While supercars have enjoyed a natural home on teenagers’ bedroom walls for decades, in the real word the stinging reality is they aren’t really that great to own. Try taking a Ferrari Testarossa for a spin down a narrow country lane or manoeuvre it through heavy traffic and see how much fun it is. (Spoiler alert: not a lot.)
When rallying really took off in the ’80s and ’90s it spawned a new type of performance car. These cars were built for tarmac and mud stages, so their road-going cousins were naturally well-suited to real world conditions. What’s more, they often had four doors, plenty of legroom and a boot (trunk) in the back. And the best bit? Pretty much anyone could buy one and, depending on how deep your pockets were, become Blomqvist, McRae, or Mäkinen.
While road-going rally cars might have a big of a toxic image in some parts of the world, given their propensity to be fitted with ridiculous soundsystems, gaudy decals and other tacky embellishments, the school that first spawned them is filled with some truly great automobiles.
Here’s our roundup of ten of the best.
Audi Sport Quattro
Before the Audi Quattro arrived in 1980, the concept of 4WD was, for many people, reserved exclusively for G-Wagens, Jeeps and Land Rovers ripping through muddy farms and countryside. How wrong they were…
Although admittedly a heavy drivetrain, when coupled to a turbocharged five-cylinder engine with 200hp (for the road car — 300hp in the rally version!), the combination of grunt and grip was unbeatable. Quite simply, the Quattro changed the face of rallying and performance road cars forevermore.
But this wasn’t enough. By 1984 rallying was all but deregulated, and Audi Sport introduced the Sport Quattro: a shortened, more powerful version of the original coupe, and regulations insisted that 214 were built for the road. With its wheelbase shortened a meaningful 12.6 inches between the B- and C-pillars, the Sport Quattro was more nimble and the bodywork featured numerous GRP and carbon-Kevlar panels. A massive KKK-K27 turbocharger helped increase power to 302hp on the road, while Stig Blomqvist had access to over 450hp in the rally Group B version.
Nowadays the road cars are extremely desirable — expect to pay in the region of half a million dollars if you find a good one.
When the Porsche 959 arrived at 195mph in 1986, it was by far the most technically advanced, the fastest and most capable hypercar ever conceived. So try and get your head around this: it was originally designed as a Group B rally car, with the road cars only being necessary for homologation purposes. That’s like a McLaren P1 or 918 Spyder taking on the 1000 Lakes… Absolute madness.
Such was Porsche’s commitment to making the ultimate go-anywhere racing car that the 959, with its domesticated version of the 962’s racing engine, was years ahead of the game in terms of technological development. It was said that Nissan chief engineer Naganori Itoh took inspiration from the Porsche 959 when developing the hi-tech four-wheel-drive system of the R32 Skyline GT-R. And that’s some lineage indeed.
Subaru Impreza 22B STi
Imprezas have always been like a Starbucks coffee: often unnecessarily hot, relatively affordable and with a mind-boggling array of types and options. But ignore the huge list of potential models on offer — the 22B is a quadruple espresso with a glug of whiskey popped in to boot.
While the supermarket carpark boys may lay claim to having the best Impreza around, this was the Japanese firm’s own take on the ultimate tuned Scooby. A true thoroughbred, only 424 were made using exotic parts like a twin-plate ceramic clutch, Bilstein shocks and aluminium suspension components. The bodywork was based on Peter Stevens’ own rally car, and the track was deliberately wider.
It was said that the car was so special that even Subaru works driver, and certified rally legend, Colin McRae had to stump up the cash to buy his. That should give you some idea of how much they’re worth these days.
Peugeot 205 Turbo 16
The Peugeot 205 was always a pretty car to look at, but in T16 form it could (arguably) lay claim to being one of the best looking cars ever to hit a rally stage.
As with all Group B cars, it was completely insane. A mid-engined layout in a hatchback is always somewhat unhinged, and this turbocharged 1.8-litre had 200hp in road form, with none of the fancy electronics we see nowadays to keep it in check. Intimidating, but in many ways it’s sad they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
Evo VI Tommi Mäkinen Edition
As with Imprezas, there are so many Evos — and evolutions of Evos — to choose from, that picking an ultimate is always going to be contentious. But, screw it, we’re going to do it anyway. The Evo VI Tommi Mäkinen Edition.
