Mention the term hot hatch to most people and they’re immediately going to think of the famous feisty little numbers of the 1980s and 90s, cars like the Peugeot 205 GTi, Ford Fiesta XR2, Renault 5 GT Turbo and the Volkswagen Golf GTi. They were good times. Granted we had ram raiders in Ford Escort Cosworths and joy riders in anything with more poke than a Mini Moke, but generally, they were good times.
Come to think of it, when was the last time we had it so good? Yes the Golf has continued with the GTi, the R and the Clubsport variants, Peugeot had the 208 and 308 GTi, Ford the Fiesta ST and Focus RS and Renault the Clio 182 and RS, but do any of these lead to the same heated debate as the classics? I would say no, not really.
I would even go so far as to say that we had to wait until 2020 for something that really stoked the hot hatch passion again. Who’d have thought we’d be having that sort of a conversation in regard to 2020. I’m talking about the Toyota GR Yaris, the car which currently has a waiting list of over a year and which even speculators, turning away from Ferraris and Lamborghinis, have been falling over themselves to get their hands on in the hope of flipping them for a profit. Some of them are, but mainly the people buying the little pocket rocket are doing so because it brings back memories of the great hot hatches of old.
In a world moving rapidly towards electric and autonomous cars, is the GR Yaris the analogue injection many are looking for? Is it the opposite of the fast paced digital world we live in, a chance to enjoy the drive, to try to master the car, to actually get out there and have some fun? Is it the grand finale for the feisty little terrier that is the hot hatch?
It could well be and if you have one, or have your name down for one, then respect is due because you’ll have a car that people will be talking about in the decades to come, in the same way as we talk now of the GTi battle of the 80s.
So why is that no matter what has been around in recent years, so many hark back to the hot hatch heydays? Well first there’s the psychology of it all. No, it’s not just about horsepower, going sideways or sprinting to 60 mph, there are memories, childhoods and dreams here. If you lusted after a Pug GTi in the late 80s as a teenager, you’re probably in your 40s now, possibly your 50s. You’ve got a decent income, a bit of cash to spend on something fun. Generally prices of these pocket warriors are reasonable, barring the odd headline-grabbing exception so you can afford to live out your youthful dream, to get behind the wheel of a GTi and pretend you’re a carefree teenage again, without a mortgage to pay or kids to feed. You can have some fun.
That begs the question, which one do you go for? The obvious answer is the one you wanted back in the day, but faced with the choice and a bit of money to spend, really which one?
Well let’s start with the Peugeot, It debuted in 1984 and was an immediate hit. Now if the 205 vs Golf debate is heated, things become equally hot under the collar when you talk 1.6 or 1.9 for the Peugeot or 8v versus 16v for the Mk II Golf.
The Pug started life with a 1.6 litre engine, pushing out around 104 hp, before being upgraded in 1987 to 115 hp. If you’re shopping then at least this decision is slightly easier, go for the latter, the one with the XU5JA engine. Our reasoning, it has more power and still has the reliability and handling of the pre-upgraded version. Then there’s the 1.9. Initially it had 129 hp but then emissions regulations arrived and so too did a catalytic converter, which reduced the power to 120 hp.
The 1.9 was the better equipped, with the nicest interior, the iconic 15-inch Speedline wheels and so on, but while it has more power, is it the one to go for? Well no, because the 1.6 is lighter and more fun. Not that the 1.9 isn’t, they’re both little go-karts, but the 1.6 also tends to be a bit stronger and more reliable, or rather as reliable as any classic car can be. That’s why some people upgrade their 1.6 with a 1.9 interior and such like, the best of both worlds if you like.
Now to the Golf. It’s the mid-80s so we’re talking Mk II or ‘jumbo’ Golf as many affectionately call it. It had a 1.8 litre engine which with eight valves initially pushed out 110 hp, but like the Peugeot, the introduction of a catalytic converter dropped that to 105 hp towards the end of its first year in the market in 1984. VW corrected that by introducing the 16v version in 1986 pushing the power back up to 127 hp.
If you’re into the numbers game then here are the key stats. The 1.6 Peugeot could hit 62 mph in 9.5 seconds and go on to a top speed of 118 mph. The 1.9 could do the sprint in 7.8 seconds and top out at 128 mph. The 8v Golf reached 62 in 9.7 seconds and maxed at 119 mph, while the 16v could do the drag race to 62 in 9.0 seconds and had a top speed of 124 mph.
The thing is though, the headline numbers don’t tell the whole story. Crucially, the peak power and torque for the Golf 8v was at 5500 rpm and 3100 rpm respectively. The power of the 16v peaked at 5800 rpm with maximum torque at 4250 rpm. The 1.6 Peugeot on the other hand reached its peak power at 6250 and its torque peak was at 4000, with the 1.9 achieving its best at 6000 and 4750.
The Pug revved higher, delivering a wider spread of power so you could wring it by the neck and make it growl more audibly through corners. But the Golf was a little more reliable for this same reason and many people preferred that you didn’t have to rev the Golf so high to get the best from it, although the 16v was more fun than it’s less valve-endowed predecessor at higher revs. The 205 also weighed significantly less than the Golf making it feel more agile but at the same time a little more like it was going to bite you and then possibly kill you. Granted, it was less likely to kill you than a Renault 5 GT Turbo of the era, but still, you had to have your wits about you most of the time.
The Golf was larger, more solid, more comforting, more the all-rounder that it still is today. It’s a car designed to give you a thrill when you want it, but also to be a comfortable and practical hatch that you can use every day.
What about prices? Well some 205s have sold for big numbers in recent years but generally you’ll be looking at anything from five to fifteen grand at the time of writing, twenty for a really mint example with low mileage. Prices tend to be slightly lower for the Golf with more available and the 16v is certainly the more popular choice due to its increased power and sportier looks, especially in later versions with the big bumpers.
At this point you’re probably wanting us to say which is best. Well we can’t, because that's the thing about the great 80s hot hatch debate, it’s never been settled properly. Essentially it comes down to individual preference, kind of like a political party. You have those who support the 205 and those who support the Golf and they all have their reasons and will stay up all night arguing their point of view long after the Ford and Vauxhall fans have gone to bed.
Whether it’s through actual ownership or simply rose tinted nostalgia, few models have been able to create that level of emotion or loyalty. We suspect few ever will again, at least until the GR Yaris comes up in conversation in twenty years time.
Written by Mark Smyth