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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.