Most of the time, most of us car journos think broadly the same things about the cars we drive and write about. Occasionally there might be disagreement over the ethics or logic behind the latest German uber-saloon, and sometimes one writer might like the styling of a particular car more than another. But, by and large, there is consistency within the industry when it comes to working out which cars are good, which cars are not so good, and which cars are no good whatsoever.
With one particular exception; the hot hatchback. Pretty much since the hot hatch was invented (and even this is a source of debate, some claiming it was Alfa Romeo who invented the breed with the AlfaSud, others reckoning the Mk 1 Golf GTi to be the first genuine hot hatch) car testers have argued in all sorts of directions about all sorts of different hot hatches. And, you suspect, we will continue to do so until the genre is no more.
Take, for example, the Peugeot 205 GTi. In its heyday Peugeot’s numero sacre was regarded by many as the holy grail of hot hatchdom. It was light, unusually powerful in 1.9-litre guise and, if you believed what some people wrote at the time, more fun to drive than most supercars.
Others, however, reckoned the 205 1.9 was borderline dangerous thanks to its tendency to swap ends if you backed away from the throttle in a bend. According to these people the 205 1.9 was naughtier on the limit than a 911 of the same era because when it went, it went fast. And it hardly ever came back. These same commentators also reckoned the cheaper, less powerful 205 XS was a better car to drive because it had sweeter steering, less edgy handling and even crisper throttle response.
Who was right? Who knows?
What we do know is that before and, predominantly, since then there have been countless hot hatches that have split opinion. And only one or two which have hit the bullseye on all fronts.
Most car hacks would agree, for example, that the Mk II Golf GTi was A Very Good Car, especially in 16v guise. Similarly, we’re all reasonably united in declaring the latest Mk V Golf GTi to be a welcome return to form from VW. But that’s just about where praise of the unanimous variety ends.
If there’s any kind of pattern to the cars that split opinion most keenly, it usually involves the more hardcore models. Cars like the Ford Focus RS, Peugeot 306 Rallye and the first generation Honda Civic Type R.
All these are cars that tend to be stamped with the label “not for the faint-hearted.” And that’s why, probably, they divide opinion more than most. Truth is, they are simply too manic for some writers to get on with. Which is why in one magazine or paper you’ll read that a car like the Focus RS suffers from wild torque-steer and is the four-wheeled equivalent of a rabid dog, while in another you might be told it’s one of the fastest, most exciting hot hatches ever created.
And in a way both sets of opinions are valid. Why? Because some drivers get a kick out of trying to master a car that’s fast but furious on the limit while others think life is too short to bother. In such specific instances a horses for courses verdict is the only one that’s sensible to deliver.
Nothing much has changed in the last few years. Take the way the latest crop of uber-hatchbacks has been received by the press. In the Sunday Times recently Jeremy Clarkson wrote of the Renault Megane R26 “You will have the sense that unless you hold on tight you will be in a tree…it’s like being in a room with a lion.” The article from which the quote is taken was headlined “A case of power corrupting absolutely.”
Yet in the same week Autocar’s testers put the Megane R26 top in a 14-car test of hot hatches. Autocar’s team was blown away by the Renault’s pure pace around a track and over winding B-roads, but they were also impressed by how civilised it was at the same time. And in the same month Evo magazine compared the R26 with all its key rivals and, once again, placed the Renault top of the crop.
“In the end” wrote Evo “ it comes down to a straight fight between the Volkswagen (Golf GTI) and Renault, and which one wins is decided simply by how feisty you want your hot hatch to be.”
It’s the new Civic Type R that’s attracted the most contravesy, though, because no one can make up their minds quite what to think about this wild and weird looking device. Never before has a hot hatch made the world of car journalism appear so divided.
Believe what they say in Evo and even within the pages of the same magazine there is clearly consternation. In a group test that contained the Megane R26 the Civic was deemed by Evo’s testers to fall “a long way short of the mark” on account of its “peculiar steering and inert balance.” It came last out of six cars.
Yet in the drive story that preceded Evo’s group test the writer claimed the Type R was “still properly hardcore.” And of the handling he wrote “…but the balance appears to be safe enough to allow you to tramp on without fear. And tramp on you will.”
Autocar is no less guilty of such apparent inconsistency. In its road test Autocar wrote of the Civic TR; “Like the manic Astra VXR, the Type R will have its fans, but we are not among them.” A couple of weeks later, though, Autocar group tested the Civic and claimed its steering and handling “seemed to click whenever the conditions underfoot got really tricky.” Overall they gave it a lukewarm thumbs up.
And in the same month as the above Car magazine also group tested the Type R against several key rivals and wrote “To drive the new Civic Type R is to find petrolhead nirvana. It will be remembered as one of the true greats.”
So who knows? The only thing that’s consistent whenever a manufacturer launches another thunder-hatch, it seems, is inconsistency.
Always has been, always will be.