If you were quizzed about the hot hatch heroes from the 1980s onwards – what cars would you pick?
Most of you would likely to go with the legends of the day such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI, the Peugeot 205 GTI, the Renault 5 GT Turbo or the Ford Escort RS Turbo.
Each one of these is an easy choice. As all had equal fame and notoriety back in the day instilling them into hot hatch folklore for decades to come. But for every legend of the hot hatch world, there are a number of unsung hot hatch heroes cruelly forgotten by history. As for every VW Golf GTI, and Pug GTI, there is a mass of hotted-up hatchbacks that will never be spoken about, or sought after in the same way.
Here, we remember the forgotten heroes of the hot hatch world…
Fiat Uno Turbo
Boasting a 1.4-litre turbocharged engine, the Uno Turbo was fire-breathing version of an otherwise standard car. Despite its tiny engine, it got 118 bhp and with only 925kg to haul around it was quick in a straight line covering the 0-60mph dash in 7.9 seconds.
Sadly, this forced induction variant of the Uno was largely ignored by the hot hatch buying public of the late 1980s who flocked to the more famous names of the time.
Peugeot 309 GTI
Living in the shadow of its more famous brother, the 205 GTI, the 309 GTI was Peugeots’ attempt to give a wider appeal to their hot hatch model range. Criminally, the 309 GTI was ignored, because, you know it wasn’t a 205 and all of that.
For those that didn’t buy one though, they missed out on a more honed chassis setup than its brother. Thanks to a wider track, the 309 was more agile than the 205. As well as easier to live with and more practical. Also, it wasn’t that far off its little brother with 0-60mph of 8.0 seconds – only 0.2 seconds slower.
Daihatsu Charade GTTi
When thinking of a 1.0-litre engine in the 1980s, speed is not the first thing that comes to mind. Back in the 1990s though, Daihatsu put a turbocharged 1.0-litre three-cylinder in the nose of its tiny Charade, giving it 99bhp, a host of go-faster parts and a body kit – giving the world the GTTi.
Being way ahead of its time is tough. With the Charade GTTI proving unpopular despite a 0-60mph time of 8.0 seconds matching a number of hot hatches from the period. All we know is that without it, we may not have gotten the fast turbocharged engines that are now commonplace.
Nissan Pulsar GTi-R
The Nissan Pulsar GTi-R could have been unpopular for several reasons. Firstly, it was basically a very uncool Nissan Sunny, with an import name (it was dubbed the Sunny in the UK). Secondly, in 1991 this 227bhp all-wheel-drive monster hatch cost some £20k new – meaning only 75 cars were originally sold.
Bred for rallying, the Pulsar GTi-R put the 2.0-litre turbocharged charge-cooled engine usually found in the 200SX coupe to even greater use giving it 189bhp per tonne. Running from 0-60mph in 5.4 seconds before hitting 143mph – in a car that was usually found ferrying retired people around. Making it the hot hatch that did the unthinkable by making the humble Sunny a thug of a rally car with number plates.
Talbot Sunbeam Lotus
If in 2019 you were to announce a rear-wheel drive 150bhp hot hatch weighing in at 960kg that could cover 0-60mph in 7.8 seconds – the internet would light up in joyous praise. In 1979 though, there was no internet, but there was the Lotus Sunbeam to whom these rapid performance figures belong to.
Lotus supplied the naturally aspirated 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine and early cars were badged as Chrysler of all things, as parent company Peugeot worked out what to do with the brand. Later cars were badged correctly alongside a special run that got yellow Lotus badges. Only 1184 examples were ever built for the UK as the VW Golf GTI ruled sales at the time. Today around 80 survive with the rest being lost time and substantial rust.
Skoda Fabia vRS
Before the Skoda Fabia vRS broke cover, hot hatches were fed from one pump only – a petrol one. But Skoda thought differentially, instead giving its first vRS badged hot Fabia turbo-diesel power that could go from standing to 60mph in a very un-diesel like 9.2 seconds.
In a car that led the way to convincing the car-buying public that diesel could be fun, fast and frugal – the Fabia vRS was also an admirable performer, more than able to hold its own against its rivals from the day.
Volkswagen Golf Rallye G60
If you wanted something a little different from a VW Golf GTI – the Rallye G60 was it. It had a 158bhp supercharged 1.8-litre engine, at a time when the GTI was using old school natural aspiration for horsepower. It also had four-wheel drive, flared body work and square headlights giving you no qualms that it was a much faster and meaner Golf.
It also had the pace to match those looks as well. Running to 60mph from standing in just 8.6 seconds – a fairly swift time in 1989 that is still competitive today.
Proton Satria GTI
The second Lotus fettled car on our list managed to convince the early internet keyboard naysayers that a good car could get a good review regardless of if the badge on its bottom was a little low rent. The Proton Satria GTI may not have had the greatest engine with its 1.8-litre unit making 132bhp getting it from standing to 60mph in 7.8 seconds. But it more than made up for it with a honed chassis tuned by Norfolk’s finest.
