Many modern hot hatches boast supercar-baiting performance but they have a lot of work to do to live up to these legends. We take a look back at ten of the most iconic hot hatches, in no particular order...
1. Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1
This is one car that doesn't need an introduction: the original Golf GTI. While not the original hot hatch (that title belongs to the little known Simca 1100 Ti), the Mk1 can be credited with sparking the hot-hatch boom of the late 1970s. First shown at the 1975 Frankfurt Motor Show, the Mk1 sported a fuel-injected 1,6-litre four-cylinder that facilitated a sprint from standstill to 100 km/h in less than 10 seconds. Not very impressive now, but decidedly blistering back then. Compared with the large wheels and swollen wheelarches of today's hot hatches, the original GTI was rather subtle in its styling. Aside from a front lip, red pinstriping round the grille and the tartan seats, the Mk1 GTI looked similar to its common-or-garden stablemates. In 1979, the four-speed manual was eschewed in favour of a sportier five-speed, while 1982 saw the previous powertrain swapped out for a beefier 1,8-litre producing 82 kW and 155 N.m of torque (up from 81 kW and 137 N.m).
2. Peugeot 205 GTi
Based on the rather stout and robust 205 runabout, the GTi derivative transformed Peugeot's city-slicker into what is considered to be one of the best handling front-wheel-drive cars of all time. The Pininfarina-designed body received sporting enhancements, with wider wheelarches and deeper front and rear spoilers differentiating the GTi from its lesser siblings. Initially, the 205 GTi was offered with a 1,6-litre four-cylinder heart producing 85 kW and 133 N.m of torque (not bad for something weighing 890 kg) but was later upgraded to a 1,9-litre four-pot producing 96 kW and 164 N.m. Despite the higher power outputs, many agree the 1,6-litre is the superior powertrain, feeling more energetic than the somewhat lethargic 1,9-litre engine. Both were mated to a five-speed gearbox sending their power to the front wheels. The 205 enjoyed great success as a rally car, resulting in a roadgoing version called the 205 Turbo 16. Due to their rarity (just 200 were ever built), they're valued at around U$190 000 (R3 300 000).
3. Volkswagen Golf VR6 (Mk3)
Affectionately known as the "Virus" by its fans, the VR6 can be seen as the predecessor to the Golf R and R32 models. Unlike most hot hatchbacks of the time, the VR6 sported a large engine; a 2,8-litre six-cylinder that produced 128 kW and 235 N.m of torque. Tested in the October 1993 issue of CAR, the VR6 managed to hit 100 km/h in 7,98 seconds and rocket towards a top speed of 222 km/h. If you needed slightly more carrying space, the same engine was available in the Jetta Mk3 sedan. Unlike the hot hatches that came before it, the Golf VR6 took a more upmarket approach to practical performance, and boasted luxuries such as premium leather-trimmed bucket seats along with other electrically operated conveniences. In the United States, it was sold as the GTI VR6. Interestingly, this well-loved six-cylinder was also used in the first-generation Mercedes-Benz V-Class, specifically the V280.
4. Ford Focus RS
The year 2009 was an exciting one for Ford fans. Initially denied the first-generation Focus RS in South Africa, the second-gen model was made available on local soil. Sporting an eye-watering price of R487 900 (about the same as a brand-new BMW 523i of the same vintage) the Focus RS certainly wasn't cheap. The 2,5-litre five-pot sure did make up for it, though. Producing a muscular 224 kW and 440 N.m of torque, the front-wheel-drive Ford managed to reach 100 km/h in 6,09 seconds when tested by CAR in November 2010. While it may have been a no-nonsense three-door hot hatch, the RS had a modicum of civility about it, with plenty of equipment shipping standard to justify that pricetag. It certainly impressed the CAR team, which claimed the Focus RS was a special purchase. "A lucky few will own the RS and they will know that they spent their money well. Everytime they floor the throttle to hear that straight-five climb through the high end of the rev range they will smile knowingly." Given their future classic status, I'm sure the owners are still smiling about their wise investments.
5. Lancia Delta HF Integrale Evoluzione II
If you grew up playing video games or you've frequented a gaming arcade or two, chances are you've piloted the competition version of this on a rally special stage. Yes, the darling of Sega Rally Championship built up a fan base of video gamers power-sliding the Italian hatchback through virtual mud. The road-going Evoluzione II sported a 2,0-litre, four-cylinder engine sending 158 kW and 314 N.m of torque to all four wheels via a five-speed gearbox. Alcantara-trimmed bucket seats and a Momo steering wheel communicated to the driver what this hot hatch was about before the key was turned. A rally car for the road, the Integrale enjoyed much success as a bona fide rally car, winning six constructors' championships in a row, from 1987 to 1992. Due to the Lancia's legendary racing pedigree, prices start at around £60 000 (R1 300 000).
