There’s no question about it: the 1980s was the decade of the hot hatch.
It was an era when every mainstream manufacturer rushed to ensure its small and medium hatchback ranges featured at least one warmed-up model; when the young and young-at-heart clamoured to buy the rocket shopper of their dreams; when Zender and their ilk found a lucrative new market for their wares; and when the car magazines of the day keenly debated the merits of the hot hatch field.
And what a field it was: Volkswagen Golf GTI marks 1 and 2 (the latter appearing in 16v form towards the end of the decade), Peugeot 205 GTI in 1.6. and 1.9 litre flavours, Peugeot 309 GTI, Renault 5 GT Turbo, Fiesta XR2, Escort XR3 in carburettor and later fuel injected variants, Escort RS Turbo, Fiat Uno Turbo, Citroen AX GT, Vauxhall Astra GTE in series 1 and 2 guises, Sierra XR4i, Cavalier SRI and the MG Metro Turbo. Lordy, there was even an MG version of the Maestro, with a turbocharged edition for the sort of folk that in future decades would willingly throw themselves off perfectly good bridges and cranes. But, as we shall see, the best of them all isn’t to be found in that list.
My love affair with the hot hatch started in 1988. I was in my final year at university and had just come into some money. Most of the people on my course – the stolid, ostensibly sensible brigade whose ways were, and remain, alien to me – would have put the money aside for a rainy day. Me? I bought a hot hatch. But not just any hot hatch. Oh no, I made the serendipitous decision to buy the finest hot hatch of the era: I bought a Renault 11 Turbo.
Now, some of you may be choking on your Vimto as you read this, but hear me out. I may have a fool for a client but my case is strong.
Let’s start with the styling. The Renault 11’s chunky lines came courtesy of a team led by none other than Robert Opron, the man who gave the world the Citröen SM, GS and CX. The phase 1 version of the 11 Turbo certainly looked the part, with its twin headlights, distinctive alloy wheels, squat stance and large ‘Turbo’ decals on both doors. It was very 80s, but in a good way. The facelifted ‘phase 2’ version of the 11 Turbo lost the decals and twin headlights, but gained Renault’s corporate grille, side skirts and less distinctive alloys. Which is better? You pays your money and takes your choice…
So far, so good. But what about the performance?
Both versions of the 11 Turbo used Renault’s venerable Cleon engine in 1397cc guise. Mated to a Garrett turbocharger and fed by carburettor, the phase 1 version pumped out 105 bhp and 119 lb/ft. It doesn’t sound much, but the 11 Turbo was light: a mere 915kg. The engine spun smoothly, full boost was announced with a satisfying kick at about 2750rpm and mid-range performance was excellent by the standards of the day. Turbo lag existed, of course, but was dismissed by the simple expedient of dropping down a gear.
The phase 2 version of the 11 Turbo offered even better performance. Its revised engine spun sweetly up to 7000rpm (albeit the rev counter was red-lined at 6000 rpm), was less laggy, had full boost on tap from 2500rpm and pumped out a more impressive looking 115 bhp.
Let’s put it another way: whereas the phase one version outstripped most of the competition in real-world driving, the phase two version made them masticate on its dust.
Okay, okay, I hear you: straight-line speed is only part of the equation and, on a twisty road, handling is what it’s all about.
Well, guess what: the 11 Turbo had the competition covered here as well. Mind you, my 11 Turbo had a secret weapon: the previous owner had fitted 185/60 tyres in place of the standard fit 175/65 items. Armed with these tyres, the 11 Turbo gripped, steered, rode and stopped with the very best of them. And then some.
I drove a lot of A and B road miles in those days and, in spite of my inexperience, coarse inputs and overuse of the loud pedal, I never found my 11 Turbo wanting for grip in any conditions. Its chassis was amply endowed with that most precious of qualities: tolerance. And I don’t exaggerate when I say that a less forgiving car would quite probably have ended its (and my) days wrapped round a tree or lamppost.
Not convinced yet? My, my, you are a tough jury.
Okay, let’s look at comfort. Yes, comfort matters in a hot hatch, especially for those of us who happen to be a bit taller than most people. Those travelling in the front of an 11 Turbo found themselves cosseted by Renault’s figure-hugging Petale seats, and rear-seat travellers were provided with good headroom, legroom and, thanks to the monotrace front seat fittings, excellent footroom. Long trips were enjoyed, not endured, in the 11 Turbo.
Let me see. What does that leave? Oh yes, build quality.
You’ll be in for a disappointment if you think I’ve left this to last in the hope that it might slip under your radar. Because, you see, build quality was a strength throughout the Renault 11 range. And my 11 Turbo was no exception to this. It was seven years old when I sold it, having covered over 50,000 miles in my ownership on top of the 44,000 it had on the clock when I bought it. Nothing fell off, no holes appeared and, yes, even the electrics still worked.
So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we all know that the 11 Turbo is a cult hero. And now that you’ve heard the evidence, I am sure that you will agree with me that it is deserving of another coveted accolade – that it is indeed the finest hot hatch of the 1980s.