Soon to arrive this spring, the Ford Focus RS is not only one of the most hotly anticipated new auto models to be released in the U.S. this year, but it could be the beginning of a new hot hatch revolution on that side of the Atlantic too.
While powerful versions of small, city-friendly hatchbacks have traditionally done very well among the European market, it’s no secret that muscle cars and fast coupes have proven more popular among Stateside petrolheads, where the roads are wider, the streets straighter and the fuel more affordable.
Yet, rumor has it the soon-to-be-released 350hp Focus RS could be joined by a 400hp Volkswagen Golf F420 soon after, clearing the way for other souped-up smaller cars to follow suit. While many American drivers might be used to the idea that “Bigger = Better,” that’s definitely not always the case. Hatchbacks might not always look as big or imposing on the outside, but there’s nothing like the thrill of being behind the wheel of a ridiculously over-powered shopping cart.
In anticipation of this new wave of machines poised to infiltrate the American market, here’s our guide to some of the greatest hot hatchbacks ever made. We like to think of them as the good, the mad and the ugly…
Volkswagen Golf G60 Limited
There are plenty of Golf variants to get excited about when it comes to hot hatches, but arguably the Holy Grail for real enthusiasts is the Golf Limited.
The clue’s in the name: there were just 71 of these inconspicuous-looking MK2 Golfs (or Rabbits) handmade by the Volkswagen Motorsport Division. Despite looking like a cooking CL with a set of 15” BBS wheels, the Limited was distinguished by a small Motorsport badge and blue trim around the grille. Under the skin was a G60 supercharged 16-valve engine mated to a four-wheel-drive Synchro drivetrain.
At the time, many people thought the five-door body was an in-joke to make it more inconspicuous around town, but the reality was the chassis was stronger on this variant. Ultimately, 207hp allowed it to pull 60 mph in 6.4 seconds – a shade off a Porsche 944 S2.
MG Maestro Turbo
Reading this you will likely be thinking one of two things: 1) “What the hell is a Maestro?” or 2) “What the hell is a Maestro doing here?” This gawky, aging Brit certainly didn’t have the looks, the charisma, the finesse, the street cred, the desirability or virtually any of the redeeming features of its rivals of the time, but it did have a lot of go. And that shut a lot of people up.
In 1989 it was enough to propel it to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds – about the same as a BMW E30 M3. Technology was limited in the Maestro hatchback, which was launched in 1983 and loaded up with the 152hp engine and drivetrain of the larger Montego Turbo saloon. It was the automotive equivalent of stuffing some stale bread with marshmallows and calling it a dessert.
Did they get away with it? It may not have looked pretty, but the 505 examples were the fastest MGs to date.
Almost forgotten in hot-hatch folklore is a strange meeting between a British sports car manufacturer and a rather plain looking Chrysler Sunbeam. Long story short: Chrysler’s head of motorsport Des O’Dell wanted to replicate the Avenger’s success in rallying. Times were tight and the Sunbeam was chosen because everything would slot in from the Avenger. All they needed was an engine.
As it happened, Des’s deputy, Wynne Mitchell, had been to college with Mike Kimberley at Lotus, and a deal was sketched out quickly (very quickly). The result was a 233hp 2.2-liter engine for the rally car, and a detuned 152hp version for the 2,308 road cars. Pair this 16-valve unit to a rear-drive set-up and just 960kg in weight, and you had a very serious car indeed even by today’s standards – and this was the late ’70s.
With a 0 – 60mph time of 6.6 seconds, make no mistake — you aren’t going to leave this old school bad boy at the lights in your brand new Focus ST.
Peugeot 205 GTI 1.9
The full fat Peugeot 205 GTI 1.9 was as tasty as poutine and potentially far worse for your health. The pretty lines hid a torquey 126hp four-cylinder 1.9-liter lump (this was in 1987), and lift off oversteer that guaranteed you’d be seeing your lunch again.
But tame the 205 GTI and it was a machine of pure excitement, with blistering point-to-point performance and near-endless on-tap oomph. This was a car that needed to be driven hard, whether it was the Route Napoleon or just to the boulangerie and back. So hard, in fact, that the cars themselves would start to disintegrate…A regular issue reported with them!
Renault Clio V6 Renault Sport
The Clio V6 was such a wild idea, you wonder whether it was dreamt up on a Renault team-building exercise to Amsterdam.
