For people looking to buy a car that's fun to drive, practical and relatively affordable, 2018 could be opportunity knocking. You might say that it's the year of the performance hatchback.
Exemplified by the long-running Volkswagen Golf GTI, a performance hatchback is a hopped-up version of a regular compact economy car that has a more powerful engine, a performance-tuned suspension and grippier tires. It can rival a sports car for driving enjoyment while also being better suited for everyday driving.
Automakers have introduced more such models recently, some with sophisticated features and race-ready engines. The greater competition could help you get a good deal this summer, too. Dealer pricing for many of these cars is well below MSRP, according to Edmunds' data on the average price paid. The sought-after Ford RS and the Honda Civic Type R are the exceptions. That said, here are eight top models to check out.
Ford has said it's going to stop selling most of its cars in favor of SUVs, so now might be the time to buy. The Focus ST comes with a 252-horsepower turbocharged engine, while the rally racing-inspired Focus RS cranks out 350 horsepower through a specialized all-wheel-drive system for greater traction. Both cars are lively handlers and bring excitement to any drive.
The standard manual transmission enhances the enthusiast credibility of these cars, but the lack of an automatic option could be a drawback. Also, the Focus' cabin design is getting dated compared to the other cars here. Starting MSRP with destination: $26,045 for the ST and $41,995 for the RS. 2018 is the last year for the RS, so it could very well be a future classic.
Compared to a workaday Civic, the Type R hatchback is a monster. It has a turbocharged engine that produces 306 horsepower, a six-speed manual transmission, a sport-tuned suspension with adaptive shock absorbers, stronger brakes and more supportive front seats. Honda's engineers have seemingly made magic happen with the Type R. It has impressive composure on both the street and on a racetrack. The main drawbacks are the lack of an automatic transmission and, for some shoppers, the Type R's flamboyant styling. Starting MSRP with destination: $35,595 for the Type R hatchback.
Hyundai's redesigned Veloster has one door on the driver side and two doors on the passenger side. This asymmetrical layout improves access for rear passengers while maintaining the look of a traditional coupe. The Veloster's Turbo variants come with a 201-horsepower engine and suspension and brake upgrades. You can also get a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
Hyundai also has a new option for 2019: the Veloster N. The N gets a bigger turbocharged engine good for up to 275 horsepower plus additional hardware upgrades. Neither Veloster quite matches the performance potential of the other cars in this group, but their impressive features and low prices easily compensate for that. Starting MSRP with destination: $23,785 for the Veloster R-Spec. Hyundai hasn't officially priced the Veloster N, but we expect it to be around $30,000.
Thanks to its petite size, pug nose and boxy profile, the Mini Hardtop is one of the most easily identifiable cars on the road. This playful two-door or four-door is graced with a style that harks back to the 1959 original, and you can customize it to a high degree with exterior and interior styling enhancements. To make the most of the Hardtop's performance, get the John Cooper Works version with its 228-horsepower turbocharged engine. The Mini Hardtop isn't as fast as some other cars here, but it's still a lot of fun to drive. Starting MSRP with destination: $33,250.
VW created the first hot hatch in America with its 1983 GTI, and today's car is still one of the best. It packs a turbocharged 220-horsepower engine, and you can get it with a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual-clutch automatic. An adaptive suspension is also available to provide a greater range of comfort and handling potential. The Golf R takes everything about the GTI and makes it better. You get 292 horsepower, all-wheel drive, and just about all of the Golf's features as standard equipment.
The Golf GTI and Golf R stand out among the cars on this list for their upscale and roomy cabins. VW also offers more advanced driver safety aids than Ford or Honda, which could be appealing to some shoppers. But the maximum performance potential of the Golf R isn't quite as high as that of the Civic Type R or Focus RS. You also typically have to pay more for a Golf. Starting MSRP with destination: $27,310 for the Golf S and $40,680 for the Golf R.
EDMUNDS SAYS: Getting a fun-to-drive car doesn't mean you have to sacrifice utility or take on high monthly payments. The future may be full of robotic self-driving pods, but, for now, the driver-centric hot hatch is alive and well.
This story was provided to The Associated Press by the automotive website Edmunds. Brent Romans is a senior editor at Edmunds. Instagram: @brent.romans