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Hot Hatches

by Mashfique H. Chowdhury

The problem is plain and simple - America needs more hot hatches. Americans have been shunning hatchbacks for decades now. This has led to the demise of the unloved Chevette, the hated Yugo and more recently, the overpriced BMW 3-Series Compact. But to tell you the truth, none of those cars actually qualified as "hot." However, since the start of the new millenium, manufacturers have taken a hint from Honda and are tuning in to - what else - the "import tuner" crowd. Though they were soft and simple, Honda Civic hatchbacks and Volkswagen Golf models were the only hatchbacks to make any sort of headway in the United States.

Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1 1600
Base price : $2000 (used '77-'81)
Engine : 4 cyl., 1588 cc, 8 val.
Output : 110 hp, 101 lb-ft
Transmission : 4/5-spd manual, FWD
Suspension f/r : strut / torsion beam
Weight : 1993 lbs
0-60 mph : 8.9 seconds
Top speed : 112 mph
200ft skidpad : n/a
Pros  Class-leading handling, ride
Cons  Reliability, looks like base model
The concept of the "hot hatch" has always been the same - small, economical and practical transportation packing the most basic performance goodies necessary for some driving fun, while still being affordable enough for the masses. Volkswagen's Golf GTI, when it first came out in the 1970s, was the first hot hatch, creating a whole new category of cars. Packing an Audi engine into a lightweight hatchback, the first GTI was just a pet project of VW engineers, when the top brass caught wind of it and gave the go-ahead for production. A very quick car for its time, the 1977 Golf GTI 1600 could keep up with the Nissan Datsun 240Z, a car that is held in high esteem even now. Standard features included a close-ratio gearbox, stiffened suspension, 14-inch wheels, lowered ride height and front disc brakes. With tight handling, great fuel economy, practical interior and quick off-the-line acceleration, the GTI was an instant hit. Though fairly unreliable, the car still has a huge fan following all over the world, including the United States, where it was sold as the Rabbit GTI. However, the new generation of Golf models have lost the plot since then, becoming big, bloated and expensive. But a number of European manufacturers have taken up the task of creating the perfect hot hatch. Even a few Japanese car makers such as Toyota and Honda have tried their hand at the exclusively-European hot-hatch game.

Now, Honda and Ford both offer souped-up versions of the Civic and Focus, hoping to cash in on the "Fast and the Furious" craze. Both are capable cars pumping out an average of 165 horses from their tiny 2-liter engines. But they seem to be missing something; that certain edge that defines a sports car; that something which is only reserved for Europeans - for now. Some of Europe's compact "treasures" have actually made it to the United States. The Volkswagen GTI and monstrous R32 have already hit American roads along with the Mini Cooper range complete with John Cooper Works packages. But besides the aforementioned cars, and excluding Japanese makes, there are a couple of European models that will probably never see American shores. We take a look at some of the most exceptional models running around on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean...

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