Forty years on, has there ever been a golden era for hot hatches? We gather the greats from each decade to find out

A revolution occurred 40 years ago and no one noticed. Although the phrase would not be used for at least another decade, the 1974 Simca 1100Ti was the world’s first hot hatch.

And we won’t let it delay us further, not least because it was never sold in the UK. Instead, our focus is on the cars that have helped define the concept of hot hatch over the past four decades, our hope that they’ll shed light on to the evolution of the genre and suggest not only which cars, but also which kind might suit you best. 

We could have papered this tale with Peugeots and Renaults but that would have told a different kind of story. So the cars over the next five pages represent their eras as much as themselves. Also, for variety, we chose a different marque for each decade. 

The 1970s - Volkswagen Golf GTi MK1 1976-1981

Just as the Range Rover was not the first luxury SUV, nor the Renault Espace the first MPV, so the Volkswagen Golf GTI was not the first hot hatch. Not even close, in fact. But like the Renault and Rangie, it is the one that turned a few small sparks into a fire that burns to this day.

It proved that to make a great hot hatch, you must start with a great donor vehicle and thereafter keep it simple. Its recipe of a large, lightly stressed normally aspirated injected engine driving the front wheels on a platform firm enough for fun but sufficiently compliant to live with set a template that would be followed for over 30 years. Only the imperative to drive down CO2 emissions has made smaller capacity turbos the norm today.

Then, as now, its greatest strength is its engine, this late ‘Campaign’ model featuring a 112bhp fuel-injected 1.8-litre motor. Impeccably smooth, stacked with torque and sweet to its 6700rpm red line, it offers throttle response and sound quality that modern turbo hatches cannot replicate. Its five-speed gearbox provides the perfect accompaniment.

Its chassis feels its age, with heavy, slow, vague unassisted steering and mediocre brakes that have terrible pedal feel, but it’s still hungry enough to sniff out an apex and wave a rear wheel in the air in time-honoured fashion. But you’re struck more by how spacious it is for such a tiny car, and how quiet and well built it is. VW’s light bulb moment was realising that even the most fun hatch would be useless if it didn’t also function as an everyday car. The Golf did then and, almost 40 years on, could now. That is its legacy and enduring achievement.

Also consider...

Alfa Romeo Alfasud

Even though it didn’t gain a hatch until the 1980s, you can’t ignore the little Alfa with its magical flat four engine, world-class chassis and telepathic steering.

Renault 5 Gordini

Brilliant-looking hatch. Mild rather than wild fun came from a 92bhp 1.4-litre but handling was fine. Replaced by 110bhp Gordini Turbo, which added power but lost charm.

Vauxhall Chevette 2300HS

Rare and rather special, it provided a great deal of thrills thanks to a bespoke 2.3-litre 16-valve engine, extensive suspension revisions and a sharp bodykit. 

The 1980s - Peugeot 205 GTI 1984-1991

If the Golf determined the formula of the successful hot hatch, by the mid-1980s Peugeot had distilled it into a fun-filled concentrate that has made the 205 GTI perhaps the most influential hot hatch of them all.

Like the Golf, it was studiously unadventurous in its technology, pragmatically spacious and practical, relatively cheap to buy and entirely affordable to run. But because it weighed then the same as a Lotus Elise does now and because Peugeot understood the value of instant throttle response, whipcrack gearchanges and a chassis as responsive to foot as hand, there was a real danger of falling off the road by laughing too much.

It still spreads a smile like few of its ilk. It’s not difficult to criticise the lumpiness of its ride or the quality of its interior materials, and when you drive it fast across a mountain road in the company of the more modern cars here, you realise how far damper control has progressed in the intervening years. But if it’s just fun – giggle-yourself-silly, acrobatic, throttle-steerable fun – that you seek, its case remains as potent as ever. Its 130bhp 1.9-litre engine is similar in character to the Golf’s and its gearbox could be the best ever fitted to a front-drive car. But it is the relationship between the power of the engine and the grip of its tyres, as managed by the hands and feet of the driver, that make it what it is: a lucid, endlessly entertaining and inspirational yet eminently practical hatch.

Also consider...