6. Renault 5 Turbo
Another rally car for the road, the Renault 5 Turbo was based on the humble Renault 5, a practical and spartan compact hatchback. With the 5 Turbo, Renault did away with practicalities and removed the rear seats, replacing them with a mid-mounted, turbocharged 1,4-litre, four-cylinder engine. While the standard 5 was front-wheel drive, the Turbo sent its 118 kW and 210 N.m of torque to the rear wheels. Weighing just 970 kg, the little Renault could sprint to 100 km/h in 8,8 seconds. That wasn't the point of the 5 Turbo, however. Its short wheelbase and quick steering meant the mid-engined hatchback could carve up a set of corners with ease; a big plus for a rally car. The 5 Turbo (or R5 as it is known to some) enjoyed much success as a rally car, even with privateers. Today, the R5 is remembered for its outlandish styling and can be seen as the predecessor of another legendary Renault hot hatch, the Clio V6.
7. Honda Civic Type R (FK8)
A favourite in the CAR office, the FK8 Type R is one of the best hot hatches out there today. While the styling may not appeal to everyone, it is the Civic's sheer breadth of ability that can bewilder even the most jaded driver. Scoring 82/100 in our April 2018 road test, the dynamism of the Type R impressed all who slid in behind the three-spoke wheel. "The way the front axle manages to put down power in dry conditions questions the need for AWD in similarly powerful vehicles, and each gearshift is a celebration of one of the finest manual transmissions available", is what the CAR team concluded. Yes, there are rivals out there that may be easier to live with on a day-to-day basis, but for a quick blast up and down a mounain pass, it's the Civic Type R that creates the biggest smile.
8. Renault Megane R26.R
Renault certainly knows how to make a hot hatch. The R26.R was no exception. Based on the already exciting Megane Renault Sport 230 F1 Team R26, the lightweight R26.R did away with 126 kg of luxuries and materials to be the ultimate expression of a focused hot hatch. Gone were the rear seats, radio/CD player and the heated rear window. Speaking of the glass rear window, that was replaced with a lighter polycarbonate plastic item. All airbags bar the driver's one were given the boot. A carbon-fibre bonnet replaced the heavy steel item, among various other changes. When new, the R26.R blitzed around the Nürburgring in just 8 minutes 17 seconds (8:17:54), 19 seconds quicker than the previous front-wheel-drive record-holder, the Opel Astra OPC. Only 450 examples were built, making the R26.R somewhat of a rarity.
9. Ford Escort RS Cosworth
Sporting its signature "whale tail" rear spoiler, you're not going to confuse the Escort RS Cosworth with a run-of-the-mill Escort. Like the Delta Integrale and Renault 5 Turbo, the Cosworth was built as a homolgation special. Between 1993 and 1998, the "Cossie", as it is known to fans, enjoyed modest success as a Group A car in the WRC (World Rally Championships). Sold exclusively as a three-door, the Escort RS has become a sought-after car in collector circles, with only 7 145 examples produced. What made it so popular in the '90s is still a reason it's enjoyed by owners today; a turbocharged 2,0-litre four-pot producing 167 kW of power and 304 N.m of torque. Plenty of grunt for a car weighing 1 275 kg. Thankfully, the power was sent to all four wheels for better traction and superior roadholding. When new, 0-100 km/h took just 5,7 seconds. Impressive, considering it bests the figure the second-generation Focus RS could achieve.
10. Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk5
After the Mk1, the GTI dynasty started to slack, relaxing comfortably on the laurels of its badge. Yes, the Mk2 was worthy of those magical three letters, but the third and fourth iterations of the GTI were lacking the performance and liveliness of their predecessors. Many of the GTI loyalists began to look elsewhere for their thrills, turning to Ford, Opel and Peugeot for exciting, fast hot hatches. The Mk5 GTI saw a true return to form for VW. Introduced in 2005, the Mk5 not only looked the part, but had the muscle to back it up, too. Some 147 kW and 280 N.m of torque were made available courtesy of a 2,0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder sending its power to the front wheels via a six-speed manual or optional six-speed DSG. The appeal of the Mk5 GTI sat in its sheer competence across the board. Be it commuting in traffic to the office or attacking a country road, the Mk5 managed to remain composed and surefooted, while offering a driving experience that is equal parts dynamic and refined.
Which hot hatch do you think has attained legendary status? Let us know below in the comments...