THE safe thing to do here would have been to award the Mk1 Golf GTI the crown and have all the rest scrapping for the minor placings but, in the interests of avoiding just another cut and paste selection, we’re not going there.
In fact, the Mk1 doesn’t make the cut here at all. Clearly, there’s a spadeful of subjectivity that’s gone into this one, and alongside some familiar faces are a few left-fielders. Take a look and see whether you agree.
GOLF GTI Mk2 16v
The Mk1 Golf GTI is overrated. Discuss. While it popularised the hot hatch genre, sportier versions of mainstream hatches like the Autobianchi A112 Abarth and the Renault 5 Alpine predated its July ’76 on sale date. Give Nathan Ponchard enough beer and time (and rope) and he’ll even make a passionate case for the ’68 Renault 16TS being the first hot hatch. Instead we prefer the faster and more composed Mk2, which came with the added bonus of the rev-happy 16-valve 1.8-litre lump which lifted peak power from 82 to 102kW. Aside from big-money Mk2 specials like the Rallye and Limited, we reckon this is the early Golf to go for.
HONDA CIVIC TYPE-R EP3
Built between 2001 and 2005, the breadvan EP3 Honda Civic Type-R had a lot going for it. With the sweetest manual gearchange ever to grace a hot hatch, this UK-built firebrand came in two discrete guises, a Euro market model with 150kW and a Japanese version with 158kW. The latter model, only finished in Championship White, is especially sought-after due to the fitment of a ferociously effective helical LSD. Even the Euro-spec model is a genuine hoot to drive though, revving to 8250rpm and hitting 100km/h in 6.8s. Don’t like the manufactured sound of modern turbo hatches? Here’s the perfect antidote. Finding one in good condition now is hard work though.
PEUGEOT 205 GTi 1.9
For many, the 205 gets the nod over the Golf GTI and we can see why. It delivered a more rewarding drive for the talented driver but tended to deliver the less-handy into the scenery. Drive it with a basic understanding of vehicle dynamics, look after the tyres and keep an eye on bushing wear and suspension alignment and it’s not the ditch-seeking missile it’s been portrayed as. Unfortunately many bought them as a cheap fun car, failed to maintain them and then terminally wadded them. It’s a toss-up which is better, the 1.6 or the 1.9-litre. The 1.6 is arguably a sweeter unit but the 1.9-litre gets our vote purely because it delivers bigger thrills for little extra outlay.
RENAULT MEGANE R26.R
It’s hard to believe that something as ludicrously talented as the R26.R could be developed from the underwhelming lard-arse that was the original Megane 225. The stripped-out track-oriented R26.R was quicker around Autocar’s handling track than a BMW M5 V10, a Mitsubishi Evo X, a Porsche Cayman S or a Mercedes A45 AMG. This from a front-wheel drive 2.0-litre hatch. If humbling supercars on track gives you a buzz, there aren’t too many better production cars than the plastic-windowed weapon from the Alpine factory in Dieppe. Only 450 were ever built, 230 in right-hand drive, and none of them officially came to Australia. We got properly dudded there.
MINI COOPER S WORKS GP
Yes, more sacrilege. A ‘new’ Mini makes the cut. This one’s fairly easy to justify on the basis that a) the original Mini Cooper S wasn’t a hatch and b) this is actually a bloody good car. In terms of painting a big, stupid smile on your face, it’s right up there with the very best on this list. Effectively a road version of the Cooper S Challenge racer, the 160kW Works GP featured a strut brace where the rear sets should have been and thanks to the stripping out of much of its sound deadening, a supercharger whine that sounded like the seven milk floats of the apocalypse.
Here’s one of the great overlooked hot hatch heroes. The original 1999 S3 was a beautifully packaged and extremely well-sorted 154kW all-wheel-drive hatch that really didn’t do a lot wrong. About its biggest problem was that it was launched alongside the mechanically similar TT coupe, which hogged all the headlines and made the S3 look a little straight. With boost massaged back a notch to preserve its place in the hierarchy versus the coupe, the S3 was a quicker point to point car, by simple dint of the fact that you could see out of the thing. The 20v engine would see the S3 hit 100km/h in 6.8 seconds. Mature in appeal and brilliantly appointed inside, the S3 was a class act.
FORD FOCUS RS
We needed to include a contemporary in the list, but which to choose. There’s a lot to be said for the latest Mercedes A45 AMG and Audi RS3 Sportback, but the car that looks most likely to be remembered as something a bit special just has to be the third-gen Ford Focus RS. The first Focus RS to get all-wheel drive, mating it with a manual gearbox and including the headline-hogging Drift Mode was always going to endear the RS with enthusiast drivers. That and giving it 257kW for a smidge over fifty grand. There’s nothing delicate or sensual about this car, but sometimes there’s no substitute for smacking something with the biggest hammer you can buy.
RENAULT 5 TURBO/TURBO II
Jump aboard the way-back-when machine and alight at Destination Unhinged. The brief for this project was simple. Renault was almightily annoyed at continually getting worked over on rally stages by Lancia’s Stratos. The brief was for “a powerful manoeuvrable car, with excellent road holding. It must not exceed a weight of 810kg.” The engine decided on was a turbo 1397cc four, which would comply with the 2.0-litre rallying regulations of the time, which applied a 1.4x multiplier to forced induction engines. Despite its larger than life legacy, the R5 Turbo’s rally success was fleeting.
Homologation was completed in time for the 1981 Monte Carlo Rally, in which Jean Ragnotti achieved the mid-engined Five’s first WRC victory. He followed that by winning the Tour de Corse in May 1982. Ragnotti won his second Tour de Corse victory in May 1985 in the pumped up Maxi version, but by now the writing was on the wall. All-wheel drive rally cars had eclipsed the wild Renault. Roadgoing versions of Turbo IIs pop up from time to time here in Australia for about $90K. This or a modern superhatch? In terms of pure charisma, there’s really no competition.
LANCIA RALLY 037
Okay, so we’re stretching the definition wildly here, but we wanted to know what was the most extreme 1980s homologation special? We had a look at all the usual candidates: Peugeot 205 T16, MG Metro 6R4, Ford RS200 and Lancia Delta S4 but in the end we couldn’t look past the car that was the very last rear-wheel drive car to win a WRC constructor's title, the Lancia Rally 037.
That victory came in 1983, with points contributions chiefly from Walter Rohrl and Markku Alen, beating the Audi Quattros of Hannu Mikkola, Michele Mouton and Stig Blomqvist. The Stradale road versions were delivered in a pretty mild 153kW state of tune but with a modest amount of tweaking, the supercharged Abarth-developed two-litre four would develop north of 240kW. Finding a place for your shopping isn’t going to be easy with this one, but we had to give it the nod.
SHELBY OMNI GLHS
We pondered going with the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus or the Ti, rear-wheel drive hatches that have developed a bit of a cult following, but this car’s transatlantic cousin is even sillier. Back in the Eighties, the Dodge Omni got the treatment from Carroll Shelby, resulting in the Omni GLH (Goes Like Hell). Shelby being Shelby, he was unable to resist turning the wick up on the modified 2.2-litre turbo lump a bit further, resulting in the 1986 GLHS. A fat 131kW wasn’t at all bad for 1986 and although Shelby only built 500, the GLHS attracted kudos by being quicker down the strip than 305 V8 versions of the Camaro/Firebird and would get its nose in front of 1987–1993 V8 Mustangs and Corvettes.