We take a look through the last 40 years of hot hatch history, to chart some of the greatest hits (and misses) that keep us coming back for more pint-sized fun
We do go on about hot hatches quite a lot, but for the vast majority of people, they offer an unbeatable combination of performance, practicality and value. For this list we’ve stuck to the strict definition – which means affordable, front-wheel drive and fun. Sadly this means we’ll be avoiding some of the more extreme hot hatchbacks, like the Renault Clio V6, Lotus Sunbeam and Lancia Integrale, although you can read about these here…
The question of VW Golf GTI vs Peugeot 205 has been raging on for decades. They are undoubtedly the most iconic and recognisable examples of the breed, but can either one genuinely be considered the best? We discuss the many great alternatives below:
Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1 - Although things were moving very quickly in the motoring industry during the 1970s, few could have predicted that a humble front-wheel drive hatchback could be responsible for the performance and interaction to topple a conventional sportscar. The GTI was given lower and firmer suspension, a fuel-injected 1.6-litre (and later 1.8-litre) engine, and it went on to gain huge critical acclaim. It was a big seller for the company too…
Peugeot 205 GTI 1.9 - What do you get when you combine a beautifully styled French hatchback with 130bhp performance? One of the most iconic hot hatches of all time, that’s what. Today, the 205 GTI is a legend, adored by many for its looks, engaging handling and vibrant scene. This is the car that cemented Peugeot at the top of the hill for chassis engineering for many years. A good number remain on the roads today, with values for tidy cars continuing to rise.
Renault keeps the flame alive, while Peugeot and VW lose the plot
The Renault 5 GT Turbo posed the biggest threat to the mid-80s order. The original R5 came in an Alpine Turbo version (Gordini Turbo for the UK) but it was the second-generation R5, with a transverse engine and much more positive handling, that made the basis of the GT Turbo. Its 115bhp (later 120bhp) came from a simple but unburstable 1.4-litre pushrod four, able to cope with the turbocharger’s exertions and giving the craggily styled, bodykitted Renault the pace to match our established protagonists. It handled beautifully, too, but its cabin was truly a temple to hard plastics. Today they are ultra-rare and surely destined for fiscal stardom.
Renault 5 GT Turbo - The Five was built to go toe-to-toe with the 205, but the high-performance GT Turbo went about its business very differently. The car’s handling balance was set-up extremely well, proving the driver with a lot more confidence on the limit than the Peugeot.
And so the ’90s. Peugeot killed the 205 GTI in 1994, and gave it no direct heir. Instead there were the larger 306 GTI-6 and its stripped-out Rallye derivative
, and the smaller 106 GTI and later its Citroën Saxo VTS cousin. The hot 306s were highly enjoyable cars but were really a belated replacement for the excellent if aesthetically challenged 309 GTI, itself a stretched 205 1.9 under the skin. Peugeot also created the 106 Rallye, a mad little device whose 1.3-litre engine had a huge appetite for revs, intended as a low-cost club rally car.
In the late ’90s Peugeot came up with a 206 GTI, and a 207 GTI followed in the mid-Noughties; neither came anywhere near to recapturing the 205’s spirit and they are destined for obscurity. Volkswagen had already gone down this goose-killing route with the pudgy, unexciting Mk3 Golf GTI and the Mk4 versions, so discreet that you wondered if Volkswagen had succumbed to terminal amnesia. In 2004 this proved not to be the case, the Golf GTI Mk5 being a triumphant return to form that has continued to today’s Mk7 – and the best new hot hatchback you can buy today, the Golf R. Peugeot’s 208 GTI is a good effort, too, although its looks are hard to love.
Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk5 - Like so many things in life, the Golf GTI needed a re-boot following the poor Mk3 and Mk4 models. Going on sale in late 2004, this fantastic hot hatch represented a much-needed return to form for the GTI with a punchy 2.0-litre turbocharged engine and retro-styled tartan interior. It was a convincing package, which has stood the test of time well.
After the demise of our two protagonists and their immediate descendants, it fell mainly to Renault to keep the torch burning and the hot hatchback concept properly focused, beginning with the Clio 16V and its enhanced, bigger-engined evolution, the Clio Williams.
Renault Clio Williams - During the 1990s, the hot hatch’s development was very much stunted by the decade’s spiralling insurance costs and increasing safety improvements adding bulk to cars. The French still managed to sneak this little pocket rocket into the world. Launched off the back of Renault’s F1 engine deal with Williams, this blue and gold Clio was powered by a tuned 150bhp 2.0-litre F7R engine, with a chassis tweaked by Renaultsport. It quickly sold out, leading to the Williams 2 & 3 models.
Since then, Renault has seldom been without a class-topping hot hatchback of some sort, its RenaultSport wing developing some brilliant Clios and Méganes with all the hard-edged, driver-focused virtues intact, current Clio arguably excepted.
Renault Clio Trophy - Okay, it’s yet another Renault, but this one is a truly special machine. Based on the already fantastic Clio 182 Cup model, the Trophy was a UK-only special edition with one major modification: a set of extremely expensive Sachs dampers. These racing dampers used a remote reservoir, allowing extreme levels of control. One for terrorising supercars on twisty mountain roads…
Renault Megane 265 Cup - This is where Renault got serious with its hot hatch performance. The previous generation R26.R was the more focused machine, although it’s lack of rear seats excludes it from this list. From day one, the earlier Megane 250 was the dynamic superior of all of its rivals, although its uncompromising chassis set-up can get a bit wearing for passengers. It’s telling that the latest Megane 275 Trophy can still hold its own against much newer machinery, and remains to this day the finest front-driven hatch on the market...
