Fun, convenient, and cheap! They said it couldn’t be done, but that just means they clearly have never owned a hot-hatch. You can tear up the track, pick up the dogs, and still save for that retirement account, all without sacrificing style.
You are Mr. Practical! Today, on Ideal, we listened to your comments, and are coming at you with 8 of the best hatchbacks you can buy without breaking the bank.
Honda CR-X – The OG
Yeah, the CR-X is just an all-around fantastic car. It’s not technically a hatchback, but we’ll let that slide because the Civic Renaissance Experimental, also known as the CR-X, is probably one of the most approachable, easy-to-tune cars ever built. In fact, it’s kind of the beginning of tuner culture because, prior to the cars like the CR-X, the JDM scene was all about rear-wheel drive cars like the Celica or the Fairlady, but those were rare Stateside. Tuned hatchbacks were big in Europe and in rally with the Lancias and Clios. But, again, those weren’t really Stateside.
Suddenly, it’s the mid-’80s, and here comes Honda with this cute and quick little hatchback that was (and this is probably the biggest key to success) cheap as hell. Everyone could get a little sporty car and make it their own. That’s the core of tuner culture: you take a cheap car with a lot of potential and make it something great through sweat and effort.
And CR-Xs still make really great cars to own and have fun with because they’re still infinitely upgradable, cheap, and practical. Prices range from $3,000 to $10,000, but the best CR-Xs are the ones you get for $500 off a friend that upgraded it to an S2000 or something.
If the CR-X is a little too old and reliable for you, get something Italian instead! It’s called the 500 and it’s from Fiat.
Fiat 500 – Fast Shoe
It’s actually another one we get a lot of comments about, but I’m usually a little hesitant to talk about it because they’re a very acquired taste. You need to acquire a taste for doing a lot of work on a car that can be difficult to work on. And it’s hard to, in good conscience, tell people that it’s a great, cheap car when the truth is that it stops being cheap after you own it for a while.
However, that doesn’t stop them from being really fun to drive. We’re talking about a car that weighs like nothing and has a super-short wheelbase. If you’ve ever driven a go-kart (and, if you haven’t, stop watching YouTube and go do it), you know that it’s the perfect recipe for success. And who knows? I have friends who own Fiat 500s and swear that they are perfectly reliable, and it was really just the reputation from a few bad builds that ruined their resale value. So, if you’re willing to take a risk, you can get a Fiat 500 for under $5,000.
A slightly overgrown go-kart is, of course, going to be barrels of fun, but most people like hatchbacks because they’re really practical. The CRX is tiny. The 500 is technically bigger, but it’s still super small. If you really want practicality and speed, get the hatch with “speed” in the name!
Mazdaspeed3 – A Different Answer
Mazda has always kind of been the underdog compared to the giants Nissan, Toyota, and Honda. Even in the JDM golden age, Nissan was selling eight Zs for every one RX-7, which is a shame because their whole thing is all about being fun to drive. To prove it, in 2006, they souped up their little hatchback by stuffing a turbo under the hood and created the somewhat confusingly named Mazda Mazdaspeed3.
Car and Driver called the Mazdaspeed3 one of the 10Best cars of 2007, 2008, and 2010 because it’s “a reminder that there is a fun-to-drive car for every economic stratum.” Translated from journalist speak, they’re just saying that it’s cheap and surprisingly fun-to-drive.
Honestly, I’m always kind of impressed when I get into a Mazda3. They know how to make an interior and the driving dynamics are really, for lack of a better word, raw. Like a Civic Type R drives like a Civic, it feels precise and safe. And the best news is that they are still pretty cheap, cheaper than any Civic I could compare them to certainly. I’m talking about around $7,000 reliably.
Most of the cars on this list, including the Mazda, are a little long in the tooth, which is a super old saying meaning that something is super old. The more you know. Good news: Ford, a company closely linked to Mazda, tried to revive hot-hatch fever in 2013 with the Fiesta ST.
