. Turbo-nutter four-wheel drive Daihatsu Sirion Rally IVs aren’t a good look, either. But some people love them.

Top 3 Smart Buys

MG ZR (© Image © MG Rover)


  • We found a… 2002 MG ZR 1.8 VVC 160 3dr hatchback, 70,000 miles, £3,495
  • Best bits – range of engines with similar visuals, 160 does 0-62 in 7.4 seconds, not a delicate drive but tries hard, van version amusing
  • Worst bits – watch for popped head gaskets as low coolant capacity of engines makes this common fault, suspension bushes, paint hues

Used MG ZRs between £2,000 and £4,000

BMW 318ti Compact Sport

  • We found a… 2000 BMW 318ti Compact Sport 1.9 3dr hatchback, 72,000 miles, £3,999
  • Best bits – like an E36 3-Series but with its boot chopped off, so lighter and faster, respectable image, 318ti engine is suitably pokey
  • Worst bits – like an E36 only with the previous generation’s rear suspension so handling not quite as good, no six-cylinder engines in right-hand drive, dashboard electronics can fail, watch for clocking

Used BMW 318ti Compacts between £2,000 and £4,000

Citroen Saxo VTS (© Image © Citroen)

Citroen Saxo VTS

  • We found a… 2000 Citroen Saxo 1.6i 16v VTS 3dr hatchback, 60,000 miles, £2,200
  • Best bits – supermarket car park favourite, VTS has 125bhp, VTR circa 100 (depending on year), entertaining, cheap to run, lots around
  • Worst bits – 106 GTi twin with sharper handling, front suspension wear, catalytic converters, crash damage, interior, ergonomics, timing belts

Used Citroen Saxo VTSs between £2,000 and £4,000

£4,000 - £6,000

Plenty of choice here – from better quality examples of the cars in the previous budget to entry level pricing for some seriously entertaining machinery, and a few steady choices in between. Starting with the latter, this price point will get you firmly behind the wheel of a Citroen C2 VTR; successor to the Saxo dynasty, they are very funky looking but not quite as enjoyable to drive (semi-auto gearbox doesn’t help). Alternatively while we suggest you steer clear of the GTi version of Volkwagen’s Mk3 Golf, a well looked after VR6 is an excellent grown-up hot hatchback. Immaculate at this price, don’t buy a tatty one – those narrow-angle V6s are costly to repair.

Used Citroen C2 VTRs between £4,000 and £6,000

Lancia Delta Integrale (© Image © Lancia)

Funnily enough, ‘costly to repair’ is equally applicable to a couple of other first-rate hot hatches that spring to mind. The Nissan Sunny (UK original) / Pulsar (import only) GTi-R features four-wheel drive and a highly tuneable turbo engine – strong but complex so costs a fortune if something does go wrong. Similar words might be applied to the Lancia Delta HF Integrale. Except that this budget is very much on the low side for one of these – and ‘strong’ requires a particularly Italian definition. Awesome cult performance, though. Much more modest, but with an absolutely top-class chassis is the Renault Clio Renaultsport 172 – which is what we would pick.

Used Lancia Delta Integrales between £4,000 and £6,000

Slightly less obvious contenders for your money include the Seat Ibiza Cupra – this time with the 20v Turbo engine – and Alfa Romeo’s updated 2.0-litre Twin Spark packaging, the stylish looking 147.

Cars to avoid

Ah, how the mighty have fallen. A terrible cliché, but one that has never been more appropriate than for Peugeot and the 206 GTi. Buy one and proper petrolheads will laugh at you – especially as the 180 version is almost exclusively beyond this budget, leaving you with just 136bhp and only a modestly competent chassis. And for heaven’s sake don’t be fooled by the Lotus engineering proudly exulted by Proton’s Satria GTi – only so much could be done with the sub-mediocre starting point. The Honda Civic Jordan is more about the F1 inspired nuclear yellow paint than the driving experience – but these are getting almost collectable now.

