Fleet NewsNets' parent company, Emap Automotive, runs a user- chooser fleet for its sales staff and if you take a walk across our car park it is pretty evident that the hot hatchback is a beast that is very much alive and well in the company car world.
There are numerous Volkswagen Golf GTis, SEAT Leon Cupras and Honda Civic Type-Rs which, as a rough guide to company trends, proves that, in general, employees aged in their 20s and 30s are not particularly bothered about benefit-in-kind tax liability or how many miles per gallon they achieve.
Instead they want something that looks good, gives them a bit of a thrill and has enough space to get their mates in. The six cars featured here fulfil all three criteria in varying degrees.
The Peugeot 307 XSi is the sportiest car in the 307 stable, which is perhaps not saying much as the range is balanced towards being a good family proposition. But Peugeot has just launched a sports pack for the car which includes much more aggressive front and rear lights, a new boomy exhaust and a number of other styling add-ons, although this kit has not been included in the price of the car here, as it adds about £1,500 to £2,000 to the price.
The Honda Civic Type-R, the most powerful of the cars here, caused quite a stir when it was launched 18 months ago, and Honda's initial estimate for 1,500 sales has proved way short of the mark. The figure is in fact more than 4,700, which is an indication of just how well received the hot Civic has been.
Until the arrival of the 212bhp Focus RS, the ST170 was the sole flag bearer for Ford's legendary medium sector performance heartland. Despite being down on power on some of the other offerings here, the superb chassis puts it near the front in terms of driving enjoyment. And there is an estate version as well, for those who are prepared to forgo attractiveness for practicality.
The Seat Leon Cupra is a real bargain. For its £15,000 on-the-road price, you not only get 180bhp but a six-disc CD player, six-speed gearbox and climate control, and it has a cult following among those in the know. Perhaps the rest of the world should find out.
It might be old, but the Vauxhall Astra can still offer a tidy package and the SRi is a good-looking if conservative machine. There should be an SRi or GSi Astra to suit anybody as well, as this is the least powerful 1.8-litre version, but there are also LPG, 2.0-litre Turbo and 2.2-litre version.
And finally, the ubiquitous Volkswagen Golf GTi. This 2.0-litre 115bhp is woefully underpowered and the chassis is showing its age. But wander round any company car park with a user-chooser policy and you will see more of these than all the cars above put together. The Golf's combination of rock solid image and build quality attracts drivers like nothing else.
Customer services director, Inchcape Fleet Solutions
'Hatchbacks that can double as small family cars at the weekend yet still provide a bit of pizzazz for the everyday drive. The Honda Civic Type-R started the recent hot hatch trend in 2001 and new competitors have arrived thick and fast since then. The levels of standard specification are high on all of the models featured here, which means fantastic value for money and competitive residual values.'
Managing director, Zenith Vehicle Contracts
'Historically this sector has catered for young and enthusiast drivers. However, the vehicles here are more refined, showing that this sector is divided into two areas: the family-orientated drivers looking for a sporty version of the everyday car, and the enthusiast looking to keep their pulse racing on the drive to work. The Honda Civic Type-R is the only car which is a true hot hatch fulfilling the enthusiasts' needs.'
Pricing manager, Lloyds TSB autolease
'An interesting group of vehicles this month where perception and reality have never been further apart. Despite their looks, only two of the cars in this group of hot hatchbacks could be truly described as quick – the Honda Civic Type-R and SEAT Leon Cupra. It is also a group of fairly old vehicles, with four out of the six cars in this feature due for replacement in 2004, including the originator of the sector – the Golf GTi.'
Commercial director, Alphabet
'It is a sign of the times that the return of hot hatchbacks is making fleet managers worry about carbon dioxide emissions and the safety aspects of giving young drivers fast cars to drive. Happily, today's market caters for all tastes and there are some sheep in wolves' clothing in this month's selection as well as a trio of seriously quick contenders – the Honda Civic Type-R, Ford Focus ST170 and SEAT Leon Cupra.'
Head of LeasePlan Fleetline
'Drivers in this sector will be primarily looking for performance, the driving experience and projecting the image but they would be wise to keep one eye on carbon dioxide emissions and fuel economy. It is possible to have both and the winner in this sector will be the one that combines the pre-requisites of a hot hatchback but also makes sound economical sense to both the driver and the fleet manager.'
