The Greatest Hot Hatches Never made

58 Replies

If you’re a motoring enthusiast, live somewhere in Europe and are old enough to recall how sardonic KITT was, then you’ll probably have been lucky enough to have experienced – or owned – some of the greatest hot hatches ever made.

From the original Golf GTi to the iconic Peugeot 205 GTi and its 306-based descendants; from the Renault 5 Turbo up to the Clio Williams and its subsequent Renaultsport successors; and even from imported fare like the Japanese market Civic SiR up to the hardcore Mugen Civic Type R examples, there has been something out there to satisfy everyone.

Perfection is an impossible dream though, and even the most lauded of hot hatches from yesteryear were open to criticism. . . . . . . . . . . . . or in this case, modification.

For those owners who found their hunger for performance not satiated by the abilities of the standard car, there was a seemingly obvious solution: an engine swap. Spoilt as we are are in 2016 by ECU remaps which give us 25% more power and which can be carried out whilst we have a cuppa and/or a snooze, an engine swap may seem like an extreme solution – but in the 80s, 90s and early 00s, free of the myriad of sensors, wiring and technical systems of modern performance cars, it was sometimes a viable answer to that critically important question asked by every performance car fan : “How do I make it go faster?

There were considerations of course. Many considerations. What donor engine would be used? Would it physically fit in the bay? Could it mate to the existing gearbox or need a replacement one? Were the other engine ancillaries compatible? Did it offer enough of a power hike over the existing engine or possibly too much, bearing in mind traction and the car’s capabilities? Were there off-the-shelf engine mounts available or would custom items need made? Would the brakes need upgraded to cope with the increase in power? Would the suspension need overhauled? Would you need an advanced driving course to handle the torque steer in a FWD car? Would the engine be from the same manufacturer and retain a degree of authenticity, or something completely left-field? Were you mechanically equipped to do it yourself or would it have to be outsourced to a decent mechanic? And many hundreds more.

Once you had gone through the painstaking process of answering these questions (usually via a deft combination of man-maths and man-logic) you’d then have to find an engine and get it fitted. Which many, many car enthusiasts did. So now, with the benefit of retrospection, access to an embarrassingly large collection of old Max Power magazines and the collective knowledge & experience of online car enthusiasts worldwide, we look back at a few of the most popular hot hatch engine conversions carried out – the ones which made us wonder why the manufacturer didn’t just build like them that from day one . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Your iconic 205 GTi 1.6 8v not fast enough for you? Not a problem. Peugeot were kind enough to release a revised 1.6 GTi which lifted power up from the original’s 105bhp to 115bhp. If that wasn’t enough, you could even think about switching to the more manic 1.9 8v version with 126bhp, though this lost a few ponies when the dreaded catalytic converter came into effect later in its life. That still wasn’t enough for some though, who saw the obvious solution: utilise the 160bhp 1.9 16v fitted to the 205’s bigger brother, the 405, and also to its Gallic brethren in the form of the Citroen BX 16v. With a power upgrade, more tuning capability and strong internals, this engine transformed the already hugely capable 205 into a true flyer.

Released in 1983 and on the market for 10 years, it was hard to turn a corner in the UK without seeing a Vauxhall Nova somewhere. Hugely popular amongst younger buyers, the little Nova was never the epitome of speed or handling finesse, but nevertheless became known for being reliable, affordable and likeable. Speed freaks were limited to the top of the range 1.6 8v GTE with around 100bhp (later known as the GSi), but those looking for even bigger kicks soon found a solution: the 2.0 16v C20XE as used in the Astra GTE, GSi and many other subsequent models. With a leap in power to 150bhp and an equally impressive torque boost, the red-top conversion became so popular it even carried on being applied to the Nova’s mechanically similar replacement, the Corsa. Those addicts looking for even bigger kicks found it in the form of the technically similar C20LET, which was basically a turbo version of the C20XE with some slight changes. 