Renault 5 GT Turbo

Even less well built than the Peugeot but, despite less power (115bhp from a 1.4 turbo), even quicker thanks to weighing about the same as a bag of Quavers. Turbo lag but hilarious handling.

Sunbeam Lotus

It has a 2.2-litre Lotus engine and an apparent inability to go around any corner without at least half a turn of opposite lock applied. Keeps you on your toes like no other of this kind.

Volkswagen Golf GTi Mk2

An even better built, more comfortable but only slightly less fun Golf, the Mk2 commands almost equal admiration among hot hatch cognoscenti. Proven very durable.

The 1990s - Renault Clio Williams 1993-1996

By the 1990s, the world was suffering the hangover from the all-night party of the 1980s. Excess was out, prudence was in and really entertaining hot hatches became an increasingly endangered species. Even one bearing the name of a wildly successful Formula 1 team could not expect to offer quite so riotous an assembly of components as those of the care-free previous decade. The question is: does it matter?

Not when the Renault Clio Williams is the car in question. Its assumption is that if you ease back just a little on outright exuberance but make the car easier to live with, then the result may be fractionally less fun, but because you’ll use it more often, more enjoyment will result.

The Williams makes the case superbly. The temptation is to compare it with the 205 because they’re French and similarly configured. The Williams is more comfortable, better built and quieter, and had its strengths ended there, you’d think me damning with faint praise. But I’m not. The Williams does all this and is also spectacularly able and engaging to drive. It’d be quicker than the Peugeot, too, because while the 205 is slithering around, the Clio’s suspension is so well damped that it scythes through corners you’d take on tiptoes in the 205. It’s interesting, however, to note that even here, the Golf’s template of a large normally aspirated engine driving the front wheels through a five-speed gearbox remains unchanged.

As for which Williams to get, the original is the lightest and purest, the Williams 2 the cheapest and the Williams 3 the rarest. All are fab, so buy the best your budget can achieve.

Also consider...

Lancia Delta Integrale Evoluzione

The hatch that had it all: a turbocharged, 16-valve engine, four-wheel drive, double-take looks and superb competition pedigree. A very rapid cross-country weapon.

Ford Escort RS Cosworth

An Escort in name only, this cut-and-shut Sierra Cosworth with its bonkers appearance drew looks off every pavement even if, ultimately, it wasn’t that great to drive. 

Peugeot 306 GTI-6

The last inspired Peugeot hot hatch, designed before the company forgot all it had known about how to make these cars great. Spacious, fast and agile, it was practical and fun in equal measure.

The 2000s - Mini Cooper S Works GP 2006

We could easily have chosen an early standard Mini Cooper S and, given that the GP seats just two and therefore omits the crucial practicality component of a great hot hatch, you may argue that we should have.

But then you drive the GP and doubt no more. In an era when hot hatchbacks were convalescing from their 1990s lows, the GP was a shot of adrenalin straight to the heart. If this doesn’t get your blood pumping, nothing with a tailgate will.

Indeed, the GP is the most hardcore driving machine here, quite easily the quickest up to and through each corner. Its suspension feels more rose-jointed than rubber-bushed and is so firm that there is no discernible roll as it flicks between the apexes. The term ‘handles like a go-kart’ has been most readily applied to 205 GTI-era hot hatchbacks but, of the cars here, it is the Mini that gets closest to that ideal, and backs it up with the punch of its 215bhp supercharged 1.6-litre engine.

The problem is that you have to be happy with a rear strut brace instead of back seats and a ride quality that varies between poor and unbearable, depending on surface. It is the opposite of the Clio, as singly focused on the provision of pleasure as the Renault is pragmatically aware of the need to provide a fully rounded product. But once their careers as everyday cars stop and those of aspiring classics start, so for some the imperative for practicality diminishes in inverse proportion to the increase in the desire to have fun. It is to them that the GP, of which just 459 came to the UK out of a total of 2000, will prove ultimately compelling.

Also consider...

Ford Focus RS Mk1 & 2

We’re cheating - these two cars have different price and power points. But which of these fabulously focused, rewarding and blindingly quick road warriors would you omit here? We couldn’t decide either. 

Honda Civic Type R

The first Swindon-built Type R based on the EP3 platform with double wishbones and a high-revving 197bhp 2.0-litre engine. Electrifying to drive and just about comfortable enough to use every day.

