RIP the hot hatch: Tell Me I'm Wrong

When I was growing up the recipe for creating a hot hatch was fairly simple; take one mundane supermini, shoehorn a slightly too big engine into it, stiffen the suspension and - occasionally - add uprated brakes. Then simply bolt on some crude styling 'enhancements' and make sure that the chassis was set up for lively handling. As I say, simple.

Lively hot hatches rule, unless you're Matt
Lively hot hatches rule, unless you're Matt
Whilst the ubiquitous 0-60 sprint was essential for ultimate bragging rights, everyone knew from the get-go that hot hatches were all about fun, with entertainment the primary concern. Everybody was just fine with that. Cars of the 80s like the 205 GTI, the Golf GTI or the Fiesta XR2 and later models like the Clio Williams, 306 GTI-6 and Honda Integra Type R all embodied this simple formula.

They didn't take themselves too seriously, they were fun to drive and potent enough to have a pop at bigger, more exotic machinery. They were everyday heroes and people loved them. The fact that for the most part they looked like a beefed up version of your mum's shopping car only made them more desirable.

Whilst more and more manufacturers came out with their interpretation of this new and exciting genre sales increased and the hot hatch established itself as a cornerstone of the automotive world, especially in Britain. At no point during any of this did anyone know or care how fast any of the cars could lap the Nordschleife.

Gold wheels always worth extra cool points
Gold wheels always worth extra cool points
Moving with the times
More recently Renault's 172 and 182 followed the same recipe and were shining examples of the breed. Perhaps I should admit at this point that I'm a fully paid up Renaultsport fanboy, but I don't think many would disagree that they represented a high point. Indeed, in my eyes the 172 Cup I once owned was perhaps one of the last ever 'proper' hot hatches. Dan, also a former owner, would seem to agree. It had all the ingredients from the magical hot hatch recipe and nothing more. Literally - not even ABS - was allowed to get in the way of creating a raw and rewarding driving experience.

As cars have developed over the years the hot hatch formula has inevitably had to move with the times. This is especially apparent in the quantity and complexity of technological goodies packed into all modern cars and the inevitable over-seasoning of what was once such a simple dish. For the most part I can live with the gimmicks as long as they don't overly intrude with the prime directives of the hot hatch. I'll even accept the technological witchcraft used by some manufacturers to try and inject a bit of excitement into the flat-sounding but efficient crop of turbo engines seen in the latest breed of tearaways.

James couldn't choose Cup or Trophy; had both
James couldn't choose Cup or Trophy; had both
A change of focus
I think the problem with modern hot hatches developed more recently. I imagine it started when the marketing bods [What, like you? - Ed.] were sat around one day trying to come up with a way to communicate just how spicy their latest contender was. It is easy to list how much power and how many gadgets a car has, but how do you go about demonstrating the intangible feeling of how much fun a car is to drive?

It's quite tricky, and the marketplace is ever more competitive so manufacturers need to be ever more creative. They needed metrics. Then someone pointed out how successful Nissan had been in using the time sheet from their Green Hell shenanigans in proving the GT-R is fast enough to outrun the apocalypse, and possibly a GT2. A light bulb illuminated above someone's head. Suddenly the focus of hot hatches changed and they were all about lap times. The recipe had a new ingredient, and it was a biggie. But they failed to consider the consequences and at no point did anyone question if getting serious about lap times would lead to a car that felt a lot more, well, serious.

Is progress all about making progress?
Is progress all about making progress?
I recently drove the Megane 275 Trophy we had in. It is an amazing car and it is really very fast. It possesses a huge amount of grip and it is clearly incredibly capable. It is perhaps a little too far removed from a misery-spec Megane in the styling department and lacks a bit of subtlety, but all in all I thought it was really good. As I've already said, I'm a Renaultsport fanboy but even trying to be objective it's clear they've built an amazing car.

Messrs Trent and Bird tell me that when they took it on track as part of the recent twin test against our long-term Seat Leon Cupra it was brilliant and its extreme R derivative's 'ring lap time utterly believable. But as I drove it along familiar roads it struck me that the level of commitment required to access the car's undoubtedly excellent chassis is just too high. To me it is just too capable, which is a direct by-product of the fact the car was developed to be able to attack the unforgiving turns of the 'ring without the looming threat of finishing the lap with a heli evac. Of course, this does mean that it will get you to where you want to go very quickly - be it to the local shops for a pint of milk or around a famous toll road in the Eifel Mountains. I guess to some people that's fun. But not to me.

Country's hedges now left unmolested - boo!
Country's hedges now left unmolested - boo!
Simple pleasures
What I want from a hot hatch is a car that moves around underneath me at more socially acceptable speeds, relying more on chassis balance than outright grip. I want it to cheekily cock a rear wheel as I pitch into a roundabout and I want to experience the thrill of having just enough grip to allow the rear end to be trustworthy but mobile. Simple pleasures from simple machines. It seems those days are long gone.

The innocence and purity of the formula has been lost in the pursuit of lap times. Yes, modern hot hatches are incredible machines. Yes, they're hugely capable. They're very fast and undoubtedly better in almost every way than their older relatives. But I think they're not as much fun. Tell me I'm wrong...

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (337) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Antj 07 Aug 2014

    New boy seems to think an Integra Type R is a Hot hatch. Fails to mention recent hero's such as the EP3 Civic Type R, or the recent Hot hatch prince the Fiesta ST.

    Sorry New Boy, knowledge is lacking and this article is brought out every few months, its just this rehash is even papper than normal

  • Northerndubber 07 Aug 2014

    I agree, The Caterham 160 (yes, i know not a hot hatch!) proves this.

    Simple, inexpensive, fast enough & will put a grin on your chops at relatively low speed!

  • Fetchez la vache 07 Aug 2014

    Article said:
    At no point during any of this did anyone know or care how fast any of the cars could lap the Nordschleife.
    This with big flashing bloody knobs on.
    It had by today,s standards, skinny tyres, low weight, low power output, looked much the same as a 1.1 stbox other than a few red bits.
    And hell it was fun.

  • dlockhart 07 Aug 2014

    I agree that having modern cars with grip levels similar to that of rally cars makes the everyday drive a dull place.

    There are a few havens (mx-5 & Suzuki swift) but nothing main steam. May be if you are looking at 25k Segan or a 30k Seat Ibiza you are looking too far up the food chain for the simple fun.

  • TurboHatchback 07 Aug 2014

    I agree that the modern generation of large 'hot hatches' are very far removed from the feel of the originals. I have a Mk5 Golf GTI which is supposedly a hot hatch, yes it is a hatchback and yes it is fairly quick but really it is a large luxury car not a raw driving machine. All of these 1500kg 250+bhp hatches are very quick but lack the excitement of tiny old hatches.

    The smaller breed of hatches is probably where the fun is at now, the Swift sport, Twingo 133 etc rather than the big powerful hatches which are more fast luxury cars.

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