The Death of Real Hot Hatches
February 2002

Today, we have 37 hot hatches listed in AutoZine’s rating page, more than any other time in history, even eclipsing the hot hatches era in the mid to late 80s. From Volkswagen Lupo GTI to BMW 325ti Compact, we can choose whatever kind of hot hatches we like. However, it is also amazing that nearly all of these so-called hot hatches are not real hot hatches. Some are over-weight, some are over-priced, some are inert to steer, and worst of all, most understeer.

Among them, only Peugeot 106 GTI and MG ZR160 still qualify to be hot hatches. It is not just coincident that both cars were born some years ago - the Peugeot is even close to 10 years old now. What does this mean ? it means car makers have adjusted their definition of hot hatches. Not to blame them, we can only rethink why the majority of car buyers demand safe-to-handle and ease-of-driving manner from what supposed to deliver ultimate fun. This is not a new issue, as many hard-core enthusiasts have already criticized.

What I really want to point out is another new trend further ruining hot hatches - Tall Body. Having read reports about Peugeot 307, you may notice that tall body did downgrade the handling of a good platform. The 307 is still capable to play lift-off oversteer just like any other good Peugeot, this proves that engineers did care about its handling. You should also notice that it shares the same suspension design as the 306, so why doesn’t it perform as well in the new car ? Damper technologies can only be improved. Stronger chassis can only improve handling. So what’s wrong with the Peugeot ? 

The common trend of family hatch is to increase headroom while offering a higher seating position. This means taller roof and higher center of gravity. From 306 to 307, from old Fiesta to new Fiesta, center of gravity is lifted considerably. At the same time, suspension design remains the same front strut plus rear torsion-beam, which has virtually no space for improvement. To counter body roll, stiffening springs and dampers seemed the only solution, this result in poorer ride quality. This is the problem 307XSi facing exactly. It rides really hard. 

If you have study our Technical School, you will see higher center of gravity leads to more weight transfer during cornering. This result in reduced grip and balance, and the suspension setting has nothing to do with it. Taking elk test into account, car makers must introduce more understeer into the suspension geometry to avoid roll-over when the car change direction suddenly. Peugeot product development chief Bruno de Guiber told Autocar recently that it is impossible to make a new hatch steer as keen as 205GTI because it would not pass elk test. Tall body design will just make this worse.

This seems very negative, because in the foreseeing future new hatches will be taller and taller. Following the retirement of 106GTI and MG ZR160, we can say good-bye to the real hot hatch era and say welcome to the pseudo hot hatch era. By then, we can only enjoy ultimate driving fun in roadsters.

Mark Wan

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