They say variety is the spice of life, and if that’s true, then car enthusiasts have probably never had it so good. These days, performance cars come in all shapes and sizes; from mid-size saloons hiding 500bhp+ V8 engines, to low-slung rear-wheel drive sports coupes set up to deliver a thrill at every corner. From stripped out 2-seater track dynamos, to American muscle cars whose sole mission is to paint tarmac with rubber. From insanely rapid SUVs which can generate their own gravity, to hybrid hypercars redefining just what the word ‘fast’ means.
Some of these segments have seen little in the way of real change; American muscle cars are mostly still doing their straight-line party piece, although they have (reluctantly) moved on from leaf springs. Others are almost unrecognisable given the sheer pace of progress and development – even a relatively recent supercar icon like the Porsche Carrera GT seems almost primitive when stood next to a Porsche 918 or McLaren P1.
Somewhere in between lies the Hot Hatch segment.
Although it’s widely accepted that the 1976 Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTi was the car which kick-started the popular notion of a ‘hot hatch’, it wasn’t actually the first to do so. There were predecessors; France’s 1973 Simca 1100TI had 82bhp, a reinforced clutch, stiffer suspension, bigger brakes, and could hit 105mph. Although tame by modern standards, it’s performance in 1973 was considered brisk and the 5-door hatchback body ensured that practicality was also a consideration. Let’s not forget also the Autobianchi A112, an Italian-developed supermini which utilised a modified version of the Fiat 128’s platform. Although 57bhp (increased to 69bhp in later versions) doesn’t sound like much, it weighed only slightly more than the average toddler and was just as hysterical.
These European rarities aside, it was really the Golf GTi which best embodied and popularised the very concept of a performance hatchback and the idea of it being a viable mass production vehicle – hence why the mk1 Golf has long been seen as the car which defined the term ‘hot hatch’. It was never intended to be a performance car; the basic Golf hatchback was seen as a small economic model, perfectly placed to serve a market which was still recovering from an oil crisis. A VW engineer called Alfons Löwenberg saw untapped potential however, and together with some like-minded colleagues, worked in their spare time to develop the Golf into the model we now know as the GTi. Starting with a basic 3-door Golf shell, Volkswagen dipped into its corporate parts bin and pulled out a fuel injected 1.6 engine with 108bhp (previously used in the Audi 80 and Fox GT). With the Golf’s performance now suitably increased, the suspension was also overhauled, and various other cosmetic changes were made to the interior and exterior. The GTi – ‘Gran Turismo injection’ – was born.
39 years later, and the term ‘GTi’ is part and parcel of car culture. Volkswagen themselves are now into their seventh generation of Golf GTi, with performance siblings such as the GTd and Golf R also achieving success. It was during the late 70s and early 80s however that many rival manufacturers began to emulate Volkswagen’s approach, buoyed on not just by the hugely positive commercial and critical response to the GTi, but also by the almost invaluable and unexpected PR benefits wrought by the new model’s introduction. People were excited by the GTi, particularly young impressionable men looking for thrills; and that excitement encapsulated the range, suddenly making the entire VW brand more dynamic overnight.
In modern terms, we might say VW …….… was trending.
Rivals were quick to capitalise on this, and as a result, the car world of the 80s is often remembered for one long running saga: the hot hatch wars. Oh, and Magnum’s red Ferrari too – but that’s a discussion for another day.
There were many participants in this battle, with most of the big hitters having large footholds in the economy and family sectors of the European car market. Renault were actually slightly quicker off the line than Volkswagen, launching their Renault 5 Alpine a few months earlier than the Golf GTi, but it was arguably the subsequent Renault 5 Turbo and second-gen GT Turbo (released in 1985) which really propelled them into performance car history. The 5 Alpine was the beginning of a long and hugely successful foray into the hot hatch sector for Renault; their Clio Williams, Clio 172, Clio V6, Clio 197, Megane Renaultsport and Megane Trophy models have all been critically lauded and often seen as performance benchmarks within the sector.
Renault’s Gallic brethren, Peugeot, adopted a very similar tact to Volkswagen and dropped a 104bp 1.6 litre engine into its 205 hatchback to produce the iconic 205 GTi. Later versions came equipped with a more powerful 1.9 litre engine, with a proportional increase in ferality. Slightly less civilised than the ever maturing Golf, the 205 GTi was hugely focused on handling, litheness, and most importantly – fun. To this day it remains both a performance icon and a textbook example of what fundamental attributes a hot hatch should possess. It’s immediate successors – the 309 GTi, 106 GTi and 306 GTi – had more power and more flair, but still managed to retain those all-important dynamic traits to ensure that they were also a critical success. However, since then Peugeot hot hatches have somewhat lost their way, with heavier and less dynamic models garnering a more tepid response with the exception of the recently released 208 GTi 30th anniversary model.