RenaultSport Megane R26R

For three years, this car held the front-drive lap record at the Nürburgring. More civilised than you’d think, but if you want rear seats, you’ll need the standard RS Mégane.

Today - Ford Fiesta ST 2012-

Unlike the other four headlining cars here, the most entertaining affordable hatch that you can buy today has both a turbocharged engine and electric power steering not to improve the driving experience but to drive down CO2 emissions.

It’s a trend forced upon hot hatchbacks by the demands of the current era but so, too, will be the pursuit of lightweight design, the single most effective way of both lowering emissions and raising driving pleasure.

For now, the Ford Fiesta ST continues to impress, even when it is forced to share the stage with such a galaxy of former stars as this. Indeed, all of those people who will tell you, grim-faced, that things aren’t as they were in the good old days would benefit from a trip down a decent road in the Fiesta followed by any one of its hot hatch ancestors. 

And yes, the Golf has better throttle response, the 205 superior agility, the Clio greater feel and the Mini better pace, but as a modern compromise that, unlike these others now afforded classic status, must also function as an everyday weapon, the Fiesta sets a stunningly high standard.  

Best of all, you know simply from the Fiesta’s desire to adjust its stance around its central axis that it has been designed by engineers who understand what’s important in such a car as any Volkswagen, Peugeot, Renault or Mini designer from times gone by – they must just work with rather different tools. 

Also consider...

Suzuki Swift Sport

A back-to-basics hatch whose simplicity evokes the spirit of the earliest warm hatches, with its blend of common-sense practicality, no-nonsense engineering and honest driving pleasure. 

Volkswagen Golf GTI

How gratifying to see the Golf back near the top after almost 40 years. Now, as then, its appeal stems from excellence in every area. Some are faster or more fun but, as a package, it’s as hard to beat as ever.

Mini Cooper

The Mk3 Mini makes massive steps in ride and refinement, and its sensational three-pot 1.5-litre motor ensures that it’s even more fun to drive. Yes, a Cooper S is faster but it’s no funnier than this model.

Is there a model we've missed out? Decide on your favourite hot hatchback and let us know in the comments section below.

Our Verdict

Ford Fiesta ST
Can the Fiesta ST be one of the great fast Fords?

The popular hatchback gets the hot ‘ST’ treatment

Join the debate

Comments
15

21 June 2014
As somebody who has always had a soft spot for cooking versions of standard fare motors and had an opportunity to run them as a company car in the 80's & 90's this brought back many happy memories of Mk 2 Cortina's, (a 1600E & a Lotus), a Corsair 2000E, Orion 1.6i Ghia, 205 Gti's. (both 1.6 & 1.9), a Mazda 323 GTX 4x4 Turbo, Astra SRi, Fiesta XR2i, Audi 90 Quattro, Sierra XR4x4 and several other interesting motors of that time - Happy Days...

21 June 2014
Ah, the days when hot hatches were stripped out and fun with minimal thought to refinement. Bring them back! BTW, why isn't my MG Metro in this? Oh....hang on, I just remembered why... ;)

21 June 2014
If I won the lottery and had to have one of these in my dream garage, that would be a tough decision. I've never driven any, but I know when I was kid, growing up in the 80's, I loved the 205 GTi, so probably that one.

But then, my older brother had a Mk1 Golf, and I remember us driving about in it, so that could be a contender as well!

Funny looking at the Williams, I'd forgotten how clean & good looking the original Clio was

Ali_ wrote:

Ah, the days when hot hatches were stripped out and fun with minimal thought to refinement. Bring them back! BTW, why isn't my MG Metro in this? Oh....hang on, I just remembered why... ;)

They were all stripped out and lacked refinement, regardless of which version you had back then. I'm sure manufacturers could easily make one like that, but they won't as that would mean they'd struggle to get 1 star in the Euro Ncap ratings.

21 June 2014
I guess what we should say is, they were all good in there day,but, up against today's hot hatch Brigade?

Peter Cavellini.

21 June 2014
Autocar wrote:

Also consider...

Alfa Romeo Alfasud

Even though it didn’t gain a hatch until the 1980s, you can’t ignore the little Alfa with its magical flat four engine, world-class chassis and telepathic steering.