Widely known as the first popular hot hatch, the Golf GTi has gone through many revisions, evolutions and editions over the course of it’s 7-generation lifespan. The original Mk1 GTi (1.6 8v) produced 108bhp, but this later rose to 112bhp with a switch to a larger 1.8 engine. The Mk2 and MK3 models later progressed onto 1.8 8v, 2.0 8v and 2.0 16v variants, and a 2.8 V6 even made an appearance in the Mk3. With the release of the MK4 though, VW opted to go with a 1.8 20v Turbo engine and this opened the door much wider for tuning capabilities. Since then, the 1.8T has become a hugely popular conversion for MK1 and MK2 Golfs. Physically neat, tuneable and well researched given the huge number of OEM vehicles within the VAG group it has been applied to, the 1.8T’s 150bhp (as standard) and 155lb/ft transform the comparatively light Mk1 and MK2 Golfs into fast and torquey road cars – and that’s before anyone starts talking about increasing boost.

Take one 92-95 Civic VTi (known as the SiR in foreign markets). Already a screamer with the 1.6 16v 160bhp B16a engine which revs to 8200rpm. Rip it out and replace it with the B18C from the Integra Type R; 190bhp, 1.8 16v, revs to 8900rpm. The engines even look nigh on identical from the outside given that they both originate from the same b-series family, and are also very similar internally. This very popular conversion first took root amongst USA Honda fanatics, but is now equally popular amongst UK tuners. The Civic EG’s successor (the 96-00 Civic EK) carried on using the b16 engine so the conversion has similarly carried on in popularity in that model also, and some more ambitious fans have even opted to use the more powerful (albeit heavier) 2.2 H22A engine from the Prelude and Accord.


This is, of course, a far from exhaustive list. What impressive engine swaps have you encountered or carried out – and do you think that the complexity of modern vehicles means the practice of swapping engines will die out completely? 


About Author

Gaz is an avid car enthusiast who has been part of the RMS admin team for over 10 years. In his spare time he enjoys writing car articles, teaching his son bad manners and fantasising about his lottery win garage.

RMS Forum Comments

gav525 replied at 09:26, Thu 04 May, 2017
When I had an AX GT, I always wanted to do the Saxo VTS conversion but unfortunately the car fell apart around me before that could happen, probably for the best lol
Coog replied at 09:27, Thu 04 May, 2017
160 engine into a metro. Some day.....
natogreen16v replied at 10:33, Thu 04 May, 2017
Nice write up Gaz. For as good/handy as the technology is in modern tuning i find it a bit boring. A remapped Golf R will eat and shit a redtop Nova but I know which I'd be more excited to get a look around. Even how engine swaps are done could keep me amused hoking around a car where as you wouldn't know the Golf was mapped to look at
DJMCA replied at 12:04, Thu 04 May, 2017
I have a 2.0 16v Zetec in my 1982 MK3 Escort, made a big difference from the 1.6 CVH!!! :cool:
cormac81 replied at 12:18, Thu 04 May, 2017
Good write up, making me feel guilty not having an AUQ or BAM engine in my Golf.
Eddie_ replied at 12:47, Thu 04 May, 2017
Having owned a Clio 197 and now Megane 265, and with plenty of people sticking the Megane lump into a Clio I've always wanted to own one. Something like this; 2007 RENAULTSPORT CLIO 197 F1 MEGANE 250 TURBO 299/340FTLB | eBay I've seen a couple of forged F4RT engines in Clios running over 400bhp, what a hoot that would be :p
Gaz replied at 12:55, Thu 04 May, 2017
The Megane lump into the Clio is definitely an interesting modern take on it. I think with so many modern cars going the turbo route, an engine conversion becomes redundant if you're just looking more power - easier all round to just tune the turbo unit. But in the case of the previous gen Clio which had a n/a engine, a conversion is certainly appealing. I also like the idea of putting a V6 rather than a turbo unit into a car, it may not be quite as tuneable or powerful but the noise and engine smoothness makes up for it - know of a few Astras which had V6 transplants from a Cav V6, and also a Golf mk2 with the R32 engine.
Cro replied at 15:43, Thu 04 May, 2017
We've had some great engine swaps in hatches on this forum alone let alone off on the specialist and mainland forums
mikey replied at 17:12, Thu 04 May, 2017
| I have a 2.0 16v Zetec in my 1982 MK3 Escort, made a big difference from the 1.6 CVH!!! :cool:
Uncle has always talked about doing this through the Mk1s, 2s 3's and 4s he has restored but he is too much of a purist to go past the talking stage! I know it's been done before but I've always had the notion of making a Proton Persona Evolution (Mitsubishi Evo engined) for whatever reason.
bob replied at 17:24, Thu 04 May, 2017
Seen a Mk1 Focus running a Honda K20 on Monday, you really never know what you'll see when you open a bonnet!