I don’t know why, but South Africa is very much a “hatchback country” these days. We seem to like the idea of nippy little cars instead of their siblings with extended luggage capacities. More than hatchbacks we prefer hot hatches; like many of us, I was brought up on a steady diet of hot hatches and here, in chronological order are some of my favourites.
Lancia Delta Integrale
I have to admit that this is the only car on the list I haven’t driven. While the original VW Golf GTi was the progenitor of the breed the Integrale evolved it to a new level. The boxy Italian was based on the very humble Delta compact hatchback, but with the addition of all-wheel drive and a turbocharged four-pot motor it became the most successful rally car of its era. Integrale went on to claim a multitude of international rally victories and no fewer than six consecutive constructor’s titles in the WRC. Given the choice I’d have one of the Evoluzione versions that developed over 150 kW in red, or go completely gonzo and have one in full Martini race livery.
VW Golf CTI
I know that many of you expected to read about the original VW Golf GTi, but this is just as good. Thanks to VWSA’s extend production run (finally halted in 2009) of the Golf A1 body, local hot hatch fans could buy what was essentially a “Golf 1 GTi” until the late ’90s. Interestingly, VWSA was the only plant in the world that simultaneously produced Golf 1, 2 and 3. One of my very good mates had a CTI and we went everywhere with it from the beach to the Drakensberg Mountains, driving like 20-somethings usually do… 82 kW may not seem like much today but with less than a ton to haul, no power steering or anti-lock brakes it was huge fun to drive.
VW Golf 2,0-litre 16v
This wasn’t the pick of the bunch when it came to Golf 2 GTIs. Many people felt that the 1,8 16v or even the 1,8 8v were better cars, but I really enjoyed driving this version; a pristine example of which belonged to my brother. Long before thoughts of becoming a motor-noter entered my head this was the first proper “fast car“ that I drove. With 110 kW it wasn’t a patch on the 115 kW Opel Kadett 2,0 GSi 16v of the time, but I didn’t care. The long-block motor (it had a stroke of 92,8 mm) sourced from a Passat delivered oodles of low-down torque, for the time, and the Golf 3-sourced gearbox made it a pleasure to drive. If you managed to exploit the 7 200 r/min limiter in top gear you’d be doing over 230 km/h, which I may or may not have done (depending if my brother is reading this). I’d have one identical to the car pictured, replete with hard-to-clean cross-spoke BBS alloys.
Opel GSi 16v S “Superboss”
This car was a giant-slayer of note – it was built to trump the more powerful BMW 325iS in Stannic Group N racing. The battles fought between drivers on track (and inebriated fans in the stands) are the stuff of legend; Mike Briggs, Roddy Turner, Grant McLeery took the fight to the BMW boys (Peter Lanz, Tony Viana, Geoff Goddard) and Briggs netted three successive titles. Based on the GSi 16v the SA-only “S” version featured bespoke engine tweaks to increase power by 10 kW to 125; rumours at the time pegged the racecars’ power closer to 150 kW… The most important addition for track use was the limited slip diff’. I have only ever driven one example and boy was it a handful. Thanks to a limited production run of just 244 units (how many remain is anyone’s guess) clean Superbosses are about as rare as rocking horse poo – but infinitely more sought after.
Renault Clio RenaultSport “182″
This is undoubtedly one of the best pocket rockets produced in the last decade. La Regie has a habit of creating extremely entertaining hatches (5GT, Clio Williams, Clio V6, RS27) but among these the previous generation Clio RS is my favourite small hatch. This is an unashamed driver’s car with handling that isn’t for novices, including grin-inducing lift-off oversteer by the armful. The naturally aspirated in-line four churned out 132 kW and that was about 10 years ago. Compact dimensions ensure that it is easily threadable through the tightest mountain passes or the smallest gaps in traffic. I’d bet that the Clio 182 will see off many of the turbocharged hatches of today on a racetrack.
Renault Megane R26
The current Megane RS may have more power but is also heavier and feels significantly more grown up than its predecessor. The succinctly named Renault Megane RenaultSport R26 F1 Team was a limited-edition model created to celebrate Renault’s Formula One success of the era. To harness the near-170 kW of power from the 2,0-litre turbocharged powerplant RenaultSport engineers adopted a limited slip differential, which worked a treat. And to prevent 310 N.m from wrestling the steering wheel from your hands a revised front suspension helped curb (not kerb) torque-steer. Brembo brakes hold up well during hard usage and the Michelin Pilot Sport rubber provided plenty of bite. This model saw off the challenge from over a dozen other hot hatches to claim the CAR magazine’s performance shootout in January 2009. It is a real blast to drive this car and all hatch fans should pilot at least one Renault RS model in their life time, ideally this one.
Ford Focus RS
The first generation Ford Focus RS was supposedly a really great car, but unfortunately not officially available in SA. CAR did test one in January 2004 but that was waaay before my time here. I grabbed the chance to attend the launch when the second generation RS was brought here by Ford SA. The newer car is powered by the 2,5-litre turbocharged in-line five-pot from the ST model, with power increased to 224 kW (an even 300 bhp). There is a distinctive warble soundtrack with angry wastegate whoosh and loud pops on over-run. Over 400 N.m of torque is delivered solely to the front wheels and thanks to a clever front suspension design torque-steer is kept to a minimum. It performed extremely well during testing though the figures do not really convey a sense of how special this car is to drive.
Here’s a list of My Favourite BMWs.