As talented as it’s always been, the TT covers every base as well as you...
You are more likely to be aware of a time when you were happy than you are to realise it in the moment. And if you do realise that, right here, right now, you are enjoying a period of true and unqualified happiness, that is a rare and special thing. The same is true with golden eras. We may look back at the 1970s and declare it to have been a golden era for Formula 1, but I don’t remember anyone saying so at the time. And, yes, I am old enough to remember. So I take as significant my acute awareness of the fact that, for fast and practical hatchbacks, we have rarely, if ever, had it as good as right now.
There was a time in the mid-1990s, when fast hatchbacks were forever being crashed and stolen, when I feared the fact they became almost impossible to insure might kill one of my favourite categories stone dead. But, over time, the genre regenerated and reformed itself and, slowly and not always so steadily, they’ve been getting better and better, until they reached the point they occupy today. The result is a hot hatch cohort of unprecedented quality.
Which is really what lies behind this feature. There is always a temptation when approaching stories like this to naturally assume that things ain’t what they used to be, that what progress has been made has been in the wrong direction and that the light, compact and nimble hatches of 30 or 40 years ago have a charm their more corpulent descendants could never possibly match. Except I don’t believe that’s true, and I say that as the owner of the Peugeot 205 GTI seen on this page. My instinct suggested the state of the hot hatch art had advanced so far that while both eras would have their strengths and weaknesses, the upstart newcomers could pack more than enough talent to not only take the fight to the best of the old school, but possibly march right through them.
And I accept my pursuit of this point is likely to cause some consternation, particularly regarding the five cars selected here (view our 31 favourite hot hatches here). Where’s an original Golf GTI, a Lancia Delta Integrale or any kind of Renault Clio, for that matter? But I’d back the 205 to represent the old school, enough to have put my own money where my mouth is, and the two new cars, the Civic Type R and Golf GTI, are here to represent both the Jekyll and Hyde of the contemporary scene. The Focus covers the middle ground between the two eras. Which leaves the Mégane as the one hardest to justify on paper. Not new but not remotely old, it fails at the first duty of such cars because, having just two seats, it’s not remotely practical.
But as the greatest, most dedicated disciple of the fast hatchback, a Renault could not be omitted from the final five and, of them all, this is the one I wanted. On another day and in another mood, it could quite easily have been a Clio Trophy 182. We’ll let the Peugeot set the scene, flashing across Wales to our mountain rendezvous, still making mincemeat of everything it comes across. I want to dwell for a moment on what it does poorly because I feel so much hagiographical stuff has been written about them of late (including plenty by me), a little balance is in order. First, one look at those toothpick A-pillars will tell you how much you really don’t want to crash one. Second, the interior is even more flimsy than it looks.
It doesn’t feel that fast in a straight line any more and I’d rank its brakes as adequate for the performance but no more. In fact, it only really does two things unusually well: it’s exceptionally spacious and therefore practical for a car of its size and it’s not possible to go anywhere in it without emerging a happier person. It has an indefatigable enthusiasm manifesting itself as a relentless, preternatural charm. If slicing it through quick curves, hoofing the back on the throttle and savouring the kind of feel you only get from a car weighing the same as a family bag of Twiglets doesn’t win you over, you’re not in the wrong car or on the wrong road, you’ve got the wrong hobby.
On paper, the Focus looks a whole lot heavier and not that much quicker, but, while the former is true, the latter is entirely deceptive. Compared with the moderns, the Focus is still compact but it comes from an era (and a company) that was starting to get serious about such cars and happy to use trick differentials and sophisticated suspension to cope with what would have been an unimaginable amount of power to put through the front wheels of a hatchback back in the 205 days. Fifteen years ago, I can remember how easily one stuck to the tail of an exceptionally well-driven Aston Martin Vanquish and, because it is so compact, accurate and predictable, I reckon it could still scare some supercars today on a tricky road.
You only really notice its age in its appearance – particularly inside – and the fact that for half of its rev range the engine is fast asleep: really, you need to be at the 3500rpm torque peak or above before it will do its enchanting thing.
Of the modern troupe, it is the Civic that most closely mirrors the approach of the Ford. Neither is interested in providing a premium feel, but both recognise it is imperative still to be able to do the boring stuff. But the difference made by a decade-and-a-half of engine development is more than 100bhp.
So what’s so commendable about this generation of Civic Type R is its engineers have not just provided that power and a front-drive chassis that can take it (no mean feat in its own right), clapped themselves on the back and moved onto the next project. Instead, this is a car with a chassis that feels like it’s been honed by a team of restless perfectionists who kept going back to it until they simply couldn’t make it any better. The way it rides, the way its back axle provides stability when needed and agility when not is textbook stuff.
I’d not call the result so much fun as thrilling: it is not a belly laugh kind of experience it offers, but one where you park up at the end of road and relive the journey in your mind while waiting for your pulse rate to recover.
Incredibly, the Mégane does both. It may not have the power, and therefore the Nürburgring lap time, of the Civic but to me it feels even quicker on a difficult road courtesy of the insane level of detail Renault has foisted upon it from its composite front springs to Ohlins dampers that can be adjusted through 40 clicks. Make no mistake, as a thing to just get in and drive, it is the most special car here. No, not even Renaultsport’s obsessive approach to mass reduction (leading to the deletion of the rear seats among other items) can bring its weight down even to Focus level let alone anywhere near the 205, but the decision to engineer what is essentially a racing car dialled back only as far as required for it to be road legal has a devastating effect. It’s the only one of the five whose adhesion limit actually takes some finding and, while its back end is less happy to play as fast and loose as the Peugeot (or even the Honda), you can drive it with a precision not even the free-spirited 205 can muster. For all its looks, this is not a hooligan car at all but an incredible ground coverer whose sheer pace will render you breathless and whose eagerness will elicit great gales of laughter from within.
