40 Years Ago Today Did Fiat, Volkswagen, Talbot, Vauxhall, Peugeot or Renault win CAR’s first hot-hatch megatest back in 1980? In April 1980, CAR gathered six examples of a new breed of small, affordable performance car. In retrospect, it was a seminal comparison…
40 years ago today Looking back without hindsight
‘No wonder the rally version has done so well’
The annual hot-hatch megatest has become a car magazine cliché. The market is so keenly contested that each new release prompts a face-off against every rival imaginable. However, in its April 1980 issue it seems CAR wasn’t entirely sure what to call this new breed. LJK Setright settled on ‘baby bombshells’ to describe the Fiat 127 Sport, Talbot Sunbeam-Lotus, Vauxhall Chevette HS, Peugeot 104ZS, Renault 5 Gordini and the fuel-injected newcomer, Volkswagen’s Golf GTI.
Setright berates the Lotus-tuned Talbot from the off. ‘Quite simply the nastiest’, he says, before slating its lack of refinement, heavy weight, poor grip, uninspiring design, wayward road manners, awkward gearchange and thirst for fuel. ‘This did not upset me because I would not like to drive it that far,’ he quipped. Setright seems largely unmoved by the Golf, the car that has retrospectively come to define the hot-hatch breed. However, the test is a reminder that it wasn’t the first of its kind – the Renault was – and only VW’s use of fuel injection really made it unique.
‘Praise must go to the VW engine. It may be a bit rough when idling after a cold start, but it is otherwise the most free-running and untemperamental of them all,’ he notes. However, this is undone by the Golf’s wheelspin, an overly firm, harsh ride, low-geared steering, poor brakes and an ‘unpleasant roll’ that forced Setright to back off at points when by contrast the ergonomically awkward but feisty Fiat could be kept running flat-out.
Setright picks two winners. Objectively, the Peugeot 104ZS triumphs. ‘It is by a comfortable margin the most refined, the least temperamental, the easiest to drive, and I dare say the best value for money,’ he says, praising its mix of economy and performance. But it wasn’t his personal victor. ‘The reasons for wanting a fast car are to go as fast as possible, to be able to go fast if necessary, to go faster than other people, to make a good impression, and to enjoy the feel of a car built for high-performance driving. For me, the Vauxhall satisfies these requirements better than any of the others, even though in some respects it is not as nice a car as the Peugeot.’
It’s interesting how today’s hot-hatch landscape compares to 1980. The players are the same (substituting defunct Talbot with Ford). But despite VW’s reputation, the French marques have always been the ones to beat. Setright spotted this even before the term ‘hot hatch’ was coined, which is surely prescient.