The story of how my dream of Hot Hatch ownership became a reality.
Since the moment I could utter my first word, (rumoured to be Mitsubishi), I’ve longed to be able to drive my own car. Cars have always been my strongest and deepest passion. So it would be no surprise that I spent a lot of time in my childhood fantasising about the wheels of my dreams. At twenty-one years old, after a few years of agonisingly waiting for a few years no claims bonus, and some painfully long hours of hard graft to save a wedge of deposit, I’m lucky enough to say that I own my dream car.
Any self respecting young petrolhead would spend their hours dreaming of something with a prancing horse or raging bull on the front. Even now, we all dream. By the time adolescence kicks in and you become old enough to understand money isn’t the easiest thing to acquire - most teenagers, myself included, would therefore have a hot hatchback in their mind's eye. As a fifteen-year-old, I knew that it would certainly be a few years after being on the road and earning my own money before I was likely to be able to buy one. But, the point was that it was in reach of most young motoring enthusiasts by their early twenties. The hopes and dreams were real - so much so that that same fifteen-year-old me would spend their hours in between homework making list after list of hot hatchbacks, comparing and contrasting all sorts of specs in worryingly thorough detail.
What is it about the hot hatchback that makes such perfect sense to the everyday petrolhead? Well, a practical body shell based on a run-of-the-mill model makes them cheap and easy to mend, even to those on reduced budgets. The sporty styling sets them apart from their normal counterparts, and their powerful engines with firm suspension makes them fast and engaging to drive. Fancy bringing the dog? No problem. Three friends to fit in the back? With consummate ease. All for the price of a lowly specced diesel 3-Series. They are the all-rounder of automobiles.
I told myself that one day I’d own a MkV Golf GTi. In red with the tartan seats and a manual gearbox. I remember finding my inspiration for the GTi after watching the Top Gear review where Jeremy Clarkson couldn’t praise it high enough. Most importantly, I knew that by the time I would be able to insure one, they would also be much more affordable to me on the second-hand market.
Fast forward to the day of my seventeenth birthday, and there I was, presented with the red Volkswagen I’d been dreaming of. I mean, it was more of an off-crimson (Volcano Red, for the nerds), SEAT Ibiza. A 54-plate in SX trim, complete with alloy wheels, electric windows and a patch of bubbling rust on the left wing - I was king of the hill in that thing. When you’ve only just started driving, just doing 70 feels fast doesn’t it? It therefore didn’t matter that its 3-cylinder, 1.2-litre engine produced a measly 65 BHP. But it sounded like a Porsche Boxster (honest) and my friends, who at the time didn’t have a car at all, were easily pleased with a few wheelspins - which caused some hilarious axle tramp.
I learned a lot in my trusty Ibiza, I’d bumped and scraped it as much as can be expected for a typical young driver. When I turned 18, though, I began looking for my first ‘proper’ car. I was now in full time employment and the piggy bank was growing. A friend and colleague had a Peugeot 206 XSi - a small car with a comparatively large engine. He would drive that car with no fear. There was nothing he wouldn’t attempt to overtake. Put simply, that had to be the most powerful 110 BHP I’ve ever felt. My little Ibiza was no longer enough.
I’d been toying around with what I could buy and insure, aiming for the XSi’s levels of go, and after perhaps foolishly dismissing the Fiesta Zetec S and Corsa SRi on the fact they were far too common among my age group. And so set my sights on a Fiat Grande Punto T-Jet Sporting. I like my cars to be at least slightly obscure, rare and interesting. 120 BHP, 0-60 in the nine second region and the idea of being able to tell my friends now acquiring cars that I had a turbo seemed like a different ball game back then. It was to be white, with preferably a factory decal down the side and then it would look like the real deal of a baby Hot Hatch.
Now hooked on the idea of a little Italian stallion, I was about ready to head out and find the right car. My Ibiza had racked up twelve-thousand miles in just over a year of driving and had started to need regular costly maintenance to keep it going - and I needed shot of it. Another friend and colleague at work was moving abroad to start a new career, and had to get rid of his 2008 Fiat Bravo. It was a 1.4-litre T-Jet Sport in ‘Maserati Blue’. Being possibly even more scarce than a Punto Sporting, the Bravo was also more powerful with 150 BHP on tap, as well as being bigger, and much better looking. Subjective, of course, but the Bravo Sport has to be one of the most attractive and elegantly styled family hatchbacks of the last decade. We agreed on a price and the car became mine. I now owned my first ‘proper’ car.
As a timely reminder of my incompetence back then, 150 BHP at the disposal of a giddy eighteen-year-olds right foot felt like 500. Flooring that car after the Ibiza felt so rapid. Safe to say, much fun was had in that car. Technically it was floored, though - the steering was ridiculously light and vague, the ride was too hard, and the ‘Blue&Me’ phone connectivity was unfathomable. But, it had two things which gave it royalty amongst all my mates: a Sport Button, and a digital turbo boost gauge. Obviously the boost gauge was no more than a simple digital display, but the Sport button once pressed, released an extra 20 lb-ft of torque and a genuinely noticeable extra shove down the road. The boys loved to stab that little button like it would turn the innocent Italian hatchback into a fighter bomber, everytime a national speed limit sign approached.
