These legendary performance hatchbacks become proper JDM â80s icon only by chance. The AE86 was just a version of the standard Corolla model. But since the eighth generation was also the last rear-wheel-drive model, the Toyota engineers added a high revving 1.6-liter engine to transform the car.
The results were fantastic since the AE 86 wasn’t a boringly slow Corolla. Instead, it was an agile, light and nimble machine that appealed to driving enthusiasts.
The combination of a lightweight body, precise steering, rev-happy engine, and lively performance was popular with global buyers. Peugeot even considered selling the 205 GTI in America. But sadly, Peugeot pulled out of the market in 1991.
So U.S. buyers never got to experience one of the best affordable compact performance cars of the ’80s.
Proof that an ordinary hatchback can be the ultimate performance model is the Delta HF Integrale. Lancia introduced it in 1979 as the base Lancia model with five doors. And surprisingly, they had no performance aspirations.
However, they turned it into rally monster with the addition of a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. Also, they added a special all-wheel drive train and new suspension. With its boxy, aggressive styling, this family hatchback became a rally champion and the ultimate road car.
Ford presented the Focus in 1998, designing it to be a global vehicle they could sell everywhere with minimal differences. But better yet, they managed to make the Focus Mk1 equally at home in Europe, America or South Africa.
With a modern design, hatchback body, and long list of optional extras, the Focus Mk1 was a globally successful automobile. It was also one of the most popular hatchbacks a car company ever offered on the American market.
Debuting in 1978, the AMC Spirit AMX was a real compact muscle car because it had an optional 304 V8 engine and rear-wheel drive. Also, buyers could get it with a manual transmission. AMC designed it as the performance version of the Spirit compact car.
Available for just two years, the Spirit AMX had some success because it was inexpensive and cool-looking. The AMX package included a body kit, special livery, and wide wheels. Unfortunately, AMC decided to kill the model, and the Spirit AMX didn’t return for the 1980 model year.
The second generation of the Ford Mustang debuted in 1974. It was on the market for four years until 1978. Despite the fact it was the subject of so many jokes and bad press, the Mustang II was an important model. Downsizing the whole Mustang range, introducing economical four-cylinder engines, and part-sharing with other Ford models helped it survive the recession of the ’70s and the death of the muscle car movement. But all of that doesn’t mean there weren’t any interesting Mustangs between 1974 and 1978. They just were just slow compared to previous editions. There was one particularly interesting model, however, the special edition King Cobra.
Ford knew their 5.0 V8 engine produced only 140 HP in the Mustang II and the performance was unimpressive. They also knew that by dressing up the car they could attract some buyers. They introduced the King Cobra with a flaming snake on the hood, front and rear spoilers, and a full body kit. The King Cobra was a typical ’70s factory custom car. They mated the 5.0 V8 to a four-speed manual transmission in an attempt to make a performance car. Needless to say, the performance was terrible, but the outrageous body kit stole the show. Today, the Ford Mustang King Cobra is a vaunted collector’s item.
After the debacle of the Chevrolet Corvair in the ’60s, the company was reluctant to enter the compact market again. But since the segment grew, Chevrolet didn’t have a choice. So they presented the new Chevrolet Vega as a 1971 model. The Vega was a compact modernly-styled model with three basic body styles, a two-door coupe, a two-door sedan, and a practical three-door wagon.
The front end closely resembled the design of the 1971 Camaro with a similar grille, headlights, and bumper. In 1975, Chevrolet even introduced an interesting although not-so-successful Vega Cosworth model. It featured a high revving 2.0-liter four-cylinder twin-cam motor that delivered 110 HP. Although it wasn’t particularly fast or strong, the Vega Cosworth was attractive with an interesting black and gold paint job and unique wheels. Chevrolet built this model in cooperation with Cosworth, the British engine engineering company famous for its Formula One engines.
In a desperate attempt to draw a performance-oriented crowd, AMC introduced the Pacer X. It was a high-performance version of their legendary compact car. Equipped with the VAM package for 1979, the Pacer X featured a 4.6-liter straight-six engine with a raised compression ratio and lots more power.