Ford Fiesta ST – Storm the Beaches
It’s a car that I love. But, don’t just take my word for it, car-saint Chris Harris called it “the joyful, naughty car of the year.” I’m a little concerned about the “naughty” bit, but it’s hard to overstate how much fun the Fiesta ST is to drive, especially for the price and especially now. Their bigger brother, the Focus ST, is hard to find for under $10,000. But, in my opinion, the lighter, stiffer Fiesta is more fun to drive. And you can find them for under $10,000 pretty regularly.
Fiestas are a great value, but they aren’t super cheap, so we included this next car because they are really cheap. And, unlike the turbocharged cars on the list, they will stay cheap to maintain forever. It’s a Toyota, and that’s Toyota’s thing.
Toyota Matrix XRS – Take the Fast Pill
Now, some of the most sound advice in finance is to just buy a Toyota Corolla. It’s not an ideal choice, though. We have a whole Ideal Car Strategies course for looking at cars in a different light, where you leverage financing to obtain the car of your dreams after buying and selling a few rides. But, for a lot of people, you could do a lot worse than a Toyota Corolla. Those aren’t fun, though, and they aren’t a hatchback.
The good news is that there is a hatchback version of the Corolla, called the Matrix, and there is a fun version of the Matrix called the Matrix XRS. It’s got a Yamaha-tuned four-banger that has Toyota’s version of VTEC and can rev right up to 8,000 RPMs.
Sure, you don’t get the sweet turbo flutter, but that just means you don’t have to worry about the extra maintenance a turbo brings. The best news is that, since it’s basically just a Corolla and Toyota made millions of them, they’re cheap as hell. A high-mileage Matrix can be as little as $4,000.
If you want to be a little different, and not be someone with a Toyota, the Pontiac Vibe is the same car, it just has a funny nose. You can find them for cheaper sometimes. And, look, I’m not qualified to say whether Pontiac or Toyota is cooler, but I can say that the next car on our list is undeniably cool. It’s the star of numerous movies and an absolute icon of British car excellence: the Mini Cooper S.
Mini Cooper S – Job Creator
I’ll be the first to admit that the new Minis are not as cool as the old Minis, almost nothing is. But, they are fast and have unreal handling. Plus, everyone loves them, even the most hardcore JDM bros or muscle car dudes have a soft spot for the little Mini Cooper. Do you love the Mini? Let me know in the comments.
Unfortunately, just like the Fiat 500, Minis aren’t exactly known for their reliability. In fact, since Mini is owned by BMW, they have a lot of the same expensive electrical problems, which can get expensive. The good news is that they’re cheap enough that, even with a few expensive repairs, they are still really cheap.
There are three generations to choose from and each has its own pros and cons. The third generation is turbocharged and they tend to be a little more reliable, but the first generation is incredibly cheap and easy to find parts for now. No matter which one you go for, it’s pretty easy to get into one for $5,000.
We’ll stay across the Atlantic for our next entry too: the legendary Volkswagen Golf GTI.
Volkswagen Golf GTI – Fore!
It’s one of the greatest hatchbacks of all time and it had one of my all-time favorite advertising campaigns. Come on, MotorTrend, get on it. The biggest problem when going to buy a Golf is that there are thousands of different minor variations across eight generations. Each generation has its own unique charm.
The Turbocharged Mark Vs are really easy to maintain, while the Mark IV with the VR6 is had four-wheel available and sounded amazing. Really, you can’t go wrong as long as you avoid the 2012s. The thing to do is decide what you want to do before you buy and then hit the internet. Each generation, and even each engine option, has groups of people that are die-hard Golf fans and can help you out.
Seriously, VW people are their own entire ecosystem, you won’t have a problem finding out whatever you want to know. And, since most generations can be found for less than $10,000, you’re good to go.
Alright, last entry. And I kind of wanted to go with something that I don’t think gets enough love, the Hyundai Veloster Turbo.
Hyundai Veloster Turbo – Wish.com CTR
Nowadays, the Veloster N is pretty well known since it’s basically one of the best hot-hatches you can buy. Certainly, if I was buying a new car, it’d be a tough choice between the Civic Type R and the Veloster N, especially after my WRX let me down.
Before there was the N line, though, there was the Turbo. It’s a surprisingly reliable, super fun-to-drive little hatch that can be picked up cheap. Just be aware that there’s not a ton of aftermarket support for Korean cars, so it can sometimes be frustrating if you’re into customization.