It's hard for automakers to avoid the horsepower wars. Hell, even a 2019 Toyota Camry V6 has 301 horsepower, which is way more than the 2001 BMW 325Ci we owned years ago with a mere 186 horsepower. And then there are the high-powered sports sedans and sports cars you can't really enjoy to their full extent nor is your driving ability up to par with what they can do.
For example, the current BMW M5 Competition (photo above) packs a 617-horsepower wallop the likes of which will send just about anyone with average driving skills to the hospital or the slammer. Even the small Audi S3 has 288 horsepower, which is more than enough to get into trouble. So, what do you buy if you're a driving enthusiast and you want to have fun without blowing your car into the weeds or spending so much that it puts you into serious debt? Here are the best affordable driver's hatchbacks that you can wring out without getting put out to dry.
1. Volkswagen Golf GTI ($27,595 base MSRP)
Though not all the cars on this list are hot hatches, we just had to include the legend in that segment, the venerable GTI. It's become known as a nearly peerless and longstanding driver's car that's got the right amount of horsepower (228) and superb steering and handling. The GTI also happens to be one of the best-looking hatchbacks around thanks to clean lines and a sporty aesthetic.
The notchy six-speed manual transmission and easy clutch make it blissful to shift, and the power to the front wheels is just the right amount to keep things exciting without going nuts. It's easily one of our favorites and that much more so due to the fact that the regular Golf and the more potent Golf R are going away. Oh, and definitely get those retro-good plaid seats.
2. Hyundai Elantra GT N-Line ($23,300 base MSRP)
The regular Elantra GT is already a fun car, but going with the 201-hp GT N-Line is the way to go since it hits the sweet spot in terms of power without overdoing it. It also borrows the European i30 four-door hatchback styling, which is the right dose of sportiness and conservative style that won't draw law enforcement like something rakish and loud. The car is wonderfully balanced and exhibits very little oversteer like most front-wheel drive cars. We drove it pretty hard, and it always felt composed and remarkably fun.
The GT N-Line also has a great 6-speed manual transmission and three sport pedals that make easy work of the daily commuting grind. Add a sporty three-spoke steering wheel easy instrumentation, and you have the makings of one of the best sporty hatchbacks in the business from a car company that used to be known for boring economy cars. Watch out world, Hyundai is serious about driving fun, and you don't even have to upgrade to the new 275-hp Veloster Turbo N to get it.
3. Mazda3 Hatchback ($21,000 base MSRP)
If you thought the last Mazda3 was truly excellent (we did), then you'll be that much more impressed by the new hatchback that's been totally redesigned. It's 186 horsepower four-cylinder engine isn't powerhouse, but it's enough to mate properly with the taut suspension and flawless steering. Sure, it's also great that you can now get AWD as an option, but we'd recommend the slick six-speed manual transmission that's only available in FWD configuration.
Did we mention that the new Mazda3 Hatchback (and sedan) also have styling that punches well above its class? Premium materials and artful lines everywhere mean you'll feel special driving it and not just because it's a supremely capable hatchback that can manage turns with the best of them. The Mazda3 borrows some of the best features of the Mazda6, CX-5, and CX-9, and then adds a bit more flair that will eventually trickle up to the pricier models.
4. Toyota Corolla Hatchback ($20,140 base MSRP)
No one would ever accuse the last generation Corolla of being exciting. In fact, it was the exact opposite. But Toyota wants to inject some excitement in the economy segment, and the Corolla Hatchback is the proper new entrant. Its 168 horsepower won't set your hair on fire, but Toyota gave the new hatchback great suspension and rigidity on the new TNGA platform that undergirds both the hatch and the sedan. We love the racy styling that belies its price point.
Though the six-speed manual transmission and overly light clutch might not be as good as the others here, the mere fact that Toyota offers it in this capable hatchback that turns like a champ should be reason enough for drivers to take a look at it. The interior is also better than ever with its fresh design and new infotainment system that's certainly an improvement over the previous generation. Opt for the XSE trim that offers the best of everything without going overboard.
5. Honda Civic Hatchback Sport ($22,750 base MSRP)
Sure, you pay more for the 205-hp Civic Si, but the 180 hp Civic Hatchback Sport is the real bargain driving car at a great price that's hard to fathom. The Sport is quick, nimble, and fun to rope through its six manual gears, and it actually gets 22 more horses than the standard Civic.
The hatchback version isn't just handsome with the model's revised front fascia that looks more refined than last year's, it's also more practical for daily duties with its big rear door. The 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine is responsive, peppy, and willing to take on those curvy exit ramps on your way to work. Every Sport model includes a leather-wrapped notched steering wheel and shift knob, automatic climate control,18-inch wheels, and an overall crisp interior that's easy on the eyes.