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…
Great list Jim, looks sorta like mine. I was tempted by the Arrow but went with the little Colt HB instead. Plus a Mazda Protege5, Mazda 3, Volvo C30, VW (newest) Beetle and Ford C-Max. Aside from the Volvo, none were exactly hot, but all were fun drivers. My 50th is coming in ’23.
The Colt HB was a great little car too Rich – Mitsubishi knew what it was doing in the 70’s/80’s. Congratulations on your upcoming 50th in ’23.
Interesting list. I’ve always wanted to drive a first gen 240Z, and sometimes feel that if I were looking to spend money and have fun restoring a car from back then, one of those might be just the ticket. Then I look at what they’re going for now…
And to go from the 240Z to the full on boxiness of the Pulsar and Escort. Ouch. It’s not that I am totally against boxy cars, but somehow the look just got too ridiculous for me in the 80s what with the sharp angles and ground-effects add ons. Kind of like massive shoulder pads in jackets (for men or women), an 80s look that is best forgotten.
I think everyone who ever owned a 240Z still wishes they had it
I presume that the 240 Z was a JDM model? As I recall, all we got in the US by 1978 was the 280. I drove one of those once, a 76 model if I recall. I only went around the block, but all I remember is Fast and Fun.
Hot (or even lukewarm) hatches have been where I have spent an inordinate amount of time (paired with land barges, oddly enough.) 85 VW GTI, 83 Colt Twin Stick and the 2007 Honda Fit Sport that still brings smiles.
Yes JP, it was a JDM Fairlady model – Nissan built the first gen through model year 78 for the home market.
The Arrow GT had a 2L 4 cyl.
Looks like it was an optional engine. More info available here: https://www.hemmings.com/stories/2016/10/14/open-diff-first-cars
I had the optional 5 speed. Was a fun first car, but had weird repairs. The clutch cable bracket snapped in two, had to wait 2 weeks to get one from Japan. Also, the Bakelite shifter bushing deteriorated into chips. Made the shifter useless.
I put aluminum wheels from my friends 280ZX on mine, and it made it look much better, once you got past the obvious brand mismatch.
One of the best things about the Arrow to a poor high school boy working at Taco Bell was it would run on regular gas.
I eventually burnt the bearings doing high speed, high rpm runs up and down the Sunshine Skyway bridge. Had a used engine installed, but it was never the same. Sold it on shortly after.
The GT package was optional on both the 1600 and 2000 models Mark. I would have liked to have had the 2.0 liter engine with the balance shafts but the dealer was ready to deal on this one. I never had one problem with mine in three years.
The Pulsar we got in North America was a different one in 1983.
The 2 and 4 door hatchback Pulsars were sold in the U.S. for 1983 only – and it arrived a few months into the model year. The turbo was only available in the NX notchback though.
I would wonder how hard it would be to stuff a MOPAR HiPo 273 V8 into the engine bay….
It was done a few times but, of the Big 3, putting a Mopar small-block V8 into a subcompact was the most difficult. Ford’s small-block was the most narrow engine and why it was chosen for the Cobra and Tiger, while the engine cradle of the Vega was essentially the same as the rest of the Chevy line-up, making the SBC Vega a popular and cheap hot-rod swap in the seventies.
But shoe-horning a wide Mopar V8 into something like a narrow Arrow took a lot more work and expense. You really had to have the money and the will to do it, and not many did.
Jim: Thanks for a fun read. We’ve been behind the wheel for the same span of years, but you’ve had a more interesting line up of cars. My early cars were German Opels, but afterwards I never had a daily driver of interest until my first company car, a 1995 SHO.
When I retired, I made the jump you need to make. In 2011 I bought a GTI, followed by a brief time (until I was t-boned) with a 2017 QX50 (my only automatic DD ever), which was then replaced with a 2019 GTI. Get one while they are still offered with the proper complement of pedals in the footwell!
Good advice Jeff – thanks…
I was always struggle with the desire for a big American V8 with a sleek body wrapped around it. Even now as the kids are getting older, I keep thinking Mustang GT. But in the end, something like a GTI, Civic Hatch, or the new Integra are more suitable options to my needs and driving style.
