Ahh, the hot hatch. That most humble of performance icons, so incredibly loved by the petrol head that its mad to think it took the major car makers nearly 70 years before realising that a big engine in a small car was a recipe for success. Ask anyone to name a stable of dream cars, and the likelihood is that a cheeky hatch will sneak in there as easily as supercar royalty. Nostalgia is a truly wonderful thing, and looking backwards through the annals could have you salivating at all manner of Hot Hatches that would take pride of place on the driveway, but time has moved on, car buyers have become more sensible and with it the true breed of ‘proper’ hot hatches could be on the verge of extinction.
Personally, I’m right at the point where hot hatch ownership should be the dream soon to become a reality. Fresh out of college, landed into the first office job, few bob in the bank every month and looking into some new wheels. If I was in the same position at any other point over the past 40 years, I could be doing my daily commute in all manner of properly hard-core little hatchbacks. Long before the much heralded genesis with the MK1 Golf GTI, it was properly lairy cars like Chevette HS’s, Escort RS2000’s and Sunbeams that were the true point at which mainstream makers cottoned onto the benefit of having a halo model of their mundane everyday fare, and plenty of raucous vehicles have been pitched at people like me since
But what of right now in 2017?
My own personal criteria is fairly strict, in so much as to qualify as a proper hot hatch to me we’re talking two doors, a proper revvy engine, affordable, sub 1200 kg, a fairly strict limit of roughly 180 BHP (I’ll come back to this) and a magical little gear stick sitting between the driver and senselessly scared passenger. It’s tight, I know, but to me those are the core ingredients that have helped create some sublime pieces of kit. While the criteria is all well and good, once you apply it to today’s offerings in the new car market, then its slim pickings.
So what’s actually out there? Well, the obvious answer, and what I suspect a lot of people were shouting when they read the headline, is the Ford Fiesta ST. Ford just does everyday performance cars like no other car maker. Its back catalogue is like a hot hatch greatest hits collection, and the Fiesta badge has been joined by plenty of worthy monikers like RS and XR2, but the ST badge is the new pinnacle. Like every great rock band though, Ford went through quite a lull. From their heyday of the Cosworth weapons of the early 90’s, Ford was nearly 20 years without a decent hot hatch. There were plenty of attempts, but nothing hit the mark like their current fair. Here is a car that ticks all the boxes, and has blown away competitors time and time again in all manner of group tests. Its affordable as well, with Ford recently slashing €5000 off the base price as part of their 171 promotions, meaning you could have a brand new 180 BHP Festy outside the house for in and around €22500. The handling is well received, and the 1.6l EcoBoost Turbo engine is an absolute peach.
Jumping straight out of left field is a hot hatch many probably have never heard of, the Opel Adam S. Go on, there’s no shame in admitting you’d no clue as to Opel’s latest hot hatch offering because, well, they’ve kept it very quiet. Starting at in and around €20,000, the little Adam packs a turbo 1.4L lump that sends 150BHP through its two front 18 inch wheels. It’s funky, very out there and definitely not a shy little car. But then again, has anyone actually bought one? A single press car has been doing the rounds in the last year, and my local dealer has one in the showroom, yet I’ve never seen or heard of any others. It’s a similar story in the UK with barely more than 500 finding homes in the past 2 years. Truthfully, I’m truly smitten for the thing. It’s just about as close as possible to an old fashioned small hatch in the modern world. Being an absolute nutter, I crave those Recaro seats, a €2000 option, even if they damn near touch the roof and make the back seats completely useless for any sort of passenger. I have come close to even putting my money where my mouth is with the Adam, although I wouldn’t mind just trying it for a week to see how liveable it is (wink wink Opel).
And then comes Peugeot. Waving their Gallic charm with pride, the French maker took to the Hot Hatch unlike any other. From very early on, Peugeot realised that suspension and steering played as much a part in Hot Hatch buying taste as outright speed, and thus became the kings of the backroad. The 106 GTi, and its hard-core Rallye brother and Saxo VTS cousin, was a truly brilliant piece of kit and the 205 GTI is simply Hot Hatch royalty, yet Peugeot always struggled to shake off the lingering ghosts of past success as they offered up poor offering after poor offering with rather mediocre 206 and 307 GTi’s. Each new car to emerge bearing the GTI lettering draws immediate comparisons with the ground-breaking 205, but to many the latest 208 GTI has come perhaps closer than many others in hitting the sweet spot set down by its ancestors. Similar to the Fiesta, the 1.6 Turbocharged unit put out 190 BHP in standard form, and as with the Ford a pair of thick Recaro’s ad to the sense of occasion, although both the seats and exterior on the 208 and Fiesta are a lot more subtle than the Adam’s offerings.
