SMALLER CARS PACKING A PUNCH
PERFORMANCE versions of regular small cars have been part of the motoring menu for 35 years, satisfying the driver who wants a bit more zip. But now these machines are not all noise and hard ride. They are far more safe, comfortable considering their handling prowess, still snug and satisfying to sit behind the wheel – and yet they go better than ever.
These hot hatchbacks are popular enough throughout the world that manufacturers can build them at a very good unit price. Yet in Australia they are still only a small portion of sales compared with the gardenvariety showroom mates on which they are based, so a hot hatch buyer does have a car of some stand-out.
Putting a more powerful engine into a regular hatchback, firming the suspension, upgrading the brakes, adding appropriate wheels and tyres and perhaps putting in sports seats are logical moves.
It is being done by a variety of carmakers: we quickly found 20 examples of hot hatches for our list, drawing the line at at least 120kW power. Sure, hot hatches rely on power-toweight ratio for their performance – but you still want to boast more power than a Camry.
To many enthusiasts, the daddy of all hot hatches is the Volkswagen Golf GTI. After all, it is credited with creating the segment.
In the early 1970s when the first Golf, a hatchback, was being developed, some VW engineers developed a sporty version. That first GTI sold like hotcakes as driving thrill at an affordable price in a practical, easy-topark package was embraced.
The principal is the same today. Small hatchbacks are practical cars – many owners liking the luggageloading ability of the lift-up hatchback door.
The mainstream best-selling hot
hatchbacks cost not much more than your average Commodore, yet give the required performance at very good fuel economy from engines that are less than 2.6 litres in size. Most have turbochargers to get more oomph out of a smallish engine, although Honda’s expertise in wringing power out of a small engine without a turbo is evidenced in the Civic Type R, in which high revs and clever engine valve engineering bring enough power.
Golf GTI clocks 0-100km/h in 6.9 seconds yet can average 7.7 litres/ 100km fuel economy.
Another iconic performance small car has developed – the Subaru Impreza WRX, having extra authenticity as a sporty car due to its success in rally championships.
Here’s an under-$40,000 car yet with 195kW power and the grip of allwheel drive.
Subaru dealer Eblen, at Brighton Rd, Glenelg, says the hatchback version of Impreza WRX has long been popular.
‘‘The WRX has now come of age,’’ says dealer principal Peter Eblen. ‘‘The vehicle is so refined, so well balanced, has excellent poise, great manners and has incredible safety.’’
He refers to the active safety of allwheel-drive grip, ABS brakes and stability control and the passive safety in occupant protection (rated officially at a top five stars).
‘‘We’ve had a buyer who has always had big performance cars, a V8 man. He traded to WRX STi (an even more powerful version of the WRX). He is happy and amazed at its performance.’’
The ‘‘standard’’ WRX sees off 0-100km/h in 5.3 seconds yet is a car that is easy to live with as a daily driver and commuting.
The WRX, the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart and the Audi A3 quattro have all-wheel drive, a particular advantage on twisty, wet roads, such as in the Adelaide Hills.
Most of the other hot hatches are front-wheel drive, where the high amounts of power are now dealt with by such technology as traction control, stability control and, in the case of the Golf GTI, an excellent front differential that all but wipes out any effect of understeer and shoots the car out of corners.