Vauxhall too were keen to capitalise on the burgeoning performance sector within its bread & butter market. Never class leaders in terms of handling dynamics or build quality (a characteristic of the brand which remains the same to this day), their Nova SR, SRi, GTE and GSi models were nonetheless hugely popular and achieved a cult following which still thrives, with many loyal fans of the brand having moved onto the Nova’s successors – the Corsa SRi, Corsa GSi and Corsa VXR. In critical terms however, it was arguably the Golf GTi’s direct competitor – the Mk2 Astra GTE – which got motoring pundits and prospective buyers really excited. Initially launched in 1984 with the relatively weedy 115bhp 1.8 from the Mk1 GTE, it was quickly upgraded to a 124bhp 2.0 litre 8-valve engine, before finally being awarded a powerplant which would elevate its status into something much more exciting – the infamous C20XE ‘red top’ 2.0 16v, with 156bhp and 150lb/ft of torque. Unable to match the superior handling qualities of the class leaders, it made up for it with sheer straight line grunt and grip, and became every bit as popular as the Golf GTi. Modern Astras still follow this tried and tested format; any handling shortfalls inherent to the most recent 2005 and 2012 VXR models have been offset by power outputs of 236bhp and 276bhp respectively, which are often above and beyond what contemporary competitors are making.
It wouldn’t be fair to write any kind of summary about the 80’s hot hatch wars without including the big blue oval, Ford. When you think of fast Fords it’s typically the RS and Cosworth models which immediately spring to mind, but back in the 80s it was the lukewarm (and more affordable) XR models which were big sellers. The 1981 Fiesta XR2 was propelled along by a 1.6 4-cyl engine, and closely followed by the Escort XR, XR3 and RS Turbo. By the time the 1990s had rolled round however, the XR models were no more, replaced by more powerful variants with surprising familiar names: the RS2000 badge was revived for use on the 1991 Escort Mk5, having been AWOL since its original implementation on the 70’s saloon Escort. And in RS Cosworth form, Ford’s wide-arched and whale-tailed version of the Escort cemented it’s place in performance car history forever with looks and performance which guaranteed that it would be a massive hit and arguably the ultimate 90s hot hatch. Later models of the Fiesta also gained an ‘RS Turbo’ badge as Ford opted to stick with forced induction in a bid to remain competitive in an increasingly high-powered market.
Within the UK at least, these four class leaders often accounted for the lion’s share of sales in the hot hatch sector and are forever remembered for their long running bouts in the hot hatch wars. The examples mentioned are far from an exhaustive list however. There were numerous other success stories within hot hatch history – some being commercially successfully, others fondly remembered as cult rarities. The Citroen AX GT and ZX Volcane models will never be remembered for their hugely powerful engines or astonishing build quality, but each had a chassis which was eminently ‘chuckable’ – an obscure scientific term often applied to hot hatches. The Fiat Uno Turbo was something of a pocket rocket; the Daihatsu Charade GTti relatively unknown but very capable; the MG Metro and Maestro Turbo models represented a small number of British-made cars taking the fight to their European counterparts; the VW Polo G40 experimented with supercharging, with great success. And let’s not forget Alfa Romeo’s 147 GTA, which never sold in huge numbers but remained one of the more powerful hatches of the noughties with a 247bhp 3.2 V6 up front.
So what exactly is it that grants a hot hatch its enduring appeal to performance car fans of all ages? It’s a complex attraction, built from many different facets which may not seem all that special in isolation, but which work together to achieve more than the sum of their parts. Hot hatches don’t often have the instant wow factor and neck-craning ability of, say, a Lamborghini. They don’t often have that galactic performance which can see off all but the very quickest performance cars. They aren’t often noted for having the very latest multi-cylinder engines, gearboxes derived from F1 technology, carbon-ceramic brakes or other costly enhancements. And they aren’t often the last word in comfort.
Yet just like that girl-next-door who will never make a magazine cover but who nonetheless steals your eye every time she passes, they have an innate but almost irresistible allure.
For many car enthusiasts, the appeal of the hot hatch lies in its familiarity. They’re immediately recognisable as being based on the relatively run of the mill model like you see every day on your daily commute, but amplified in all the right areas. Faster. Better handling. More dynamic. Higher trim levels. Superior brakes. But still with the same basic cabin layout, the same storage space, the same controls and switchgear, similar dimensions, and so on. Coupled with their relatively affordable pricing, this grants hot hatches a certain usability and attainability which a Ferrari, Caterham or any myriad of other sports cars can never match.