You may consider Mazda 3 Turbo AWD. It can match GTI in driving experience without reliability concerns if it is not better. In some ways, your Volvo is related to previous generation of Mazda 3 and European Escorts But to be honest I prefer GTI too because it is always viewed as the best driver car without scarfing practicality, always want to own one. You may also look at Civic hatchback Si and type R — both offer manual transmission in US. If you really in hot hatch, you can look for ST version of Focus and Fiesta, they are excellent driver cars. The sad story is Ford stopped offering them in US now, so only used one is available.
What an impressive list of “spicy” rides Jim! I never owned a true hot hatch, the closest I came was my 1995 Ford Escort 1.8i 16v GT (105 DIN-hp, 3-door, 5-speed manual).
Back then, I lusted for the same gen Escort RS2000 (see below), which was absolutely a true hot hatch (150 DIN-hp, IIRC). But rationality won, I couldn’t justify the 15,000 guilders price difference.
Thanks Johannes – I’m sure your Escort 16v GT was very nice….much better than our North American Escorts.
My 1995 Escort was an update of an update of the all-new 1990 Euro-Escort generation, the series that didn’t go to North America.
Mechanically everything was in order. The new generation of Ford’s 16v Zetec engines was a giant leap forward. The transmission was smooth (enough).
But the paint quality and general rust proofing just wasn’t as good as on my previous 1987 Escort.
I have owned a couple of hatchbacks, the only ” hot ” hatchback started out as a typical little econobox, but was the recipient of an engine/transmission transplant.
My first hatchback was a 76 Pinto MPG that used gas like a 6 cylinder. That was followed by a 80 Fiesta hatchback that was a fun car. That was indirectly followed by a 92 Civic CX that received an engine/transmission from a 92 Integra LS. Almost overnight the Civic went from 70 horsepower to 140 horsepower and even received a few mods taking it to about 150 horsepower.
I did own a 76 280Z, a pretty battered example, and a similar LOOKING J2000 hatchback.
I so wanted to replace my 09 Crown Victoria with a near new Fiesta. Then I drove one and found that I barely fit.
’78 and ’81 Rabbits, an ’80 Scirocco, and an ’83 Tercel were my hot hatchbacks. The Tercel was the least hot but the overall best car. After that I switched to wagons.
I like hatchbacks but when 16 dreamed of the same Ford Mustang that Jim did. No hatchbacks then and the 68 Cougar has been with me ever since but then so would a 428 Mustang Cobra Jet. Sigh.
I could have had a 86 Mazda 626 5 door hatchback but instead had a moment of being too practical and got the 4 door sedan because it cost less. Soon hatchbacks would pass from sight sometime in the 90s so I would forever miss out till a grad school colleague gave me his 91 626 5 door hatch for free in 2010. Almost had a 78 Celica hatch but those damn Northern California fires got to it first in 2017. The 91, as a two day a week personal car, is great and that large space in the back has come in very handy lately.
Personally I loved this class of car, and my old FX-16 in particular. Hope they make a comeback sometime soon, though I’m not holding my breath.
Terrific assortment, especially the first two cars. The Plymouth Arrow is, to me, one of those cars whose excellent styling belies how little the car actually is. I remember trying to find a scale model of one for a while, and all I could find was a Don Prudhomme funnycar example, so I passed. Maybe I could look for a Mitsubishi Celeste.
Anyway, the last regular-driver Arrow I remember seeing was about 25 years ago, driven by a waitress at a Waffle House I used to go to when I wanted to drink coffee and process my thoughts. I got the impression she thought I was making fun of her yellow Arrow by showing so much interest in it, which made me a little sad.
To paraphrase Donna Summer, she looked like she worked hard for the money, and the fact that she was driving a then-20-year-old hatchback was evidence of this.
Fun list. The 240Z really stands out as an example of interesting automotive tech that has since gone by the wayside…but which I’d like to see more of. Small displacement inline 6, mechanical feel to everything. The MX-5 and 86/BRZ seem to be reasonably good reincarnations.
