If a hot hatch twitches and ripples with more than 400bhp or if it costs in excess of £50,000, does it cease to be a hot hatch? You could argue that it does, because among the genetic building blocks of the hot hatch genus are affordability and useable performance.
Models such as the 415bhp Mercedes-AMG A45 S and the Renaultsport Megane 300 Trophy-R, both of which breach the £50,000 barrier, feel like something else altogether.
But they are exceedingly hot and they have hatchback boots, so in the most straightforward terms they remain hot hatches. Those steroidal machines clearly sit at the opposite end of the spectrum to the very modest and eminently affordable cars we’re exploring today. And what’s important to know is that on the right road, the A45 S and 300 Trophy-R will not be any more fun to drive.
THE POCKET ROCKET CARS
This time, we’re charting the evolution of the small warm hatch, or what we’ll call pocket rockets. They are the tiniest and least powerful hot hatches of them all, pokey city runabouts that are so cute you want to pick them up and squeeze them. And for the very first of the pocket rockets, we look back to 1986.
The hot hatch breed by this point was a decade old. Perhaps the definitive car of its type back then was the Peugeot 205 GTi. Today it remains one of the most idolised hot hatches of them all, but if you’d looked further down the 205 model range in 1986 you would have found the XS. It was built for the express purpose of being a more affordable alternative to the GTi – just about as exciting to drive, but far cheaper to buy and run. These are central pocket rocket tenets.
Mechanically the 205 XS was similar to the GTi, but its chassis was far less aggressive and its engine not as potent. Some will tell you the XS was actually the sweeter car to drive along a lumpy back road, thanks to its more forgiving suspension. The earliest cars were punted along by what Peugeot labelled the XY engine, but 205 cognoscenti will tell you to look for the version that arrived a couple of years later, with what’s called the TU engine. It’s a 1,360cc unit with a twin-choke carburettor, which kept the motor firing hard at higher engine speeds. The result was 85bhp.
The XS was therefore around 20bhp down on the 1.6-litre GTi, but it was usefully lighter than that model and it had very tightly stacked gear ratios, so the XS was scarcely any less sprightly in a straight line. On humble steel wheels and with deliciously Eighties graphics on its wings, the 205 XS could hardly have looked any cooler.
ENTER THE RENAULT CLIO 16V
The first real innovation within the pocket rocket sector arrived in 1991 with a peppy Renault Clio. The car would soon become known in enthusiast circles as the ‘Valver’, because of its 16-valve engine. That sort of power plant – four cylinders, four valves for each – subsequently became a mainstay of the pocket rocket genre for many years to come. The Clio 16V, as it was known, was for a short while the kingpin of the Clio range, but in 1993 the Clio Williams arrived and knocked it squarely off its perch. The Williams is as highly regarded today as the 205 GTi, which demonstrates an important point about pocket rockets: they very often play second fiddle to their more prestigious hot hatch siblings.
The Valver was an especially punchy little car, thanks to its 135bhp 1.8-litre motor, and on a gorgeous set of turbine-style wheels and with its hungry bonnet scoop, it looked racy too. With uprated suspension and brakes the Clio 16V handled as well as it went, and its basic formula was so right that Suzuki adopted it wholesale for its own pocket rocket some 15 years later. Like the Valver the 2006 Swift Sport was a tiny hatchback with a lower ride height, sportier suspension, beefier styling and, of course, a 16-valve engine.
SUZUKI JOINS THE PARTY
The Suzuki was actually less powerful than the Renault (by 12bhp) but its engine was so keen to rev and its chassis so agile and responsive that it hardly mattered. The SSS, as it’s affectionally known, was bundles of fun to drive the way a true pocket rocket should be. Its own contribution to the breed was modern day chassis electronics, such as traction and stability control, as well as much improved tyres and brakes. That meant you could thrash the life out of the Swift Sport without the worry of the car biting back (although if you did switch the electronic systems off it would lift-off oversteer a bit like a 205).
FROM FOUR CYLINDERS TO THREE
Sixteen valve engines served the pocket rocket sector very nicely indeed for several years to come, but by 2014 it was time for a rethink. Ford rewrote the rulebook with the Fiesta Zetec S, the first car of its type to shun a four-cylinder engine with 16 valves in favour of a smaller, three-cylinder lump. It displaced only 1.0-litre, but bolstered by a small turbocharger it delivered as much power as the Suzuki’s four-pot, with considerably more torque.
The fluttery three-cylinder turbo engine perhaps doesn’t match those high-revving, normally-aspirated power units for sheer redline-chasing excitement, but it is far more economical and so much more flexible. But what makes the Zetec S sparkle is its exceptional chassis and exquisite steering. The car is a joy to drive, be it at a canter through town or quickly on a deserted country road. The Zetec S is overshadowed by the bona fide hot hatch of the Fiesta range, the far more powerful ST (again, a sure sign of a pocket rocket if ever there was one), but it remains a joyous little machine in its own right.
Just as Renault defined the pocket rocket blueprint for a generation of cars in 1991, it seems Ford did the same with the Zetec S in 2014. The definitive pocket rocket of today is undoubtedly the giddy Volkswagen Up GTI. Its engine? A turbocharged, 1.0-litre three-cylinder. The diminutive VW has only 113bhp in its arsenal, but weighing not much more than 1,000kg (and with a broad-chested 148lb ft of torque to back that power up) the smallest GTI is plenty fast enough.
It looks adorable but punches far harder than you’d guess. It’s more affordable to buy and cheaper to run than a bigger hot hatch, and whether you’re whipping it along a B-road or threading it through the city, it’s a joy to drive. All of which surely makes the Up GTI a modern day 205 XS.
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