15 Iconic Cars That Created The Hot Hatch Class

Most car enthusiasts dream about owning a supercar or a powerful sports car someday. You probably have been there, lusting for automotive perfection with a high price tag, and even higher maintenance and insurance costs. After a while, you may have realized owning such a vehicle is not possible or smart, but your urge for performance is stronger than ever. What should you do? It is simple: buy a hot hatch.

Even though car magazines and websites are full of stories about supercars, hot hatches are the world’s most exciting car class today. The combination of compact size, affordable price, practicality and fantastic performance make hot hatches ideal for performance lovers on a budget. In fact, modern hot hatches are so fast and capable, many of them can even embarrass some expensive sports cars at the stop light.

With unbelievable levels of power and refinement, modern hot hatches provide thrills and driving excitement, as well as the fuel economy and practicality of a family compact. However, the evolution of the class has taken a long time. At first, consumers thought hot hatches were strange vehicles. But, as consumers realized the potential of big power in a small package, they became an integral part of every major car manufacturer’s model lineup.

Read on to learn the history of the hot hatch through some of its most famous, influential models. Some of them are already bona fide classics and some are going to be just that in the future.

Renault 5 Alpine

The French had some interesting small performance sedans during the 1960s, like the Simca 1000 Rally or Renault 8 Gordini. They all had hot hatch credentials but in a compact sedan body. After the introduction of the Renault 5 in late 1971, Alpine, a semi-independent racing department of Renault, started thinking up new versions.

Announced in late 1975, Renault presented it in 1976 as the Renault 5 Alpine. It was a cool-looking mini with a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine and 95 HP. It weighed just under 2,000 pounds, so the performance was impressive according to the standards of the day. This was the first in a long line of performance Renaults intended for the average buyer. In those days, Renault sold cars in the U.S., so they offered the R5 as the Le Car but didn’t include the Alpine.

Volkswagen Golf Mk1 GTI

In the mid-70’s, Volkswagen was getting ready to introduce a whole line of new models including the Polo, Golf and Passat. It was desperately trying to shed the dull, economy image of the VW Beetle. Their new cars all featured modern designs and engineering. But, they knew the best way to gain some attention from the motoring world was to produce a performance model.

So, in 1975, along with the regular Golf lineup, VW presented the GTI version. The Golf GTI featured a three-door hatchback body style with sporty exterior details. It also has a 1.6-liter fuel injected four-cylinder engine and 110 to 115 HP power output. With the 0 to 60 time of nine seconds, improved handling and cool looks, the GTI was an immediate hit with the buyers.

This was especially true in the late 1970s when performance levels were low due to tightening regulations. In America, the VW Golf GTI could outrun those mid-spec Camaros and Mustangs, making it one of the best performance cars people could buy. The popularity of the GTI influenced other manufacturers, even coining the term “hot hatch.”

Interestingly, Volkswagen wasn’t the first to produce such a car. They were not even the first company to use “GTI” as their model designation. But they were the first to market it globally. They made it so popular, they started a trend still relevant today. The Golf GTI MK1 also started a breed of fast Golfs that sold in millions during its 42 years on the market.

Sunbeam Lotus

Sadly, this is an interesting, yet forgotten car. The Chrysler Europe subsidiary called Talbot Sunbeam built the Lotus and introduced it in 1977. The Sunbeam was a compact, modern-looking hatchback they intended to compete with the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Escort. It had rear wheel drive and a low weight, which made it perfect for modification.

So, in 1979, Sunbeam approached the famed sports and racing car manufacturer, Lotus, with the proposition of building a hot hatch race car. They soon presented the Sunbeam Lotus, which was a fast car for the day. It had a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine with 152 HP, a specially tuned suspension and a ZF close ratio manual gearbox. With rear-wheel drive and Lotus-tuned driving dynamics, this car was a capable driving machine that won the World Rally Championship in 1981.

Renault 5 Turbo

The 1980s started with a bang in the hot hatch world when Renault introduced the R5 Turbo. It looked like a regular Renault 5 compact city car, but it was a serious performance machine. This was the first time a car company presented this outrageous hot hatch with the performance and technology of a supercar.

The essence of an R5 Turbo was a mid-mounted 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that delivered 160 HP. They redesigned and re-engineered the whole car to move the engine from the front hood to the space behind the driver. The rear track was much wider and it had side scoops for better cooling of the engine.

Of course, such an extreme car lost one of the main hot hatch characteristics and that is practicality. It was a basically a pure racing car built for homologation purposes. However, it deserves an important place in hot hatch history as one of the craziest hot hatches ever produced and one of the coolest cars of the 80’s.