Average monthly rental rates
Volkswagen Golf GTi 115 £301
Vauxhall Astra 1.8 SRi £307
SEAT Leon 1.8T Cupra £321
Peugeot 307 XSi £323
Ford Focus ST170 £338
Honda Civic Type-R £352
Average maintenance costs
Volkswagen Golf GTi 115 £1,661
Vauxhall Astra 1.8 SRi £1,687
Ford Focus ST170 £1,906
Peugeot 307 XSi £2,005
SEAT Leon 1.8T Cupra £2,033
Honda Civic Type-R £2,091
3years/60,000 miles Volkswagen Golf GTi 115 £5,460/37%
Honda Civic Type-R £5,106/32%
SEAT Leon 1.8T Cupra £4,754/32%
Ford Focus ST170 £4,693/30%
Peugeot 307 XSi £4,281/29%
Vauxhall Astra 1.8 SRi £3,483/24%
CO2 emissions (model and g/km/tax band)
Vauxhall Astra 1.8 SRi 182/20%
Volkswagen Golf GTi 115 194/22%
SEAT Leon 1.8T Cupra 204/24%
Peugeot 307 XSi 204/24%
Ford Focus ST170 212/26%
Honda Civic Type-R 212/26%
Vauxhall Astra 1.8 SRi 37.2
Volkswagen Golf GTi 115 34.9
SEAT Leon 1.8T Cupra 33.2
Peugeot 307 XSi 32.8
Honda Civic Type-R 31.7
Ford Focus ST170 31.0
Ford Focus ST170 3dr
McMahon: 'The derivative that has been described as the bridge between the family car and the rally car. It is very much the driver's car and with the recent facelift it remains fresh. However, it has the highest BIK and the second highest rental. Despite this if you can afford it and enjoy driving, go for it.'
Hale: 'A fun car that was worth the wait. The Focus always led its class and offers a refined yet rapid drive. A superb front-wheel drive chassis is coupled with a sporty and luxurious interior. Should hold its value well.'
Cope: 'This car has a great presence on the road. However, it is let down by its overall performance: its looks and pedigree suggest performance, but it fails to deliver. There are more attractive options available.'
Schooling: 'It's up there with the Honda on costs, although just behind on the road. The Focus is a classic combination of Ford's sports design experience and a top-notch base vehicle.'
Harnett: 'The Focus has the highest CO2 emissions and is the least economical. However, excellent ride, handling and equipment levels mean it will be very popular.'
Average monthly rental £338
P11D price £15,915
Average net price £13,280
Average maintenance £1,906
Average RV £4,693/30%
Lloyds TSB autolease £345
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £909/£1,653
2003 VED bill: £160
Honda Civic Type-R
Hale: 'The Type-R leads the way with its racing-inspired interior and enhanced chassis. A good driving position allows plenty of steering feedback on those corners. Monthly rentals are relatively high but CO2 emissions are still competitive and it should hold its value.'
Cope: 'The only car in this sample that is a true hot hatch. The handling and performance of this car are great, providing a great driving experience. The only negative aspect is that for day-to-day use, the ride is a little hard.'
Schooling: 'Anyone who thinks the Japanese don't make exciting cars should try the Type-R. Its hot hatch qualities come at a price but the Honda definitely delivers old-school thrills.'
Harnett: 'The most out-and-out hot hatch of the group with the quickest acceleration and the most presence. High maintenance costs mean rentals are more expensive than its rivals.'
McMahon: 'The engine sounds great and encourages you to make full use of it. The main drawback is it's not the prettiest. Low sales volumes coupled with small discounts ensure RVs remain high. However the high list price in this case translates into the highest rental.'
Average monthly rental £352
P11D price £15,815
Average net price £13,356
Average maintenance £2,091
Average RV £5,106/32%
Lloyds TSB autolease £348
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £904/£1,645
2003 VED bill: £160
Peugeot 307 2.0 XSi 3dr
Cope: 'This car does not naturally fit into the hot hatch category – its driving position is a little high and it does not shed its family appearance to inspire the feel of driving a sporty car. A good car but doesn't feel as focused as the old 306 XSi or GTi.'
Schooling: 'Attractive and good value from a BIK point of view. The torsion-beam rear suspension suggests that Peugeot isn't really aiming at the committed boy racer.'
Harnett: 'The Peugeot has the slowest 0-60mph time of the group but it also has the lowest CO2 emissions and the best mpg figures. High maintenance and average residuals mean that it is the neither the most engaging drive nor the most cost-effective.'