If you still love the Volvo there’s probably little reason to jump at a new GTI. And I have my hesitations about this one, as it isn’t looking like the performance is really any different/better than the outgoing MK7 and they’ve made some quesitonable decisions on the interior. Materials quality looks a solid step down and the entire cockpit is digital and a real PITA to use. Unlit horizontal touch-capacitive sliders for the volume and HVAC controls, few physical buttons, everything buried in a touchscreen menu tree. I’d continue to enjoy that 5-cylinder soundtrack and maybe see if VW improves the Mk8 generation by its final year. Or wait for the incoming Integra, which is looking to be an upscale Civic Si hatchback.
My favorite hot hatch was the Toyota Corolla FX16.
I’m like you in a way (hatchback fan) and different in another (I’m (almost) a 41 year VW owner…all of them hatches, manual transmission, water cooled….the middle one was a (’86) GTi. I’d hardly call my current car (2000 Golf) as a “hot” hatch, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve appreciated ride and ingress/egress over performance…it is a 5 speed, but more pedestrian (guess you’d call the Scirocco and of course GTi as “hot”…but it’s been awhile since I last owned them).
I note that most of them you list are 2 (or 3) door. I currently own a 4 door (2000 Golf) but the others were 2 door. The odd thing to me is that when I bought the Scirocco 41 years ago, most hatches were still 2 door. I was in a carpool at that time, with 2 other drivers (I was the odd man out, the 2 others married way back then). Most hatchbacks were still 2 door (there were exceptions; I think the Datsun 310 had both 2 and 4 doors, one of the carpool cars was a 1979 Datsun 310 coupe (the other 310 was like a post sedan, but a hatchback, not sure how you compare it to the coupe). Nowdays, 2 door hatches are the exception.
I’d agree VWs aren’t for everyone, they do like some attention, I’d call them more durable than reliable (others may vary)…my current car is over 21 years old, but I won’t claim it has been trouble-free or never left me stranded, it has done both (but more as an older car. I would mention that I live in the sunbelt, and the items that went were in the plastic/rubber category…my power steering rack went (due to hose leak), I lost my shift mechanism (but didn’t strand me..put selector shaft into 2nd gear and nursed it home, though if I didn’t know where to put it, it would have stranded me. The item that did strand me was the ignition switch; if I had a way to open up the steering column I probably could have avoided being stranded. And there are numerous lesser problems, several of which I just live with. Two of my 4 doors won’t open with power locks…and I’m to chicken to remove the windows to get at the circuit board for the power locks (both are known issues/recalls). Two of my doors won’t open unless you press on the door against the weatherstripping, there’s another issue with the mechanism (different cause than the lock itself. Also have “city light” inside the headlight that doesn’t come on; I’m to chicken to try to work on it (mostly worried about causing a short where there is none now and messing up an expensive headlight…plus it is darn hard to get at inside the narrow bulb opening). Inconvenient, but I live with it. I’m kind of in denial, my next car will need to be automatic (no one else in my family drives standard and I’ve had a few times when driving myself isn’t comfortable, for temporary (but medical) reasons. Thirty years ago I broke my scapula and 2 ribs (bicycle accident) and had to drive my GTi which had then wide 60 series tires, manual steering and transmission….not very fun while I recovered.
Hatchbacks are becoming less common, and I’m wondering what I’ll get as my next car…they’re trying to steer people into crossovers/SUVs who used to drive hatchbacks. The Golf (not GTi though), Elantra GT, Forte 5, Focus, Cruze hatch have all disappeared. I don’t really want a crossover nor SUV, I prefer a vehicle designed as 2WD, with a smooth ride…basically what I drive now. Back in 1986 when I bought the GTi I test drove a variety of different prospective types of vehicles, helped me figure what works best for me, and I’ve stuck with it so far, and hope to continue to buy what I think works for me (rather than something they’d prefer that I buy). I might be forced to buy used if (by the time I get around to buying) they no longer offer one new….kind of like 50 years ago before hatchbacks were common.