Ford under-delivers in the ’80s but has made up for it since
The first Escort XR3, and the Fiesta Supersport, looked fabulous. Neat graphics, racy wheels, details that exactly amplified the sporting ethos: they had all of these outside and in. For many buyers it mattered little that these cars weren’t great to drive compared with the best of the opposition. Fuel injection and suspension tweaks improved the Escort, but along with its RS Turbo sibling it never truly charmed the critics. And the less said about the penny-pinched Mk4 Escorts, the better – rare-groove, Sierra-based RS Cosworth excepted.
The Fiesta Supersport soon became the XR2, and it went downhill from there. An XR2i topped the new-generation Fiesta range in 1989, but still it was trounced in group tests containing 205s and R5s. ‘Another duff fast Ford’, announced Car magazine on its XR2i cover story. The Fiesta RS Turbo was better, but still pointless given what else you could buy.
Things changed in 1992. Stung by all the criticism, Ford reined in the accountants and put the engineers on top. The Mondeo was the best-driving Ford in years, and the new thinking rubbed off on the rest of the range.
Among the sporting models, highlights were the Puma Racing, the SportKa, the various ST models and, in 2002, the RS version of the excellent Focus. Ford hasn’t looked back since.
Ford Focus ST (Mk2) - The five-cylinder Focus ST might not be the sharpest handler on this list (although it is pretty good fun if you're a fan of lift-off oversteer), but it is one of the punchiest. The engine was borrowed from Volvo’s well-known T5 models, and gives the Focus an unmistakable soundtrack. Thanks to the wonders of tuning, there are plenty of cars out there running far in excess of 300bhp too, making for true supercar-baiting performance. The far more extreme Focus RS used the same great powertrain, but the ST was (and still is) the affordable everyman choice.
Vauxhall tries but is scuppered by GM’s handling strictures
On paper, the first Astra GTE practically mirrored the Golf GTI in its mechanical make-up. Yet GM had US-influenced obsessions back then, which resulted in cars with inert handling, a slow on-centre steering response and pedals that defied attempts to heel-and-toe. So they weren’t much fun to drive, Astra GTE included, Nova GTE and Corsa GSi especially, with almost no throttle-controlled variation in cornering attitude.
This carried on well into the ’90s, although occasionally a maverick would break free with the help of enough power to beat the strictures into submission. The 16-valve version of the Mk2 Astra GTE was one such, and a surprisingly entertaining car. Later, with the arrival of chassis stability electronics, the base set-up could be made more adventurous. This resulted in hot Vauxhalls best described as thuggish; subtlety and tactility have never been Vauxhall’s way.
The Italian approach?
The Lancia Delta integrale was the big one, of course, a car so steeped in glory that it almost transcends the hot-hatchback genre. However, there were also the earlier HF Turbo and its HF 4WD development, the latter broadly an integrale without the blistered arches. These are very rare but still brilliant.
Fiat’s Ritmo/Strada Abarth 130TC was another crackerjack machine, flawed in so many ways (soggy brakes, odd driving position, general friability) but fast and feisty. Better one of these than an Uno Turbo, as sloppy as it was speedy.
Alfa Romeo’s Alfasud pre-dated the true hot hatch but was of the genre, even if it didn’t actually get a hatchback tail until late life. The early ones handled the best, better than any rival, but as the power went up the finesse went down and the Golf GTI rendered that once-great car an also-ran.
Alfa Romeo 147 GTA - A flawed gem to say the least, but this hot hatch features a fantastic 3.2-litre V6 engine. It’s pretty respectable dynamically, but it’s really the Italian-built musical instrument under the bonnet that makes this Alfa something special.
There are plenty of very capable, highly enjoyable hot hatchbacks now largely forgotten, but they deserve a mention here. Step forward, please, the Citroën Visa GTI (with 205 GTI engine) and BX GTI 16V (once often plundered for its 160bhp engine to put in an extra-hot 205).
Then there’s the Japanese contingent: Nissan Sunny GTI (yes, really); Toyota Corolla GTi-16 in two generations (plus cult rear-drive AE86); Honda Civics with stratospherically revving VTEC engines. The Mitsubishi Colt 1800 16V GTi, made for just two years from 1990, extremely entertaining and now surely extinct.
And finally the MG Maestro Turbo, a Tickford conversion of the already surprisingly capable MG Maestro 2.0 EFi. For a while the forced-induction MG was the fastest-accelerating hot hatchback you could buy, hitting 60mph from rest in 6.7 seconds.
Honda Civic Type-R EP3 - The Honda Civic Type-R was significant for many reasons, but most of all it was a genuine sales success for the Japanese company in the UK. Huge fun to drive, thanks to stiff suspension, high-revving four-cylinder engine and one of the best manual gearchanges known to man. The Golf GTI Mk4 didn’t know what hit it.
So what is the best hot hatch? Let us know which car you think deserves the crown in the comments below!