I'm officially committing Jalopnik Seppuku tonight: I don't like hot hatches. In fact, I've never driven one and come away particularly impressed. Now, before someone covers me in boiling Mobil One and nails me to a cross of transverse axles, I must say that I love the idea of a hot hatch. You take a normal, practical car, give it a bunch of power, better suspension, some aggressive styling, and bang. And it's extremely European: I speak German and even enjoy escargot. It is an idea I absolutely adore. And in many cases, with sedans and coupes, it works brilliantly. Case in point: That's really all an M3 is, if we're being honest, albeit taken to an extreme. I like normal, ordinary hatchbacks just fine: Simple, inexpensive, efficient cars that are eminently practical. Add power, handling, and style- how could this be anything but a recipe for automotive perfection. But somehow, the performance aspect never really delivers as it ought to.
The issue, I think, is the starting platform. Attempting to turn a Volkswagen Golf into a performance vehicle is akin to taking your grandmother in for a boob job. A Focus ST is the DMV counter woman gone a bit wild with the tequila. The Mazdaspeed 3 is the lunch lady in fishnet thigh highs. Sure, it's far more interesting than the base model- but is that really all you want?!
It's not an elitist thing- performance bargains are mine, and every Jalop worth their 93 octane's, lifeblood. I just don't see hot hatches as being worth it. For whatever you spend on a new or decent used one, there is something truly better available. Certainly, the main issue is front wheel drive. The vast majority of hot hatches are available only in this configuration, and I just cannot fathom choosing a front wheel drive car over a rear- or all- wheel drive format at this point. It's just worse.
And not merely from a performance standpoint: look at the simplicity of a front engine/RWD vehicle versus an FF alternative. Doing a clutch is exponentially easier: Bell housings are easily separated and worked on. Transaxles, not so much. Front wheel drive also generally requires a transverse mounted motor, which creates a more cramped and difficult to work on bay. From a pure performance standpoint, RWD allows you to accelerate through, and out of, corners in a way that is superior in terms of both speed/efficiency and fun (who doesn't enjoy some oversteer and oppo?!) that FWD will never allow. Having a pair of wheels dealing solely with the steering, and another to handle the power, is an advantage that no amount of engineering will outfox. LSDs and clever tuning can make FWD damn good, but the physics of grip are ultimately unbeatable. /technical shit
Before someone reverse looks up my IP and burns my house down, I must reiterate that I do love the idea of the hot hatch. I love anything that takes practicality, looks it square in the eyes, and lands a right hook on its jaw. In that sense, hot hatches are great. And they can be fun- I recently drove a Focus ST and was startled by its second gear motivation. I literally laughed out loud the first time I ran out second. The salesman was less amused, and looked like he was about to phone his boss… or maybe the police. While he held on to the "oh shit" handles and his phone for dear life, I just found myself wishing it wasn't sending the power to the wrong wheels as I grappled with a steering wheel that put up a fight like an Albacore. Even with the phenomenal work that's gone into these cars, torque steer is an inevitable problem. Any one of these cars in a rear wheel drive configuration would be near the top of my shopping list!
My issue is that I don't see the necessity of this unholy union of sportiness and practicality. I would rather have a full-bore sports car and a $500 junker than a vehicle that attempts to split the difference. I don't mean something crazy expensive either- I would rather have a decent Miata than a new GTI. A purpose-built sports car is just better than a half-assed compromise. This, of course, is largely personal: I have a need to actually carry things beyond weekly groceries maybe three or four times a year- and I luckily have family and friends with SUVs. Snow? I spent a winter in an M3. Snow is about proper tire selection and driving technique- not drive axle. All cars stop and corner the same in snow, driveline only makes a difference in regards to initial traction, which is only an issue in seriously snowy areas.
Would you really rather have the above than this?!?!
Isn't this kind of the point of being an enthusiast? We are the minority- and vastly so. Not all that many people are willing to look at automotive practicality and not merely give it the right hook, but a shank to the gut. I suppose this is my main point here. For those of us that go nuts over sports cars and spend our time on auto sites: why don't we want more. Why don't we all go for true sports cars and fuck the rest? My first car I bought myself was an E36 M3. They are shockingly affordable at present. Even the absolutely amazing in every regard E46 M3 is now cheaper than virtually any new quasi-performance car. Why would an enthusiast buy an admittedly faster, but ultimately far less involving, hot hatch at several times the price? Who's taking Nancy from the cafeteria with a nice face lift over 25-year old Sofia from the yacht club?
Oh, and uh... I've had lots of wine, so... spelling critiques are to be expected I suppose.
Pictured: A car that costs less than a new, loaded GTI or Focus ST