Greatest 1980s hot hatchbacks
The 80s was the decade when the hot hatch found its feet and the best examples are now collectors’ items
While the technology involved did see some advancement throughout the years, the 80s hot hatch formula is a simple one: take a sensible family hatchback, whack a big engine under the bonnet, perhaps make some suspension tweaks to help the car cope, and fit a more purposeful body kit.
Most - if not all - of the best 80s hot hatchbacks are considered highly sought-after classics today. With so many cars being modified or crashed over the years, mint examples are hard to find on the used market, so values are continuously on the rise.
The choice is a broad one, so we’ve rounded up our favourite 80s hot hatchbacks below.
Citroen AX GT
Drive an AX GT today and you’ll be struck by lightning. When even something like the Volkswagen up! GTI has a kerbweight of around a tonne, it’s amazing to get behind the wheel of a proper car with a kerbweight of well over 200kg less. That’s the secret of this particular pocket rocket’s success. With so few kilos to haul along, not only was there no need for a big, powerful engine, it also made for a hatch that was wonderfully light on its feet.
By modern standards, the GT’s 1.4-litre engine and 85bhp look positively tiny, but they provided heavyweight entertainment in this featherweight package. True, the GT wasn’t that fast against the clock, but wring its neck down a B-road and it was wonderful – proof that engagement and a nimble chassis trump outright performance for any proper petrolhead.
You had to drive it hard. The engine needed lots of revs, the steering had real weight to it, and you had to corner ‘enthusiastically’, relying on the tyres’ strong grip and the chassis’ excellent balance to maintain momentum. But you could do all that at speeds that didn’t endanger your licence.
Ford Escort RS Turbo S1
Turbo was a cool word in the eighties. Whether it was on a pair of sunglasses or a hair dryer, those five letters would be used to inject some excitement into the most common everyday items. They certainly did the job on the Ford Escort. However, the Escort RS Turbo was more than just a name: Ford’s humble 1.6-litre CVH engine received forced, intercooled induction to take the car’s total output to 132bhp.
Helping get that power down to the road was a viscous coupling-based limited slip differential - a first for a front-driven road car - while the chassis was toughened up to keep everything in check. Body-coloured bumpers and a rear wing - hinting at Cosworth-tuned fast Fords to follow - helped distinguish the RS Turbo from lesser Escorts, and like in the Astra GTE, drivers were kept in place by a brilliant set of Recaro seats.
Ford Fiesta XR2
One of the most recognisable hot hatches of the eighties is without question the Ford Fiesta XR2. The pepper-pot alloy wheels, the additional spotlights mounted to the front, and the big, flared wheel arches - everything about the XR2 screams sportiness.
Producing 84bhp and 96bhp from a 1.6-litre petrol engine, the XR2 didn’t quite have the pace to keep pace with some rivals. However, that’s not so much of an issue today, where the XR2 just offers up such a massive feelgood factor. And you feel truly involved with the experience, too; there’s no power steering, no ABS, no safety net to get between you and the car.
Perhaps its greatest legacy came from kicking off a series of small fast Fords, which would lead us to the Fiesta ST of today - one of the finest hot hatches ever built.
Lancia Delta Integrale
The Group A era of the World Rally Championship threw up some of the most exciting competition in the sport’s history. Homologation rules that forced manufacturers to produce 5,000 - or later, 2,500 - road-going versions of their special stage hunters created some of the coolest cars we’ve yet seen - and none were cooler than the Lancia Delta Integrale.
The humble Delta was transformed into one of the finest and most desirable hot hatches ever produced thanks to a four-wheel drive and a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine. Power grew from 182bhp in early models to 212bhp in the later Evo II versions, and thanks to a brilliantly balanced chassis, little else on the road could keep up with its cross-country pace. Little else on a rally stage could either - the Delta helped Lancia to achieve six consecutive World Rally Constructors' championship wins, and three driver’s titles.
Mazda 323 4x4 Turbo
But find one now and it’s not without its charm. Like the Lancia, Mazda built its 323 4x4 Turbo to comply with rallying homologation rules. So thanks to a four-wheel drive system, the 323 was excellent in the sort of damp, slippery conditions typical of UK roads most of the year round.
The 1.6-litre turbocharged engine didn’t have the raw speed of the Lancia’s - indeed it was more of a match for the front-driven hot hatches of the time - but Mazda did produce a chassis which testers in period commended for its adjustability.
