This week is all about hot hatches. Ordinary cars made extraordinary through some engineering tweaks and a big dose of automotive passion.
Let’s begin at the beginning. What is a hot hatch? To answer that, we need to step back and answer another question first: what is a hatch? Well, that one is pretty simple.
Car makers and the specialised press need to find a way to separate the different models for the buying public to better understand them. A saloon is a three-box car with four doors and a boot. A supercar is a mid-engined two-door, high-performance machine. And, among others, a hatch is a compact family car with three or five doors and a decent boot.
The hatch is the most space-efficient car next to the MPV and really all the car anybody will ever need.
If you want something different, the give-away is in the ‘want’. There is also another word to describe a hatch: Golf. You know, the car that invented the genre back in 1974 and defined a generation.
Now, imagine you take this family run-about and give it more power, maybe some bigger brakes and a reworked chassis and suspension settings. Imagine you make it a performance car – voilá, you have made yourself a hot hatch.
Hot hatches are fabulous cars because they are everything for everybody. As practical for day-to-day duties as the lesser versions of the same car and capable of giving a bloody nose to a supercar on the right piece of road. Being relatively affordable in terms of value for performance, they are an entry point to performance driving.
So, this week we are looking at the Top-3 Hot Hatches of all time. The ones that redefined the breed. The ones that became instant classics. The ones dreams are made of. There is no hierarchy. These are all winners.
And winner among winners is the 1984 Peugeot 205 GTI. Designed by Gérard Welter, the Peugeot 205 was a tremendous success for the French marque in the Eighties.
It looked crisp and clean and it only took a few red go-faster inserts, some side-mouldings, special alloy wheels and bam, the GTI was born. The 1.6 litre engine only made 105 horsepower, but, with just 900kg, the little Pug became a reference in dynamic brilliance. Still, Peugeot extracted another 10 horses shortly after and in 1986 launched the 1.9 version and all 130 horsepower of it.
For sheer interaction between man and machine, nothing comes close to it, even 35 years later. The gearbox and the unassisted steering are some of the best ever fitted to a car and the chassis was clearly developed by people who must have loved driving. Add all three and you have the perfect recipe for endless unforgettable moments behind the wheel.
Next on the list, the 1993 Lancia Delta HF Integrale Evoluzione II. When Group B rules were banned from rallying and Group A became the premier class, Lancia had the right tool for the job.
Penned by a young Giorgetto Giugiaro, who would become the most influential car designer of the 21st century, the Delta evolved throughout a 15-year life span to become arguably the greatest rally car ever made. When Lancia needed to homologate changes to the competition car, it made changes to the road car, so the two were always connected. It’s impossible not to feel that heritage on every journey. After all, six world championships on the trot are a pretty remarkable achievement.
The latest iteration, the Evoluzione II, had 215 horsepower from a 2-litre turbocharged engine, a perfect five-speed gearbox and the best steering you will ever find in a four-wheel drive car. Of course, the Lancia also came with the widest arches a compact car has ever had and a set of wheels so beautiful they would make a lovely centrepiece for any petrolhead living room. It’s probably my favourite car in the world, which is why the one you see here has been living at Chez Marques for 11 years now.
Let’s end where we began – in the beginning. The Volkswagen Golf was not only the first hatch to market, it was also the first hot hatch. In 1976, VW crammed a 110hp, 1.6 engine in the hood of its small family car and an icon was born. But, for me, the first VW Golf GTI does not belong in this list. I believe the fifth generation and the current one are the best specimens of a true legend of the industry.
Today, whereas the Peugeot 208 GTI is a world apart from what made the 205 GTI so great and Lancia sells but one model in Italy alone, the very old Ypsilon, you can still pick up a state-of-the-art Volkswagen Golf GTI, just like 45 years ago. With 245 horsepower, it’s not the most powerful hot hatch around (Mercedes builds a 420 hp A-Class), but it is still the best for everyday use and unleashes enough performance for the word ‘fun’ to be ever present.
The Golf GTI may not be such an event to drive as the 205 or the Delta, but the fact it still exists and still feels special makes it a worthy entry in a very, very, restricted club.
By Guilherme Marques