I despise the phrase ‘jumped the shark’. It comes from a late episode of Happy Days, where Fonzie literally jumps over a shark on water skis – at least, that’s what Wikipedia told me. I wasn’t born when the shark was first jumped, you see, but the expression still lingers like a bad smell over pop culture.
It’s generally used to describe a significant directional change in a television show, where the producers do something so ridiculous it becomes clear they’re out of ideas. I’ve never felt the need to use the phrase… or hadn’t ever felt the need, until driving the Honda Civic Type R.
Now it’s clear: hot hatches have jumped the shark. Eww, I feel dirty.
The concept started in the 1970s with a GTI. Whether it was the Golf or the Peugeot 205 is up for debate, but the hot-hatch formula was simple. A lightweight design was central – the Mk1 Golf GTI came in at 790kg and the 205 GTi just 875kg – and a fizzy little engine and lively handling were both a given.
Running with the television metaphor, the first GTI twins were the ‘pilot’ episode. Things continued apace from there, with points high and low, but momentum really started to slow around the mid-1990s.
Come the turn of the millennium, and the concept of the hot hatch wasn’t in great nick. The then-current Mk4 Golf GTI (soft target, sure) was powered by a 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine making just 110kW and 210Nm, and weighed 1260kg. Call it a mid-season slump.
Volkswagen restarted things with the Mk5 GTI, though. It took all that was great about the original model – subtle good looks, sharper handling and a performance boost – and modernised them, setting the formula for today’s crop of hot and hyper-hatches.
Dad had a Mk5 GTI. He waited seven months for it to arrive, and loved every minute of ownership until consistent mechanical problems forced its sale. Have fun in the comments, anti-VW brigade.
What made the car great was its blend of performance and practicality. He’s not a petrolhead, my dad, so he’d mooch around most of the time, never really pushing the car particularly hard. Then occasionally he’d decide it was time to go, and the world would turn blurry as cricket bags, kids, and the collection of folders on his back seat went flying.
This brings us to today’s crop of hot hatches. We’re working on a comparison of three at the moment, one of which is the Civic Type R behind this revelation. It looks utterly ridiculous from the outside, all tacked-on scoops and spoilers. They create downforce, et cetera. Who cares?
With 228kW power and (more importantly) 400Nm of torque being put through the front wheels, it’s impossible to tip beyond, say, 60 per cent throttle in first gear and, if it’s damp, second. I had the fronts spinning in third gear on a particularly chilly Melbourne morning without even trying.
It rides poorly in comfort mode, sounds average and looks so insane, I’d be embarrassed to park it in front of my local café. Or in my local shopping centre. Scratch that, within 10km of my postcode. And as a single man, the idea of showing up to a date in one is just absurd.
Plus, when an errant bolt in St Kilda nuked the right-rear tyre, there was no space saver in the boot, let alone a full-sized spare. Honda roadside assist, thanks for your help, but when did a flatbed truck become necessary to sort out a puncture on your family hatch? When family hatches started running 245/30 ZR20 Continental rubber, that’s when.
Getting back to the main point with the Type R, though. What the hell is the point of a hot hatch delivering downforce when you can’t come remotely close to using the engine’s monstrous potential day-to-day? When did drivability drop below negative lift on the list of priorities at Honda?
Simple. The company ran out of ideas mid-season. It jumped the shark. The new Civic Type R is How I Met Your Mother after season six, it’s Clark marrying Lois, it’s ER when the helicopter fell on Romano. (Yep, I googled that last one too.)
The basic hot hatch formula has been pushed to its logical extreme. We’ve had a few seasons of character development, but the producers are backed into a corner, desperately searching for the next big thing.
Honda isn’t alone here, but I’m not allowed to tell you about the other car on that comparison suffering the same problem. Suffice to say, it’s similarly compromised. I’m ignoring the top end here, because the hot hatch has always been an everyman tool, and the Audi RS3/AMG A45, along with the Golf R in most guises, are properly expensive.
Even the Hyundai i30N, which I downright love, has a strut brace in the boot. Sure, you can remove it, but why the hell should I have to faff around with a piece of scaffolding when it comes time to carry a bike. That’s antithetical to the eminently practical focus of an old-fashioned hot hatch.
That’s not to say people won’t buy them – they sell, no doubt – but the new buyer is getting a fundamentally different product to the one that made us love hot hatches, parading around under the same pretence.
There are a few potential solutions: buy a Golf GTI, which remains the consummate all-rounder, or put up with the compromises and quietly seethe when someone laughs at your wing.
I have one more nagging fear… Is this our fault? By ‘us’ I mean car enthusiasts and the motoring press. Have we been too insistent on ever-greater performance at the expense of drivability, or has this bonkers focus on figures been foisted upon us as part of a stupid manufacturers’ arms race?
Regardless of who’s to blame (ahem, manufacturers), there’s an easy way to make it stop: tell carmakers we’re sick of the compromises. Stop making excuses for cars that should, by their very nature, be all-rounders.
There’s room for harder, faster models, but we need to remind manufacturers that faster and more focused isn’t always better.
I’m off to start the petition. Who’s with me? Once more, with gusto. WHO’S WITH ME?