For the record, I exalt hot hatchbacks.
That’s coming from a guy who’s driven pretty much everything. I’ve driven exotic Italian supercars. I’ve driven 500hp big, bad muscle cars. I’ve driven right-hand-drive Japanese forbidden fruit. They’re all amazing cars in their own ways, but hot hatchbacks offer a level of simple, honest, and carefree fun that those other cars just can’t.
It’s like comparing a German shepherd to a Jack Russell terrier. The German shepherd is, objectively, a superior dog to a Jack Russell terrier. It’s bigger, stronger, smarter, more capable, a better watchdog, and so on and so forth. Buying a German shepherd as a pet and protector for your family is never a bad idea. But watching a Jack Russell terrier tear after a squirrel in the yard with unmitigated vigor and determination is going to put a big, goofy smile on your face. That’s what a hot hatchback should do, too.
The best part about hot hatchbacks, though, is that you don’t really have to sacrifice much to enjoy them. They can haul nearly as much stuff as a small SUV, they’re not very expensive to buy, or operate, or insure, or fill up with fuel. To me, they’re as close as you can get to having the perfect car, and that is no exaggeration.
But some hot hatchbacks are closer to perfection than others, and the three I’ve tested recently, the Hyundai Veloster Turbo, the Ford Fiesta ST, and the Fiat 500 Abarth, are going to be compared to one another in five categories: practicality, performance, styling, value, and driving experience.
So, which is the head honcho of hot hatchbacks?
Practicality: A hatchback can be fast and fun, but it has to be able to do stuff, too, like holding a week’s worth of luggage for a multi-state road trip, or taking the dog to the park, or even something as utilitarian as picking up a weed trimmer from the hardware store. It has to be able to be your only car, not just a fun toy. So, unfortunately, the outspoken Italian is not even a contender in this category. Even with the rear seats folded down, the Abarth would be pretty well stuffed with a week’s worth of groceries for the family, and the front passengers will feel just as cramped as the groceries. The Fiesta ST is way ahead of the Abarth, for sure, but its interior is tight within its class and significantly less commodious than the Veloster. Though the Veloster’s odd door arrangement will make two rear seat passengers have to plan ahead as to who gets out first, it’s still roomier than the Fiesta in nearly every interior dimension for both passengers and cargo. So it takes the win in the practicality category.
Performance: A hatchback has to be practical, as we’ve just established, but a hot hatchback has to be fast, too, and not just fast in a drag race, either. The way a hot hatchback handles is just as important as the way it accelerates. Though the Veloster has the most horsepower and the fastest acceleration, the Fiesta ST has the best-sorted chassis among the three. It has the best lateral acceleration figure of the three, 0.94g versus the Abarth’s 0.91g and the Veloster’s 0.85g. So it grips the most, but it also turns the sharpest, and it also brakes the best. On a racetrack, the Fiesta’s superior chassis development will be enough to overcome the Veloster’s power and acceleration advantage, while the Abarth driver will just be enjoying listening to that snarling exhaust. So, chalk one up to the Fiesta ST.
Styling: There’s no need to point out that styling is subjective, and that personal preference is what this ultimately comes down to. The Veloster’s styling is by far the most outlandish of the three, and the Matte Grey paint job adds to the Veloster’s deviant personality. The Fiat 500 Abarth has the most chic design of the three, and the kindest, offering a smile whereas the Fiesta, and certainly the Veloster, have a scowl. But, the Fiesta is the most well-proportioned of the three, especially in the side profile and rear, where the Veloster starts to look a bit misshapen and the Fiat looks as tall as it is long and wide. The Fiesta ST may have the most mainstream appearance of these three hot hatchbacks, but it is the most visually attractive of the three as well, and thus, it takes the styling category.
Value: There’s really not much to discuss in this category, because the Fiesta ST is easily the best value by a wide margin in this comparison. Though the Fiat 500 Abarth gets the best gas mileage by having the smallest and least powerful engine and also the lightest weight, its sticker price of $27,100 as tested is quite expensive considering its chokingly limited range of practical uses. The Veloster Turbo is also a bit steep at $27,520, not because it’s the most expensive car here, but because it doesn’t have upgraded shocks or a heavy-duty gearbox or anything else besides the turbocharger and the bigger wheels to justify the price hike above the base Veloster. The Fiesta ST I tested was not a retail vehicle and didn’t have a window sticker, so an exact as-tested MSRP isn’t available. But load up a Fiesta ST to the same level of equipment as the one I tested, with the Rado Gray wheels, MyFord Touch, and Recaro seats, and you’ll be right around $23,000. For the equipment and the performance you’ll get, the Fiesta ST is a genuine bargain.
Driving Experience: By far the most important category in this comparison, so I’m leaving it for last. The driving experience is something that the Hyundai doesn’t have down pat yet. It’s powerful, but it’s using its power to overcompensate for the shortcomings of its chassis, and that comes through in its disposition; the Veloster Turbo feels (and looks) like it can’t take a joke about it. The Fiesta ST comes in at a very, very close second place here. It needs to be recognized as the most disciplined of the three, and to a driver who may consider tracking their hot hatchback, there is no other choice than the Fiesta ST. Yet, it’s still thrilling and exciting and spirited, too. It’s comfortably confident in its abilities. But driving the Fiat 500 Abarth is like going for a night out with a love child between Ke$ha and Iggy Pop. You’ll have drama, mishap, ringing eardrums, and maybe even trouble with the law, but you’ll have a damn good time and a memory to look back on for the rest of your life. That gives the Abarth an uncontested victory in this category.
The Veloster is a step in the right direction for Hyundai. It’s great that an automaker that has focused so much on growing and cultivating an image of quality understands that it needs to have an idiosyncratic car that’s different and experimental. But the South Korean giant now needs to start working on small details that make the Veloster feel more like a driver’s car and not just a speed demon. The Fiat 500 Abarth is definitely the wild child, and it shouldn’t tone that down a single bit. It knows there are other ways it can keep its driver entertained besides raw numbers, and it very nearly won just on its audacity alone. But the Ford Fiesta ST is the most true embodiment of the hot hatchback philosophy in this comparison. It’s not perfect, and it may not be as outrageous as the Abarth, or as comfortable or as practical as the Veloster Turbo. But it’s effortless to live with, it handles on the level of purpose-built sports cars, it has a delectable drivetrain, and you can get one for chump change. But, the Fiesta ST is also what a hot hatchback should be above all else…
… it’s as much fun as if you were driving a Jack Russell terrier.
The Ford Fiesta ST is the head honcho of hot hatchbacks.
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