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Hot hatch buying

Now here's some Eighties-style fun.  All the practicality of a family hatchback, with the performance and handling of a sports car.  Hot hatches took off in a big way with the original Golf GTI (early examples of which are now very collectible) and by the mid-80s every major manufacturer had a 'hot' version of its family hatchback.  The party ended abruptly in about 1990 when joy-riding replaced sex as the favourite activity of the nation's teenagers, and insurers responded by pushing up premiums to silly levels.  But the cars are still out there, and now cluttering up the 'Bargain Buys' section of the Auto Trader in large numbers.  If you are over 25, have a clean(ish) licence and don't live in a major city, insurance is now a lot more affordable than it was a few years ago, and at this price level you only want TPFT insurance anyway.

But a word of warning.  Most cheap hot hatches have been thrashed and crashed, and too many have passed through the hands of a dozen owners, none of whom bothered to change the oil.  Many have naff styling modifications and/or lowered stiffened suspension which does nothing for the handling, mainly because the suspension ends up so stiff that on a bumpy road the wheels are hardly ever in contact with the ground.  Worse still, far more hot hatches have been stolen over the years than subsequently recovered, so you can bet there are a fair few cars out there with false identities.  So check very, very carefully before you buy.  Even a Golf GTI can be killed in 60,000 miles if you try hard enough.  All the usual buying checks apply (see 'How to buy the perfect banger').  In addition, inspect the chassis number carefully for evidence of tampering, and look for badly repaired accident damage (ill-fitting panels, overspray inside wheelarches and engine bay, ripples in body sides or floorpan).  Anything with a turbo needs sympathetic treatment and regular oil changes to survive.

So with that in mind, check out the following:

VW Golf GTI Mk2, 1984-92  The second generation of the car that started the whole hot hatch thing.  A huge seller in its time, and very rust resistant, so lots to choose from.  Very tough mechanicals and hard wearing interior.  These cars hide their age well - the result is that many have been 'clocked', so don't believe the mileage unless there is a full service history to back it up.  Post '85 cars have hydraulic tappets which get noisy at around 100,000 miles.  Pre '89 cars have Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection which is very reliable, later cars have Digifant electronic system which can give more problems - watch out for uneven idle and poor throttle response. 16 valve motor is complex and best avoided at this price level - many other parts such as suspension and brakes are different (and more expensive) on the 16v cars.  Gearboxes get crunchy with age, especially on hard driven cars.  The safest bet for a hot hatch.

Ford Escort XR3i, 1982-90  Not highly rated when new but hugely popular anyway.  Engines are harsh and thrashy, especially at high revs.  Hydraulic tappets - same problems as Golf.  Valve guides can wear badly - look for smoking exhaust.  Body rot can be a major problem.  Parts cheap and widely available, and DIY maintenance is easy, so actually quite a good banger choice.  A bit lacking in street cred these days - even the Ilford boys drive Golfs now.  Post 1986 cars have better interior. 1600RS Turbo much hotter, but needs very careful inspection.

Vauxhall Astra GTE, 1984-92  3 engine options:  early 1800 a bit gutless, 2 litre is decently quick, 16 valve is a legendary powerplant and much used in motorsport.  However, the car it is bolted to is not so good - handling is uninspiring, and digital dashboard is just plain nasty.  Rust is a problem, especially along rear wheel arches - a design flaw which Vauxhall somehow managed to carry over to the next generation Astra.  Electrics can give problems with age, as wiring is of poor quality and connectors are worse.  Rear visibility not brilliant.

Renault 5 GT Turbo 1986-92  Take a little French shopping car with a pushrod engine that dates back to the Fifties, turbocharge it within an inch of its life and add some blocky plastic side skirts, and what do you get?  An urban legend.  The 5 Turbo shouldn't have worked, but it did, and good examples are still much sought after.  Lots of potential problems to keep you awake at night - look for turbo wear (lots of exhaust smoke), rust (sills and rear suspension mounts) and decaying electrics.  If the car has an electric sunroof, don't be tempted to open it......  Like most turbo cars, easily tuned for more power at the expense of engine life.  Regular oil changes are crucial to avoid big bills.

MG Maestro 1984-91  BL's dumpy, sensible-shoes Maestro has to rank as the most unlikely basis for a hot hatch this side of the Reliant Robin, and the early 1600 cars were truly awful - bolting twin Weber carbs to the old ex-Austin Maxi engine made for something lumpy, unreliable and not very quick, and not even the novelty of a talking dashboard could save it.  Second generation car used a fuel injected 2 litre unit - still unrefined, but beefy in an old-fashioned British way, and this was followed up by a turbocharged version that could give far more expensive cars a nasty fright.  Never really fashionable, and now obscure and unloved, good examples are very hard to find, due to lousy paint quality (Maestros rust nearly as badly as old Lancias), cheapo electrics, flimsy interiors and build quality that Lada would be ashamed of.  A nice example is worth a look, if you want a car to drive rather than be seen in.

Lancia Delta HF Turbo 1984-91  Another half-decent hot hatch which never quite made the big time and is now headed rapidly towards extinction.  The square-cut body design shows its age, is cramped in the rear, and Lancia's claims to have sorted out their rustproofing after the Beta fiasco don't really stand up when you find yourself looking at a ten year old car with a rust hole in the middle of the roof.  Fiat-designed twin cam motor is tough and free-revving, but parts are getting hard to find (Lancia pulled out of the UK a few years ago), and the usual warnings about regular servicing on turbo cars apply.  One for the enthusiast.  Lancia added four wheel drive to this car and gave us the Delta Integrale, which is definitely not a sub-£1000 car, nor ever likely to be.

Peugeot 205GTi 1984-92  Arguably the best driver's car of all the eighties hot hatches.  1600 is a sweet and revvy little engine, but 1900 is the serious choice.  Handles amazingly, but can bite - lift-off oversteer will put you backwards into the trees if you aren't concentrating.  Still looks fresh, but age has not been kind to these cars - paintwork deteriorates (although serious rot is unusual), electrics are typically nasty (and GTIs are usually loaded with electrical toys) and interiors fall apart above 75,000 miles.  Can be reluctant to start when hot, and generally unhappy in heavy city traffic.  But a joy to drive on the open road, and definitely worth the aggravation.  Future classic status a dead cert.

Other possibilities:  Citroen BX GTi has aged badly, now very cheap but electrical problems and complex self-levelling suspension make it a bit risky.  Peugeot 309GTi has much of the 205 driver appeal in a rather frumpy bodyshell.  Fiat Uno Turbo will disintegrate around you, but should still be good for some cheap thrills.  Fiat Strada 130 Abarth gets its power the old fashioned way (from a huge pair of Weber carburettors) and can be fun, but the rest of the car is old-school Fiat, and even if you sealed it in a perfect vacuum, it would still rust away.  The Japanese had an obsession with turbochargers for a while, which led to some unlikely hot hatches (Nissan Cherry, Mazda 323) but handling wasn't usually up to the power output, and parts situation is a nightmare.  Toyota did a nice series of twin-cam Corollas - early cars had rear wheel drive, but you won't find one.  Later fwd cars are rare these days, harsh ride and angular interior, but you can rev them to 7,500 RPM all day and they just come back for more.

 

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