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  • Erik JP Drobey


...I’ve been reminiscing about my totaled GTI. Just a little.

A few years back, I shut the iron Dieselgate on Volkswagen, pretty certain I’d never buy another VW Group vehicle again. Our family’s TDI Golf, which we had purchased outright mere weeks before the scandal broke, transmogrified into something I wanted no part of, and the Dieselgate experience (which I wrote about for this site) completely eroded my trust in a company from which I had bought multiple cars and which I had held in high esteem (my fondness for VWs began when I was twelve, when my father bought a 1979 Westfalia camper van in which we trundled from San Francisco to Montréal).

But even as I readily handed over the TDI’s keys to complete our buyback, I knew I would miss that VW hatchback, though not as much as the GTI it replaced. 

(A side story from my ill-fated history with VWs: the GTI fell victim to catastrophic water damage. I had a hitch installed on the then-brand-new GTI. The installer, I learned months later, had improperly reassembled the bumper, leading to gallons of water intruding through the gap and under the carpeting--all the way to the front footwells. The poor GTI went from new-car fresh to swamp-monster putrid before registering 10,000 miles).

Volskwagen, arguably, created the quintessential hot-hatch with the GTI: fast enough, dynamically interesting, comfortable, extremely practical, surprisingly refined, and affordable. It’s not perfect (nor fully waterproof, apparently), but as an all-arounder, the GTI is still compelling to me, Dieselgate and all. And the Golf R? Well, as the great hockey reporter Pierre LeBrun would exclaim, holy mama! 

Ah, hatchbacks. How I miss them.

Don’t get me wrong: the Miata is my favorite among cars I’ve owned, and for pure driving fun, I’ll take that roadster or the FR-S over a hatchback ten days out of eleven. And the FR-S, as Todd and Paul attest, is surprisingly practical. But it ain’t a hatch. That’s actually one of the reasons I didn’t purchase an FR-S/BRZ/86 sooner. When I first looked at a BRZ at a dealer a couple of years ago, opening that little trunk-lid filled me with mild disappointment and sadness. 

You know what that 86 platform needs? Some of Paul’s design magic! No need to disrupt the lines; just a little swoop here and a tiny stretch there, and voila: the trunk-lid and rear window hinge from the roof (think Datsun 240Z). Easy-peasy. Are you with me, Paul? No? Okay, maybe I'm hatch-biased/obsessed. But I’m the type of person who thinks old Cooper Ss and Lancia Delta Integrales and BMW Z Coupes are super-cool cars (not to mention 240Zs). 

There--I fixed it.

Dear Reader, you might question my implicit categorizing of something like the 240Z as a hatchback. The 240Z is not, admittedly, a hatchback, even though it has a hatch-like feature. And what I really set out to write about is my fondness for actual hot hatchbacks--those typically front-wheel drive, often turbocharged angry boxes on wheels. Why do I like them as much as I do? Why am I genuinely baffled that seven out of ten drivers don’t daily hatchbacks? Let me count the ways.

They’re usable cars that aren’t huge. 

Let’s start with the obvious. Hatchbacks--hot or not--are supremely practical for their size. The MINI Cooper I drove for awhile, despite being small, fit four people pretty well and held a surprising amount of cargo. The Golf was downright comfortable. And the Honda Fit is TARDIS-like in its use of interior space.

They’ve got a lower center of gravity than crossovers, SUVs, CUVs--in other words, a lower center of gravity than most vehicles on the road these days.

Hot hatches are cars. They’re not almost-trucks, or sort-of-cars, or really-hatchbacks-with-a-lift; they’re cars that are lower to the ground and therefore generally handle better than their ubiquitous counterparts. Because physics. 

They’re lighter than those other car-types I just listed.

See where I’m going here?

Most are available equipped with manual transmissions. 

Even the Corolla hatchback is purportedly enjoyable to drive with the manual transmission. I was disappointed to see that MINI only offers an automatic, though. 

They’re a hoot to drive. 

The GTI, despite lacking steering feel, was a car I looked forward to driving. In my search that landed me the FR-S, I test-drove a Ford Fiesta ST and a Focus RS, both of which impressed me. Even the Fiat 500 Abarth, which I test drove up the Berkely hills at speed while it grunted and shouted with that ridiculous turbo and exhaust, made me grin. And I very much want to drive the Civic Type R and Hyundai Veloster N--not only because they appear to be solid daily drivers but because they promise serious street and track performance as well. Which leads to my next point.

They’re a good value. 

The Mazda MX-5 is an affordable sports car, but a great value? Certainly so when compared with other sports cars, but not so much when considering daily liveability. But a Hyundai Veloster N? Even without ever sitting in a Veloster N, I know it offers excellent value. $30K for a car you can commute in, help a friend move apartments, take on a road trip, and track? Yes, please. 

So am I actively shopping for a hot-hatch? Not yet. The FR-S is meeting my daily-driver needs well for now, and I like the Miata too much to move on just yet (though I might in the relative near-term). In the meantime, I’ll keep reminiscing. And will I ever consider a Volkswagen GTI or Golf R, given my Dieselgate experience? I’m not sure, but that hot-hatch formula does warm me to the idea.

Erik JP Drobey lives in San Francisco. He currently works as the sous chef and sausage meister at Wursthall, to which he commutes via "the twisty way" each morning. Erik chronicles some of his culinary and vehicular adventures on Instagram as @zjpd.

The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.


1 Comment

Jun 05, 2020

Going from a ratty old Celica GT to my then-new BRZ, the hatch was one of the things I really missed (that, and an engine note that didn't sound awful).

Having that hatch really make far better use of the cargo volume of any car - and the big problem I found with the BRZ was fitting things into the awkward-shaped/tiny trunk opening (the trunk itself was plenty-sufficient).

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