Peugeot 205 GTi
On paper, the Peugeot 205 GTi’s numbers don’t seem that noteworthy by modern standards. The 1.9-litre four-cylinder engine - a revvier 1.6 came out first in 1984 - puts out 130bhp, and 0-62mph takes 7.8 seconds.
But when it was first released in 1986, such acceleration put it barely a second shy of the contemporary BMW M3. On the right road, the 205 was more than capable of giving the original E30 a bloody nose, and not because of its engine. That’s because the GTI possessed one of the most exhilarating chassis of any hot hatch before or since.
Attack a corner with speed and the 205 turns in with staggering agility, thanks to its 880kg kerbweight. But the short wheelbase and propensity to oversteer off-throttle combined with a slow and unassisted – albeit precise – steering rack means that you’ll need to be really on your game to catch it before you’re facing the wrong way.
The engine pulls strongly to the red line and the five-speed manual gearbox is brilliant; the long, precise throw is delightfully mechanical and so light that the shift speeds are dictated by how quickly you can move your arm. The 205 GTi defined the hot hatch template for everything that followed.
Renault 5 GT Turbo
Few - if any - manufacturers have produced such consistently great hot hatches over a period of 30 years as Renault. The 5 GT Turbo followed on from the mid-engined Renault 5 Turbo and Turbo 2, but took on the more conventional hot hatch formula of an engine in the front and front-wheel drive. But while turbocharging is commonplace in the current crop of hot hatches, it was rarer in the eighties, and as such it gave the dinky Renault a distinctive character.
The 1.4-litre unit offered up to 120bhp, which helped it see off the 0-62mph dash in 7.5 seconds. At the time, its handling was highly rated by road testers: almost as pointy as a Peugeot 205 GTI, but with less of the terrifying on-limit edginess.
And it really looks the part, too. Boxy wheel arch extensions, eighties-tastic decals and throwing star alloy wheels - not to mention one of the best looking steering wheels fitted to any hot hatch - and few examples of the performance family car before or since have looked so cool.
Talbot Sunbeam Lotus
Born out of Talbot’s desire to take its humble Sunbeam hatchback into the world of international rallying, the Sunbeam Lotus was on the market at the same time as the Volkswagen Golf GTI.
Yet its combination of a 2.2-litre Lotus twin-cam engine, rear-wheel drive and, in effect, a shortened Avenger platform made the Sunbeam a far more lively and lairy companion than the warmed-up German hatchback. Its twin Dellorto carburetors could sound marvellous on a cool morning, but exploring the Type 911 engine’s rev range could easily send the car’s back axle spinning towards the nearest hedge.
Built in Scotland before being shipped to Norfolk to have the engine and ZF-sourced gearbox installed, then taken to Coventry for final inspection, the Sunbeam Lotus could never quite live up to its hefty price tag – although it did launch rally starlet Henri Toivonen’s career and took Talbot to the 1981 World Rally Manufacturer’s title.
As the years have gone by, too, the Sunbeam Lotus has flown under the radar of the soaring prices being achieved by many of its rivals. But it’s catching up, helped by the fact that there are now barely 120 examples left in the UK.
Vauxhall Astra GTE
Vauxhall’s take on the hot hatch always tended towards the lairy end of the scale - a trend well and truly set by the Astra GTE. White wheel trims colour-coded to the rest of the car looked so period correct, it couldn’t have looked more eighties if Tom Selleck’s moustache was stuck to the front grille. Inside, the GTE jazzes up the basic square Astra cabin with some supportive Recaro seats and GTE badging on the steering wheel.
But it was the driving experience that impressed the most. This was a car that felt so approachable yet still fun, stable yet still adjustable. The GTE was a hot hatchback that would let its driver cover ground at a rapid rate without turning their knuckles too white.
Volkswagen Golf GTI mk2
Hot hatchbacks did exist before the Golf GTI, but it was Volkswagen that defined the segment. The Mk1 model blew away buyers and testers alike when it hit showrooms back in 1976, but to many, the later Mk2 is the one which set the standard for later Golfs.
Heavier and larger than its predecessor, the Mk2 became the ‘grown up’ hot hatch; a tradition that each of its successors has continued. This is a car that’s still a huge amount of fun to drive - the lively 1.8-litre engines, later with a 16-valve head, saw to that - but does so while feeling just as refined and as easy to drive as the more basic Golfs. The styling gave off clear sporting intent, thanks to unique badging and red highlights, but was classy and understated at the same time.
Which 1980s hot hatch is your favourite? Tell us in the comments section below...
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