Dodge Omni GLH

While Europe was embracing the hot hatch class and developing it further in the mid-80’s, America seemed uninterested. The Golf GTI sold well in the states, but domestic manufacturers didn’t produce any models that qualified as a hot hatch. That was until the legendary Carroll Shelby teamed up with Dodge to introduce his version of a compact Omni model.

They called it the Omni GLH. It was a proper hot hatch and one of the best affordable performance models money could buy in those days. Shelby took the 2.2-liter four-cylinder and added a turbocharger. This produced a total output of 175 HP, propelling it from 0 to 60 mph in under seven seconds. That was an impressive performance and highly competitive for the day. They gave the Omni GLH some suspension modifications and other improvements, so it could handle all that power.

The best thing about this car is the name GLH that meant, “Goes like Hell”. Shelby and Dodge produced an improved version called GLHS that stood for “Goes Like Hell S’more.” They only produced 500 of those models.

Peugeot 205 GTI

When Peugeot introduced the compact 205 model in 1983, a performance GTI version wasn’t in the cards. They soon realized a souped-up model could have an impact on the market, so they presented the 205. It came with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that delivered 115 HP. The combination of lightweight body, precise steering, a rev-happy engine and lively performance proved extremely popular with global buyers.

Peugeot even considered selling the 205 GTI in America. However, since it pulled out of the market in 1991, U.S. buyers never got the chance to experience one of the best affordable compact performance cars of the 80’s. The 205 GTI was practical, economical and affordable, so it attracted a cult following in Europe.

In the late 80’s, the 205 GTI got a 1.9-liter engine upgrade that delivered 136 HP and improved its performance. Despite the sales success of the regular model, Peugeot presented a homologation version. They called it the 205 T16, putting the engine in the back. It participated in the World Rally Championship and in the famous Group B.

Lancia Delta HF Integrale

Lancia introduced its compact model, the Delta, in 1979. However, it was on the market for five years before the company started thinking about a performance version. Lancia was always big in rallying. And after the banning of their Group B model S4, they wanted something that could work well on the street and track, so the HF Integrale was born.

Initially, this model featured a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produced 185 HP, but later it went up to 220 HP. It had a permanent, well balanced all-wheel-drive system. The Delta HF Integrale is an important hot hatch because it was the first with all-wheel drive. This marked the beginning of a transition from the front wheel drive, simple hot hatches, to the high-tech, all-wheel drive performance monsters we have today.

The combination of a powerful engine, sharp handling, great traction and low weight was intoxicating for magazine testers of the day. The Delta HF Integrale received nothing but praises. Over the years, the Delta HF Integrale has been a successful concept on rally stages all over the world and among hot hatch fans. They ceased production in 1994 after creating almost 40,000 of them.

Ford Escort RS Cosworth

The Ford Escort was always an active model for affordable performance. From the legendary RS 1600 Mk1 to the Escort RS Turbo of the mid-80’s, this was a competitive yet obtainable choice. However, the best Escort RS was the 1992 to 1996 RS Cosworth model.

Built using Sierra RS Cosworth parts, the Escort was smaller but featured an improved 2.0-liter turbocharged engine with 227 HP. The exterior meant pure business with flared wheel arches, a hood with cooling vents and an adjustable, massive rear wing. One main feature was the all-wheel-drive system that proved necessary since the car created over 230 lb-ft of torque.

The Escort RS Cosworth was fast for the day. With 5.8 seconds 0 to 60 mph acceleration times, it could beat most of the sports cars of the day. However, it somewhat expensive for a hot hatch, so Ford decided to make it a limited model.

Honda Civic Type R

Japanese manufacturers were always active in the hot hatch class, but only a few models received cult status and a place in hot hatch hall of fame. One of those cars is the first Civic Type R, which they introduced in 1997. This car was especially well received in America where its performance, driving dynamics, road holding and light weight were popular with budget-minded enthusiasts who wanted affordable performance.

The heart of the EK9 generation Civic Type R was a 1.6-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine with the famous V-Tec system that delivered 185 HP. Its high power output was legendary. Even though there wasn’t much space for engine tuning, you could take the rear seat out and make your Civic lighter and faster. The car stayed in production until 2000 and still is a popular model amongst the hot hatch fans in America.

Volkswagen Golf R32

During the 1990s in Europe, the hot hatch class was under heavy fire from insurance agencies, earning the image of a hooligan’s express. This meant most car manufacturers stopped producing such cars. Some produced one mild model they considered a hot hatch. After the crazy 80’s and the high-tech Delta Integrale and RS Cosworth of the early 90’s, the rest of the decade lacked interesting models.

Volkswagen’s Golf GTI was constantly selling well and VW was one of the companies that never abandoned the market. But, the company was thinking of the future of the hot hatch class. The 21st century brought many technological innovations, electronic systems and improvements in construction, so why not implement all that in a hot hatch of the future? This is how the R32 came about in 2003. Volkswagen took the Mk4 body shell and installed the best hardware it had in the early 2000’s.

