AMC presented the Gremlin on April 1, 1970 and to most people, it looked like an April’s fool joke. Their competitors laughed at its compact dimensions, funny rear end, and diminutive engines. But soon, AMC was the one smiling all the way to the bank. The Gremlin proved to be a sales success as well as the first American subcompact car.
The Gremlin was also one of the first American hatchbacks since they gave it an opening rear glass. It wasn’t as practical as later hatchback models, but it was the beginning for hatchback models on the American market.
Notorious for other reasons, Ford unveiled the Pinto in 1971. Immediately, it became one of the bestselling hatchbacks on the planet. It had a long list of options, modern styling, and dependable engines.
But best of all, it had a proper big opening rear door that allowed buyers easy access. And most importantly, the Pinto was the first mass-produced hatchback from a major American company.
The Volkswagen Golf Mk1 was an influential car that caused quite a sensation when they introduced it in 1974. It was modern-looking, especially for a company that produced the Beetles. Volkswagen gave it front-wheel drive and a rear hatch.
And all of that made it one of the most advanced economy cars from the era. In fact, it was a massive sales success for Volkswagen. The Golf Mk1 helped the car industry finally realize that hatchbacks were here to stay.
Although several Japanese manufacturers offered compact hatchbacks, for American buyers, the Civic is the most memorable and influential.
Honda presented it in 1972, and this diminutive car was the definitive economy import. It was wallet-friendly, dependable, and peppy. But best of all, it had a rear hatchback that was practical and easy to use.
Chevrolet introduced the Chevrolet Monza in 1975 as the newest GM compact model. It came with a modern design, decent equipment and a wide arrange of versions and trim levels. The Monza succeeded the Chevrolet Vega. It sold well, and not only on the U.S. market, but also abroad.
The main feature was the wedge styling and big rear hatch. Chevy also sold this model was as the Oldsmobile Starfire, Pontiac Sunbird or Buick Skylark. And that was because GM loved to put different badges on one model.
Toyota built the Celica on the standard Toyota Carina base. However, it was one step above the popular Corolla in terms of size, technology, and engine power. They presented the new Celica to American buyers in 1970 with two body styles.
It came as a regular two-door coupe and also as a hardtop fastback. The fastback was also a hatchback. And it was advanced for the time, bringing added practicality to the coupe form.
Ford produced the Fox-body Mustang from 1979 all the way to 1993. It was a boxy muscle car with Euro-design cues, better aerodynamics and a thumping 5.0-liter in front. But some people think the Fox-body Mustang doesn’t look like a real Mustang. And that’s because the design doesn’t resemble the look of the original model.
However, the Fox-body is one of the most important Mustang in the model’s history since they kept it going through the dark times of American performance. The interesting thing about this model was the fact it was the first proper muscle car in hatchback configuration. Also, it was one of the few affordable hatchback cars available with a V8 engine.
Although drivers often criticize the Omni for its lack of quality, it was one of the most successful American hatchbacks ever. Dodge offered it in the late ’70s and it was the perfect car for the times. It was modern-looking with decent motorization.
Also, it had lots of space in a contemporary hatchback package, so buyers loved it. In fact, Carroll Shelby even made a pocket-rocket out of an ordinary Omni with the 2.2-liter turbocharged Omni GLH.
The market for affordable performance models in the early â80s was almost fully dominated by Japanese brands. And, the Honda CRX is the perfect example of one of the most memorable cars from that era. Honda built them from 1983 to 1991, basing the CRX on the Civic.
However, it came with a lower and sportier hatchback body and only two seats. Since it was light, nimble and came with precise steering, the CRX was a true sports car. And that’s even with front-wheel drive because it could develop up to 140 HP.
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.