Six game-changing hot hatches

Top hot hatches
The Mercedes A45 AMG - currently turning heads in Geneva
"Suddenly, your mum’s shopping car had thoroughbred rally DNA"
  • | by Daniel Bevis

Mercedes-Benz is currently debuting the A45 AMG at the 2013 Geneva Motor Show - a spunky little hatchback with a crazy amount of horsepower. Why should you care? Because it’s a GAME-CHANGER, that’s why…

It doesn’t really look like a game-changer, granted. The old A-class was an ungainly, overly-tall thing (and nobody say ‘elk test’…), so the styling of the new kid is indisputably a vast improvement; better, but frankly not overly exciting.

No, it’s the power, pricing and versatility that make it so interesting. Under the bonnet is AMG’s only current production four-cylinder engine – all their other engines are V8s or V12s – which (naturally) is hand-built by experts in a clean, white laboratory, and produces an obscene 355bhp. That’s almost as much as a Ferrari 355, or an early  Lamborghini Countach. It’ll demolish 0-62mph in 4.6s, and it’ll be a world-class handler thanks to its 4Matic AWD system and clever suspension.

Amazingly, M-B are also claiming an eyebrow-raising 40.9mpg and CO2 emissions of 161g/km. Best of all, it’s going to cost £35k – the same as a VW Golf R with a few option boxes ticked. Or about ten grand less than the BMW 1M…

So, since the A45 has got motoring buffs’ hearts all a-flutter, we thought it an appropriate moment to reminisce about some other hot hatches that, in their own unique ways, shifted everything up a level.

Vauxhall Chevette HS

Old newspaper ad of the Vauxhall Chevette 2300

The Chevette of the late-seventies and early-eighties was a useful, utilitarian little thing, its shovel-nose hiding frugal and sensible engines, while the rear hatch made it practical for shopping. A sensible staple of British life, then.

But the ingredients for fun were all present: lightweight, rear wheel-drive, playful handling – it was the ideal base for a rally car. So the Chevette HS was developed, shoehorning in a 2.3-litre 16v slant-four and Kadett GT/E suspension, and beefing up the looks with fibreglass aero addenda.

Suddenly your mum’s shopping car had thoroughbred rally DNA. The HS was a proper rival to the dominant Escorts and, because of the nature of homologation regulations, Vauxhall had to sell at least 400 road-going versions.

These were brilliantly unrefined, and very naughty indeed. The ol’ 'Shove-it' had infinitely more attitude when it was kicking dust in your face.

Lotus Sunbeam

Old ad for Talbot Sunbeam

While Vauxhall were rallying the HS, Talbot had called in Lotus to launch a counter-attack.

Again, their base was a mundane rear-drive hatchback, but the Lotus treatment saw the addition of a 2.2-litre 16v slant-four (you can see some parallels here, can’t you?) and rally-spec underpinnings.

This was the era when Lotus were building the spaceship-like Esprit, so they brought a lot of kudos to the humble Sunbeam; the car had 150bhp too, which was almost as much as an Esprit.

Supercar power in a shopping car? The grocery run would never be the same again…

Ford Escort RS Cosworth

Escort Cosworth

Yes, the Sierra Cosworth was the real game-changer, but we only have so much space here, so we’re looking at its successor. Why? Because it took a rather cruddy hatchback and made it AWESOME.

The mkV Escort was very much built down to a price, but the Cosworth variant didn’t actually have that much Escort in it – it was basically a trimmed-down Sierra chassis with a turbocharged 2.0-litre engine, 4WD, and a beefed-up Escort silhouette draped over the top.

The road car had 220bhp, which doesn’t sound that incredible now, but back in 1992 that was as much as a Maserati Biturbo; it wasn’t that far off Porsche 911 territory either. And it looked like an Escort. And it had A MASSIVE WHALETAIL.

Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.6 City

Schulz Benz

This differs to the other cars in the list, as it never actually existed. At least, not as a production car.

But back in the early-nineties, Schulz developed a hatchback version of the popular 190E saloon as a styling exercise, fitting the concept with a growly 2.6-litre engine. If this had made it to the showrooms, it would surely now be regarded as one of the greatest hot hatches of all time, no?

A compact, rear-drive Merc with the engine from the 190E 2.5-16 Cosworth? Now that would have been a game-changer…

Renault Clio V6

Clio V6

This is brilliantly silly. Back in 1980, Renault built a homologation version of the 5, with extremely wide arches and the engine mounted in the middle where the rear seats should be.

This grew, in time, into the terrifying, flame-spitting Group B Maxi Turbo, which was an absolute monster.
In 2001, Renault decided to reprise this lunacy with the Clio. They ripped out the rear seats and stuffed a 227bhp 3.0-litre V6 in there, whilst widening the whole car to cartoonish proportions.

Given the Clio’s short wheelbase, making it wider effectively made its footprint a small square, meaning it was somewhat tricky to drive. It was fine in a straight line in the dry – anything else could see you launched into snap oversteer with no warning, finding yourself parked backwards in a hedge and wondering how you got there, with the prospect of an uncomfortable conversation with your car insurance company to look forward to.

The Clio V6 has a reputation as a bit of a thug, but it’s also a proper hero’s car. If you can drive one properly, you are somebody to be respected. The Clio V6 put the challenge back into hot hatches.

Renault Megane R26.R

Renault Megane

Another Renault, and a world apart from the Clio V6. The Mégane R26.R is basically a Porsche 996 GT3 RS in hot hatch form; indeed, place an R26.R and a GT3 RS side-by-side and you’d start to wonder whether they were tweaked by the same people…

Based on the extravagantly-named Renaultsport Mégane 230 F1 Team R26 (a wonderful, perfectly balanced hot hatch in its own right), the R26.R has very little interior trim, a huge, colourful rollcage where the rear seats should be, polycarbonate windows, a carbon-fibre bonnet, carbon-fibre bucket seats, six-point harnesses and an ultra-thin titanium exhaust. Anything  deemed unnecessary in the quest for thrust was ditched; that includes all airbags (aside from the driver’s), climate control, stereo, fog lights, rear wiper, and most of the soundproofing.

It had stiff, uncompromising suspension, aggressive brakes,  a widened track and sticky track-day tyres. In one fell swoop, the script for the hot hatch was rewritten: this was a car built purely to go fast, and to be as much fun as possible while doing so.

You’ll be able to be sensible and silly all at once in the A45 AMG. Will it live in the pantheon of all-time great hot hatches? We reckon so. And given AMG’s enthusiasm for reeling out ever-more-extreme Black Series models, it looks like Mercedes-Benz are just getting started with this one…