In an ideal world I would’ve kept that car for a few years. For all its floors, it became a real friend and clocked up about ten-thousand miles in a mere six months just hooning around. It fit the definition of a ‘Warm Hatch’ - not a proper Hot Hatch by any means, but sporty and quick enough to stand out from the more basic models. If only Fiat gave it to their Abarth tuning division…
Sadly, the Bravo was short lived. I got sideswiped on the motorway one afternoon and although still driveable, the insurance company didn’t want to repair it, so it had to go and a replacement was needed. Not having planned for a new car quite so soon, I couldn't decide what I wanted. I still wanted a hatchback - at least as hot as the Bravo. I had decided, however, I wanted to join the finance bandwagon and have a brand new car, pay a monthly figure, and have something which wasn’t going to surprise me every couple of months with a garage bill.
I liked both the Volkswagen Polo BlueGT and SEAT Ibiza TSi FR. Solid, germanic cars, which both fell solidly in the Warm Hatch category hitting sixty miles-per-hour in just under eight seconds a piece. I figured the Ibiza was possibly the better bet, being a couple of grand cheaper on average despite being pretty much identical to the Polo, as well as looking sportier. I wandered into my local SEAT dealership the weekend prior to the smashed up Bravo being taken away. I only really wanted to sit in one and have a test drive, perhaps. An hour later, a look inside a pre-reg, white, five-door FR with the optional ‘Black Pack’, led to me signing the paperwork to the finance documents, and I was to pick up my brand new Ibiza FR in a few days time.
The only issue I had with my brand new SEAT was the fact that I’d intended on having a 1.4-litre TSi model. The dealer, clearly keen to get shot of this now pre-reg vehicle cluttering up his forecourt, insisted that this version which turned out to be the 1.2-litred model would be “more than enough for me”. The power deficit to the Bravo was immediately noticeable. Up to third gear, (conveniently as high as i reached on my test drive), the engine would pull with quite enough gusto for most people - 110 BHP and 129 lb-ft of torque, zipped the little car along to sixty miles-per-hour in only a smidge under nine seconds. It was slower than the Bravo and slower than what I wanted. However, I was paying peanuts for the finance package and fifty miles-per-gallon was thoroughly appreciated so I got my money's worth out of the car, and saved lots of money in the process. All of which was to go towards the whole climax that this article has been leading up to… buying a proper, no nonsense, hot hatch.
This moment was now over a year ago, yet it still excites me to talk about. I now knew that a Golf GTi didn’t really do it for me anymore - everyone knows it’s achingly capable in all areas again, but more of an obvious choice rather than an interesting choice. I thought about going back to the Italians but the hot Alfa Romeo Giulietta although beautiful and indeed a more unusual choice - the compromise in driving dynamics were enough for me to overlook the styling. Hot Hatches are traditionally 4-cylinder, front-wheel-drive machines, but recently there have been a few manufacturers putting their own take on the layout: Audi with four-wheel-drive, and five-cylinders with their RS3 for example. Another company to go their own way is BMW and their hot 1-Series.
I remember clearly one Saturday morning watching Chris Harris’ YouTube video in which he compares the BMW M135i to the Audi RS3. The BMW was the first in a new sub-brand of M cars - the idea being it is not a full on M car like an M3 or M4 but still performance orientated - often known to car communities as ‘M Lites’. BMWs hot 1 out-performed the Audi in every category they were compared - even showing the more powerful Audi a clean pair of heels in a straight line. I was immediately interested. I was in awe of the fact that despite not being a full on M car, it still used a traditional six-cylinder engine like in the M cars of old and sounded truly melodic, the power went to the rear wheels in true BMW philosophy and it was available with a manual gearbox for old fashioned driving pleasure. In a world of hot hatches nowadays being two-litre turbo units with four-wheel-drive and an automatic gearbox - the BMW in comparison was so unique in the market, and a real breath of fresh air. My mind was made up. That was the car.
The 1-Series got a mild refresh in 2015, some cosmetic and engine upgrades to feature. The M135i as a result became the M140i. The engine had a small power and torque boost and the design was now a little easier on the eye than the rather marmite looking previous version, and even more crucially - I could afford a second-hand one.
I spent many weeks trawling through the classifieds to find the one I wanted. Spending that sort of money I wasn’t settling for just the cheapest or lowest mileage example on the web - It was to be very specific. I wanted a Sunset Orange, Shadow Edition with the standard alloys and the rarer manual gearbox.
It was one Saturday morning that it happened. The perfect car appeared for sale. Right price and right spec, I rang up the salesman and with no hesitation booked an appointment for that afternoon - I knew something this good wasn’t going to hang around for long. Both myself and the friend who came with me to view the car were very taken back when we first saw it. Boy did it have presence with its striking colour and low slung stance, especially considering I was used to looking at a SEAT Ibiza day in and out. The test drive confirmed it. It gave me fizzles inside when it burbled into life, and a pure thrill in knowing this was the moment I had waited on since such a time I used to get my mum to sign my planner and have my top button done up, before going home to nerd out to car magazines - the opportunity to buy a Hot Hatchback. And I did.