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Today, the ice-cold variety still sells by the truck-load, but if you think ‘hot’ hatchback your mind instantly goes back to images of lowered, screaming buzzboxes with go-faster stripes, wheelarch extensions and fat rubber.
For this, we can mostly thank the Volkswagen engineers at Wolfsburg.
The body type itself – later offered with folding rear seats and load-space versatility – had been around since before WW2, but the June 1976 launch of the Golf GTI helped to redefine the possibilities of the genre, thrusting it to the forefront of the general motoring public’s consciousness.
Suddenly, when buying a new car, the family man with the performance bug could play the children’s game of ‘Hot or Cold’ with the Golf range. And how it shifted, with 140,000 units finding a home by 1980.
In those early years, its true competitors were few and far between – the bonkers, mid-engined Renault 5 Turbo, equally brutal Sunbeam-Lotus and Vauxhall 2300HS were low-volume rally homologation specials, with compromises most unfriendly to their target market.
Only the French company’s 5 Alpine/Gordini really came close.
Incredibly, even by 1981, no Italian or Japanese manufacturer offered a hot hatch, but the frenzy was about to begin.
Initially, the Escort XR3i and Astra GTE took the fight to Volkswagen, with Renault biding its time, watching, waiting and planning to strike.
But it was Lancia – with its September ’83 launch of the turbocharged Delta HF – that blew the doors clean off the then 1.8-litre Golf.
Although marginally slower in the 0-60mph sprint, it scorched it in the top-speed dogfight.
Beneath the smart Giugiaro-designed outer clothing were the mechanicals of parent company Fiat’s Strada.
The revered Aurelio Lampredi-designed twin-cam unit had a Garrett AiResearch T3 turbocharger – running at 10psi boost – strapped to it, an air-to-air intercooler, and Microplex electronic ignition linked to a Weber 32DAT carburettor.
Other additions included sodium-filled exhaust valves, an oil cooler and a modified compression ratio, all of which increased power from the standard GT1600’s 105bhp to 130bhp, while torque jumped significantly from 99lb ft to 140lb ft.
The factory’s claim to have built ‘the fastest ever 1600cc car’ stood up to scrutiny, with a class-leading top speed of 122mph.
This much-enhanced performance was complemented by all-disc brakes, stiffer springs at the front (by 13%) and rear (8%), revised dampers, and altered steering geometry.
Best of all for Lancisti was the return of the High Fidelity (HF) designation – last seen on the rally-winning Stratos of the 1970s.
The new car was well received. Motor said that it ‘packs a blistering punch’, and that ‘superbly balanced handling and excellent traction put all the power to good use’.
Two years later, the hot hatch revolution was in full swing. In a short period of time, Fiat had launched its old-school road-racer, the Abarth 130TC, complete with twin Weber 40DCOE carburettors, and the Japanese offerings – in the shape of the Honda CRX and Mitsubishi Colt 1600 Turbo – started demonstrating a coming of age to finally match their undoubted potential.
Other contenders included the second Fiat contribution, its feisty but unsophisticated Uno Turbo, and the hard-hitting 2-litre MG Maestro EFi.
Yet it was the naturally aspirated Peugeot 205 GTI – with its attractive aesthetics matched to a balanced and rapid driving experience – that was soon being crowned the new king of the hot hatches.
In the midst of a financial crisis, Renault had decided to press ahead with a new car based on an old car: ‘Le Car’, in fact.
Visually, the new ‘Supercinque’ had inherited its older sibling’s blunt, inverted shopping-trolley profile, even if – after a £400million investment – it was 10% lighter and 6% more aerodynamically efficient.
Under the bonnet, though, the old back-to-front, north-south gearbox and engine layout had gone, replaced by a more conventional transverse arrangement.
The standard car appeared a full year before the new 5 GT turbo, but the wait for the performance variant was worth it.
At its heart was a bored-out 1397cc update of the 1289cc iron-block, alloy-head Cléon-Fonte engine, which was significantly lighter than those of its rivals.
As on the original 1962 design, the valves were operated via a chain-driven side-mounted camshaft through pushrods and rockers.
To this was added a Garrett T2 turbocharger, with an air-to-air intercooler and single-choke Solex 32DIS carburettor.
With the car weighing in at a positively svelte 820kg, performance was startling, with the 0-60mph sprint being devoured in an animalistic 7.1 secs.
Car magazine immediately pitted it against the Peugeot 205 GTi and Honda Civic CRX 1.6, finding that ‘it is comprehensively faster than the others. It has better handling, the best steering, best brakes…’
In the metal, two things are apparent. First of all, the size difference: the Delta HF’s bulky square-edged profile looms large over the diminutive 5 GT turbo.
The market had already begun to segment by the time that the latter appeared, with the larger Golf Mk2 GTi, Delta HF and the like encroaching into the compact family car market, leaving the smaller ‘superminis’ to battle it out among themselves.
Does that make this a mismatch? Not at all. At launch, these two took the bragging rights with their outright levels of blown-go.
The second consideration is rarity – when was the last time you saw one on the road?
It seems crazy that so few have survived, even though production standards and general reliability were significantly higher than in previous decades.
Both of our featured cars are later 1990 versions, which means reprofiled bumpers for the Delta HF and a brawnier colour-coded bodykit for the 5 GT.
The Latin lothario is a riot of straight lines and has hints of the steroid-fuelled monster that it would eventually become.
The stubby front profile works better than the rear, which sits high and looks a little unwieldy.
Surprisingly, it’s the shape that seems to have been around for ever that works best.
