Never Stop Driving #44: The hot hatch returns

Passionate enthusiasts, rather than just computer coders, still hold sway at mainstream car companies. Why else would Toyota build the Corolla GR and Honda the Civic Type R? Both are souped-up economy cars with manual transmissions and starchy suspensions. My colleague Sam Smith penned an encouraging report on the “hot hatches.”

The term was coined nearly 50 years ago when Volkswagen developed the original GTI, based on the Golf, which replaced the Beetle and was called the Rabbit in the U.S. The thrifty Golf had a rear liftgate called a “hatchback” that provided ample cargo space. When VW installed a higher-horsepower engine, a stiffer suspension, and thickly bolstered seats, the GTI was born.

The GTI’s parts gelled perfectly, adding up to a drivers car that was as quick as a Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. It was “hot,” as car geeks might say, and launched the hot hatch segment. A steady stream of new hot hatches is vital to passionate car folks because they’re so often gateway drugs for young enthusiasts. The used hot hatch is typically the fun-to-drive solution for young people who frequently move from home to college to first apartment. Two of our youngest staffers at Hagerty Media own hot-hatch Fords, ST versions of the Focus and Fiesta. I’m also a disciple of the hot hatch because the used 1983 GTI I bought for $2300 in 1991 set me on the path that put me here, typing this newsletter.

My second 1983 GTI, which was nearly exactly like the one I bought in 1991. Larry Webster

It’s not just power or stiff suspension, but a careful integration of the parts, artful chassis tuning by the right engineers, that makes a compelling hot hatch. My GTI was crisply styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italdesign firm with tight edges and pleasing proportions. I felt good every time I saw it, because it was far more than just a car I had to buy because it fit my price range. The original GTI still looks compelling.

The new Honda and Toyotas have lost that design restraint, but they’re incredibly capable and I bet one of my kids buys a used one in the next 10 years. If you’re an adult, I recommend the Honda Civic Si, which although only offered as a sedan, is nearly as entertaining as the Type R but more comfortable and far less attention-grabbing. The Civic Sport Touring hatchback is even better appointed.

I’m grateful that both Toyota and Honda continue to build sporty cars because Chevy just killed one, the Camaro. The company announced that 2024 will be the last model year, though GM promises this “isn’t the end of the Camaro’s story.” Sigh.

Meanwhile, Cruise, the General Motors division that’s developing autonomous cars, is having to adapt to hit-and-run incidents with its robotaxis. In one event, a driver doing middle-of-the-night donuts ran into a Cruise taxi and then bolted. I’ve long wondered how autonomous cars will survive among human drivers who think the robots have to be submissive drivers.

This being the first week of spring, I imagine that you, like me, are preparing for the driving season. Here’s a guide to clean the winter crud off your carpet and another helpful article with inspection tips before you hit the road.

If money is not a concern for you—lucky bastard!—allow me to suggest the car I’d most like to drive this year, the $2 million Gordon Murray T.33 Spider.

Have a great weekend!

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    I had a 1983 GTI when they first came out. It was black with a red interior, and it was lots of fun to drive in New England. I graduated to a Scirocco in 1988 when they came out, same color scheme and enjoyed that one too. The GTI was the most fun with the suspension and get up and go for a smaller car.

    I’m 76 years old snd my daily driver is a 2004 mark 4 R32. Bought it new for my birthday in 2004 have over 395,000 miles on it. It never fails to put a smile on my face and always gets a comment like “ look at that old guy in the Hot Hatch”
    Never stop the Drive!!

    Yes… We are “special” I juat turned 57 and still drive a 1989 Isuzu I-Mark RS Sedan which “is not stock”. Everyone that sees me thinks I am driving my son’s car… LOL

    Good piece about the “hot hatch” genre of cars. While not a hatchback the Mini Cooper ws the forefather of all of these type of vehicles. Front engine / front drive / ouped up motor. I had a ’62 Cooper and a later a 71 Cooper S. I modified the latter with assorted “go faster” bits and had a ball driving the local muscle cars crazy !

    67 years old and pursuing (but yet to catch ) a GR Corolla. Owned a Dodge Omni GLH Turbo and a Mazda 323 GTX in the 1980s. I’m young again. Hopefully someone who is really young will appreciate the GR Corolla when I am done.

    When my wife and I bought our first new car 1984 20th Anniversary Mustang (still have her and the car) I was delighted that it was a “hatchback”. Over the years I have hauled so much stuff in it through two cross country moves as well as ladders, dogs, wood, etc. Very practical. Not sure why so many mfg. went away from them. When I was drag racing, it was always handy to flop down rear seats and put the sticky tires in the back. I was also able to lay back there when tired or when I was in the doghouse, but that never happened.

    Totally agree with “hot hatch” enthusiasm. I’ve had three Sciroccos (’76, ’79, and ’87 16V) and two ’92 Corrado SLCs. Was very disappointed when VW chose not to offer us the third generation Scirocco.

    In 1983 I test drove a GTI Loved it but couldn’t afford the 9k price tag so instead I bought a Honda Civis S in red , the S first year ,it was ok dependable but hardly fun.

    I’m 72 years old and about a year ago I traded in my Tacoma pickup for a 2020 Corolla SE from Canada that my local Toyota dealer took in trade. It’s got a rev-matched six speed manual gearbox, and is an absolute ball to drive. I know it’s not a hot hatchback, but it really moves the chains for me. Loved the hatchback article!

    Love that us “Old Timers” are still into Hot Hatches. It makes we wonder about the folks running Marketing at Audi and Mercedes who refuse to bring the RS-3 and A45 AMG hatches to the States but instead – at least in Audi’s case – continue to foist large, 4-door Humpback….I mean Sportback versions of their RS cars upon us.

    First cars are like first loves and leave a mark. Early on I fell for a used 2 door Datsun/Nissan hatchback that could move 4 people or a dining table and gained a thirst for a little more power.

    Slowly, I climbed the automotive ladder to a used Porsche 911. How is it related to my first love? 2 doors, 2+2 seats good for extra cargo, the power I was missing, and its a convertible…you know just in case I need to haul something big home. Ok maybe not a dining table, however I have stuffed it full and my dog loves it too!

    Two years ago I traded my trusty old Miata for a 2010 Nissan 370Z Roadster Touring. I still can’t haul much more than milk and eggs from the store. I still can only share the fun with one more person (my wife is happy to be that person). But I have plenty of power, even if I need to wait for the high revs to get it, the car sticks to the road like gum no matter what, and that synchro-rev match is such a joy to drive (and listen to).

    Thanks for pointing out the T.33 Spider. Looks like it actually goes for $2.5 MM, not just 2. That rounding error alone is an order of magnitude more than I ever paid for a whole car. I’ll file it somewhere at the bottom of the dream drawer.

    I agree with you Larry. I want a Gordon Murray T.33 Spider too! But of course, there is the issue of 2 million dollars. Oh well.

    I had a 1985 Golf GTI in Mars Red. One of the most fun cars I had for the money which I paid about 13 K for!

    Drove the Corrado G60 on the autobahn! Wing came up at around 120 km/hr and I got it up to 260 km/hr on the speedometer!!! One fast hatchback…

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