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2021 Hot Hatchback Test: Corolla, Mazda3, Veloster N, and More

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A slowly dying genotype in the United States is the premise of hot hatches. The idea that a practical and efficient grocery getter should be tuned up and given the looks only a child would love is something that intrigues nearly everyone. Encapsulated and overshadowed by the new SUV wave and being nixed from various product lines, the hot hatch still lives… for now. We tried out a good number of new hot hatches. This time we have the Toyota Corolla Hatchback, the Mazda3 Turbo Hatch, The Hyundai Veloster N, the Honda Civic Type R, and the Golf GTI. 5 daring contestants approach the scene, who comes out victorious?

No you probably can’t spend your stimulus check on these cars, they probably wouldn’t even take it as a down payment. However these cars are worth more than that. These are vehicles that are more practical than a sedan and more fun than most as well. A slowly dying breed with SUVs taking the wheel of the market share, it’s not easy for these vehicles to go unloved. So we decided to take some out onto the streets of North Dallas, and here’s what we found.

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#5: Toyota Corolla Hatchback

This one was an underdog from the start. Just like the #16 seed in March Madness, it’d need a Cinderella story, yet it was the snobby stepsisters. Unexciting to drive kicks off the Corolla’s slew of reasons why it placed dead last. Let’s keep in mind here that it wasn’t a longshot, it still impressed me and our other testers. It just didn’t live up to the hot hatch name.

That’s not all Toyota’s fault, it’s not marketed as such. Based off the previous Toyota iM the Corolla Hatchback posts a 7.3 second 0-60 at best. Not exactly “hot” numbers. Toyota never puts it out there that this is a speedy vehicle. On the contrary it’s supposed to entice the youth. A in-brand revival of Scion in a way. It’s marketed in promotional material as a fun hot hatch.

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While it may have the styling of a teenager, it’s still a very pretty car. Albeit without performance. A 0-60 time we tested of just shy of 8 seconds doesn’t exactly propel the car into “excitement” territory. Basic stock tires just don’t feel well around turns and a lot of float was felt as we got onto on ramps. The 10-speed automatic transmission felt like it was trying the save gas like it was the ring from the Lord of the Rings more than shifting the car at the right points. The brakes impressed me though, they felt super grabby and like they were aftermarket.

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I’ll give it to Toyota, they made the boring Corolla look very stylish. A roof spoiler, 3 layer paint, and various exterior styling changes made the hatch look very special. The Cherry Red we tested too looked absolutely glimmering in the light. On the interior it looked very plain. The infotainment screen popping out and kind of floating over top of the rest of the cabin looked very high end however the plastic and piano black trim didn’t exactly scream premium. But that’s what the Corolla is, and has been, a simple daily driver from Point A to Point B. There’s nothing wrong with that, it was just underwhelming to not see a high powered Corolla like Toyota tried to do with the Apex edition.

The Verdict: A beautiful car yet doesn’t transform the Corolla sub-brand into a performance vehicle.

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#4: Honda Civic Type R

Straight out of a Happy Meal the Type R wows with its absurd styling right out of the gun. Well, wow could be taken either way. All models of the Civic take a lot of flack for what they are, yet none seems to get more than the Type R. That childish design can be spun either way— you either hate it or you love it, there’s no meh. For us, we like it, it fits the teen racer niche very well and stands out among others. Taking a boring economy car and turning it into something worth looking at isn’t exactly easy yet Honda seems to have hit the hammer on the nail.

Underneath the hood is a 306 horsepower turbocharged inline-4 with 295 lb-ft of torque. For a front-wheel drive car… oh would you look at that. Torque steer. Oh wait! They’ve gotten rid of it? Well that’s news. That’s right, with FWD cars, on open throttle (heavy acceleration) the front mounted engine causes the car to veer a certain way other than straight. With the Type R it’s gone. For a car with that much power and that much weight int the front, I personally have no clue how they did it. They rubbed their magic pixie dust and voodoo… who knows? Throttle control is also absolutely perfect, a blip of the throttle gives you a blip of speed. It’s absolutely masterful. Sticky summer tires also allow you to stay planted to the road, something with this car’s crazy aero features should do. The aero pieces are pulled straight from a fighter jet or a children’s toy. Stiff suspension paired with dual piston Brembo brakes steal the show from underneath. Stopping power is fierce and grippy, those calipers don’t let up and grab quickly.

