In this new series we compare three cars from the major automobile producing continents America, Asia and Europe. Sometimes it feels like these three nations can only excel in one field or another but this is proof that everyone can make great cars if they put their minds to them.
The Hot Hatch is a car that appeals to almost everyone regardless of economic privilege. Everyone from Jeremy Clarkson to the vaping teen down the street wants or owns one. The plucky nature of a car designed to scoot through downtown traffic but is fitted with a big engine and stiff springs is a lure hard to ignore by anyone with a pulse, and with good reason too. These cars caught their stride in the 1980s and, with Back to the 80’s just around the corner, we want to explore the best that each continent had to offer during the era. Here are our Big 3 Hot Hatches of the 1980s.
America: Dodge Omni GLHS
After committing harder than anyone else to muscle cars right as the oil crisis and strict emissions standards came into existance, Chrysler Corporation found themselves suddenly with a lineup of big hairy V8s that were slower, less economical and less reliable than its import competitors. Chrysler’s first solution to the sudden unpopularity of large V8 engines was to sell Mitsubishi’s compact cars under their name. While their captive import program got people through the door to the salesfloor, it did nothing to further develop Chrysler’s branding. Tiring of selling captive imported Mitsubishis on their showfloor, Chrysler changed directions and worked to develop their own subcompact car, called the Omni for Dodge or the Horizon if you got the Plymouth.
After an extremely roundabout development program, the Omni was ready for production by 1977. The car was a modified version of the Simca-Talbot Horizon, a brand owned by Chrysler for the European market. Soon after the Omni/Horizon went on sale, Chrysler found itself bankrupt from their issues years earlier, sold off Simca to Peugeot and had it’s first government bailout. Lee Iococca, who was looking for a way to save Chrysler, saw promise in small cars and let the American Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon live on while he spearheaded development of the K-car. The Omni’s chassis, called the L-Body, did stave off the debt collectors long enough for the K-Car to go on release.
“I wanted to take the plug-ugliest little box Chrysler made, and turn it into something that could whip a Ferrari or a Porsche, at a price the average guy can afford – the guy making $20,000 or $25,000, with a wife and couple of kids.” – Carroll Shelby
At the same time that Chrysler was having their debt crisis, Carol Shelby and Ford were having a crisis themselves while in a trademark dispute over the Cobra name. Once Chrysler was stabilized Lee Iococca wanted to breathe some life into the Omni platform, he approached Shelby and asked him to make a hot Omni. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1987, Shelby was quoted as having said “I wanted to take the plug-ugliest little box Chrysler made, and turn it into something that could whip a Ferrari or a Porsche, at a price the average guy can afford – the guy making $20,000 or $25,000, with a wife and couple of kids.”
What did Shelby do? He took the “plug-ugliest little box Chrysler made” and then did some simple hot rodding tricks and tuned it up to 110 HP. Frankly, I should note that I object and I think the Omni has one of the best hot hatch designs ever. The car was called the Dodge Omni GLH, which at face valve us a reasonable name likely meaning GL trim and H for high output. That’s not what it meant though, it literally meant Goes Like Hell. Soon after the release of the GLH in 1984, Carroll wanted more and he got his hands on a Garrett AiResearch turbocharger. Then he did the unthinkable in 1985, bolted the AiResearch turbo onto that Chrysler 2.2L engine and at 7.2 PSI it made 146 HP.
In the right hands, the 146 HP Dodge Omni GLH certainly could whip a Ferrari or a Porsche but Shelby wasn’t done. Two years later, by 1987, he released the GLHS. Again, not meaning GLH-Shelby but meaning “Goes Like Hell S‘more.” 175 HP at 12 PSI of boost with a full frontal front mount intercooler gave the car the power to set a 0-60 at 6.7 seconds, on 1980s tire technology. That was enough to keep up with a Ferrari 308 and a Porsche 911 Cabriolet.
Shelby certainly had done his job and he also unleashed himself on just about every Chrysler product during the 80s. Not only did the Omni GLH bring Chrysler back from the malaise but it set up their future with cars like the Dodge Spirit R/T, Plymouth CSX and of course the SRT-4.
Asia: 3rd Generation Honda Civic Si/CRX Si
While the Dodge Omni brought back straight line performance on a budget, which were the hallmarks of the muscle car era, it was Honda that really became a cult classic. It wasn’t an immediate thing though, it wasn’t because the manufacturer gave all of the best tuning shops in the world dollar cars and said have at it, it was a much slower burn. The Honda Civic Si caught it’s traction as the hand-me-down car, parents bought them for first cars and gave them to their children, who then created this whole culture around them.
