When automakers didn't get the balance of utility and performance right.
As the hype increases for the Toyota GR Corolla, especially here in the US, we've taken a moment of reflection. While some amazing hot hatches have been launched over the decades, plenty have also been disappointments. The recipe for a great hot hatch includes utility, modest pricing, and entertaining performance in a package that isn't a strain to drive every day. It sounds like a simple recipe, but the performance part is hard to pull off as it goes against the grain of the comfort and utility of the model the hot version is based on. For the mass market, it absolutely has to be comfortable as well as fun to drive - hence the first Volkswagen Golf GTI set the bar and opened the market for the hot hatch. Unfortunately, Volkswagen forgot that for the third generation, and that's where we'll start.
Volkswagen all but created the hot hatch market and set the benchmarks, then in the early 1990s it launched a car that defined the end of a golden era. Defenders of the 1990s GTI claim it was the car growing up, but the reality is that the MK3 got heavy, the suspension was easily confused on a back road, the new engine strained at higher revs, the steering didn't communicate like hot hatch drivers wanted, and while the transmission felt great, the throw on the gearstick was too long. Obviously, Volkswagen was trying to clean the edges of the GTI, but, ultimately, it dulled the edges. What Volkswagen got right was looks, and sales numbers attest to that.
The idea of a hatch built on a stereotypical Japanese foundation but with Italian flair and performance is a good one on paper. However, Nissan and Alfa Romeo failed to properly mesh back in the 1980s. Essentially, it took the worst qualities of each automaker at the time to create a blend that, if it was coffee, would cost less than a dollar and would come in a jar labeled "Instant." The name 'Arna' was an acronym of Alfa Romeo Nissan Autoveicoli, and its base was constructed n Japan by Nissan while Alfa supplied the engine, transmission, and the majority of the suspension. The 1.5-liter TI version arrived in 1984 and was also sold as the Nissan Cherry Europe GTI but was discontinued in 1986. At its shallow peak, the Alfa Romeo flat-four engine made around 95 horsepower and was capable of zero to 60 mph.
Of all the cars the SRT division could apply its heavy-handed go-faster skills on, the Caliber was not an obvious one. And, with good reason. The Dodge Caliber SRT-4 featured more power from an upgraded engine, a much stronger set of brakes, tweaked and lowered suspension, a shorter throw on the manual transmission, and some sporty-looking cosmetic upgrades. However, despite the brake upgrade, the Caliber SRT-4 is reluctant to stop in a hurry and the suspension couldn't stop the car from wallowing through corners.
Then to add insult to injury, understeer is a huge problem, and it's all down to the fact that you can't do much with a car that doesn't have the basics of performance built-in. In this case, the high center of gravity was just too much for the SRT department to deal with properly. The idea was to pull customers back from Japanese automakers, but that wasn't how to do it.
The FN2 generation of Civic Type R was the international market (mainly Europe) version of the hot hatch. It used a different chassis to the Japanese model and swapped the previous generation's rear double-wishbone independent suspension for a torsion beam axle setup. While downgrading the suspension from the last model, Honda chose to carry over the drivetrain from its predecessor - a 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 198 hp. While the engine served up peak horsepower at 7,800 rpm, it wasn't particularly punchy in the heavier car. The suspension was firm, but there was no recompense in the handling - it lacked the fluidity of dynamics the previous generation wallowed in. The steering was an upgrade, but it couldn't overcome the all-around disappointment Honda delivered for something with a Type R badge.
One day Chevy will make up its mind if an RS badge means actual performance or an appearance package that conveys performance. The Sonic RS arrived with no more power than the standard 138 hp, and while the suspension had been "tweaked," it was still too soft to throw into a corner with anything other than hope that it would come out the other side. Four-disc brakes shouldn't be an advertised upgrade on a sports version of a car in the 21st century, but there you are. It could have been a hilariously fun baby beast, alas it was just a boring little hatch offering zero thrills.
It's time to bring out the bolt gun and a sacred cow. When Dodge brought in the legendary Carroll Shelby to amp up the Omni in the 1980s to create the Omni GLH, he certainly did that. GLH stands for "Goes Like Hell." In 1986, the 175 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque Shelby extracted out of the four-cylinder 2.2-liter Turbo II was more than acceptable. It also handled great on a track and the road. Mostly, anyway, as it was prone to rolling over. When Dodge gave it to journalists to thrash at Willow Springs in California, a roll bar was installed, and a journalist promptly rolled one.
Reviews at the time raved about the 500-unit production run, but the reality was that the Omni wasn't a good platform to take so far. It ended up with too-soft sway bars to go with brutally stiff shot absorbers, hence the roll risk and horrible ride on the road. Even if it hadn't been a risky car to drive due to its dynamics, you also had a seriously fast car with 1980s Dodge build quality. The pictures below are of Carrol Shelby's personally owned GLHS model. It had 8,176 miles on the clock when sold.