McMahon: 'A significant step forward from the 306. The lofty cabin easily accommodates even the tallest of drivers. However, it's the slowest car here and with a high centre of gravity loses out where the 306 once excelled.'
Hale: 'The 307 has a strong all-round appeal and is fitting nicely into the shoes of the 306. It isn't the most competitive in this sector, due to relatively slow acceleration and semi-MPV styling, but it still provides a good drive.'
Average monthly rental £323
P11D price £14,915
Average net price £12,112
Average maintenance £2,005
Average RV £4,281/29%
Inchcape Not quoted
Lloyds TSB autolease £311
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £786/£1,429
2003 VED bill: £160
SEAT Leon 1.8T 20v Cupra
Schooling: 'The Cupra offers the highest horsepower per pound spent on rentals or BIK. With Seat's ever-widening brand recognition in the UK, the Leon could be high on many drivers' personal lists.'
Harnett: 'Excellent standard equipment and respectable performance coupled with VW build quality and sporty looks mean that the SEAT is an attractive choice.'
McMahon: 'The dark horse here. Second quickest and benefits from its VW Group parentage in terms of build quality. It has the third lowest rental and comes fully equipped. However, it is a pretty anonymous car.'
Hale: 'The Cupra has a fantastic specification and good acceleration while keeping noise to a minimum. Running costs are low but wear and tear can be high for those with a demanding driving style.'
Cope: 'A fantastic offering. The Cupra is a good all-round car, providing performance and a high standard of build quality. The looks and design make it an attractive and cost-effective option for someone looking for everyday practicality and a little fun at the weekend. This is the car the Golf GTi should be.'
Average monthly rental £321
P11D price £14,815
Average net price £12,213
Average maintenance £2,033
Average RV £4,754/32%
Lloyds TSB autolease £305
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £782/£1,422
2003 VED bill: £160
Vauxhall Astra 1.8 16v SRi 5dr
Harnett: 'A well-equipped car and a good all-round performer. Low CO2 emissions and high fuel economy make it a sound financial choice but loses out with poor residuals and is not regarded as being as desirable as others.'
McMahon: 'Now looking decidedly dated and conservative. The engine is good and drivers will also appreciate the low BIK tax while the fleet manager will appreciate the low monthly cost, given the discounts available.'
Hale: 'There is plenty of room for all the family, although access to the rear can be tricky. Low road noise levels are coupled with an enjoyable drive but residuals are unlikely to be high.'
Cope: 'The SRi badge suggests that this car will be full of fun and performance, but next to the other offerings its performance and design are a little dated. Handling and specification provide drivers with the option of a cost-effective sporty car. Wait for the new model.'
Schooling: 'Vauxhall's lowest-powered sports Astra is really a 'warm' hatchback that looks good while making room for environmental and safety consciousness. That may be why they call it their best-kept secret.'
Average monthly rental £307
P11D price £14,390
Average net price £11,418
Average maintenance £1,687
Average RV £3,483/24%
Lloyds TSB autolease £299
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £633/£1,151
2003 VED bill: £145
Volkswagen Golf 2.0 GTi 115 3dr
McMahon: 'The car that invented the hot hatch. Latest incarnation of the Golf GTi is more of a warm than a hot hatch. Still looks great and those choosing this car base their decision more on the quality and perceived image than its driving ability.'
Hale: 'The 2.0-litre is slightly uninspiring and not as strong as its rivals. That said it is an excellent motorway performer with plenty of room inside and an excellent driving position.'
Cope: 'Been around for a long time now, and the GTi badge has a great history, but the badge is wasted on this model, as its performance and handling are tired and poor. Its step-brother the SEAT Cupra is a much more attractive option.'
Schooling: 'Solid residuals and a lowly 115 horsepower give the Golf winning rentals and a low BIK charge. It's no longer the pocket-sized rocket that started the hot hatch game but the 'Golf GTi' badge has lost none of its cachet.'
Harnett: 'Still regarded as the benchmark. The 2.0-litre may not have the performance to match some of its competitors but still wins on build quality and image. Excellent residuals mean that rentals are extremely competitive, making the Golf a very attractive proposition.'
Average monthly rental £301
P11D price £14,785
Average net price £12,323
Average maintenance £1,661
Average RV £5,460/37%
Lloyds TSB autolease £286
2003 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £716/£1,301
2003 VED bill: £160