Top 3 Smart Buys

VW Golf VR6 (© Image © Volkswagen)

Volkswagen Golf VR6

  • We found a… 1996 Volkswagen Golf 2.8 VR6 Highline Special Edition 3dr hatchback, 52,000 miles, £4,995
  • Best bits – fine 174bhp V6 engine the star, quality image, strong enthusiast following so cared for examples can be found, hold value
  • Worst bits – contemporary VW quality wobble means plenty can go wrong, 5dr shell stiffer than 3dr, timing chains can snap, rust, look out for worn suspension bushes and dodgy handling (not great anyway)

Used Volkswagen Golf VR6s between £4,000 and £6,000

Renault Clio Sport (© Image © Renault)

Renault Clio Sport

  • We found a… 2002 Renault Clio 2.0 16v Renaultsport 16v, 42,545 miles, £5,800
  • Best bits – Renaultsport Clios are the hot hatch of modern times, fantastic chassis is ably backed up by potent engine, excellent value
  • Worst bits – it’s a Renault, so the trim that doesn’t fall off will rattle, generally mechanically sound but look for trackday damage, check tyre wear is even, coil springs sometime fail, awful driving position

Used Renault Clio 172s between £4,000 and £6,000

Nissan Pulsar GTi (© Image © Nissan)

Nissan Pulsar GTi

  • We found a… 1993 Nissan Pulsar GTi-R 3dr hatchback, 47,225 miles, £4,500
  • Best bits – like a hatchback equivalent of Nissan’s Skyline GTR, turbo four-wheel drive goes like a Cosworth but costs half as much. This is top end pricing so should buy the best, mechanically tough
  • Worst bits – difficult (and expensive) to repair, walk away if clutch is at all suspect, mostly imports, high insurance, get specialist advice

Used Nissan Pulsar GTi-Rs between £4,000 and £6,000

£6,000 - £8,000

Mini Cooper S (© Image © BMW)

If you are spending this much, perhaps you feel the need to purchase something a little more premium. Well, you’re in luck, as it will just about buy you an early Audi S3. Not the last word in driver involvement, but certainly fast, and as premium as you will get in this generation of hatchback. Want something a little cheekier, but still with excellent cache? Then try a Mini Cooper – given they look virtually identical to the recently revised version their prestige value has hardly been dented. Whatever you think of any associated image, the Cooper is very entertaining to drive and a great choice.

Used Mini Cooper Ss between £6,000 and £8,000

But if you prefer to keep things more down to earth then Ford won’t disappoint you – whether you are looking at small, medium or large hatchbacks. In reversed order, the Focus ST170, Fiesta Zetec-S, and Ford Sportka all offer exceptional chassis engineering that is sure to keep you smiling. The Fiesta Zetec-S is perhaps the weakest of the trifector, but it is available as a diesel – although the real derv-burning star is the Skoda Fabia vRS, which also just slips into this price band. Like the idea of the Seat Ibiza Cupra, but need more space? Then try the Leon Cupra instead, with even more potent versions of the same 20v turbo engine.

Used Ford Focus ST170s between £6,000 and £8,000

The Citroen C2 VTS is a hardcore version of the VTR; the suspension is rock solid and won’t be for everyone. Recent cheap special editions at dealers mean used prices are dropping, though. However, we would still buy a Clio 172 – now with the Cup chassis.

Cars to avoid

Hot versions of Citroen’s C3 and C4 are in budget – but distinctive looks are undermined by compromised dynamics and dubious built quality. Other disappointments are the Peugeot 206 GTi 180 (such a shame), and the Mk4 Golf GTi. The turbo version of the Golf is just about okay – look for the red ‘i’ – but the non-turbo is a badge-dilution job and only for posers. And absolutely do not buy the Toyota Corolla T Sport unless your only priority is reliability – the peaky engine will give you a headache even as the rest of it is boring you to death. Yawn.

Top 3 Smart Buys

Audi S3 (© Image © Audi)

Audi S3

  • We found a… 2001 Audi S3 Quattro 225 3dr hatchback, 74,025 miles, £8,000
  • Best bits – premium image, straight-line performance, quattro all-wheel-drive grip, interior design, typically understated Audi muscularity
  • Worst bits – efficient rather than engaging, brakes could be better, servicing costs high, history vital, belts must be changed on schedule

Used Audi S3 Quattros between £6,000 and £8,000

Ford SportKa (© Image © Ford)

Ford SportKa

  • We found a… 2005 Ford Sportka 1.6i SE 3dr hatchback, 15,000 miles, £6,987
  • Best bits – tenacious chassis, steering feel, excellent short throw gearbox, body control, strong engine, cheap to service and insure…
  • Worst bits – …because it has only got 94bhp. Low rent cabin, poor refinement, not as economical as it should be, thin paint chips and scratches very easily, check air-con works, and for uneven tyre wear

Used Ford SportKas between £6,000 and £8,000

Skoda Fabia vRS (© Image © Skoda)