Filed under the Dodge Charger Hellcat school of “what-were-they-thinking?,” this rampant French hatchback was already doing very well in front-wheel-drive 182 guise before they went and fitted it with a mid-mounted 230hp Laguna-derived 3.0-liter V6 driving the rear wheels. One reviewer said it was “pure evil.”
With all that power but in such a daunting chassis, it wasn’t even that much quicker (although it was a lot more expensive), than a Clio 182. But, as with all great cars, it transcends logic: to sit in one is a mixture of awe, fear and sheer bewilderment. It was one of the all-time magnificent motoring whims.
When Ford wheeled out the Escort Cosworth in 1992, it didn’t so much re-write the rules of hot hatches, it held them up in the air and torched them in front of the competition, so they’d know what they were now dealing with…
Here was a car capable of 150mph, making it better aligned with sports coupes and mild exotics, and its Frank Stephenson-designed whale tail rear wing was one of the biggest on the market, whatever class. The clincher was the four-wheel drive system lifted from the Sapphire, which meant it could handle huge power hikes while still avoiding crashing into the scenery.
This was a good thing, as the Cosworth two-liter engine seldom had the 217hp it was initially designed with, often being tuned up to as much as 500hp and beyond with ease. Absolute madness.
Lancia Integrale Evo 2
The Lancia Integrale had a party trick up its sleeve. In the pouring rain you could wind the revs up to the limiter, drop the clutch and sail rapidly away towards the horizon with no wheelspin at all.
Even more impressive was the fact that, by the time the pumped-up Evo 2 arrived in 1993 (complete with 217hp), the car had been sold in three separate decades (the original Delta went on sale in 1979). In that time it managed to score six successive World Rally Championships — from 1987 to 1992 — and was considered unbeatable on the world’s most punishing roads.
In fact, the production versions were pretty much unbeatable on any road you showed them. The Evo 2 was not only blisteringly quick point-to-point, but unnaturally composed, leaving the driver to sail on to unquestionably illegal speeds with ease. For many, this is arguably the greatest hot hatch of all time.
Vauxhall Chevette HS
In the ’7os, owning a Vauxhall Chevette was about as cool as still having a black and white TV. That made it a pretty unlikely base for a terrifyingly quick hot hatch, then.
Still, the Chevette HS was developed as a rally weapon to take on Ford’s Escort, and a subsequent run of 400 road cars was needed. This was the last of the old school big engine/big power approach to building a hot hatch (at least for a while), with a 2.3-liter four being shoehorned in, putting out 135bhp. It looked every bit as special as it was rare: bulging arches and silver paintwork were both compulsory.
Speed wise, zero to 60mph took 8.5 seconds and it topped out at 115mph. Not too shabby.
Honda Civic Type-R Motor Sports edition (EK9)
Driving a ’90s Honda Civic Type-R consists of two stages. Stage one involves flooring the accelerator until the puny 1.6 four-cylinder sounds like it is about to explode. Then comes stage two, where the Vtec works its voodoo magic and a slight change in sound heralds another weighty thrust in the back. Daunting at first, but hugely addictive.
The first Honda Civic Type-R had 185hp, a record for this displacement in a naturally aspirated car. Match this to a limited-slip differential, and weight saving features over the standard car, and you have a very hardcore hatch indeed. After that, Honda lost the plot a bit and started stripping even more weight out, scrapping the A/C, power windows, power steering and radio, and adding steel wheels. The car was called the Type R Motor Sports edition and it went like demon.
Renault Mégane R26.R
There are certain engineers that spend a bit too much time down at the Nurburgring (the infamously punishing race track in the west of Germany). No doubt the ones fielding the most calls from angry spouses are the guys from Renault Sport, who might as well set up camp there.
Still, what is probably not very good for their marriages is extremely good for us, as Renault has made a name for itself designing indecently fast Meganes over the last few years. The one that shocked the most was the R26.R, designed to be the fastest front drive car ever to race around the circuit.
Eschewing easy extra power, the company went on a weight-saving frenzy, ditching the rear seats, passenger airbag, headlamp washers, original hood (in favor of a carbon fiber version), and finally fitting polycarbonate rear and rear side windows. Clocking in at 8:16 around the ‘ring, it was on par with a Porsche Boxster S (and took the FWD record), and according to Evo magazine it went on to lap the West Circuit at Bedford Autodrome in the same time as a BMW M3 CSL. Wow.
Need more cars in your life, check out our rundown of 10 of the Best All American Muscle Cars.
- Words: Ollie Stallwood