Europe’s car manufacturers are engaged in an arms race, locked in a battle for hot hatch supremacy. Come the next decade, we will see hot hatchbacks with power outputs that would have been unfeasible a dozen or so years ago.
You could say it’s the last hurrah for the hot hatch; soon, performance cars as we know them will be crushed by the might of the alternative fuel vehicle. But make no mistake: the hot hatch is going out with a bang and not a whimper.
In the context of the history of the automotive industry, the light of the hot hatch has shone for a relatively short period of time. It’s been a 45-year campaign of keeping sports cars honest and giving every mild-mannered motorist the opportunity to behave like a hooligan.
Today, the Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI is often credited for being the genesis of the hot hatch, but while it certainly popularised the concept of a go-faster hatchback, it wasn’t the first. In fact, that honour belongs to the Simca 1100 TI, or the even earlier Autobianchi A112 Abarth.
The beefed-up Simca had everything you’d associate with a hot hatch: front and rear spoilers, six circular dials on the dashboard, additional driving lights and – for its time at least – a fair amount of poke.
The year was 1974, so the 82hp extracted from a twin-carb 1.3-litre engine needs to be viewed in the context of the mid-70s, but it was also relatively light, meaning it could hit 60mph in under 12 seconds before reaching a top speed of 105mph.
Sadly, the 1100 TI wasn’t sold in the UK, which is probably why it is all but forgotten, but another French hatchback also managed to beat the Golf to market. The Renault 5 Gordini launched ahead of the Golf GTI in 1976 but wasn’t available in right-hand-drive form until 1979.
In standard guise, the 5 Gordini – or Alpine in the rest of Europe – developed 92hp, with output increased to 112hp thanks to the addition of a turbocharger. These figures were very much par for the course in the mid to late 70s, with the Golf GTI launching with 110hp, increasing to 112hp with the arrival of the 1.8-litre engine.
The 1980s was the decade in which the hot hatch shifted up a gear. With no intention of allowing Volkswagen to dominate the segment, Peugeot launched the iconic 205 GTI in 1984, initially with a 1.6-litre engine producing 105hp (115hp from 1987) and later with a 130hp 1.9-litre engine.
Turbocharging allowed manufacturers to extract more power from smaller engines, with the 1.4-litre unit in the Renault 5 GT Turbo producing 115hp and then 120hp with the launch of the phase two model.
And although you wouldn’t associate the hot hatch with the US market, the Dodge Omni GLH (Goes Like Hell) produced an ‘okay I guess’ 110hp in standard form, a ‘more interesting’ 146hp with a turbocharger, and a ‘say what now’ 175hp after a certain Carroll Shelby got involved.
Thanks to the Shelby treatment, the Omni GLH-S (that’s Goes Like Hell S’more) could hit 60mph in a Ferrari-shaming 6.5 seconds. Not bad for a little car with its Rootes in the Chrysler Horizon.
Turbocharging had delivered racing levels of performance to the masses, but as the 80s made way for the 90s, the hot hatch was facing a fight for survival. They were easy targets for car thieves, while housing estates and retail parks across the land were alive with the sound of joyriders.
Crippled by rising insurance costs, the GTI name became a badge of dishonour, resulting in more sombre styling and decals that were a little less in-yer-face. But that’s not to say that the 90s failed to deliver any true greats.
The Renault Clio Williams and Peugeot 306 GTI-6 – two of the best hot hatches of all-time – produced 150hp and 170hp respectively, while the Ford Escort RS Cosworth developed a mighty 227hp.
It’s hard to believe now, but back at the turn of the century, many experts said that pushing 200hp through the front wheels of a car was a recipe for disaster. But these experts failed to recognise the ingenuity and tenacity of automotive engineers, not to mention the change of approach seen in recent years.
The Honda Civic Type R (EP3) and Volkswagen Golf GTI (Mk5) made the best use of 200hp, while the Renault Sport Megane R26.R provided the proof that more horsepower doesn’t necessarily mean better. No other fast Megane, regardless of output, has come close to the purity of the 230hp R26.R.
Other manufacturers began experimenting with crazy outputs, with varying degrees of success. The Vauxhall Astra VXR (240hp), Alfa Romeo 147 GTA (260hp) and Mazda 3 MPS (260hp) are three examples of mega-horsepower hot hatches.
Many will argue that for a car to classed as a hot hatch, it must be affordable, driven through the front wheels and, to all intents and purposes, look largely similar to its common-or-garden equivalent. But some manufacturers had other ideas.
The current decade started with the launch of the 270hp Volkswagen Golf R, complete with 4Motion technology. Three years later, Mercedes-Benz managed to extract 381hp from a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, making the A45 AMG the most powerful hot hatch in the world. Still, with a price tag approaching £40,000, it was a long way from being affordable, even if it was more powerful than an entry-level Porsche 911 Carrera.
At least Vauxhall stayed true to its blue-collar roots – not to mention the tried and tested hot hatch recipe – with the front-wheel-drive and 280hp Astra VXR of 2012.
Audi responded to the A45 AMG with the launch of the FOUR-HUNDRED-HORSEPOWER RS3 Sportback in 2017, while earlier this year, Mountune announced an upgrade for the Ford Focus RS, taking the power up to 400hp.
Figures approaching 300hp became the norm, with the Seat Leon Cupra nipping at the Volkswagen Golf R’s ankles, before going all out with the 370hp Cupra R ST, albeit in estate form.
We’ve also seen the rise of the ‘restomod’, with Automobil Amos’ vision of a Lancia Delta Integrale for a new generation packing a 330hp punch. That’s significantly more than the 185hp to 215hp offered by the various Integrales of old, all of which seemed perfectly adequate at the time.
Come the next decade, 400hp hot hatches will be commonplace. The new Mercedes-AMG A45 will be powered by the most powerful four-cylinder engine ever, with the baking hot hatch boasting a mighty 416hp.
The Audi RS3 and Volkswagen Golf R are likely to offer 400hp, while the all-new Ford Focus RS will feature a mild hybrid powertrain developing 400hp. This is a far cry from the 215hp 2.0-litre unit found in the Mk1 Ford Focus. Heck, even the new Ford Focus ST will outmuscle it, courtesy of a 280hp output.
But does power corrupt? Modern hot hatches might be more powerful than ever, but are they more fun than their famous predecessors? The latest Ford Fiesta ST and Suzuki Swift Sport are proof that you don’t require a gazillion horsepower to have fun.