Skoda Fabia vRS

  • We found a… 2003 Skoda Fabia 1.9 TDI PD 130 vRS 5dr hatchback, 44,000 miles, £7,200
  • Best bits – the car that made the diesel hot hatch cool, very earnest driving experience, 228lb ft of torque so massive mid-range thump
  • Worst bits – daft white seats get grubby quickly, rest of interior deadly black and dull, beware performance ‘chipped’ cars (fun until engine expires), make sure ABS light isn’t on, not that cheap to run

Used Skoda Fabia vRSs between £6,000 and £8,000


Vauxhall Astra VXR (© Image © Vauxhall)

Right – you wanted a hot hatch, yes? Unsurprisingly this is the place to be shopping for the very fastest and most aggressive machinery. Starting at modest amounts – you may even be able to find them for just under £8k – the Honda Civic Type-R has a hardcore following to go with its uncompromising performance. Despite the high-revving nature of its engine, reliability remains Honda exceptional. Not hard-hitting enough? Then you’ll be wanting a Ford Focus RS – and probably double the budget to buy a good one. A VXR Vauxhall Astra isn’t as special, but very raw and full of character. An Escort RS Cosworth offers cult cool – but may prove disappointing compared to modern machinery. And very expensive.

Used Vauxhall Astra VXRs over £8,000

Moving towards more everyday liveable, the Mk5 Golf GTi is, and continues to be, an excellent choice. The second generation Focus ST is another (especially if you have an affinity for orange). Renault’s 225 Renaultsport Meganes are very quick over the ground – downsides are poor reliability and steering feel. Try the Clio 182 instead, especially with the Cup chassis; last-of-the-line Trophy is even better, thanks in part to some very special dampers. And if none of these have enough cylinders, the Golf R32, Alfa 147 GTA and BMW 130i each have six – though the latter pair risk costing you a fortune in front or rear tyres, respectively. Or there is always Renault again, this time with the barking mad mid-engined V6 Clio – just watch out for the nasty on-limit behaviour of the first generation cars.

Used BMW 130is over £8,000
Used Renault Clio V6s over £8,000
Used VW Golf R32s over £8,000

Avoid oversized alloys on Mini’s Cooper S – they compromise enjoyment and ruin the ride. The Ford Fiesta ST packs 150bhp, but too many come with added stripes. Finally, don’t dismiss the current Suzuki Swift Sport – you can already get a good secondhand deal.

Cars to avoid

As this guide deals specifically with the most everyday kind of performance car available, you have got to expect the vehicles themselves to have had the odd bit of enthusiastic use during the custodianship of their previous owners. However, you don’t want to mistakenly buy an utterly abused example. Signs you can look for are kerbed alloys, signs of poor fluid vigilance (dirty oil, low coolant levels, etc), and heavy stone chipping. Also, when the advertising photos show the car at an actual track day you might want to think about looking elsewhere…

Top 3 Smart Buys

Honda Civic Type-R (© Image © Honda)

Honda Civic Type-R

  • We found a… 2003 Honda Civic 2.0 i-Vtec Type-R 3dr hatchback, 29,000 miles, £9,300
  • Best bits – in standard form zingy engine is unburstable, slick gearchange, adrenalin rush for the redline, soundtrack, practical
  • Worst bits – very little goes wrong, up to you whether you like the looks and torque-free power delivery, steering assistance slightly odd

Used Honda Civic Type-Rs over £8,000

Volkswagen Golf GTi (© Image © VW)

Volkswagen Golf GTi

  • We found a… 2005 Volkswagen Golf 2.0 T GTi FSI 3dr hatchback, 20,000 miles, £17,990
  • Best bits – the current hot hatch we reckon makes the best ownership proposition, great to drive, sweet performance, looks good, has a very solid image, and excellent residuals. Well worth a look
  • Worst bits –recent reports of niggling build faults. Examine car carefully, making sure trim doesn’t rattle and everything electrical works as it should (dual climate control, etc)

Used VW Golf GTis over £8,000

Alfa Romeo 147 GTA (© Image © Alfa Romeo)

Alfa Romeo 147 GTA

  • We found a… 2004 Alfa Romeo 147 3.2 V6 24v GTA 3dr hatchback, 19,850 miles, £13,995
  • Best bits – 247bhp through the front wheels sounds disastrous, but gorgeous looks and fab sounding V6 help ease the pain, fast, stylish
  • Worst bits – chassis just about copes, eats front tyres (obviously), turning circle is atrocious; build quality and dealer network not quite as bad…but it is close. Buy for looks, engine and learn to be tolerant

Used Alfa Romeo 147 GTAs over £8,000
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