Pulling it around Dallas was quite a blast but we found some huge flaws with it. At high speeds the Type R gets really shaky and a ton of wind noise. It got to the point where I would willingly slow down and get in the right lane because it was simply that unbearable. On high speeds on the track, we can only assume it may get a bit annoying and uncomfortable. The sticky summer tires for some reason can’t put all that torque down in first gear either. A lot of wheel spin unless you start in 2nd gear which could be a huge issue on drag strips or just spirited launches. Quite possibly the largest flaw would be the FWD drivetrain itself. It struggles to put down power immediately, it doesn’t oversteer well and getting the back end out consists of weight shift drifts and Scandanavian Flicks from me that look like a beached whale trying to roll itself back into the ocean, and while torque steer may not be the biggest issue staring the Type R in the face, its ability to create a more bland driving experience compared to the other cars in this list knocks it off a couple points.

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On the interior a lot of heritage and racing inspired pieces line the cabin. One thing however, there’s red everywhere. I mean everywhere. There’s probably less red at a crime scene and it looks like a Bloody Mary. The kid-style theme carries on from the exterior into the interior, and for someone who wants something that stands out this may be the perfect car. Some people want sleepers, not something that advertises itself like a Hillary Clinton billboard in West Texas. The interior materials could be better but Honda will tell you it’s for weight savings. The Limited Edition version of the Type R shaves 38 pounds off the regular weight for… an extra $10,000? How in the world is that justified?

We tested the 0-60 time at 5.2 seconds in which that turbo-4 sounded ferocious for only an inline-4. The easy clutch made it fun and simple to drive without too much effort. At the end, the Civic Type R tended to be a hit or miss, it was either really good in certain aspects or terribly poor, no in between.

The Verdict: The Civic Type R lives up to Honda’s conspicuous styling yet is held back by its FWD drivetrain

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#3: Mazda3 Turbo Hatch

While we did a full review on the Mazda3 Turbo, we receive it again for this test. Putting it up against all the other vehicles in our experiment, the Mazda3 stands out among the rest. As one of the new kids on the block Mazda used to have an old hot hatch. The Mazda Speed 3 was discontinued in 2013 but the Japs decided to reel themselves back into the hatchback market. This time they ditch the boy racer theme and go with a more classy theme. Boasting a 2.5 L 227 horsepower inline-4, the name may have been slashed, but the performance is still there.

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The Mazda3 looks like it went straight from the playground to the country club. Sporting a timeless and more modern look instead of the traditional hot hatch design, the Mazda3 actively tries to present itself like your daughter’s boyfriend on the first dinner. Right off the bat we felt the turbo— spooled up and hit at around 2,500 RPMs. Notching off a 5.3 second 0-60, we had a blast on highway on ramps and sifting through the left lane. Based off the numbers alone, the Mazda3 seems like a grownups toy. Something that you take your colleagues to Starbucks in when you’re looking to impress them with your driving knowledge from Forza. Foregoing a much needed manual transmission, it sticks with a 6-speed auto. A disappointment for such a car. Handling and steering is quick and responsive but nit as heavy as a sports car should be. The era of true hot hatches is clearly over, this and the Corolla proves that. However, the 3 treads the fine line of weekend warrior and bureaucracy.

Sitting on optional 18 inch BBS wheels and having high performance Mazda brakes, we’d be lying to you if we said we didn’t shudder and lurch a few times at the grabbiness of those brakes. It’s Bridgestone tires easily put all 320 lb-ft of torque easily to the ground with no wheelspin, either that or we just didn’t launch hard enough. Its AWD platform allows for seamless launches at the perfect level and pocket rocket acceleration right out of the get-go. The 320 lb-ft of torque is a lot for a car of this size but the AWD platform and the Bridgestones do a great job of feeding all that umph down to the ground.

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On the interior, the class continues. Out of all the cars in this group, this is the one you’d find drinking bourbon and wearing a black tie. The car shows no shame, partly because there is none. At the end of the day, its premium materials and interior is one of the best in the group. Featuring a Bose sound system and other top tier amenities, it knocks every other car well out of the picture in terms of interior quality. Leather everything, minimal plastic, and high tech features propel the Mazda3 to the top end of the interior category.

