The most famous hot hatches are nothing less than automotive institutions. Largely born out of the electrifying 1980s, a time of audacious dreams and ground-breaking revolutions, these pocket-sized powerhouses redefined what it meant to be a ‘dream car’. The Porsche 911, Lamborghini Countach and the Ferrari Testarossa were often impossible pipe dreams, but an XR2 or a Golf GTi, maybe, just maybe…
They weren’t just vehicles; they were roaring statements of rebellion and innovation, wrapped in compact, nimble packages. Marrying the practicality of hatchbacks with the fierce spirit of sports cars, hot hatchbacks became the emblem of a generation that yearned for speed, style, and substance, all without breaking the bank.
But not all things are created equal. Let’s take a look at the world’s most iconic hot hatches and we’ll see if we can settle an age-old argument – what is the best looking hatchback ever made?
Here’s a selection of some of the best hatchback sports cars that have ever committed rubber to tarmac.
A Short History of Hot Hatches
The phrase gained widespread recognition in the 1980s, but high performance versions of ordinary daily drivers were with us long before then. Indeed the formula was deceptively simple. Take an ordinary hatchback, give it a powerful engine, a growling exhaust and big brakes, add flared wheel arches and uprated suspension and give it a cool name like GTI or GTE or GT Turbo. You get the idea…
Traditionally, most hot hatchbacks used the FF layout (front-engined, front-wheel drive) but today, an all-wheel drive powertrain is more common to cope with increasingly powerful engines.
What Was The First Hot Hatch?
This is where the conversation gets interesting. Some say it was the 982cc Autobianchi A112 Abarth. Launched in 1971, the street smart version of the largely insipid piston-engined Autobianchi A112 supermini was built by the motorsport division of Fiat. It was equipped with a sports exhaust, a twin-choke carburetor and a bigger camshaft.
Another of the sadly long-forgotten original hot hatches, and the car that has perhaps a better claim than the A112, was the 1.3-litre, 82 hp Simca 1100 Ti. Twin Weber carbs, a 0-60 time of under twelve seconds and a top speed of over 100 mph doesn’t sound much, but in 1973 when it was launched with a rear spoiler, disc brakes and alloy wheels, it was clearly impressive.
There quickly followed the Alfa Romeo Alfasud Ti and the Renault 5 Alpine (known in the UK as the Gordini). Then, in 1975 at the Frankfurt Motor Show, the automotive world was left collectively open-mouthed. The Volkswagen Golf GTi had arrived, and there followed a brand-new genre of awesome automobiles.
Cometh the Age, Cometh the Hot Hatch
To many, the iconic hot hatches had their golden age in the analogue 1980s before electronic driver aids became commonplace. But with technological advances in turbocharging, fuel injection, variable valve timing and traction control, the hot hatchbacks of the 1990s were generally faster, more stable and more reliable.
Into the 2000s and beyond and we have entered the realm of what has become known as hyper-hot hatches. The Audi RS3, Golf R, BMW M140i and the Mercedes-AMG A45, four of the best hatchback sports cars, are ballistic-quick with price tags to match, but what are the most famous hot hatches? Let’s take a joyride through the ages.
Peugeot 205 1.9 GTi
Of all the awesome hot hatches on this list, the 130 hp, 1.9 GTi may well offer the most complete driving experience. It debuted in 1986 and – to many – it usurps the Golf itself. Indeed its 0-60 time of 7.8 seconds was just a second slower than the sensational BMW M3. Typical of fast French hot hatchbacks, the build quality was sometimes questioned, but thanks to the fact it weighed little more than a small family pet, its tireless, agile enthusiasm left you feeling deliriously happy when you emerged from it. Precisely what iconic hot hatches are supposed to do.
Volkswagen Golf GTI
Even though it wasn’t the first hot hatch, the Golf GTI set the benchmark for almost all fast family hatchbacks for close to half a century. It was then, and remains now, impossibly practical, stylish, comfortable and lightning quick. But above all, it’s not as shouty as its British and French rivals. The stunning 1.8-litre 16v Mk II, with the red stripe around the front grill, retains an understated less-is-more charm that very few hot hatches possess. Yet when required, it could flex its muscles. It was the hot hatch to beat in the 1980s and it’s the hot hatch to beat today.
Lancia Delta HF Integrale
This four-wheel drive phenomenon has been described by those in the know as one of the best hatchback sports cars of all time. When Group B rallying was at its zenith in the 1980s, Juha Kankkunen and Miki Biasion scored drivers’ titles in the Delta. The road-going version bore an uncanny resemblance to the rally car. Well north of 200 hp in later Evo II versions, a Momo steering wheel and a Torsen differential was enough to set the two-litre turbocharged Integrale apart from most of its peers, and like most incredibly fast cars from Italy, it was effortlessly cool to boot.
Renault 5 GT Turbo
The Clio Williams and the Renaultsport Megane are undoubtedly incredible cars and take their rightful place on many lists of iconic hot hatches. Yet for sheer audacity, it’s the GT Turbo that makes ours. Remarkably, the 1.4-litre pushrod engine began its design phase decades earlier, but when it was launched in 1986, it became a very popular choice for the burgeoning breed of hot hatch enthusiasts. Described variously as an ‘automotive ASBO’ and a ‘rocket-powered roller skate’, the blisteringly fast GT Turbo was one of the best looking hatchback cars of the 1980s, though it wasn’t without its flaws. The turbocharged engine was prone to overheating and it was notoriously unpredictable in the wet, but it became a cult classic and remains to this day a highly sought-after car.
Ford Fiesta XR2
Ford have made some utterly joyous hot hatches in their time, including the Escort RS Turbo, the Focus RS, the Escort XR3i and the contemporary Fiesta ST. We can even wedge the Sierra Cosworth into this list, but we chose the iconic XR2. The genesis of all subsequent fast Fiestas, the XR2 was launched in 1981 and became one of the most famous hot hatchbacks of them all. The 84 hp 1.6-litre engine in the Mk I (upgraded to 96 hp in the Mk II) was good without being ravenously quick, and it handled like a go-kart on rails. Chuck in the fabulously flared wheel arches, the red XR2 decals, the twin front fog lights and those truly iconic pepperpot alloys and you have a hot hatch for the ages.
The Best Hot Hatch Ever?
Of course if you ask a thousand petrolheads for a list of the best in breed, you’ll get a thousand different lists, and there are plenty of iconic hot hatches that didn’t make our cut.
Here, we extend a special nod of appreciation to the white-wheeled Vauxhall Astra GTE, the small-but-mighty Citroen AX GT, the utterly bonkers Escort RS Cosworth, the daft homologation Nissan Sunny GTi-R and the spiritual successor to the GT Turbo, the hulking Renault Clio V6.
The Cars that Defined an Era
The legacy of the most famous hot hatches stands as a testament to the beauty of automotive compromise, the melding of everyday usability with heart-pounding performance.
From their inception in the 1970s to today’s modern powerhouses, hot hatchbacks have consistently defied conventions, reminding us that joy on the tarmac isn’t the exclusive domain of high-end supercars.
They’ve evolved with the times, embracing technological advances and adapting to the shifting desires of car enthusiasts worldwide. Yet, their essence remains unchanged: cars that enliven mundane commutes and bring joy with every turn of the key.