The 2019 Mercedes-AMG A45, due to be unveiled soon, has a handful of things in common with the 1987 Lancia Delta HF Integrale 8v. You won’t need to interrogate their technical specifications too closely to work it out. Four-wheel drive, turbocharged four-cylinder engines, five doors – that sort of thing. Beyond those fuzzy and trivial commonalities, though, there is a connection between them that is clear and meaningful. But we’ll get on to that later.
We have already plotted the evolution of the hot hatch, right the way from VW Golf GTI Mk1 to the current Ford Fiesta ST. This time, it’s the turn of the super-hatch. While the fastest high performance hatchbacks can indeed trace their origins back to the early days of the hot hatch, there was a point in time when one species became two and their journeys diverged. The hot hatch continued on its merry course while the super-hatch unfurled itself and set off on its own, boasting more power, bigger dimensions, loftier price tags and four driven wheels. That moment in time was 1987.
IT ALL BEGAN IN 1987
There had been fast versions of Lancia’s set-square hatchback long before the HF Integrale 8v (pictured, above), but the 1987 model had stacks of power and enormous box arches. It also trounced all comers in the World Rally Championship, all of which surely makes it the original super-hatch. With its arrival, a whole new breed of performance car came into being.
We should quickly address the handful of rally-derived performance hatchbacks that predated the Integrale 8v, because Group B homologation specials like the road-going Peugeot 205 T16 and the MG Metro 6R4 arrived years before the Lancia and were even more powerful. But one of the fundamental properties of any sort of hot hatch is everyday usability. Lacking any boot space or even a rear bench – two of the more mundane consequences of relocating the engine from between the front wheels to behind the front seats – the 205 T16 and Metro 6R4 simply weren’t hot hatches. They were more like supercars.
In the early Nineties the Ford Escort RS Cosworth (pictured, above) and Nissan Pulsar GTI-R – cars that also owed their existence to rallying – furthered the super-hatch genre with more power, more technology and, in the case of the Cosworth, an awful lot more rear wing.
SPLINTERING THE GENRE
Just as the super-hatch diverged from the hot hatch in the late Eighties, there was a splintering of the super-hatch genre somewhere around the turn of the century. The 2001 Ford Focus RS was a super-hatch to its core, impressively powerful with 212bhp and blisteringly fast because of it, and so loaded up with motorsport-derived hardware like Sachs dampers, Brembo brakes, a Quaife limited-slip differential, Recaro seats and lightweight OZ wheels that it seems to have been designed not for the public highway, but the racetrack. It was even built on a dedicated production line. But it wasn’t four-wheel drive. It therefore doesn’t have any place this timeline, but it was without question the original front-wheel drive super-hatch, the car that paved the way for every Renaultsport Megane and every Honda Civic Type R that would follow. In its own way, the Focus RS was a pioneer.
To continue with our timeline we must step back two years to 1999 and the arrival of the first Audi S3 (above). It had the power and the four-wheel drive system to do its super-hatch forebears justice, but what’s really significant about the S3 is that it changed the course of the entire sub-genre for good. No longer would super-hatches be derived from rally cars or built only for speed. They would be civilised, refined and mature, and they would have badge appeal and all of the infotainment and communications technology that you’d expect of a premium car. They were far more grown up than the earliest super-hatches, but they were faster, too.
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The 2007 Volkswagen Golf R32 (below) is significant because it introduced the dual-clutch gearbox to the sector, an item of hardware that would quickly become ubiquitous among super-hatches. Four years later the original Audi RS3 elevated power outputs far beyond 300bhp (335bhp to be exact) and retail prices to within a whisker of £40,000.
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And so we arrive at the here and now, awaiting the arrival of the 2019 Mercedes-AMG A45. If reports are correct the most potent version will have 415bhp – fractionally more than the original Audi R8 – and with options it’ll cost in excess of £50,000. It will be faster than the 1987 Lancia Delta HF Integrale 8v by an order of magnitude and far more luxurious with it, but the Mercedes will owe its entire existence to that groundbreaking Italian super-hatch.
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