Exactly when the genus ‘Hot Hatch’ came into being is a point that will be debated for as long as there are cars on the road. There is one particular model that’s more widely recognised as the originator of the breed than any other, however, and so it simply has to be the Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1 that sits at the far end of our hot hatch timeline. First shown at the Frankfurt motor show in 1975, the Golf GTI is hot hatch genesis.
In the 43 years that elapsed between then and the latest Ford Fiesta ST – arguably the defining hot hatch of our time – appearing in showrooms, horsepower figures in the sector have almost doubled and the prevailing technologies have changed beyond recognition. This, then, is the story of the evolution of the hot hatch and these are the cars that pioneered, redefined and innovated, propelling the sector from the Golf GTI in 1975 to the Fiesta ST in 2018.
HOT HATCH NOT SUPER-HATCH
You’ll have noticed we’re focussing on this occasion on compact and affordable hot hatches, because while it is now possible to spend upwards of £50,000 on a hot hatch that has as much as 400bhp, that sort of machine hardly seems to be in keeping with the spirit of VW’s little ground-breaker. In fact, the evolution of the super-hatch is a story in its own right and one we’ll tell in due course. What’s more – and just as it is true that any journey from one point to another can be taken by any number of routes – the journey from Golf GTI to Fiesta ST follows no single path. What you’ll read next is simply the most direct route via the most important way-markers, as we see it. If you believe we’ve taken a wrong turn or missed a junction entirely, we encourage you to let us know in the comments.
Even in 1975 the concept of a small family car armed with a big engine and emboldened by a sportier remit was not a new one, for the likes of the Vauxhall Viva GT and numerous versions of the original Ford Escort had discovered that exact recipe a number of years earlier. It seems it really was only a matter of time before somebody made an affordable performance car out of a small, front-wheel drive hatchback, though, and VW got there first. A 1.6-litre engine from an Audi saloon, lower and stiffer suspension and a number of styling adornments, such as the now iconic red grille surround and tartan seat inserts, were enough to turn the humble Golf into the world’s first hot hatch.
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THE SHIFT OF POWER
It was in the Eighties that the hot hatch balance of power shifted from Germany into France. It would stay there for decades to come as the likes of Peugeot and Renault built streams of terrific performance hatches. The one that moved the game on more than other at the time, however, was the 1986 Peugeot 205 GTi 1.9, for not only did it elevate the benchmark power output for the sector well beyond the original Golf GTI’s 108bhp to 128bhp, it also boasted a number of performance car flourishes that had long been the preserve of purpose-built sports car. Chief among them were its all-round disc brakes.
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From that moment on no car could lay claim to being a truly great hot hatch simply because it borrowed its engine from a bigger car and its ride height had been dropped. As of 1986, a great hot hatch was one that had been designed and engineered holistically and with microscopic attention to detail, the way a two-seat roadster would have been. The hot hatch had become a sports car, albeit one with four seats, a useful boot and a realistic price tag.
Peugeot elevated the hot hatch genre even further in the Nineties with the 306 GTi-6, which used a six-speed transmission and a yet more powerful, 167bhp, 16-valve engine, but it was Renault that demonstrated in 2005 that even the most advanced performance car technologies needn’t be overkill on a humble hatchback. The Renaultsport 182 Trophy featured remote reservoir dampers – the type you’ll still find on a top-spec rally car – to combine pliancy over bumps and precise body control like no other hot hatch before it.
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HERE AND NOW
With one final step we arrive at the here and now. The current Fiesta ST emerged several decades too late to be the very first turbocharged hot hatch, but it is the first to mate a turbocharger to a downsized three-cylinder engine so that it could combine 197bhp with parsimonious fuel consumption. With frequency selective dampers, torque vectoring rear springs and, if you tick the right box on the options list, a limited-slip differential, it is the most modern and sophisticated hot hatch to date. It could never have existed in this exact form, however, were it not for the small number of hot hatch masterpieces that came before it.
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