Cars that made the 90s: Part 3 Iconic hot hatches of the 1990s


The nineties was truly the era of the hot hatch. While the concept itself was born in the mid ‘70s with the Golf GTI, and the actual words made famous (or should that be infamous?) in the ‘80s with the introduction of many ‘originals’ like the Escort RS Turbo, Renault 5 GTT, Astra GTE and Peugeot 205 GTI. What with these cars becoming more affordable, and with second and third generation models hitting the streets, the ‘90s is where the hot hatch went mainstream. 

There’s plenty of iconic cars to choose from of course, but we’ve narrowed it down to three of our favourite – and perhaps most important – hot hatches from the 1990s. Let’s take a look… 

Golf GTI 16v (1987)

The Mk2 Golf GTI 16V is the archetypal ‘90s hot hatch, purely because the Golf GTI is the all-time archetypal hot hatch. In fact, the VW Golf was (and remains to be) the benchmark by which all hatchbacks are judged… if not all other vehicles. Many experts have argued that a Range Rover is simply a large Golf, a Lamborghini is a fast Golf and so on. But, then again, what do journalists know? Expert opinions rarely stand the test of time. 

Even so, we can’t have a rundown of the greatest ‘90s hot hatches without the most ubiquitous of three-letter motifs. Forget the pumped-up VR6 and R models that have topped the VW line-up more recently, the Grand Touring Injection badge continues to follow the definitive formula for the hot hatch. Supreme ‘chuckability’ in the corners, a potent 4-pot engine up front and room for a dishwasher in the back when you flip the rear seats down. It’s been that way since the original Mk1 GTI in 1976 and it proves that ‘hot’ doesn’t always mean the flagship model. It’s more an attitude. An automotive ethos. 

In a way the Golf GTI has followed a distinctly German mentality, one that’s comparable to the Porsche 911. Dedicated engineers making improvements over a long linage and many decades of upgrades. The 1987 Mk2 GTI 16V came with one of the most significant improvements of them all – the upgrade to a 16-valve engine. This ‘4-valves-per-cylinder’ setup offered 137bhp, a 25% power hike over the outgoing 8V model. 

And yes, strictly speaking the early Mk2 GTI 16V Golfs aren’t true nineties cars. That distinction belongs to the Mk3 models launched in 1991, and perhaps the world-beating MkIV GTI 1.8T in 1998. But such was their popularity on the second-hand market (don’t forget that brand-new German cars are expensive), they became one of the most popular hot hatches to own in the ‘90s. With superior build quality compared to other cars of the era – meaning that they still tend to work – they continue to be extremely sought-after. Just take a look at the prices now in 2024! 

Ford Fiesta RS Turbo (1990)

It’s no small irony that the – now undeniably iconic – Mk3 Fiesta RS Turbo was nothing more than a reaction to other European hot hatches of the day. The fact is that, even though the top-spec Fiesta XR2i had fuel injection, its asthmatic 1980s 1.6-litre CVH engine just couldn’t compete with what was on offer elsewhere. Enter Ford’s Special Vehicle Engineering (SVE) Department. 

The RS Turbo was arguably a marketing stunt that paid off. Ford added a quick-spooling Garrett T2 turbocharger for a cheeky 133bhp and a 133mph top speed (which is plenty in a Mk3 Fiesta). There was also a whole host of distinctive extras including unique 3-spoke alloys, the trademark RS bonnet vents and a rather plush Recaro interior.  

It’s true that the Fiesta RST wasn’t all that well received at the time, mostly due to the handling being a little clunky compared to many Euro hatches. But Fords will always be popular in Britain and, with almost unlimited tuning options coming into play over the rest of the ‘90s (and well beyond), it’s since become one of the most coveted classic hot hatches. Let’s not forget that that the RST was only actually produced for 2-years at the beginning of the decade – and we’d still do terrible, terrible things to get our hands on one nearly 35-years later!  

Sadly, the decision to upgrade the 8V CVH engines to more modern 16V twin-cam Zetec units swept across the entire Fiesta range in 1992. For most models a Zetec and a catalytic converter wasn’t a bad thing, but it did mean that the RS Turbo would be replaced with the 1.8-litre Fiesta RS1800. Gone was the turbocharger, and those iconic bonnet vents. Eventually they dropped the Recaro seats, too. 

The RS1800 was more sophisticated for sure, but it never had quite the same charm as its turbo’d predecessor. For many the big Zetec never quite lived up to the legendary RS badge. We wouldn’t see another performance Fiesta with a turbocharged petrol engine for another 20-years until the launch of the Mk7 Fiesta ST in 2012. 

Renault Clio Williams 1 (1993)

The French do hot hatches rather well, they always have. It’s a matter of national pride. When it comes to the Mk1 Renault Clio though, as good as the range was in terms of sporty handling, they were arguably more about driving something a little different to the array of other hatchbacks out there, most of which were little more than new versions of models knocking around since the mid ‘80s. 

The Clio was brand-new for 1990, it looked distinctively modern and, to us here in Britain, it was even seen as a little exotic. If you have significant years under your belt to remember Nicole sneaking away from a dozing Papa in the TV ads, you’ll probably agree with the sentiment. The Clio was exciting, European and avant-garde, even if it wasn’t that rare here in the UK. 

The limited edition 1993 Williams, however, was a completely different animal to the rest of the Clio range. This rally homologation special took the humble French hatch to a whole new level by offering extreme performance for the time… along with more than a little marketing genius. 

A 2-litre, 145bhp engine in a lightweight, race-tuned chassis, the iconic gold Speedline alloys and Sports Blue paintwork gave this distinctive car serious credentials. But, most important of all, it had a Williams sticker on the side, a bona fide link to Renault-powered Williams F1 team. 

Of course, the truth is that Williams F1 had no part in the engineering or the design, but that doesn’t diminish its reputation as one of Renault’s all-time finest hot hatches. Renault Sport – their specialist motorsport division – were tasked with producing the Williams for rallying, or more specifically 2500 road-going versions to comply with the homologation regulations of the day. Just to make sure there was no shortage of spares they built 3800. And, when these sold out almost instantly, they rolled out another 1600. Popularity simply wasn’t an issue for the Williams, and these figures don’t include the Williams 2 and Williams 3 models that came later… or the many, many ‘blue and gold’ replicas that have hit the streets ever since.