50 shades of wahey! Speed Week's big fat hot hatch test | Top Gear
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Speed Week 2023

50 shades of wahey! Speed Week's big fat hot hatch test

Is the hot hatch disappearing or simply diversifying? This motley crew suggests it’s the latter...

Published: 10 Nov 2023

Better stick that music from the Hovis ad on because I’m about to sound like an old fart. There was a time, not very long ago, when a hot hatch was a hot hatch. You knew what you were getting, a lightly souped up shopping trolley with just enough performance to encourage yobbish behaviour, but at a price that dangled it in front of anyone who saw cars as more than a conveyance from A to B. Accessibility, practicality, lobability – those were the pillars of this once great genre that’s in danger of disappearing altogether.

A month before I joined the team at TG in 2015 there was a ‘B-road Heroes’ issue that pitched the UK’s 28 best hot hatches against each other on a drizzly Scottish hillside. TWENTY EIGHT! These days you’d be lucky to scrape together double digits: RS and ST Focuses and Fiestas are no more, RenaultSport has evaporated, VW has lost its way, hot Peugeots are now chubby plug-in hybrids. It’s total chaos and confusion, which makes this the perfect moment to completely reset what we think a hot hatch is.

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Frankly, we don’t have much choice because... look at this rabble. Yes, we have a Civic Type R (TG’s 2022 Car of the Year don’t forget, making its Speed Week debut) propping up tradition with its front engine, FWD, manual gearbox recipe, but then things go a bit haywire. An electric 152bhp Fiat 500 covered in scorpion badges that rumbles like it’s stuffed with an American V8, a Swedish EV hatch that looks like a jacked up saloon with possibly the fanciest dampers here and a hatchback shaped, medium sized Korean EV crossover packing 4WD, 641bhp (in N Grin Boost mode) and more computing power than a Mars rover. What a time to be alive.

Photography: John Wycherley

Let’s begin with the Polestar 2 BST edition 230 because if I don’t deal with it first, I may forget about it altogether. This is a car that has the numbers on paper to make your eyebrows twitch, but in reality makes you question the point of performance EVs. We have a power hike from the standard twin motor model to 469bhp, and the ability to hit 62mph in just 4.4 seconds. There’s upgraded brake calipers for better cooling and remote reservoir adjustable Öhlins dampers (with the reservoirs artfully displayed in the frunk, extra marks for that) plus a 25mm lowered ride height. You can have a stripe with a ‘2’ in it for another £1,000 and only 230 will be made, costing a highly optimistic £73,900 each.

The changes are not transformational. This is an EV that can shift and handles its mass tidily, but feels like an imposter out on track, because there’s nothing whatsoever to get your teeth into – no sound, no skids without psychotic levels of send, no trickery, no attempt to truly engage the driver. I have no doubt that on a B-road this would be a swift and comfortable way to race your satnav ETA, but then so would a standard Polestar 2 RWD long range, and that’ll go a lot further on a charge. This is in no way a bad car, but please save your money for those ballooning mortage payments.

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The Abarth 500e, by the starkest of contrasts, does everything it possibly can to slap you around the chops, grab your attention and force a smile. I don’t hate the highlighter paintjob, the bodykit or even the party trick everyone’s talking about: a speaker under the rear bumper that pumps out a wall of entirely fake, throbbing combustion clatter that rises and falls (with quite a bit of lag) to your throttle inputs. It’s all so silly that it kind of works. This isn’t a particularly serious performance car – it’s only got 152bhp and a 0–62mph time of seven seconds – it’s a statement that says “Look at me, I’m rich and potentially good fun at dinner parties”.

At slow to medium speeds that all rings true – it feels blunt, sharpish off the line granted, but numb in other areas. And then you realise what this tyke needs isn’t to be paraded around fashionable shopping districts, but to be driven with full blooded commitment at all times. Grab it by the scruff, especially on the Gotlandring’s much faster, wider southern loop, and it’s 1.4 tonnes of fun. The Abarth is ultimately overwhelmed by the sheer size of the layout and after a couple of laps you can feel the power being dialled back, but it’s a scrapper. Just brake late, pile in and hop back on the gas, laugh your head off, rinse, repeat. Pedal glued to the floor for 90 per cent of the lap, it’s the antidote to all the really powerful stuff here that needs to be used sparingly.

