COAL Capsule: 1976 Plymouth Arrow, 1978 Nissan Fairlady, 1983 Nissan Pulsar Turbo, 1986 Ford Escort GT, 2012 Volvo C30 – Confessions of a Hot Hatch Fan

As a child of the Sixties, my initial car passions tended towards that era’s muscle cars – primarily Fords.  The ultimate object of lust being a 428 Cobra Jet Mustang or Torino.  Next month I’ll pass fifty years of driving, and interestingly as I look back over what’s sat in the driveway, I’ve never owned one – the closest I came to a muscle car was a 1972 Pontiac Firebird, but that was the more luxury-oriented Espirit model with a 350 cu in 2 bbl.  What I have owned, woven in-between the many coupes, sedans, minivans, and occasional Lincoln, is the polar opposite of a big-block bruiser – a succession of small “hot hatches.”  Here’s just a few observations on each one…pics are examples from the web, with the exception of the Volvo.

1976 Plymouth Arrow 1600 GT.  It might be a stretch to call the Arrow a hot hatch – it certainly looked the part, but the 1.6 litre four only pushed out 78 horsepower.  However with its light weight and five-speed manual, it felt “zippy”.  A version of the JDM Mitsubishi Celeste, it had an eager personality, always up for a drive.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable car, though at times, I would wonder how hard it would be to stuff a MOPAR HiPo 273 V8 into the engine bay….and make a Sunbeam Tiger hatchback…

1978 Nissan Fairlady Z. OK, so the Fairlady (240Z) isn’t really a hot hatch – it’s a sports car, but it does have a hatch and it is certainly hot, so I included it here.  It’s also one of my favorite cars.  This was a first-gen Z, not one of the more GT-oriented later models, so it was very “tactile”.  The L-Series SOHC straight six emitted big sounds and power, more like a 3.0 litre than a 2.0 litre.  The non-powered steering transmitted great road feedback, and the five-speed stick required a firm hand to move the strong bits in the driveline.  Just absolute great fun – and dead reliable.  Wish I still had it.

1983 Nissan Pulsar Turbo.  The Pulsar was a “hand-me-down” – one of the wife’s cousins was trading up and was offered only pennies for the Nissan, so he said we could have it gratis.  Never turn down a free car, right?  Well, in this case it turned out OK.  The Pulsar was a worn ten years old but still a reliable daily driver.  The one word I would use to describe it is “elastic”.  It had terrible turbo-lag – the 1.5 litre four was a real stone until it got past 3K RPM, then things turned frenetic.  The clutch was on its last legs so it also had a rubber-band feel.  But considering what I paid for it, I couldn’t complain.  Probably not a bad hot hatch when new.

1986 Ford Escort GT.  Such promise, such terrible execution.  It all looked so good – snazzy exterior design, High Output engine, upgraded suspension.  But the Escort ties with my other deadly sin (Buick Skylark) as the worst automotive ownership experience I’ve had.  You can read all about the pain in the COAL entry here.  In summarizing, as a Ford guy, I used to get annoyed when I’d hear the “Fix Or Repair Daily” slur…with the Escort I was living it.

2012 Volvo C30 T5.  After driving it for close to ten years now, I’ve concluded the C30 is the hot hatch for old guys (or gals).  While most of the other hatches were raw, the Volvo is Swedish-smooth.  The exterior design is unique, but doesn’t call attention to itself.  The 2.5 litre five-cylinder turbo is powerful but the power is linear – from low RPM to high, with a great five-cylinder snarl.  Inside, it’s nice Scandinavian décor in a subdued fashion.  The suspension is firm but not too firm.  Younger folks can opt for the full hot hatch experience with the R-Design and limited Polestar versions – Grandpa will stick with the base model.

I’m sure at this point you’re thinking, if you’re so into hot hatches, why haven’t you ever owned the ultimate one – the VW GTI?  Well, I’ve been tempted many times – most recently this year when the Volvo was due for an expensive timing belt change.  But I deferred, primarily due to reliability concerns and the not-so-helpful VW dealership reputation.  But the new eighth generation is obviously the best yet – and a bargain at its base price.  Maybe ten years from now, I’ll be ready…for either the GTI or the old folks home…