Drive Car Of The Year

Best Hot Hatch 2023

Best Hot Hatch

It may be a dwindling breed, but the hot hatch segment is going out with an almighty bang, as judges found at 2023 Drive Car of the Year.

Fast, attainable, and practical. Hot hatches are one of the few cars that nail all three briefs. Ever since its introduction at the hands of skunkworks engineers at Volkswagen, the hot hatch has represented the best virtues of accessibility and driving enjoyment.

The hot hatch is a subset of car that brought dynamic character and driving enjoyment to the masses, filtering the concept of performance from supercars and sports cars right down to an attainable price point.

This makes it all the more disappointing that hot hatches are now endangered, not only in Australia but all over the world. We’ve already lost heavyweights such as the Renault Megane RS, Ford’s iconic Fiesta ST and the Focus ST. The models that remain on sale are increasing in price, and very few offer that once all-important manual gearbox. 

It's true that some players in this year's Drive Car of the Year Best Hot Hatch field are pushing $70,000 on the road — not nearly as affordable as they have been previously.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Hyundai has stamped its mark as a force to be reckoned with over the last half-decade, and Volkswagen remains one of the most quintessential nameplates in the game with a spread of spicy models.

2022 also welcomed a newcomer brand to Australia. Cupra arrived on the scene midway through the year boasting a three-strong range of vehicles. The one concerning the Aussie hot hatch market is the Cupra Leon VZx. It joins the 2023 Drive Car of the Year Best Hot Hatch field alongside the new Volkswagen Golf R and incumbent champ, the Hyundai i30 N.

Toyota's launch timing of the GR Corolla meant it arrived too late to participate in this year's awards, but is eligible for consideration for Drive Caro of the Year 2024.

It's a strong set of contenders vying for top honours in 2023, some maniacal in their character, whereas others are more restrained and mature. At Drive, while we can wholly appreciate raucous driving entertainment, our judging remit focuses on a hot hatch that is best enjoyed every day, not just at a racetrack. While the affordability factor has taken a blow, we can at least take solace in the fact these cars are as feature-packed, capable, and smile-inducing as we've come to expect from the humble hot hatch.

That is why our judging criteria form a back-to-basics analysis of those key hot hatch criteria: fast, attainable, and practical. The contender that most suitably matches all three of these points is the 2023 Drive Car of the Year Best Hot Hatch.

Winner: Volkswagen Golf R


Volkswagen Golf

Volkswagen Golf

8 variants available

$ 35,190 - $ 69,990* MRLP

What we love

  • -Carries an immense amount of speed through bends
  • -Excellent technology array
  • -Super-sharp dual-clutch gearbox

What we don't

  • -Seats could use some more bolstering
  • -Silly touch panels to control air-conditioning
  • -Lack of steering directness

As one of the most contentious categories, it came down to a slim margin in deciding the Volkswagen Golf R as the 2023 Drive Car of the Year Best Hot Hatch. We all know the Golf R as a savagely fast hot hatch in all weather conditions, but the model has not typically held the best reputation in terms of smile inducement.

This new Mk8 Golf R is two cars for the price of one: it's a riot when you want and refined when you need. Though it comes at a considerably higher price point than the other two hot hatch contenders (it's $66,990 before on-road costs), the Golf R is worth its substantial asking price due to its jack-of-all-trades character. Not only is it fast like the Hyundai i30 N, but it blends in a well-finished cabin, an array of integrated tech solutions, and it also earns a huge tick in the space and practicality stakes. It even comes in wagon body style for an extra $3000.

Sitting above the Golf GTI, and as the flagship of the Golf range entirely, the Golf R is the most hardcore performance variant of the small hatch line-up. Many Golf variants are fitted with turbocharged 2.0-litre engines, but the Golf R's is turned up to 11 with outputs totalling 225kW/400Nm.

This power is routed through all four wheels, and through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Also joining the party is a host of sporty upgrades such as a sports body kit, sports seats, performance brakes, 19-inch wheels, adaptive dampers, and a series of drive modes (including a Drift mode!).

It is far more entertaining than its forebears and welcomes a fun-loving character that is so crucial to the hot hatch formula. You need only look as far as its outlandish body kit to see signs of VW injecting a laugh into its flagship hot hatch. 

It remains the all-weather weapon we know and love, with judges likening it to the Porsche 911 Turbo in its unfathomable ability to demolish a set of twisty roads, no matter the conditions.

The 225kW of power is put down to the ground without so much as a tyre chirp, and the way the Golf R is able to carry speed through corners wowed judges. The steering isn’t the last word in directness, but relays good information to the driver about what’s underfoot.

Key to the Golf R’s success is its ability to calm down for everyday duties. The interior is spacious and comfortable, contains all manner of tech and features to keep owners occupied, and its ability to dispatch rough roads is commendable. The Drive team has long lambasted Volkswagen for its inclusion of touch-sensitive controls – which the Golf R has – though thankfully the marque will soon phase out the controls in favour of traditional buttons.