My dad had one of these in pea green. I would have been about 4 or 5 at the time, but I remember it vividly when he got it. He took us all out in it (my mum, bro & sis), driving it fast until my mum shouted at him, telling him to stop and she would drive. She then took to the wheel and drove it the same way haha they loved that car, but didn't have it long. We got a Mini Metro instead :(

21 June 2014
I've never driven it but a cousin did after buying it with his student loan (eons ago). He still talks about it. I think it's high praise and makes me very curious as to how good it actually was.

21 June 2014
I haven't driven everything on the list but,

The original 5 Gordini was fabulous, metallic blue, fab wheels and great roadholding. The one's I drove weren't particularly slick when it came to gear changing. The small size meant you could carry more speed on narrow roads than some others.

Golf GTI Mk2 - starting to get fat, and not as nice as people might suggest. I much preferred the more attractive Mk2 Scirocco which used to average 40mph on cross country dashes that averaged 60 mph. Lovely torquey engine, huge boot, mine looked good in red.

Escort Cosworth 4WD, loved it (although I only ever drove one around Thruxton), great looks and superb brakes.

Pug 306 GTI, I never drove any thing other than run of the mill versions, but they all had a fab chassis.

Mini GP Works, a frenetic pogo stick of a car. I drove one back to back with a Hyundai V6 Coupe, my V6 wasn't that refined - but it seemed like an S Class in comparison. The mini was fun, but a whining hornet that would exhaust you on a long run.

No mention of the face lifted C30 T5 R design. We had two C30s, the later ones with the updated chassis were a pure joy to drive. Lovely 5 cylinder warble, slow witted Geartronic box was hardly ever an issue.

Then the current Fiests ST, which I considered as a replacement for the C30. It's every bit as good as the road tests indicate. The only negative was the pathetic optional extra Sat Nav set up.

Perhaps the only major omission on the list above is the wonderful Citroen Visa GTi, which i would pick over a 205 (5 doors and more quirky).

The Fiesta is best of the current crop for sure.

21 June 2014
I remember that VW introduced a Golf Driver which was a mild-hatch version of the GTI. There was a 205 Rallye model that was like a less well-equipped GTI and who can forget the Escort Sport of the early 70's which was like a Mexico Lite with a 1.3 engine. The original Escort Mexico was fairly stripped-down and the first model with a few luxuries, like carpets, was the Mexico Custom in 1972. There were quite a few other stripped-out models which were produced but, since the name of the game seems to be to load up the cars with as many extras as possible, no-one seems to have the appetite for the understated anymore. On the other hand, these look-alike models might have been to make them easier to insure. In the 1990's hot hatch models were eye-wateringly expensive to insure. I remember quotes for an XR2i which were unbelievably high and, since the car was stolen subsequently, perhaps I should have taken that as an omen and not bothered buying the car.

7 August 2014
n50pap wrote:

I remember that VW introduced a Golf Driver which was a mild-hatch version of the GTI.

i had a mkI driver. it had the twin headlights, side stripes and black rear screen surround like the gti, and with the addition of gti wheels and the red grille and bumper stripes would have looked close to identical. except mine was sand metallic which was never a gti colour. other than the exterior appearance and some nicer seat fabric it was just a standard 1.3, but it was a great fun car nonetheless. i replaced it with a mkIi gti 8v in white with a tan full leather interior which was fairly rare. i only sold it as i used it for work and the insurance got stupid because of the high theft rate of hot hatches on top of the business use. i still wish i'd bitten the bullet and coughed up and i would happily be still driving it now. the combination of performance, reliability, comfort, economy and sheer enjoyment was unbeatable.

I don't need to put my name here, it's on the left

 

21 June 2014
The Fiesta ST is my pick. Modern, but agile and fun to drive with loads of power.

I have owned an 205GTi, and while it was fun in the bends, it was annoying as heck everywhere else. Mine was in great condition but 25-year old french plastics don't stand up that well, so it rattled horribly. And you felt like you sat in a deathtrap going anything over 70km/h. And i would not say the gearbox is the greatest in a FWD car ever. The leaver was too long and it was a bit notchy. OK, but not spectacular. A 205GTi with a rollcage could be a nice track day car, but as a car for the road, no thanks, i would not buy one again.

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