The Greatest Hot Hatches Ever: 70 Years of Wheels

France aced the formula and created a legend

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In celebration of Wheels magazine's 70th birthday, we're running through the 70 greatest cars of all time – defined not by sales or talent alone, but simply as our writers past and present see it.

To follow the series, hit our Greatest Cars Ever main story here.

The Greatest Small Cars are fine and all, but what of their feistier brethren, the hot hatch?

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Peugeot 205 GTi


  • After five minutes, it feels as if it's hardwired into your synapses


  • Few cars have the ability to transform you from hero to zero quite so humiliatingly

Perfection is an ephemeral thing. The cruel march of time erodes what we once thought as unimprovable; flawless gems becoming rough diamonds. With cars it was ever thus, but some have the ability to transcend time. Such a car is the Peugeot 205 GTi.

Gérard Welter’s pert three-door design shrugged off the ravages of age far better than its peers and, as modern hot hatches become heavier and more complex, the 205 GTi was always there to remind us that there was a simpler and more satisfying way.

There will always be arguments whether the zingy 1,6 or the rangier 1.9-litre engine best fits the 205's character but, truth be told, both are fantastic. As indeed is the way the little Peugeot drives. Later 1.9 models would be our choice, with better brakes and tyres adding a welcome measure of security to the dynamics. The GTi's propensity for lift-off oversteer made it a darling of serious drivers but had a sobering ability to expose the less gifted.

Only the 1.9-litre was imported to Australia, and buyers had the choice of air-conditioning or power steering but not both, these systems competing for right-hook under-bonnet real estate. Power was initially a feeble 75kW and torque rated at 142Nm, courtesy of domestic emissions laws that arrived with unleaded petrol in 1986.

Facelift cars arrived in 1991 with a still-catalysed but notably heartier 90kW lump, the other benefit being that the revision finally overcame the air-con/power steering conundrum.

Today, there are many faster and more capable hot hatches than the Peugeot 205 GTi. However, none have ever got the formula so right for so long. Agile, beautiful, rewarding and, despite what you might expect, mechanically robust, the 205 wasn't the original GTi, but it was certainly the greatest.

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VW Golf GTI (Mk1, Mk5, Mk7)


  • When it's good it's really good


  • But when it's bad, it's awful

This somehow feels cruel. There have been so many excellent iterations of the Golf GTI – and just one truly great Peugeot hot hatch – that were there an award based on weeks at #1, we'd have to give it to Volkswagen.

But for every brilliant Mk7 there's a Mk4 2.0-litre 8-valve with its 85kW and fake wood inserts. Stick with the good 'uns and there's a wealth of talent to choose from.

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Honda Civic Type R 


  • Calling it razor-sharp gives razors undeserved kudos


  • The prices of tidy EP3s

Pick the best hot hatch from most manufacturers' histories and chances are they'd be worse than the least talented generation of Civic Type R.

A poor CTR is great fun. A great vintage is something that has the chops to scare supercars on road or track. The current version is the best of the lot, and that's why it's our pick of the current crop.

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Renault 16 TS


  • That rosy glow of one-upmanship never really gets old


  • Dose up on dramamine before tackling a challenging road

Wait, what? Yep, according to Ponch, this was the very first hot hatch.

A hotted up version of the 1.5-litre Renault 16 hatch, the 1.6-litre TS, unveiled at the Geneva Show in 1968, lifted power by a massive 55 percent, from 40 to 62kW. This predated the Autobianchi A112 Abarth by 3 years and the Mk1 Golf GTI by 7. That said, Renault probably owes the - admittedly hatchless - Mini Cooper a debt of gratitude.

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Lancia Delta Integrale Evo II


  • Wieldy, grippy and great fun


  • Ownership often a race between losing ponies and losing kgs via rust

Lancia found itself with a the basis for a rally champ almost by accident and the Integrale made the most of the Delta's dimensions.

So popular was it that Lancia shifted nearly 45,000 of 'em across the lifetime and the final versions, the Evo II offers the best chance of reliving the experience. While 158kW doesn't sound a whole hill of beans, try one and you'll see why it retired the Audi Quattro.

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Mercedes-AMG A45 S


  • Demented grip and poise out of just about any corner you could imagine


  • You become disconcertingly accustomed to driving like a berserker

Think of the scariest road you know. That one with blind bends, mossy shadows, hidden yumps – and severe consequences if you get it wrong.

You need to get from one end of it to the other, quickly, and the weather is against you. What current car are you going to choose? Chances are, if you've chosen anything other than a Mercedes-AMG A45 S, you've misunderstood the brief.

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Renault 5 Turbo / Turbo II


  • The original Turbo's wild cabin is a showstopper


  • It was the villain car in the worst Bond film of all time

Think you're a pretty handy driver? Jump in a Renault 5 Turbo or a Turbo II and you may come to the conclusion that there's more to this driving lark than you previously thought.

Charismatic, challenging and exciting, Renault reprised the mid-engined/rear-drive/flapping wildly at the wheel theme with the subsequent Clio V6.

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Ford Escort RS Cosworth


  • People still stop and stare


  • Designer Frank Stephenson's Fokker triplane rear wing fell foul of Ford bean counters

It was badged an Escort, but once you dug beneath the dress-up, the underpinnings were Sierra Sapphire 4x4. Nevertheless, the RS Cosworth looked good, went well and provided the basis for a champ rally car.

The Cosworth YBT 2.0-litre was about as refined as a game of Goon of Fortune but we didn't mind. A 34/66 torque split meant that the handling was, ahem, 'adjustable'.

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Toyota Corolla SX/GTi (1989-93)


  • What it lacks in charisma it more than makes up for in ability


  • Just try to find one in vaguely original condition

Australia was chronically late to the hot-hatch party.

A whole host of originals never made it to these shores, but Toyota delivered with the 100kW Corolla SX of 1989 and the similarly-powered 1991 GTi.

The latter was offered only as a hatch with no Seca liftback alternative, and retailed at two-thirds the price of a 77kW Golf GTI Mk II. No wonder Aussies loved 'em.

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Renaultsport Mégane Cup/Trophy 250/265/275


  • If there's a better way to spend <$20k on a used performance car, we've yet to find it


  • Consumables costs can be surprisingly hefty

The transition from the bubble-butt second-generation Mégane to the sexy third-gen model looked as if it could pan out badly.

Had the Meg gone soft in its old age and succumbed to the marketing department? The first corner on its launch event said otherwise. Everything that was great about its predecessor had been amped up and it now came with styling that needed no excuses. Just lovely.

To follow the series, hit our Greatest Cars Ever at the link below.

Editor Wheels
Wheels Staff


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