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Top Gear mag's greatest cars - hot hatches

It’s been an emotional journey for the hot hatch. Cue a power ballad montage clip

  1. For Top Gear magazine’s 300th issue, we celebrated the best 50 cars over 299 issues: here’s our pick of the best hot hatches

    Fist-clenching power ballad at the ready. The hot hatchback’s journey since 1993 hasn’t been without drama, and makes for an inspiring story fit for an X-Factor style montage. It all started so well: Top Gear magazine launched in the era of the Ford Escort Cosworth, Lancia Delta Integrale and Renault Clio Williams, some of the genre’s absolute icons. Heck, we even gave away Clarkson’s Cossie with issue one.

    But the Nineties were the hot hatch’s weakest decade. Insurance companies had got wise to their nickability and crashability, and their power outputs were wound right down as buyers flocked to cheap sports cars and the decade’s most notable newcomer: the Subaru Impreza Turbo. Fast practicality arrived in a new shape, the rally-bred saloon. The hot hatch was properly on the ropes.

    Happily, the French saved the day. Peugeot was the one manufacturer who still knew how to have fun, and a series of quick hatches included the 306 GTI-6, which famously brought six-speed gearboxes to mainstream cars. A memorable magazine ad of the time lined it alongside a Ferrari, Aston and Porsche lauding it as the “slowest car in its class”. Peugeot sharpened its neighbours’ game to great effect. Citroen launched the Saxo VTR and VTS, whose free insurance deals helped catalyse the hot hatch’s return to affordability, just as the Impreza’s rise to fame attracted the money-grabbing insurers. But it was Renault who provided our montage’s proverbial key-change; 1999 saw the launch of the Clio 172, the first hot hatch to come with proper RenaultSport branding. Here was proof hot hatches knew how to have fun again. The Noughties began in fine, wheel-cocking style, and the hot-hatch market has been on a breathtaking ascendancy ever since.

  2. Slipping under the insurers’ radar meant power outputs had climbed only gradually over the Nineties, but conventional wisdom said you couldn’t put more than 200bhp through a front-wheel-drive chassis anyway. Then Ford announced a 212bhp Focus RS, and Alfa Romeo a 247bhp 147 GTA, without a driven rear axle between them. We all hid behind the sofa at the thought of the torque- steer. And the tyre bills.

    While both were thrilling, neither was truly brilliant, even if they did look the absolute nuts. But they’d lit the spark among engineers the world over, and by the late Noughties we had Renault and Ford fighting over who’d invented the fancy mechanicals that suddenly freed carmakers to throw as much power as they dared at a hot hatch without using heavy four-wheel drive. Renault called it PerfoHub; Ford called it RevoKnuckle. But ignore the naff names: the ability to separate suspension and steering movements on the front axle of a car led us to the barmy position we find ourselves in today, where 300bhp in a front-wheel-drive car is not a remarkable occurence.

    This, as well as increasingly effective front differentials, led to the hot-hatch market’s most infamous obsession over the last decade, too: the Nürburgring lap time. And it’s Renault again at the forefront. While a lurid green Ford Focus RS readied itself to headline the 2008 British motor show, some wonderfully fastidious engineers in Dieppe were planning one of the performance car world’s greater upsets. The Ford was like a bulging show-off in the gym, a 300bhp five-cylinder engine hauling along its burly mass. Meanwhile the Renault Megane – a hot hatch also-ran, previously – was having its seats stripped out, its glass replaced with plastic and its stereo and aircon lobbed into the bin. The result – the Megane RenaultSport R26.R – was a driver’s dream and launched with claims of an 8m17s ’Ring lap. A FWD record, and faster than a Nissan R32 Skyline GT-R…

  3. Several Renaults, numerous VW Group hatches and many aggressive arguments later, the latest Civic Type R claims the fastest FWD lap, its 7m44s over half a minute quicker than that welterweight Megane. The Civic has four seats, glass windows and a proper equipment list, though. It’s only been out two months but we felt compelled to name it one of the key hatches in TG history because it’s so thrillingly capable: like a tarmac rally car that happens to have a ginormous boot and decent ride quality. Hot hatches have gone faster yet in our time: the addition of 4WD and paddleshift gearboxes mean Audi, Mercedes and BMW now make five-doors that will outdrag most sports cars, but the Civic sticks closest to the proper, manual front-drive recipe.

    Turned off by too much power and pointless ’Ring claims? There have been plenty of antidotes at the smaller end of the hot-hatch market. The 2009 Renault Clio 200 Cup is a performance car all-time great at any price, while the Suzuki Swift Sport has been a rambunctious ball of fun since 2005 and the very last hot hatch to give in to the march of downsized turbo engines. But we’ve singled out the most recent Ford Fiesta ST for praise. It may have a turbocharger, but everything else about it is pure old-school fun, with a taut manual ’box, a proper mechanical handbrake and a chassis that allows anyone to oversteer. Ludicrously affordable deals mean the ST has absolutely flown out of showrooms and made it the most attainable hot hatch since that Saxo

  4. If we have to pick one car that sums up the last 24 years of the hot hatch, though, it’s the VW Golf. The MkIII GTI on sale in the early Nineties was a dud; the MkIV that followed perhaps more so. But then in 2005 the MkV launched, flooring every motoring critic at once. It distilled the essence of its Seventies ancestor into a modern package, one that eventually offered the fancy gearboxes and suspension modes that have taken the hot hatch into another league, but does just fine if you stay simple and avoid them. The Golf has embraced turbocharging, lost its back seats and set a ’Ring record (the GTI Clubsport S) and gained 4WD and joined in the power wars (the Golf R). Every plot twist involving the hot hatchback also involves the Golf, and all thanks to the superb MkV GTI. In a market rich with great hot hatches, it made the oldest one of them all relevant again.

  5. Ford Fiesta ST

    WHAT WE SAID THEN
    The ST is playful. It has a sense of humour. It’s a good-mood car. Whatever speed you’re doing, there’s always a quick- fix of fun to be had 

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    The Fiesta ST has just gone off sale, four years after launch, still the class-leading small hot hatch. The new version has an almighty pair of shoes to fill

  6. Honda Civic Type R

    WHAT WE SAID THEN
    While its figures are all best- in-class for FWD hatches, this absolutely isn’t a numbers car. It’s far too exciting for that 

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    Well, we only drove it two months ago. So as above. But the fact we’re already gagging for another go tells you all you need to know

  7. Renault Clio 172

    WHAT WE SAID THEN
    The Clio can be encouraged to cock a rear wheel in the air with a mid-corner throttle lift. It doesn’t feel like it will bite, so you drive it hard

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    Not the most glamorous car in Renault’s rich hot hatch history, but arguably the most fun. And easily the cheapest. Ratty ones start at £1,000, good ’uns just over £2k. As cheap as track toys get

  8. Volkswagen Golf GTI (MkV)

    WHAT WE SAID THEN
    Put your foot down and at any point in the rev band, in any gear, there’s always a satisfying surge. Unless of course, you’re in second, doing 50 in which case it’s not so much a surge, as a torrent

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    Drive the MkVII GTI that’s currently on sale and it feels barely more modern than this. VW knows it nailed the MkV and has kept the Golf GTI’s character in line with it since

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