Power output has long been a key part of the formula too. Conservative and modest power outputs befitting the car’s nature usually meant that not only were hot hatches insurable, but they could actually be used as they were intended; easily pushed to their limits on a twisty B-road, engaging the driver completely but if done so sensibly, still remaining well within the limits of forgiveness. By comparison, try pushing a 900bhp hypercar to its extremes on a B-road, and you may make find yourself making local if not national news.
Horsepower has naturally risen over the years as the models themselves gain weight and the market demands more of everything with every generation, but in the last couple of years particularly, there has been a noticeable sharp slant upwards not only in power, but also torque. European legislation can take responsibility for at least some part of this power race; stricter emissions regulations have led to the demise of high power naturally aspirated engines, and greener downsized replacements – albeit with forced induction – are now becoming the norm. Small low pressure turbos were commonly used in earlier models to combat the dreaded turbo lag, but as turbo technology has progressed and engineers have found alternative ways to preserve some of the engines’ responsiveness even when utilising larger turbos, hot hatches have found themselves in uncharted new territory, where 300bhp is fast becoming the baseline for their market segment.
The Ferrari 348 was an early 90s release from the iconic supercar maker, and even by modern standards it was relatively quick – 0-60 in 5.3 seconds, and 171mph flat out. Yet if you told any 348 owner back in 1995 that a mass production family hatch with some fettling would someday show it a clean pair of heels, they’d probably have choked on their gold encrusted cornflakes. The Ferrari’s power stats are now comfortably matched and sometimes bettered by not only the humble Ford Focus (in RS guise), but by the VW Golf R, the Audi RS3, the Civic Type R, the BMW M135i, and the Mercedes A45 AMG. Numerous others such as the Renault Megane Trophy, the Vauxhall GTC VXR, the Leon Cupra and the Ford Focus ST are almost knocking on its door too, with slightly less power but often similar or higher torque figures. The rapid pace of development has not only moved the goalposts; it’s completely blew them away.
There was a time when even manufacturers themselves felt that anything over 250bhp was too much for a hot hatch, with the majority of them being FWD and struggling to transmit anything more than that to the road in anything but perfect conditions. Yet as technology drives relentlessly forward, they have found ways to make them work. Progress in tyre manufacturing, chassis/suspension development, and drivetrain technology has moved at such a staggering rate that 300bhp+ through the front wheels is no longer akin to tyre homicide. Modern differentials, suspension variants such as Ford’s Revoknuckle and Honda’s Steer Axis, torque limiting electronics, adaptive dampers, complex traction and stability control systems all combined with motorsport derived tyre designs ensure that traction is maximised and torque steer minimised, allowing FWD cars to behave almost like 4WD cars.
Speaking of 4WD cars, hot hatches are fast adopting drivetrain technologies which were once confined to their larger saloon brethren. A 4wd hatch is nothing new – VW have been doing it for years, from the Syncro and G60 Golfs back in 1983 up to recent R32 models – but never has the technology been as flexible as it currently is, allowing torque to be immediately shifted automatically between the front and rear axles as and when needed, even allowing the car to behave like a RWD if required. Both the current Golf R and Ford’s upcoming Focus RS Mk3 utilise advanced 4WD technology.
So, it’s win-win for us consumers, right? More power, but also more control, all held in check by modern electronics and safety systems? In a way, yes. There is no arguing that modern hot hatches are hugely capable and efficient, and we’re being somewhat spoiled by the capabilities of these cars. The question is whether they still represent the ultimate qualities of what a hot hatch should be. Just as the hypercar has suddenly and almost without warning redefined what a supercar can do (earning itself a whole new label in the process), the actual application of a hot hatch has arguably transcended the traditional values which we associate with such a model. Can a hot hatch be too fast? Can a hot hatch be too powerful? At which point does it stop being an affordable car you can drive to its limits with a grin on your face, and instead become a teutonically efficient weapon for chasing supercars, one which has such breadth of capabilities that it can no longer be used to an extreme on anything but an unrestricted track? Can a £40k+, 350bhp hot hatch still just be ………………………… fun?
The answer to that question is obviously hugely subjective, and there are still affordable and lighter powered models out there – such as the Fiesta ST – fulfilling this brief, just as there are more powerful extremes. For those more keenly focused on light weight and agility, there are also limited run examples such as the Megane R26.R and Trophy models. However, the hot hatch segment on a whole does appear to be moving clearly and steadily in one direction – more power & weight. It will be interesting to see over the coming years whether the power race will begin to tail off as manufacturers focus more on exploiting chassis control and handling, or whether there will be no limit to what hatches can evolve into – possibly leading to the notion of a Hyperhatch.
What’s your opinion?