[size=200]F[/size]rom somewhere within the final decade of the last millenium, emerged the fastest growing car market of our present and future: the hatchback. Where many car enthusiasts long scoffed at the idea of bobbly FFs being considered sporting, this economical, convenient city-runabout format has evolved and carved out its own very niche, to the point where production car competition between the various makers is generating considerable excitement among a growing legion of fans. Hot on the heels of the shootout at the pinnacle of supercars, between the McLaren P1, the Porsche 918 and the Ferrari LaFerrari, comes another shootout among the FF hatches.
It is a portent for the future history of cars in this world that observers and buyers alike are responding so strongly to hot hatches, as the market continues to diversify to cater to a range of different tastes and approaches to the point where each competing model could be considered a landmark in their own right. One could go for Germanic precision and excellence in the VW Golf, the benchmark to which all others must be compared [size=85](if not for that clunky PDK transmission issue, thank goodness it seems to be fixed now…)[/size] For an edgier, sportier feel but retaining most of the refinement, one could go with a Renault Megane. If one wanted to go further French (and therefore quirkier for the hell of it), the Citroën DS3 would definitely turn heads (and not burn a hole in your bank balance). Those looking for a more raw drive would be most interested in some of Ford’s less heralded models (yet far more important for the future of the automotive industry, I would argue), the Fiesta and Focus*. Yet for much of the noughties, arguably the biggest seller in the hatch game was the versatile and nimble Mazda3, though perhaps less so its amped-up, steroid abusing cousin the Mazda3 MPS (which, on paper, was faster than an RX-7 FD3S in a straight line, provided you could even hold it in a straight line from all the torque steer!) And while it may perhaps be an odd one out as it is actually FR, BMW’s recent change in direction in the 1 series could be seen, with all the benefit of hindsight, as a brilliant market prediction, for it has garnered critical acclaim and firmly grabbed a slice of the market share.
This list is but a brief summary in a list of more than a dozen major contenders, but surely from this alone the variety is evident.
*[size=70]I live in Australia, so some of the model names here may not be familiar[/size]
It is interesting that I choose to explore this subject here, because it seems to run contrary to the expectations I may have engendered when I opened Gryphon Gear. After all, the reasons for this market’s growth comes from a certain necessity, where enthusiasts of the gas guzzling V8s and larger find themselves increasingly oppressed. That oppression is not merely a social construct, rather it comes from our increasing awareness of the limitations of our environment, a notion of our responsibilities, and the need to cohabit on increasingly congested roads. The very way that we see travel must become more utilitarian. Yet clearly, within the apparent confines of the abandonment of whimsy, is found a new form of freedom, creative expression, and the desire for the extreme. Our human nature prevails ever stronger than before, and in these hatches, I feel, may come great things, for they are not just great in their extremity, but great in their accessibility.
So I turn our attention to the once-unlikely battlegrounds of the hot hatch. The Golf GTI, already legendary in its own right, could be said to be the leader of the noughties revival in the Mk V, and it reigned supreme for some years. Yet naturally, others would follow and perhaps even surpass (though of course the fun here lies in debating that point), such as the Renault Megane RS 265, which held the record for a FF car around Nordschleife. More recently still, Honda, once considered among the royalty of hatch manufacturers with models ranging from the CR-X to the Civic to the Corolla (by which I refer to the AE86, naturally), finally realised how dull and dated its offerings had become. Along with the reboot of the new space-age Honda Civic Vti (of course I would talk about this, I own one!), it made plans to be the first manufacturer to have an FF production car lap Nordschleife in less than 8 minutes with a 285+hp Type R… only to have Spanish carmaker SEAT slap them in the face with the Leon Cupra 280, which did it in 7:58! This also did not escape the notice of Renault, who are, at the time of writing, preparing to exact revenge by retuning their car and hurling it around the track once more in a bid to regain the crown…
It is into this fray that I shall offer this exposition. As you shall discover, what I’ve done here is create a representative (of sorts) FF hatch which I shall describe as “mildly warm”… and then through successive iterations, take it first to the limit of a production car (a real Type R hot hatch), then of a track day hatch (but still okay to drive on the road)… then finally the “Gryphon Gear” version, where the monster within is let loose and tears your face off.
[size=200]L[/size]et’s start with a typical FF 4 seater hatch, though already it’s not all that typical because it’s 3 door, and it’s styled like a 1990 sports coupé. Though it’s a petrol car, one might draw comparison to the hybrid Honda CR-Z (the spiritual successor to the popular CR-X, from which the frame I’m using in this presentation was based). But since the CR-Z isn’t actually one of the hatches in the same market sector that I’m referring to, I’ve built the initial car with a build quality, chassis and specifications and interior trim similar to something in the middle to upper ranges of the hatches, say, approaching but not quite a Golf GTI and priced accordingly. The main difference is: it has a slightly less powerful, but incredibly economical engine.
[size=85]Kind of, um, understated isn’t it…[/size]
In all honesty the main reason I built a hatch like this was because I wanted somewhere to install my maximally economical and relatively inexpensive i4 engine, the uncreatively named Eco4.
