An Enthusiast’s Perspective on the Hot Hatchback Market

Camilo Restrepo

Here’s the thing, since the launch of the Mk 1 Volkswagen Golf GTI in 1974, hot hatchbacks have become a vital part of the automotive world. They come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and displacements. As per usual, the recipe is simple: take a common hatchback, add a more responsive and powerful engine, a better gearbox, some sporty bits and pieces here and there, nicer wheels, a few vibrant colors and voila, you have a hot hatchback. There’s little wonder as to why they’re so popular not only in Europe, but in the United States as well. In recent years, the Ford Focus RS, the Ford Focus ST, the Ford Fiesta ST, the Volkswagen Golf GTI, the Volkswagen Golf R, and the Mini Cooper S have become the quintessential hot hatchbacks for American buyers. Due to the lack of popularity for hatchbacks in the US, our market for hot hatchbacks is nothing compared to what Europe has. As a matter of fact, we just received the Honda Civic Type-R this year after begging Honda to bring it stateside for the past two decades. Although we as a nation tend to prefer SUVs, crossovers, and sedans, Europe prefers wagons and hatchbacks mainly due to their practicality. Hot hatchbacks are considered quirky and strange to most American buyers. The people who buy them are almost always enthusiasts of these cars. As nice as they are, our choices are extremely limited. I’m not complaining about our choices here, but they have so many cars American enthusiasts yearn to own. It’s a shame they aren’t as well-received as we want them to be.

If there’s one car that Europe and basically the rest of the world receives that I long for, it’s the BMW M140i. Unlike most hot hatchbacks, it adds a twist to the usual recipe. Instead of a front wheel drive family hatchback as the platform, BMW took its rear wheel drive F20 1-Series and added the venerable B58 3.0 turbocharged straight six that produces 340 hp. Couple it with the 8-speed ZF sport automatic and you’re looking at 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds. If you opt for the xDrive all wheel drive version, you cut it down to 4.3 seconds. In a hot hatchback with five seats and a usable trunk. Sure, it’s pricier than a Golf GTI or a Focus ST, but it provides a driving experience that you literally won’t get from any other car in the segment. You can get it with three or five doors. I would personally go for the latter as I tend to prefer 5 door hatchbacks over 3 door hatchbacks in most cases. It’s really a shame BMW doesn’t sell it in the US, but then again, they wouldn’t really profit or sell many if they did. They simply can’t justify the sales of the 1-Series hatchback here. Instead, we get the M240i, which is a wonderful car by every means. It’s also great to drive, but it doesn’t offer the practicality and versatility of a 5 door hatchback. In Europe, you can order it in a fun and unique color called Valencia Orange Metallic, which is something that can’t be said for the M240i, whose most interesting colors are Melbourne Red Metallic and Estoril Blue Metallic. You can also order the M140i with sport cloth seats, which is something that can’t be done in the US.

Photo Credit: topgear.com

As great as the M140i is, Europe also offers plenty of other great hot hatchbacks. The Peugeot 208 GTI springs to mind immediately with its 197 hp 1.6 liter twin-scroll turbocharged inline 4 from the R56 Mini Cooper S. Renault offers the 200 hp 1.6 liter turbocharged Clio Renault Sport (RS) 200 as well as the 265 hp Megane RS 265. Vauxhall offers the 205 hp 1.6 liter turbocharged Corsa VXR as well as the 272 hp 2.0 liter turbocharged Astra VXR, a direct competitor to the Golf GTI and the Focus ST. Over in continental Europe, Volkswagen offers the 190 hp 1.8 liter turbocharged Polo GTI and the 276 hp 2.0 liter turbocharged Scirocco R, which are extremely attractive hatchbacks, but remain forbidden fruit. As we learned from Top Gear and the Forza video game series, Mercedes-Benz offers the ludicrously expensive A45 AMG, which is a 380 hp turbocharged 2.0 liter hatchback that can put several sports cars to shame in terms of acceleration. Alfa Romeo currently offers the quirky 240 hp “1.75 liter” (1742cc is 1.7 liters for those of you playing at home) Giulietta Quadrifoglio Verde (Note: NOT the Giulia Quadrifoglio every American learned about during the Super Bowl). Seat offers the Ibiza Cupra and the Leon Supra, which are basically a Spanish Polo GTI and Golf R respectively. Škoda offers the Golf GTI-derived Octavia RS, which is technically a hatchback, but this means that I can include an honorable mention for the 600 hp 4.0 twin turbocharged V8 “hatchback” from Ingolstadt, the Audi RS7. The oddball 5-cylinder Audi RS3 is probably one of the best sounding hot hatchbacks today, bar none. Speaking of Audi, the S1 is also a quirky little all wheel drive 220 hp pocket rocket. If all of these hatchbacks sound mundane and slow, I should mention one of my favorite hatchbacks at the moment. The Ferrari GTC4 Lusso, formerly known as the FF, is technically the fastest hot hatchback of them all. Sure, Ferrari probably hates me know that I’ve written that, but it’s still a hatchback to me.