Today, the 5 GT just looks so right: in stance and in profile – even those ever-so-Gallic yellow foglights work.
And for some reason my mind instinctively compares the Delta HF to the Integrale, but doesn’t do the same with the 5 GT turbo and equally bestial 5 Turbo – perhaps because, in the case of the Renault, the latter came first: pre-volution, rather than evolution.
Anyone who grew up in the 1980s will love the Renault’s cabin. If you don’t then I’d suggest moving on, there’s nothing to see here.
Moulded plastic abounds, with the instrument binnacle a cross between Commodore 64 home computer and Double Dragon videogame cabinet.
The seats are superlative, with side bolsters that clamp you in place.
Any buyer must have had to check that the ‘one size fits all’ approach worked for their own particular derrière.
But space is at a premium in here – close the driver’s door and the storage pocket sits flush with the seat.
The Delta HF is capacious in comparison, and finished to a better standard: its plastics are of a higher quality; the seats are beautifully trimmed in Alcantara with ‘Harlem’ design woollen fabric inserts; and the leather Momo steering wheel means business.
You’re fully ensconced, the driving position is high and the large glass area affords first-class visibility.
The Delta HF’s twin-cam helps to reinforce your initial impression that this car is a real sophisticate.
In this guise, the engine is quieter – the Mk2 lost the carburettor, gaining Weber/Marelli electronic fuel injection and 10bhp.
Floor the throttle and the smaller T2 Garrett turbocharger spools up instantly – there’s no lag or torque steer, just a long, fluid delivery of power with plenty of mid-range punch.
The steering responds quickly to driver input and with the Mk2 engine turned around and tilted forward – for improved cooling and a lower centre of gravity – it has a tendency to understeer.
It will switch to oversteer on the limit but it’s always predictable and easily controlled on the throttle.
The only disappointment is the gearshift, which has a long throw and is somewhat vague across the gate.
There is little doubt, however, that the Delta provides serious thrills and spills for the family man who is just as happy calming it all down and smoothly pootling along at a reduced rate, one conducive to transporting their better half and kids.
The 5 GT, on the other hand, requires that those same relations be pocket-sized – well, the children at least. While you sit in the Delta HF, you insert yourself into the 5 GT.
The gearchange has a delightfully precise action, further enhanced by the tactile notch-cut gearlever, but it’s the acceleration that steals the show at first.
It has a hint more lag than its rival but, once spooled up, the turbo hits half boost by 2000rpm, three-quarters by 2800rpm and max at 3000rpm.
For those used to conventionally aspirated engines there’s an initial unreality to proceedings as the propulsion hits – like the artificial high of synthetic E-numbers.
You quickly adapt, however, to embrace what is an effervescent experience.
The car feels every bit as fast as the figures suggest.
Head out onto B-road territory, fire it into a corner and that superbly engineered chassis – bespoke springs, dampers, anti-roll bars and adapted trailing arms – just grips and grips.
The handling characteristics are similar to the Delta HF, but it’s stiffer and has a higher level of stability, allowing you to devour both long sweepers and tighter hairpins at a significantly faster rate.
There’s not a lot that’ll get close to the 5 GT in this price bracket.
Unlike some earlier manufacturer efforts, the Renault wasn’t just a ‘warmed-over’ hatch.
It was bred purely for performance. The market was shifting again, with cars undergoing full metamorphosis to become technological tours de force.
Ironically, Lancia’s Delta was at the forefront of this new breed, regaining the title of hottest of the hot hatches when it brought four-wheel drive to the party in ’86, and then going on to dominate with the all-conquering Integrale.
These two cars live somewhat in the shadow of their homologation-special brethren, but luckily that serves to keep a lid on prices.
Today, both have the rarity factor, and can be driven sedately around town or fully unleashed.
It’s the Lancia that’s the truly practical family car, but, from an adrenalin-fuelled perspective, I’d plump for an original-looking GT turbo.
If the Delta HF turbo is a sophisticated hoot to drive, then the 5 GT turbo is the car that fully encapsulates the term ‘pocket rocket’.
Images: Tony Baker
Thanks to: Roger Williams; Renault UK; Tim Heath at The Lancia Motor Club
This was first in our December 2014 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication
Renault 5 GT turbo
- Sold/number built 1985-’91/160,000
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, pushrod 1397cc ‘four’, Solex carburettor, Garrett T2 turbocharger
- Max power 120bhp @ 5750rpm
- Max torque 122lb ft @ 3750rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, FWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear trailing arms, transverse torsion bar; telescopic
dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs all round
- Length 11ft 9in (3589mm)
- Width 5ft 2in (1590mm)
- Height 4ft 5in (1366mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 10in (2408mm)
- Weight 1808lb (820kg)
- 0-60mph 7.1 secs
- Top speed 123mph
- Mpg 20-25
- Price new £7360
Lancia Delta HF turbo ie
- Sold/number built 1983-’90/35,751 (including non-ie turbo)
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 1585cc ‘four’, electronic Weber IAW injection, Garrett T2 turbocharger
- Max power 140bhp @ 5500rpm
- Max torque 141lb ft @ 3500rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, FWD
- Suspension independent, by MacPherson strut, coil springs, lower wishbones, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs all round
- Length 12ft 9in (3895mm)
- Width 5ft 3in (1620mm)
- Height 4ft 6in (1380mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 1in (2475mm)
- Weight 2205lb (1020kg)
- 0-60mph 8.5 secs
- Top speed 126mph
- Mpg 29
- Price new £8790
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