That meant the R32 had intelligent all-wheel drive, a 240 HP 3.2-liter V6 engine, a luxury interior and a host of electronic aids. This wasn’t the first AWD hot hatch or the fastest, despite its 0 to 60 mph time of 6.4 seconds. However, it was the first “Uber” hatch that combined luxury and effortless high-speed cruising with exciting driving dynamics. Also, this was the first hot hatch to use the DSG transmission, which is a standard in this class today.

Subaru Impreza Sti

Subaru Impreza made its name in the 1990s with the highly capable combo of a boxer turbo engine, all-wheel drive, and loads of power and torque. However, no one considered the Impreza a hot hatch, since they were all sedans or wagons. But in 2008, they introduced the Impreza as a five-door hatchback. It immediately set the hot hatch world on fire.

Invading the hot hatch class was a smart move from Subaru. It brought a larger audience to the Impreza while keeping the performance and mechanical layout intact. With 305 HP and intelligent AWD traction, the Impreza was one of the best and fastest hot hatches money could buy in 2008.

Mini Cooper

Emerging in 1959, the original Austin Mini was an important, revolutionary car. It had compact dimensions, a transversely mounted engine and front-wheel drive. It was unique then, but today, all compact cars share this technical layout. It was a sales hit and soon, engineers started thinking about upgraded, performance versions.

So, in 1961, they introduced the Mini Cooper featuring a larger engine, disc brakes and close ratio transmission. It had 55 HP, which was 20 HP more than the standard Mini. Despite the fact its power ratings sound diminutive now, the car weighed just over 1,100 pounds, making it lively and quick.

With front-wheel-drive handling and precise steering, the Mini Cooper was nimble and easy to drive fast, making it a perfect candidate for racing. During the 1960s, Mini Coopers were extremely successful in rally championships, as well as touring car races all over the world. Even though the Mini is not technically a hatchback since it doesn’t have the third door, this car was a blueprint for all other hot hatches that came after it. It has a compact body and is lightweight with a powerful engine, sporty details and a whole lot of charm.

Ford Focus RS 500

Famous for its affordable performance cars, Ford invested a lot of time and effort in the second generation Focus RS they debuted in 2009. The car featured a 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine with 305 HP, delivering brutal performance. However, it was an old-fashioned hot hatch because of all that power going to the front axle. Although it had a trick front suspension to keep the front end in check, it still had a torque steer effect.

Ford was getting ready to turn to all-wheel drive for the Focus RS Mk3, but they wanted to say goodbye to the front-wheel-drive model with a bang. That bang was the Focus RS 500, a limited production model with 350 HP. It also came with matte black paint and a plaque with the serial number on the dash. It sold out in just a few days, earning its place in history as the most powerful factory front-wheel-drive hot hatch.

Renault Megane R26.R

While Ford and other companies were competing in the horsepower wars, hot hatch authority, Renault, went the other way. They constructed light, nimble and extremely capable cars that were almost track-ready. They introduced the sublime R26.R in 2009. The Megane R26.R had the same 2.0-liter turbo engine with 230 HP as the regular Megane RS, but it was much lighter with a revised suspension, steering and brakes.

It didn’t have rear seats and they replaced the window glass with Plexiglas. The Megane R26.R was almost a racing car, as it handled sublimely and posted unbelievable track times. In fact, it held a record for front-wheel drive cars on Nurburgring and beat the Porsche Boxster. It was also faster than the BMW M3 CSL.

Despite its limited production, this Megane earned a place on this list as one of the best driver’s cars in the hot hatch class. This proves that record-breaking performance doesn’t always require high horsepower ratings.

Audi RS3

This list has saved the best for last with one of the most influential and important hot hatches ever: the Audi RS3. The latest incarnation or RS3 lineage features the most powerful hot hatch engine the world has ever seen. In fact, it is the best accelerating hot hatch on the market.

With 400 HP, a 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine and a 4.1 second 0 to 60 mph time, the RS3 is a land rocket capable of beating many expensive sports cars. Yet, it still is docile enough to drive down to the grocery shop or transport the family.

This car just shows how far the hot hatch class has come in the last 50 years, from the humble Mini Cooper with 55 HP to the eight times more powerful Audi with intelligent all-wheel drive and a seven-speed dual clutch automatic transmission. The RS3 symbolizes the philosophy behind the modern upper echelon hot hatches: all-wheel drives, dual-clutch transmissions, turbo engines and unbelievable acceleration times.

These hot hatches prove you can have power, good looks and affordability, too. This list should help you decide which one is best for you. The car world has embraced the hot hatch and is waiting for the next generation to arrive at car dealerships everywhere.


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