History of the Hot Hatch

For the Hot Hatch 50th anniversary, Trent Fletcher, RelayRides blogger and automotive expert, shares the history of this globally beloved car.

In the 1960s, American car manufacturers started putting powerful engines into their base-model cars and, starting with the Pontiac GTO in 1964, invented the muscle car.  These cars offered high-performance without a high price tag. In Europe, where the trend was toward small cars with small engines, the muscle car was replaced by the hot hatchback. Though the term “hot hatch” wasn’t coined until the mid-80s, European car manufacturers started dropping upgraded and tuned motors and improved suspension into small hatchbacks in the early ‘70s. In contrast to the V8 powerhouses in American muscle cars, which made upwards of 425 horsepower, these first hot hatches, like the 1973 Alfa Romeo Alfasud Ti, carried 4-cylinder motor that only produces 67 horsepower. This was because, while American buyers were interested in quarter-mile race times, European buyers wanted light cars that could handle well in the corners.

From Europe with Love

After a decade of success across the pond, the United States started seeing hot hatches on dealer lots beginning in the early 1980s with the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Though only touting 90 horsepower, the car was popular among young automotive enthusiasts for its zippy handling and impressive gas mileage, compared with the wide range of sluggish road-boats available at the time. Soon after the release of the VW GTI in the States, domestic automakers followed suit with their own hot hatch releases. In 1984, Dodge released a tuned-up version of their Omni hatchback, badged as the Omni GLH, which stood for “Goes Like Hell.” The Omni GLH-T was put out the following year, featuring a turbo’d engine. Finally, in 1986, Carroll Shelby modified 500 of these cars and sold them as the Shelby GLHS (“Goes Like Hell S’more”), with 175 horsepower, stiffer suspension and several other performance and aesthetic upgrades.

Japan Picks Up the Slack

During the 1990s, domestic hatchbacks fell by the wayside and Japanese manufacturers filled the gap. The most popular hot hatch of this era was the Honda Civic Si, with a 1.6 liter VTEC engine, producing 125 horsepower and pushing the car from 0-60 in 7.5 seconds. The rear drum brakes from the base model were replaced with discs, allowing for better stopping and cornering. As sales increased, the availability of aftermarket products grew, making the sixth generation Civic Si wildly popular among the emerging import tuner subculture.

A New Century

With the turn of the century, the American automotive market shifted, and more drivers desired small, economical and practical cars that were still fun to drive. The release of the quirky MINI Cooper S in 2001 re-invigorated the American public to the style of small hatchbacks. The Cooper S’s 1.6 liter engine produced nearly 170 horsepower, but also sipped gas, getting up to 36mpg on the highway. As the ‘aughts continued, cars like the Ford Focus ST, which cranks out 225 horsepower, and the Hyundai Veloster Turbo, offering 201 horsepower, expanded the hot hatch market to a new level. And at less than $25,000, they are all attainable by young enthusiast.

So, whether you want to recreate the Mini-Cooper chase scene from The Italian Job, or you just want a sporty car that gets good gas mileage, a hot hatch might be right up your alley. Head over to the RelayRides marketplace to test out which is the best for you!