While all that may be fine and dandy, the end result is a car that has to be modded a bit more to really be classified as a hot hatch for us. The exhaust note is silent, deadening almost. The turbo seems detuned as if it’s not making all its power. And sometimes the 3 just felt downright sluggish and bland.

The Verdict: The Mazda3 is a grown up Mazda Speed 3, much better, but still needs to be refined to the level of the latter cars in this group.

#2: Hyundai Veloster N

Hyundai’s N Line has approached the car scene with a bit of rebuttal and disgust. “How could anyone like Korean cars, they’re cheap and slow” seems to be the general consensus. But no brand has gone through such a revival and renaissance as the Korean manufacturers themselves— Kia and Hyundai. This time Hyundai has tuned up the basic Veloster and made into a fire breathing monster.

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Underneath that baby blue paint scheme lays a raucous 2.0 L 4 cylinder with 275 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. Adding a turbocharger to the equation you get the perfect storm. Adding to the concoction is Hyundai’s ability to make the Veloster N as light as possible, posting a curb weight of just shy of 3200 pounds. This perfect storm of lightweight, solid aerodynamics, and the solid Theta II turbo engine jointly developed by Kia makes the Veloster N a blast to drive.

Driving it lets you hear the symphony of rumbles and cracks from the exhaust behind you. No fake noises being pumped in here, that exhaust is just wider and less restrictive than the basic Veloster system. Pirelli tires help you stay planted to the ground and it felt super sticky around corners. No float, and for it being FWD, unlike the Type R it was easy to spin out if you weren’t careful. Hyundai somehow places the weight perfectly in order for drifts to be more possible than most other cars sending power to the front wheels. Wrapped in those front wheels are massive brake calipers and disc rotors ready to stop on a dime. We lurched forward a couple of times and just stared at each other in pure awe.

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Launch control is standard and minimal wheelspin comes out of the stock tires. No screeching, however, the module is adaptive and learns and tracks wheelspin to give you better launches everytime. New for 2021, the Veloster N offers a DCT alongside the standard 6 speed manual. While we got the DCT we’ve heard nothing but great things about the manual. The DCT is blissful, downshifting exactly when you’d like it to and smooth through transitions. Shifting through corners is almost like second nature for the N— we didn’t even notice it. N modes in the interior allow you to set up your own driving experience and do come in handy when you want to drive a different way than the car itself does. Pretty good overall.

The interior could be a bit more refined, and the exterior is somewhere in the middle. It stands out but definitely not to the Type R levels. It provides a less optimal experience than the Mazda however, with some plastic hogtied around. No heated seats yet those seats are super comfortable. Bolstered and supportive they’re the perfect choice for the N’s style.

The Verdict: The Veloster N shows up to school as the new kid on the block and is a fun to drive car with little drawbacks.

#1: Volkswagen Golf GTI

You didn’t think anyone was going to outgun the king did you? The Golf GTI pioneered the hot hatch back in the day starting with the VW Rabbit and they haven’t looked back since. We reviewed its twin brother, the Jetta GLI a while ago, and yet here we are again. Showing off a minimalistic exterior and a premium interior for the price is a slam dunk in the hot hatch market especially when sometimes you have to pick one or the other.

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Yes it costs the most of our group, but what are you truly getting for that price? You’re getting a honed in fierce hatchback that doesn’t scream “I need attention” while still being the ultimate sleeper underneath. A 228 horsepower 4 cylinder keeps its pace with most of the other vehicles on this list barring the Type R. That’s plenty for this small machine, impressed me. Acceleration and throttle response pushed this over the edge instead of the Veloster, it’s purely just instant. That torque pierces through the ground and gets nearly perfect acceleration each time. Just don’t do it from a standstill, stock tires get a lot of spin and screeches sure to get the cops called on you. Quick and nimble—it corners exceptionally well with zero body roll. Absolutely impressive in my book. Like a movie star, the Golf GTI tends to stay subtle on the exterior. Yet is an open book on the inside.

Premium materials line the cabin all around. Super cool and unique plaid seats are an option, and there are obviously options galore. The Autobahn trim gets you the top of the line and boy does it look good. Leather everything, an intuitive sound and infotainment system, as well as various driver’s features.

The Verdict: Not much has to be said about the Golf GTI, except that it’s been the pinnacle of hot hatches for some time and remains that way.

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