If we set the M140i aside, there are plenty of great choices here in the US at our disposal. The Mini Cooper S is probably my favorite out of all of them, especially in the 5-door Cooper Hardtop S guise. It’s such a fun little car to drive and live with. I would personally own one if I weren’t looking at F150s and Mustang EcoBoosts. Although I have had recent problems with Volkswagen products, I would love to own a Golf GTI. The Mk7 Golf reignited a love for hot hatchbacks in my heart when I first laid eyes on one in 2014 when my mother bought a 2014 Passat TSI. I got to sit in and start the first one the dealership received. The Golf R is a commendable little hatchback as well. 292 hp and a 6 speed DSG gearbox make it one of the quickest hatchbacks off the line, period. When it was announced in 2011, I grew extremely excited for the Focus ST. I remember a 14 year old me wanting one so badly in Tangerine Scream with the black leather Recaro seats. The Focus RS is a great car, but just like the Corvette Z06 and the Challenger Hellcat, I feel as if the automotive world overhyped it. The Fiesta ST is another car I hold in high regards. I loved it when it came out a few years ago. I really wanted one in Performance Blue with the Rado Grey wheels. It seemed like such a nice car, but unfortunately, it’s simply too small for what I want. The back seats are small compared to what I personally want. I’m 6’2”, so I drive relatively far from the wheel. If I have my seat in a comfortable position, I wish anybody luck trying to sit comfortably behind me in a Fiesta ST. Sure, you wouldn’t expect it to be very roomy, but I still can’t justify one. As a newcomer to the American market, the Honda Civic Type-R has made quite an impression so far with units selling well over sticker due to high demand. Its 305 hp 2.0 liter turbocharged engine drives the front wheels in a car aimed squarely at the Focus RS and Golf R, which are all wheel drive.

I have always loved hot hatchbacks since I was a little kid. When I started watching Top Gear in 2006, I fell in love with the 5-cylinder Ford Focus ST, Vauxhall Astra VXR, and the Alfa Romeo Brera 3.2 V6. I’ll never forget how much I wanted them when everyone else at the time was too busy with the Ferrari F430, Lamborghini Gallardo, Ford GT, and Porsche 911 Turbo (997). They’re great cars, but they simply don’t appeal to me like the hot hatches did at the time. I remember visiting the respective companies’ UK websites to configure the Focus ST, Astra VXR, and Brera V6 with the rudimentary configurators. Hell, I even have a white 2006 Focus ST on my desk at home.

If there’s a single hot hatchback I would like to take a moment and wax lyrical about, it’s the 2010 Alfa Romeo Brera TI 3.2 JTS V6 Q4. What is it? In my eyes, it’s the most beautiful hatchback ever made. It was penned by Gioretto Giugiaro in the early 2000s alongside its siblings the Spider, the 159, and the gorgeous 159 Sportwagon. It was available with two drivetrains, front wheel drive and all wheel drive, the latter of which was dubbed “Q4”. The Brera was available with numerous engines, the best of which were the “1750 TBi”, which would later end up in the Giulietta, and the venerable 3.2 liter direct injected GM-derived “JTS V6”. Ever since I first saw it in Need For Speed: Carbon, it won my heart. I still have mine stock in Carbon. It’s painted in Misano Blue, which is one of the best colors for any car. My love for the Brera was further fueled by Forza Motorsport 3 and Forza Motorsport 4. The Brera remains a staple for my garage. I’ve driven it way more than any other car. Sure, it isn’t the quickest or fastest. Sure, it isn’t the best handling car. That’s not the point of an Alfa Romeo. At this point, most automotive journalists would use words like “passion” or “soul” to describe an Alfa Romeo. I can see why. It has a certain air to it that make you understand why people speak of Alfas as they do. They mesmerize you. You fall in love with them. They’re like sirens luring you to your fate of constant tow truck rides and mornings trying to diagnose why your Alfa won’t start. If anything, it sings like no other hatchback does. Alfa has a way with V6s. The Busso V6 is probably one of the best sounding engines of all time, bar none. The Brera’s GM-derived V6 is no exception. The 3.2 liter direct-injected V6 produces 268 hp, which helps it reach 60 in 6.5 seconds in the manual Q4 model. It has a top speed of 155 mph. It has four seats and a decent trunk. Sure, it isn’t the most fuel efficient or practical hatchback out there, but it delivers like no other does. It’s one of the last hoorahs for the naturally aspirated V6 hatchback. In a time of downsizing and turbocharging, it’s highly unlikely we will see another car like the Brera V6 or the Golf R32 ever again. If the Brera marked the end of the V6 hatchback in 2010, it was one hell of a swan song. One that I’ll never forget. Although the car is no longer with us in new car showrooms, the memories and used models will live on forever in our hearts.

And that’s the thing, the hot hatchback market has a little bit of something for every single automotive enthusiast. The diversity is what makes it a quintessential part of automotive culture. Whether it’s a relatively common hot hatch like the Golf GTI or a high end exotic like the GTC4 Lusso, there’s a hot hatchback for everyone.

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