The hot hatch market has rarely been as strong as it is today. Not only do we have the likes of the 350bhp Focus RS, the highly capable VW Golf R and the insane Honda Civic Type R, but also a stellar mid-range models such as the Fiesta ST, 208 GTi and RS Clio to give ample choice.
The UK has always loved a hot hatch and is a love that never seems to die. The emergence of hot hatches in the 1970s kick-started a revolution of cars that were compact yet highly spirited in nature thanks to potent powerplants and, in most cases, enhanced engineering. We’d like to salute those that started the hot hatch movement and look back at our favourite retro pocket rockets.
Volkswagen Golf Mk1
There’s no use in looking at retro hot hatchbacks without including the car that arguably started the whole market. The first Volkswagen Golf GTi is now over four decades old, but is still revered as one of the best to this day.
We’re actually quite lucky to have the Golf GTi, as originally VW just wanted to release a limited edition Golf Sport with a fettled engine and suspension. However, someone saw the bigger picture and the GTi was born, complete with a punchy 110bhp 1.6-litre Audi 80 engine, which later gained an extra 200cc.
What made the Golf GTi Mk1’s engine such an achievement was the use of fuel injection as opposed to carburetors, and what made it work so well was the combination of a sprightly engine and an incredibly low body weight of just 810kg. Even today, this blend of power and lightness stand up well and is a recipe that continues to be utilised not just in hot hatches, but also the likes of compact sports cars as the Mazda MX-5.
Over 40 years later and we’re now on the seventh incarnation of the Golf GTi and, despite a few stumbles along the way (see Golf GTi Mk4), is one of the most sorted hot hatches available.
Peugeot 205 GTi
Despite there being an eight year gap, the Peugeot 205 GTi is often mentioned in tandem with its German contemporary, the Golf, when it comes to classic hot hatches.
Again, the potent engine/lightweight body recipe was employed to create what is likely the most sorted hot hatch of its generation. At the start there was a 1.6-litre engine (deemed the purists’ choice) pumping out 105bhp that powered a car weighing just 900kg. Meanwhile, the more common 1.9-litre offered an improved 130bhp that helped shave nearly a second off of the 1.6’s 8.7sec 0-62mph time.
Today, the fun has not been dampened and still the genre-defining 205 GTi shines at every opportunity, with its heavy steering making you work for the satisfying drive and, regardless of which version you have, happiness is guaranteed.
Ford Fiesta XR2 (Gen 2)
The 205 did have some competition in 1984, however, in the form of the second-generation Ford Fiesta XR2. Seen as somewhat of an underdog to the conquering Peugeot, the Fiesta XR2 has found most of its fans later in its life and has gained many an enthusiast in the last 10 years or so.
This second-gen car borrowed both the 1.6-litre engine and five-speed gearbox from the Escort XR3, leaving it with a modest 97bhp going through the front wheels. But tipping the scales at a mere 839kg, the Fiesta XR2 was a bundle of joy regardless of its output.
Thanks to virtually no driver aids, the XR2 offers a very old school driving experience and beats its successor, the fuel-injected XR2i, for thrills.
Vauxhall Astra GTE MK1
Sticking with the ‘80s theme, when it came to Vauxhall wanting a slice of the hot hatch market, it put forward its Astra and three special letters: GTE.
The Astra GTE was Vauxhall’s first attempt at a hot hatch, and in looks alone, makes for one of the most iconic cars of its type in its era. Vauxhall armed the Astra GTE with a 1.8-litre four-pot with 115bhp on tap and is almost half the weight of the most recent Astra VXR.
Like most cars of its type at the time, it’s when the car gets in its stride that it really gets going. While it likes to use all of its suspension travel when thrown into the corners, the GTE offers plenty of grip and makes for a very satisfying drive.
Renault 5 GT Turbo
Now for something completely different, in looks, anyway. The Renault 5 GT Turbo was the more conservative and much less extreme version of the 5 Turbo, not that that was a bad thing, with the mid-engined 5 Turbo not exactly the most compliant every day hot hatch.
It is the 5 GT Turbo that really put Renault on the map when it came to hot hatches. The Turbo did take some styling cues from its more extreme brother, including some very flared wheel arches and fake cooling slats as if it too had its engine in the middle. Unlike the 5 Turbo, the GT offered the 1.4-litre powerplant from the Renault 11 with the addition of a Garrett T2 turbo and an air-to-air intercooler, serving up a respectable 115bhp in a car weighing a smidge over 850kg.
A 0-60mph time of an impressive 7.5sec meant that it beat its key rival, the 1.6-litre 205 GTi, by over a second. Modifications over-and-above the standard 5’s suspension set-up, including new front springs, dampers and anti-roll bar, resulted in a car that could walk the walk and not just looked great.
It’s rare that you see an untouched 5 GT Turbo, as the car quickly became a tuner’s delight thanks to such a solid chassis and suspension set-up, while modifying as a whole was made unnervingly simple.