But surely there’s more choice? Lookit, there is and there isn’t. As I said above with the criteria, I was going to be strict, and thus a few other possible Hot Hatches just don’t make muster to earn the moniker, a sign that a lot of manufacturers have lost sight of how to bottle the magic of rapid small Hatch. The Suzuki Swift Sport, with a mouth-watering prospect of a naturally aspirated, hard revving 1600cc engine has been very well received by the motoring press. It fits the affordability and fun boxes, but the 5-door package makes it look mundane, and besides, we’re in Ireland so you can’t have one anyway!! Lack of availability in Ireland and those pesky extra doors also steer me well clear of the latest RenaultSport Clio, but that car has soo much wrong with it I feel dirty mentioning it. Take the ingredients of mid noughties brilliance, then add a dull design, an auto box and a high price and watch a reputation ruined. There’s German offerings as well, in the Mini Cooper and the Audi A1, but yet again both are prohibitively expensive to the young buyer who was traditionally drawn to the hatch for the bang-for-a-buck factor and so get the red mark. The Polo GTI is less expensive than its fellow Deutsch brethren, but a 1.8 turbo unit is pretty uninsurable for a while yet, and it’s a similar issue with its Seat Cupra stablemate.
Ah now, where’s the Focus or the Civic? Well, now there’s a question that led to me sitting down and committing these thoughts to print. See, open any motoring website or magazine and you’ll be bombarded with reviews, tests and opinions on the ‘Latest Hot Hatches’ or ‘How does the Focus RS Compare to X’. Now, don’t for a second think that I have a dislike for the latest crop, it’s just the labelling of these monsters as Hot Hatches that makes me shiver. With time and progress, both cars and their buyers were always going to grow up. Car makers have tried ever so well to stay up to date with this changing demand, but in this realm of more power, more space, more comfort and more safety, a cohort of Hyper Hatches have been born. It’s not a new phenomenon, as for a long time it wasn’t uncommon for brand to have almost a Senior and Junior hot hatch in their line up (Astra & Corsa OPC, Xsara & Saxo VTS, Megane & Clio RS, Golf & Polo GTI), but many now have forgone their smaller offering in search of creating the wildest machine to fit into this new Hyper Hatch sector. What that has done is push performance further away from younger drivers. The Golf GTI, long held as the stable base of the Hatch market is now over €40k, the Focus and Civic starts at €50k and the AMG A45 is steeper again. Boasting less than 300BHP is old hat, and all manner of thoroughly modern 4wd systems and Auto boxes are such a world away from Hot Hatch roots that it’s almost akin to calling the Premiership as Division 1. Go back a few years and performance figures like these were reserved for rally bred cars like the Mitsubishi Evo & Subaru Impreza as well as serious sports cars. Nowadays, we have what are essentially modern equivalents of the Super Saloon era hiding behind a hatchback name.
Anyway, I mentioned power very early in this piece when setting out my criteria of what makes a true Hot Hatch. Remember that mythical 180 BHP figure?? See, that seems to be the sweet spot at which affordability, driving pleasure, performance and everyday use just merge. The truly great, and I mean the absolute highest echelon of the Hot Hatch breed, all linger around this figure. To some, the Renault Clio Trophy is one of the greatest handling, raw driving cars of all time. That makes do with 182 BHP. The EK Honda Civic Type R opened all of our eyes to the delicate beauty of mechanical engineering and how hitting the higher reaches of the power band can be both exhilarating and reliable. Well that got 182 BHP. The much talked about current Fiesta ST comes with the same amount of ponies under the bonnet, and my all-time favourite hot hatch, the Peugeot 306 GTi, which to my mind offers the ultimate balance of style, driving dynamics (just don’t dare lift off while cornering as you will end up in a ditch) and speed, was blessed with 167BHP from the factory. Go further back the power band and there are a multitude of properly fun cars that didn’t need massive power to offer incredible enjoyment, just a back to basics approach and away you go. Case in point was my own personal Toyota Corolla AE92 GTi that I drove for 18 months. Boasting no more that 125BHP, the truly wonderful 4AGE engine was just a demon to push up the rev range, and of course it had 16v written on the door and Twincam on the log book so it was the height of cool, although decidedly less fun when it came to finding insurance!
So if you were to fulfill your true petrol head destiny and buy a ‘proper’ hot hatch, it seems that time to do so is in short supply, although there may be a few things looming on the horizon that could be of interest. Volkswagen have for a while now teased us with thoughts of an UP GTi. Along the same lines of the very cool Lupo GTi, VW intends to add a bit of spice and three magic letters to its smallest offering. Rumour has it the intention is to get as close to the power and weight of the original MK1 Golf GTi so it has all the hallmarks of rekindling the fire in the small hatch sector. Also, hot on the heels of their WRC return, Toyota have teased us with the prospect of a hot Yaris. Not much is known yet, but an announcement is expected soon. No matter what sort of package they offer, once they attach the Yaris WRC rear wing then all is fine and dandy!! The hot hatch is a dying breed, but a few diamonds lay among the embers still!