Although it wasn't the first hot hatch to come from Europe, the Volkswagen GTI made the segment popular with European and American enthusiasts alike.
Even though anybody can build a hot hatchback, they remain a primarily European genre of cars. At times we have seen such cars as the Dodge Omni GLH and the Civic Si, but it has actually been French brands which have done the most to move the genre forward, and this series will be focusing on European hot hatches. The most famous of them all, however, is not actually French, but rather the Volkswagen Golf GTI, the standard-bearer for the hot hatch, particularly in North America.
The GTI was first introduced in 1976, and would make its way to the US when the second generation of the Golf debuted in 1983. The Golf was called the Rabbit in the US at the time, perhaps because the car was a replacement for the Beetle, and VW believed the animal naming scheme was the key to its success. But even after the name was changed to Golf, the GTI version of the car has always just gone by GTI, with Americans dropping the "Golf" part of the name. This is because the Golf GTI is the only GTI Volkswagen model we get in this country, but since it is also the best one, we won't get too mad about it.
The GTI is often credited with having invented the hot hatch genre, although this point is debatable. The Simca 1100 Ti and the Renault 5 Alpine both predated the 1976 debut of the GTI, but the VW was just so much more popular that even if it didn't come first, the GTI was certainly the car which popularized the hot hatch. Since the first use of the term in print isn't found until 1985, in The Times, the hot hatch was clearly something which had already become popular before there was a name for it. The first GTI produced 110 horsepower from its 1.6-liter engine. Since it weighed just 1,785lbs, it was able to get to 60 mph in 9 seconds.
Compare that to the 9.5 seconds it took a contemporary V8-powered Mustang to get to 60, and you'll see why the GTI became so popular. The introduction of the Mk2 GTI saw its first automatic transmission, but it also saw the introduction of a supercharged version of the car, so you take the good with the bad. The Mk3 GTI got off to a rough start in the US and Canada, since quality issues plagued the Mexico-built versions of the car in the early years. But the European versions also suffered from low quality steel, and even though this generation saw the introduction of the VR6 and TDI versions of the GTI, it has a troubled history.
Things would get better with the Mk4 GTI, introduced in 2000. This would be the generation to get the R32 GTI, which had a 3.2-liter VR6 engine. But even the standard GTI had quite a good engine. This was the Audi-sourced 1.8-liter 20-valve turbocharged four-cylinder, one of the all-time greats for tuning to come from VW. The Mk5 GTI saw the introduction of the 2.0T engine, as well as several special editions. The most significant of these special editions was one which never actually made it to production, but which GTI fans still absolutely love. This was the W12-650 GTI, a Mk5 GTI with a mid-mounted 6.0-liter twin-turbo W12 out of the Bentley Continental.
As the name suggests, it produced 650 PS (641 horsepower), but was not exactly production ready. The Mk6 GTI is now on its way out, and will be replaced by the more powerful Mk7. The car is still great fun, but it no longer sits at the top of the Golf range. That space is now occupied by the Golf R, which is expected to make in the neighborhood of 300 horsepower for the seventh generation. That's quite a lot, and even though there isn't a term for a hatchback positioned above "hot" models, the Golf R seems to be the perfect car to have this applied to.
The GTI still counts as a hot hatch, but with an even hotter Golf now available, and with many hot hatches now being made out of smaller supermini hatches, one can't help but wonder how much longer the GTI can stay relevant. Even if the Mk7 were the last GTI ever made, it would still have had quite a long and successful life. Just the same, one hates to see a car with such a great history in danger of becoming irrelevant. But the GTI has actually been getting better with each generation, and we're going to hold out hope that the GTI will continue to evolve. The day that we don't need the GTI still isn't here yet.