Put simply, this is the hot hatch you'll want to drive every single day.

So, forget everything you know about hot hatches, the new Golf R is a proper compact sports car that just happens to be practical!

Runner-up: Hyundai i30 N


Hyundai i30

Hyundai i30

18 variants available

$ 24,000 - $ 56,200* MRLP

What we love

  • -Exhaust note is a proper hoot
  • -Steering is incredibly sharp
  • -Single-minded focus on going fast

What we don't

  • -Interior is full of drab plastics
  • -Rough ride comfort
  • -Cabin is tight for taller passengers

For the price you pay, there is no other hot hatch on the market that’ll give you as much fun as the Hyundai i30 N. While last year’s winner did not take the coveted Best Hot Hatch trophy in 2023, the car is still an incredibly accomplished option in a diminishing segment. It’s only once you factor in everyday liveability that the Volkswagen Golf R shines brighter.

It's the same size as the Golf R, but is priced much lower owing to a more basic interior outlay and and a front-wheel instead of all-wheel drive powertrain. The Hyundai i30 N's engine produces 206kW/392Nm and unlike the VW Golf R, the Hyundai i30 N can be equipped with a manual transmission. This manual entry-level specification begins at $46,200 (plus on-road costs), while you'll pay more for dual-clutch automatic cars. Extra equipment is unlocked by opting for the 'Premium' specification.

With that, the Hyundai i30 N is an outrageous amount of fun and never fails to put a smile on the face of its driver. Judges loved the eagerness of the i30 N to go fast, with each successive dual-clutch gear change willing the driver to keep the throttle pinned that little bit longer.

The exhaust system is a pure cracker and faithfully reflects the car’s larrikin character. It might have fewer kilowatts and send its power through two fewer wheels than the Golf R, but from the hot seat there is no lack of power or grip.

Ride comfort in the i30 N is not one of its strong suits, though we’d argue its buyer doesn’t care anyway. Its suspension is stiff and full-on, especially over sustained undulations and road imperfections. The steering is bang-on perfect, with a very heavy weight reminiscent of a go-kart’s, and a pointed rack speed that feels far more tactile than you’d expect.

Inside the cabin, Hyundai has thrown in some handy features to keep owners comfortable and connected, but the interior lacks that final feel of polish that we have come to expect from everyday hot hatches.

While the Hyundai i30 N is the most affordable hot hatch on test, it couldn't win the outright trophy in this company due to its singular focus on going fast.

Finalist: Cupra Leon VZx




4 variants available

$ 43,990 - $ 59,990* MRLP

What we love

  • -Interesting trim design highlights
  • -Enthusiastic exhaust note
  • -Slick transmission

What we don't

  • -Tech user experience 
  • -Steering lacks outright feel
  • -High driving position

A new name in the hot hatch game, Cupra’s Leon finished well in its first Drive Car of the Year outing. It strikes a good balance between comfort and sporting ability, though it failed to stand tallest against its esteemed competition at the 2023 Drive Car of the Year.

But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let's recap on what the Cupra Leon is all about. It's a small hatch which arrived mid-way through 2022 alongside the Cupra Formentor and Cupra Ateca small SUV twins. As a brand, Cupra sits under Spanish brand Seat, which itself sits under Volkswagen. But the Cupra offshoot places extra emphasis on performance and design.

Within the Cupra Leon line-up you can get a choice of petrol or hybrid engines, though for Best Hot Hatch we're most concerned with the top-spec VZx specification. It utilises a turbocharged 2.0-litre engine which sends 221kW/400Nm through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox to the front wheels. As the flagship variant of the Leon range, the VZx tops-out at $61,490 before on-road costs.

Judges were impressed by its rapid acceleration and fast-shifting gearbox. The drive experience is backed up by a rumbly exhaust note that encourages you to go harder. Body control is well managed through successive bends, though the steering feel is overly floaty and doesn’t transmit useable feedback to the driver.

Inside, there’s an array of interesting things to look at which remind of Lamborghini’s hexagonal design language. It’s quite a high-riding hot hatch and you get a great view out over the road, and though you slip into a set of firm seats, they hold the driver and passenger in well through lateral movement.

The user experience of the infotainment software is not a highlight, and we are not fans of the touch-sensitive air-conditioning controls. On the former, it takes a long time to recognise what Cupra’s icons represent and navigating between menus is needlessly difficult.

Cupra’s Leon is a welcome addition in a dwindling segment, and we can’t wait to see what the brand has in store for the future.

You can read about all the other 2023 Drive Car of the Year categories and winners here:
Drive Car of the Year categories and winners

Other Award Categories

Chat with us!

Chat with Agent