[size=85]Witness the power of VTEC and rightsizing![/size]
With a 0-100km/h time of 6.4s, and fuel consumption figures of under 4L/100km (!!!), the name Swift EcoSport seems accurate enough. Performance wise, it’s around the ballpark of the sportier variants of the premium hatches, with reliability and servicing costs to match. Would anybody ever buy one in powder blue? I don’t know…
Naturally I find this model a bit run of the mill, and perhaps a bit identity confused. I don’t think there’d really be space in the market for yet another hatch unless it were to cater to a specific taste that wasn’t already covered by the existing brands, but as a conglomeration of what’s out there, it serves its purpose.
Now let’s spice things up a bit, with an R-spec version. This is where the bulk of the press coverage of the hatch wars lies:
[size=85]Though somebody probably ought to fire the stylist… if the Sky Blue was a bit iffy, the Fuschia is definitely a step in the wrong direction…[/size]
[size=85]Not So Eco now![/size]
Slightly more aggressive styling, very much more aggressive engine, aero package, wheels, suspension and brake setup. The interior also gets a boost (think stitched leather trim and all the Bluetooth, sat nav and reverse camera you can get your hands on), and the safety is upgraded to match the performance. I may have gone overboard with the engine (with in excess of 500hp, compared to the 280-320 found in the more competitive hot hatches nowadays), but the truth is that most of the change is only in a slightly upsized turbo (limited to 1.1bar) and the intake, and the rest was tuning. This is supposed to be the FF production hatch that takes the new record around Nordschleife after all!
[size=85]Take that, SEAT![/size]
Which it does, pretty easily, and on an economy of about 12L/100km at that.
At Gryphon Gear, we aren’t content with that little. Whatever can be improved, will be improved. There’s weight to be stripped (swap the rear seats for a rollcage!), aero to be beefed up, and of course, much more power to be wrung out of the engine. The block didn’t need much changing, but the turbo was replaced with something larger, that spooled later, and delivered far more boost. The whole chassis was rebuilt as a monocoque carbon shell, and bodykit was changed again to keep up with the increased demand on cooling and deliver more downforce than a Pagani Huayra [size=85](and yes, this does mean from this point I’m cheating with the aero, but humour me for now![/size]
[size=85]Now we’re getting warm[/size]
[size=85]I swear this engine has an MBTF of 19261km, it just doesn’t display properly for some reason D:[/size]
The result was a massive 150hp gain, and even more massive shedding of about 450kg, bringing the power:weight ratio to the magical 1:1. The Swift Track Day Special edition packs performance well beyond anything the world has ever offered in a road-going FF; if you’re skilled (and brave) enough, you could more than keep up with even the newest hybrid supercars, lapping Nordschleife under seven minutes. In an FF hatch.
[size=85]Take that, supercars![/size]
I’ll just pause here to let you imagine a boxy little FF hatch going toe to toe with the hybrid supercars that auto journalists are raving on about as the advent of a new era in automotive history.
[size=85]…or not, here’s an artist’s impression I prepared earlier. If I have offended anybody, I apologise for nothing.[/size]
Now for the final step, that takes us into the true realm of Gryphon Gear. If one were not just to create, but to rewrite history, the Swift Windcutter would have been the kind of car that doomed the Group B Rally. It dispenses entirely with the restriction of an i4 turbo, and replaces it with a small block NA V8 which puts out even more power with none of that turbo lag, and happens to be lighter than the Turbo i4. Once the car has been gutted to its absolute minimum and the aero has been tricked out to the absolute maximum, you get a monster car.
[size=85]Hope the devs don’t mind me appropriating the Automation logo as a sponsor decal![/size]
Okay, so that’s just the concept sketch. I was just a bit sad that I couldn’t quite emulate those crazy Group B rally light arrays and livery. Here’s the Automation model:
[size=85]Hope you got balls of steel… because there’s no padding whatsoever in that seat![/size]
[size=85]Imagine the shock on everybody’s faces when they look at your car, expect a turbo 4, then you start it up and they hear a burbling V8 instead[/size]
This car will blow you away. It’ll also blow around Nordschleife in 6:28 (6:32 if you take the aids off, if you dared). As you may have guessed from the styling, I had it in my mind that this car would also be the fastest car (outright) up Pikes Peak, that is to say it’s built to outgun the utterly mad Peugeot 208 T16 driven by Seb Loeb last year. If only we had the track available to us to give it a try… It probably would have been hilarious to watch in a Group B rally, except I’m not sure that 700hp and FF is ever a good idea off-road… But if you’re still reading this you’d know that here we’re not interested in good ideas as we are crazy ones, so there you have it.
As a post-script, I’ll mention that I did do the obvious thing and tried the chassis out with a transverse V8 AWD layout, which allows me the use of a larger engine that puts out about 960kw. Needless to say it makes the car about 1.7% faster, though it also puts on about 400kg from the transformation.
[size=200]F[/size]ront wheel drives may be wholly counterintuitive in the realm of the competitive racing. They’re typically front-engined, meaning a constant challenge to offset the weight bearing down upon the front wheels which have the task of driving AND turning the car. High volume manufacturers have mitigated the handling problems considerably (consider the Mazda6, for example), but they’re still prone to that horrible grindy understeer and front end float if you get on the power too soon exiting a corner. Likewise, the front locks up easily and the back can get rather vague under heavy braking. But all these problems only whet one’s appetite to overcome, to seek and break the limits. The Windcutter epitomises this endeavour in the guise of taking a well established formula and extrapolating it beyond belief.
Or to put it another way, we’ve made the sensible everyday car of the present very, very insensible.