This led to the motoring press of the time praising the precise nature of its front-wheel drive chassis setup – who were less kind about its engine. Trouble was that Proton didn’t really know what they were doing, pricing the Satria GTI near the Polo GTI of the time meaning not many were sold.
Peugeot 106 GTi
Often overlooked in favour of the 205 GTI, and the 106 Rallye. The Peugeot 106 GTI was a tiny scampering hot hatch with one of the best front-wheel drive chassis of the era. It had the fun factor with 120bhp from its 1.6-litre 16-valve engine, clever front suspension struts, and a rear torsion bar in a chassis that made it a proper hot Peugeot of the time.
A kerb weight of 950kg meant it didn’t need big power. Scampering its way to 60mph in 7.4 seconds flat. Visually, it had all of the GTI traits, extended wheel arches, unique alloy wheels and white dials on the inside giving it all of the GTI credentials.
Volkswagen Polo G40
When Volkswagen supercharged the humble Polo, something very special occurred. Autocar described the acceleration as “dramatic” as the 1272cc engine got extra muscle pushing out 113bhp. It was 2mph faster than the Ford Fiesta XR2i of the time with its 119mph of top speed getting also coming close to the 122mph Peugeot 205 GTI 1.6-litre model.
The G40 also embarrassed both of its larger capacity rivals with 0-60mph in 8.4 seconds, 0.5 seconds ahead of the XR2i, and 0.3 seconds up on the 205 GTI.
Ford Fiesta ST
After years of hurt from the XR2i not being replaced, Ford finally made amends with the first model of the Fiesta ST. It was the first of its kind to boast a 2.0-litre engine. Good for 148bhp, and costing a shade over £13.5k when new – it could run from 0-60mph in 7.9 seconds, and match the lap time set by the more powerful Focus ST170 around Ford’s Lommel test track.
It also had optional ‘go-faster’ stripes and Pirelli P Zero tyres, making it look fast and go even faster through the corners. While the later second generation turbocharged Fiesta ST got all of the plaudits – without this first generation model none of it would have been possible.
Mazda 323 Turbo
The Mazda MX-5 owes a great debt to the 323 Turbo sharing the same 1.6-litre engine. In the 323 Turbo though, the name is a giveaway, getting 180bhp of forced induction power over its smaller sibling.
In the late 1980s the 323 Turbo was a pretty swift car, with a 7.6 second 0-60mph time being a match for pretty much all of its rivals. Its claim to fame though was rallying success, with the road-car getting the all-wheel drive system which was praised by reviewers of the time.
Renault 11 Turbo
Think of a 1980s Renault with a turbocharger, and most will start with the words ‘5’ and ‘GT.’ The car you may forgotten about is Renault 11 Turbo. It boasted the same 1.4-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder engine as the smaller 5, with 113bhp giving it plenty of go to rival the Golf GTI and 205 GTI.
It also had sharp handling like the smaller 5, making it a bona fide hot hatch. Sadly, the similarities to the 5 continued with the engines being fragile, or rust setting in making the Renault 11 Turbo a rare thing today with barely double digits still on the road.
Volvo 480 Turbo
In 1988, Volvo had a bit of a mad moment with the introduction of the 480 Turbo. At the time Volvo’s were brick shaped saloons or estates with the primary focus on safety. But here was the 480, with its square edged bodywork and swooping nose – complete with pop-up headlights.
The 480 Turbo wasn’t all show either, with a turbocharged 1.7-litre four-cylinder engine producing 113bhp giving it an 8.6 second 0-60mph run – which was comparable to all other hot hatches of the time.
Nissan Almera GTI
In the mid 1990s, the only Nissans grabbing the headlines sported a ‘GT-R’ badge leaving the Almera GTI to pretty much be ignored. This is down to the fact that the stock Almera was one of the most boring cars ever produced that you’d barely notice upon seeing one.
The GTI variant had a lot to offer though, with 141bhp from its 2.0-litre engine allowing it to sprint from 0-60mph in 8.2 seconds. Motoring journos were united in praise over its precise handling and spritely engine – but were less kind about its looks proving that bland is sometimes not the way to go.
Citroen AX GT
The Citroen AX GT may have only been blessed with 85bhp from its tiny 1.4-litre engine. But unlike other hot hatches of the late 1980s, it had a trumpcard – lightness. It only weighed in at 722kg, astonishing when you think of how heavy cars are today.
This power to weight ratio could slingshot this tiny Citroen to 60mph in 9.2 seconds onwards to 110mph of top speed which put it behind the hot hatches of the day, but was still formidable considering the power deficit it had compared to most cars.
It also possessed precise and deft handling thanks to its tiny kerbweight rivalling the pinnacle of all lightweight cars of the time, the Peugeot 106 Rallye.
SEAT Leon Cupra R
Living in the shadow of its far superior German brothers, the SEAT Leon Cupra R had all of the performance credentials that should have ensured greatness. It got a turbocharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine that made 222bhp and 207 lb-ft of torque making it quick with a 0-62mph time of 6.9 seconds.
The pace of the Leon Cupra R impressed reviewers of the time who also praised its handling and driving ability – which wasn’t that far off the VW Golf R32 of the era, but cost you a lot less money.