The output was around 150 HP. Despite the fact it sounds sluggish today, this was a serious performing car by the late ’70s standards. With the added power, AMC provided customers with a special appearance package to make the X stand out from the regular Pacer.
With front-wheel drive, the Dodge Omni platform, and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the Shelby Charger was not a typical muscle car by any means. However, it did provide a vivid performance, decent power, and good acceleration time. But most of all, it combined two of the greatest names in the American performance portfolio: Shelby and Charger. Dodge based it on the Omni GHL so the Shelby Charger shared the drivetrain and the 2.2-liter turbo engine that produced 175 HP.
For such a small and light car, it had loads of power. The Shelby Charger could accelerate to 60 mph in just 7.5 seconds, making it one of the fastest accelerating American production cars for 1987. Despite the famous name and good performance, Shelby Chargers aren’t all that collectible. However, most car fans feel it deserves more recognition and respect since the Dodge Shelby Charger is a part of the American performance portfolio from the ’80s. Even today, it’s the most affordable way to obtain a genuine Shelby car.
Mercury has used the name, “Comet,” in their history a few times. First, it was Mercury’s version of the compact Ford Falcon. Next, it was on an intermediate model and finally, they produced the Comet based on the compact Ford Maverick. Mercury presented the Comet in 1971, originally selling it as a two-door semi-fastback on a smaller chassis shared with the Maverick, Pinto and later, the Mustang II.
The base engine was a 100 HP 170 straight-six. But demanding customers could get a 302 V8, turning the compact Comet into a ’70s muscle car. Although practically the same as the Maverick, the Comet had a bit more options, a higher price and a more upscale appearance.
The Ford Escort was always an active model for affordable performance. From the legendary RS 1600 Mk1 to the Escort RS Turbo of the mid-80’s, this was a competitive yet obtainable choice. However, the best Escort RS was the 1992 to 1996 RS Cosworth model.
Built using Sierra RS Cosworth parts, the Escort was smaller but featured an improved 2.0-liter turbocharged engine with 227 HP. The exterior meant pure business with flared wheel arches, a hood with cooling vents and an adjustable, massive rear wing. One main feature was the all-wheel-drive system that proved necessary since the car created over 230 lb-ft of torque. The Escort RS Cosworth was fast for the day. With 5.8 seconds 0 to 60 mph acceleration times, it could beat most of the sports cars of the day. However, it somewhat expensive for a hot hatch, so Ford decided to make it a limited model.
Japanese manufacturers were always active in the hot hatch class, but only a few models received cult status and a place in hot hatch hall of fame. One of those cars is the first Civic Type R, which they introduced in 1997. This car was especially well received in America where its performance, driving dynamics, road holding and lightweight were popular with budget-minded enthusiasts who wanted affordable performance.
The heart of the EK9 generation Civic Type R was a 1.6-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine with the famous V-Tec system that delivered 185 HP. Its high power output was legendary. Even though there wasn’t much space for engine tuning, you could take the rear seat out and make your Civic lighter and faster. The car stayed in production until 2000 and still is a popular model amongst the hot hatch fans in America.
Subaru Impreza made its name in the 1990s with the highly capable combo of a boxer turbo engine, all-wheel drive, and loads of power and torque. However, no one considered the Impreza a hot hatch, since they were all sedans or wagons. But in 2008, they introduced the Impreza as a five-door hatchback. It immediately set the hot hatch world on fire.
Invading the hot hatch class was a smart move from Subaru. It brought a larger audience to the Impreza while keeping the performance and mechanical layout intact. With 305 HP and intelligent AWD traction, the Impreza was one of the best and fastest hot hatches money could buy in 2008.
The perfect example of an overpowered and brutal front-wheel hot hatch is the legendary Mazdaspeed 3. They introduced it in 2007, and it was powered by a 2.3-liter four-cylinder delivering 263 HP. And that was considered a crazy number of horsepower to send to the front wheels.
However, despite severe torque steer, the Mazdaspeed 3 was a capable and rapid car. It even brought many customers back to the dealerships. Also, it reintroduced Mazda as one of the prime affordable performance brands on the U.S. market at that time. These are the 30 most influential hatchbacks ever made. They paved the way for the hot hatchbacks of today. Attractive yet highly practical, they are a win-win for any driver.