Anyone who has ever played Sega Rally 2 will instantly be familiar with this car. Mäkinen won his fourth consecutive WRC title in a red Evo VI, and this car was commissioned as a road-going replica to celebrate that fact. The Tommi special was fitted with a faster-responding titanium turbo, lower suspension, a front strut brace, and quicker steering. The car made 280hp and hit 60mph in 4.5 seconds.
In many ways it was the end of an era. Ugly, flimsy, hardcore and very fast — this was what made early rally reps great.
While nowadays we are used to rally cars being visually close relatives to hot hatchbacks and saloons, it wasn’t always this way. The Lancia Stratos was the first car purpose built for the World Rally Championship; however, its rakish supercar looks and Ferrari-sourced V6 suggested it was better suited to the car park outside Monte Carlo’s casino than the world’s toughest rally stages.
The mid-mounted 2.5 Dino engine could propel the road version to 60mph in just over six seconds, continuing on to over 140mph. The car dominated in rallying, with three World Championship victories in 1974, 1975, and 1976.
Ford Escort RS Cosworth
If you’re going on a date don’t take an Escort Cosworth. Such is the outrageousness of the rear wing, you could very easily be accused of trying to overcompensate for other areas…
However, if you are heading for a spin around your favourite backcountry twister, then there are few cars better suited. Independent suspension all-round, a turbocharged 230hp 2.0-litre engine and all-wheel drive, mixed with the early signs of Ford’s newfound commitment to handling, meant the Cosworth would devour pretty much any flavour of road in its path.
Subtle it most definitely wasn’t. Still, while the image of one in the driveway may have since become a little too closely attached to the Max Power brigade, there really is no better investment if you find a good one for $20,000.
Ford Escort Mexico
Let’s get this out of the way from the start: the Escort Mexico is slow, really slow. By today’s standards it could probably be beaten from the lights by virtually any new car. But — and this is a big but — it is probably the most fun you can have in a car of any era, period.
Built by the freshly created Advanced Vehicle Operations at the Ford Aveley plant in Essex, the Mexico went on sale between 1970 and 1974 with a 1600cc pushrod ohv engine. It cashed in on Ford’s success in the London-Mexico Rally of 1970. With a shade over 90hp, the Mexico could reach a heady 99mph, but this was enough to light up the rubber around the 13” steel wheels mid corner, giving you easily controllable drifts at relatively safe speeds and almost perfect balance.
If ever proof was needed that outright speed isn’t everything, then the Ford Mexico is it. You won’t find a more easily entertaining set of four wheels on or off the road.
Lancia Delta HF Intergrale
The Integrale was a very old car even when it was still on sale. In fact, the Delta was launched way back in 1979, while cars like the Integrale Evo 2 were still coming out of the factory in 1993. But this impressive lifespan should tell you all you need to know about how good this plasticky, boxy little car was.
It scored six successive World Rally Championships in its long career, and on the road it punched way above its weight. To drive, Integrales feel unwaveringly surefooted and endlessly poised. But, whereas more modern turbocharged four-wheel drive cars have sacrificed outright fun for grip and numbed precision, the Integrale is always exciting to hustle down a back road.
MG Metro 6R4
The Austin Metro was your grandma’s car, but the 6R4 was the unashamed bad boy of 1980s rallying. The wings, scoops and spoilers were all serious business, and the V6 engine that sat in the middle wasn’t turbocharged like the competition. This meant the 6R4 had plenty of grunt and lag free throttle response.
With around 250hp in road form, some magazines quoted 0-60mph times as low as 3.5 seconds. One tester said the G forces were so great that the car would “try and fold your face around the integral head rests of the seats.” If that doesn’t make you want to try one out, we don’t know what will…
Hungry for more car content? Check out our roundup of 10 Super SUVs.
- Words: Ollie Stallwood