Speaking of which, can we even call something with 600bhp that towers over not just the Abarth but the Civic too, a hot hatch? The chonky Ioniq 5 N is where some serious recalibration is required. It’s the N performance division’s typically thorough take on the ridiculously good looking, fully electric Ioniq 5, and we’re first in the world to get our hands on it and properly cut loose.

I’m obliged to tell you this is a preproduction car, but that’s where the caveats end because every mode, switch and function works perfectly and despite our best efforts it refused to break.

This is a 4WD hatchback, likely to cost between £65k and £70k, based on the same bits as the Kia EV6, with 600bhp. In fact, hit the embarrassingly named N Grin Boost mode button on the wheel and you have 641bhp for 10 second bursts. There’s a launch control function too, unlocking 0–62mph in 3.4secs, and top speed is 162mph. Not long ago those were supercar numbers.

What defines the Ioniq 5 N though is Hyundai’s thrown the kitchen sink at the electronics to make it not just rapid, but engaging to drive in new and interesting ways. You can dive into the menus and make it sound like a zingy combustion engine, or a fighter jet, or a lightsaber. Weirdly, it’s the fake petrol engine sounds that work the best, largely because of another mode – N e-Shift. A fully simulated eight-speed paddleshift gearbox that does everything a real one does – like manage the torque so you feel acceleration build as you rev towards the imaginary 8k redline. It will bounce off the limiter if you forget to pull the paddle, interrupt the torque with a little kick on upshifts and a little blip on the way down, the sound instantly reflects throttle position, revs and what ‘gear’ you’re in. It all sounds horribly artificial on paper, but the shocker is... it works brilliantly and feels natural to the point you forget you’re interacting with software, not explosions and cogs. My highest praise? For a fast lap at the Gotlandring, it was more fun to leave the e-Shift on.

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And we’re just getting started. There’s an N Drift Optimiser mode that sends all the torque to the rear axle and retains only the lightest electronic touch to allow big angles but no excursions into the gravel – although you can’t use the simulated gearshifts at the same time, which is annoying. Alternatively, you can set your preferred torque split on a slider, from 100 per cent rear, to 100 per cent FWD, and turn everything off. Then there’s torque kick drift, a fake clutch kick function that cuts power when you hold both paddles on throttle, then dumps it all on the rear tyres when you release them to fling you sideways at the moment you choose.

Speed Week 2023

It’s a lot to take in and figure out, but can we call these gimmicks? I say no, gimmicks are useless, these are all properly engineered ideas and genuinely add to the fun, interaction and the longevity of your love for driving this car. Yes, it’s a two-tonne heffer that’s heavy on its tyres and brakes and doesn’t change direction or have the steering feel of the BST let alone a 205 GTI, but 600bhp and torque vectoring wizardry go a long way towards masking the mass. As a window into what could be possible with EVs in the future, it’s both mind-blowing and heartening in equal measure.

As is the fact that the Honda Civic Type R exists at all. Yes, this is now a £50k car, but honestly, given the depth of care and engineering that’s gone into it and the fact that a pint of beer in London can now cost north of £7, that feels about right. One lap in and you’re instantaneously bonded to the stubby gearstick and its fluid, mechanical movements, entranced by how the front diff can pull grip from nowhere without corrupting the steering, convinced that 325bhp and 310lb ft of thrusting, turbocharged torque is all you could ever need, perplexed why every manufacturer doesn’t just give up and fit these seats to every single model it makes.

By the second lap you’re without fear or apprehension, leaning on it and pinging off kerbs like a touring car driver... and reviewing your finances to find a way to keep one forever.

It would be easy to surmise we’re only in love with the Civic because it represents the pinnacle of what we’re all used to, it’s a safe bet that keeps us all in our comfort zone, but that’s simply not the case. The Hyundai, too, is brilliant and has opened all our eyes to what’s coming next. It’s just that the Honda goes about its business so effortlessly, all the controls are so natural, it doesn’t require any learning or compromise, it just feels right from the moment you climb in. It makes amateurs become better drivers but offers plenty for the pros, too... and looks low key spectacular in this blue/red colour combo. It deserves to progress to the final three, but then for an entirely different set of reasons so does the Hyundai. This old fart’s got some thinking to do.

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