If we were honest with ourselves, I think most would concede that happiness is usually a retrospective sensation.
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.
This article was originally published on 10 February 2018. We're revisiting some of Autocar's most popular features to provide engaging content in these challenging times.
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.