Which is not something you’d get from the Golf, is it? Don’t be so sure. Despite the fact the Golf GTI has spent the past 40 years or more not surprising anyone, this was the only one of the quintet that did not perform exactly as expected from the moment I fired up its engine.
It seems so sober within. Smart – premium even – but sober. The other four have utterly rubbish interiors by comparison: the Honda’s poorly laid out, the Renault’s hard to read, the Ford’s unattractive and the Peugeot’s inexactly constructed. But the Golf cabin soothes, cossets and gleams. It’s a genuinely pleasant place to pass the time, without yet having gone anywhere. So, naturally, you manage your expectations. It will be quick and entertaining, of course, but as lacking in genuine excitement as its rivals are lacking those everyday assets it so conspicuously possesses. Except this is not what happens. Even after the Renault and Honda, it comes as no let down at all. It’s not as quick as the Honda, nor as lucid as the Renault, but it’s closer to both than you and I thought. Superb though the Civic and Mégane are at putting so much torque through wheels that must also steer, there are times when it is cold or wet or even if the corner is merely tight that even they run out of traction. The Golf?
Hardly ever: it can use almost all of what it’s been given almost all of the time. What’s more commendable still is that it communicates so readily and clearly and provides such an immersive driving experience.
Can we compare cars from across the ages? Do we even need a winner? Yes, we can, and of course we do. I’m not so sure we need a loser, though, given all rank among the greatest hatchbacks of all time. Even so, I’m going to shed the Renault first and in doing so lose the best driver’s car here. But a hot hatch has to do both things and its rough ride and absence of rear seats means it can’t win here. The Focus should probably go next, brilliant though it is. It makes no significant mistakes and is ceaselessly entertaining to drive, but it is just a little caught between the superlights philosophy of the early hatches and the crushing brilliance of those we enjoy today. That said, it’s followed straight out of the door by the Civic. It’s close to the very best and were its staggering abilities matched by slightly more enticing static qualities, the best it would be. It is that close.
So it’s down to the Golf and the Peugeot. I can remember when Golf and 205 GTIs fought it out on pages like this on an almost weekly basis, but that was a quarter-of-a-century ago or more and it seems incongruous that it should come to this all over again. I know I should not be surprised – they are, after all, the two greatest hot hatches from the two greatest eras of hot hatches we have so far seen – but I am. Bluntly, I never expected the Golf to get anywhere near the front of this crowd – early in the day, I’d told the photographers to bung the Golf at the back because it was clearly the one that wasn’t going to come anywhere. How wrong I was.
But should it beat the Peugeot, the car that has topped hot hatch polls time and again? You bet it should. I won’t have to look back in 20 years’ time to know we’re living in a golden era for the hot hatchback because I know it right now. And after one day in a common or garden base-spec Volkswagen Golf GTI, you’d know it too.
MY FAVE HOT HATCH - NISSAN ALMERA GTI:I have fond memories of the Nissan Almera GTI, a 2.0-litre, 140bhp three-door from the late 1990s that could beat 130mph, pull a 7.8sec 0-60mph sprint and felt pleasingly flexible when you weren’t going for it. I remember a slick gearchange, a 7000rpm redline, a taut and neat-handling chassis and a pervading feeling of quality. Pay all of £750, if you can find one. Steve Cropley
MY FAVE HOT HATCH - VW GOLF GTI MK5: There are faster hot hatches and there are more exciting hot hatches, but for me the VW Golf GTI Mk5 is a near-perfect example of the breed. It’s great to drive quickly and modern enough to be comfortable every day, without being so new that it feels digitised. A bargain buy now too. Dan Prosser
MY FAVE HOT HATCH - PEUGEOT 106 GTi: The Peugeot 106 GTi isn’t the best hot hatchback but it’s my pick because I had one of my favourite-ever drives, from Hertfordshire to the Isle of Skye, in one. I’ll always remember it as a brilliant, agile, great-handling little car with the ability to impress over 630 miles if it had to. Matt Prior
MY FAVE HOT HATCH - RENAULTSPORT MEGANE RB8: I’m picking a special edition of the brilliant Renaultsport Mégane from 2013: the Red Bull RB8. Materially, it was just a 265 Cup with a blue paint job, but I’ll remember the drive – around a sun-drenched Cadwell Park, and then home to the Midlands – for as long as I live. Perfect damper tuning for quick road driving, abundant grunt, otherworldly grip level and loads of steering feedback. Just mind-blowing. Matt Saunders
RENAULTSPORT MEGANE - The Trophy R is an incredibly rare bird. Just 30 made their way to the UK and they now command prices north of £30k. But do not despair: half that money will buy an immaculate, far more usable and only slightly less fun standard Renaultsport Mégane 275. Pay £30,000 (Trophy R), £15,000 (Mégane 275). Andrew Frankel
PEUGEOT 205 GTI 1.9 - Excluding wrecks and show cars, there’s still a £20k spread among ‘normal’ 205s, starting at £5000. A 1.9 is nice but not essential and late cars have catalytic converters and less power. Condition is far more important and really good, unmodded cars are hard to find. Pay £10,000.
FORD FOCUS RS MK1 - With cars available from as little as £10,000 and nice examples retailing for around £14,000, we’d be surprised if a Mk1 RS did not turn out to be a useful long-term investment. But condition is all, and pay more than usual attention to telltale signs of abuse. Pay £14,000.