Of course this wasn’t by accident, Honda’s roots were firmly planted in two fields, reliability and performance. This all happened because the Civic was just that great of a little car. After the war, Honda helped get Japan on its feet with reliable little motorcycles, they were pretty good too since they won the Isle of Man TT in 1961. So when Honda made their first actual car, naturally it was a cheap little, reliable sports car, the S500. Eventually they came to America and started to make subcompacts during the malaise, the car was the Honda Civic.
By the 1980s the Civic was a mainstay in American culture and after some experiments with the slightly spritely Civic S and the cute gas-mizer the CRX, Honda dropped a bomb on us. The Honda CRX Si, and later, the Civic Si. When it released in 1986 the CRX Si had sporty figures not seen in years. As Chris Hoffman from Japanese Nostalgic Car likes to point out, the original CRX Si had an infatuation with the number 91. It had 91 hp, 91 lb-ft, 1491 cc displacement (91 Cubic Inches), a 9.1 second 0-60 time and weighed 1900 lbs.
All together this made for a very sporty car. It was able to feel fun and spritely, while getting 35 MPG in the city. It did it reliably too, which even to date, is a rare thing to find. In America, the gears started turning once kids began to find out that these cars had deep racing roots to them and extensive catalogs of performance parts from Japan available. By the early 90’s, the car to own was a modified Honda Civic. The tuner bug spread like wildfire but it was little known that, the bug had already invaded other parts of the globe.
In Japan, Honda had been doing a Civic One Make race since the 1970s, creating endless inspiration for boy racers then in 1985 Honda tuner Spoon, won its class in Super Taikyu touring car racing, and was even able to beat half the field of cars above it. The bug America had caught in the 90s, had already hit Japan in full force by the mid-80s. Companies like Mugen, Spoon, Junction Produce and others were able to create figurative rocket ships out of the humble Civic Si. The Japanese highways would see the Civic become the favored platform of the Loop Tribe racers, or Kanjozoku. The nimbleness and zippy nature of the cars felt right at home.
This hotted up little econobox created it’s own cult following, for people in America, it felt like it came from nowhere. For those in the know though, they saw this coming, they knew it was in Honda’s DNA to make something great. Since 1986, the Civic Si has been a mainstay in American hot hatch performance.
Europe: Mk2 Volkswagen Golf GTI
The Honda Civic Si is a wonderful little hot hatch, and so is the Dodge Omni, but none of those would have ever existed if it wasn’t for the Germans. Much like the old proverb “the germans invented the car, the french perfected it and the Japanese made it reliable,” the original hot hatch was the Volkswagen Golf GTI. The original GTI, planned for 5000 units, was a run away success with total sales of 462000 units. To change such a perfect recipe is not only playing with fire, but playing with fire next to a leaky propane tank.
How does one improve on such a great design? Leave it alone as much as possible. You refine the rough bits, up the options and make deadly sure that you don’t upset the product’s balance. With the curb weight only increasing around 100 lbs between the final year of the Mk1 and the first year of the Mk2 GTI, the car felt 96.3% as sprightly as the original one did, but it did so with a level of refinement that was just right for a hot hatch. If that wasn’t enough, the car also dropped it’s drag coefficient by 8% so it would actually perform better over the original model at high speeds.
Volkswagen’s gamble on updating the Golf paid off, the car continued to top sales and best of lists around the world, even when everyone else was getting into the “GTI” market. That term right there, “GTI Market,” might be the greatest boon to the GTI, it created it’s own market. It wasn’t the first fast subcompact but the GTI was a watershed car and after it came out, competitors came out of the woodwork. Some even took the name; Suzuki, Dacia, Citroen, Peugeot, Mitsubishi, Nissan. Nearly everyone used the GTI moniker at some point.
Regardless of who used it, the name GTI stuck with Volkswagen. Whenever it seemed like the imitators were beginning to keep up, the GTI kept getting better. After existing for the first half of it’s life with the original 8 valve engine, the Mk2 GTI received it’s first major engine upgrade, A 16 valve DOHC 1.8L engine. It replaced the old 8 valve and it came with a power bump from 110 HP to a massive 137 HP. The 8.9 second 0-60 time of the old hat 8 valve was slashed down to 8.3 seconds, faster than a Porsche 944.
There is a very strong argument to be made that the Mk2 GTI is the peak of the Volkswagen GTI’s lineage. It perfected what the Mk1 started and perfected it. It was more comfortable, faster and kept it’s looks. It did all of this, yet, it didn’t lose it’s direct feel that the newer models have struggled with. Regardless of how the later cars stack up against the Mk2, the formula has stayed true since there is word that the GTI is going to outlive the Golf.