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Write What You Drive

A showcase of independent motoring journalism and automotive travails

JTurn's Cars to Drive Before You Die

Last year, I read an article in CAR magazine entitled "25 British Cars to Drive Before You Die"; included in the list was a '60s Lotus F1 car, a £15m vintage Blower Bentley and the current McLaren P1 GTR - a car you'd be lucky to even see before you die, let alone drive.

Call me a cynic, but I feel that the bulk of the list was out of the reach of the common man and the list in its entirety likely out of reach of anybody at all. To be fair to the magazine, I think it was mainly designed to serve as a launch pad for the publication of various recent road tests, interspersed with some of British Motoring's "greatest hits" to emphasise the renaissance currently being experienced by the country's performance car manufacturers.

JTurn's mantra has always revolved heavily around public-spiritedness and accessibility. To that end, I have compiled a much shorter list of more attainable lifetime motoring goals - refusing to be a slave to base-ten conventions, the list numbers just 7.

Flying in the face of a recent referendum result, it also seems needlessly small-minded to limit the list to British cars so Japan, Germany and, erm, Norfolk are also included. In no particular order;

1. Volkswagen Golf GTI

Nothing says "man in the street" like a Golf GTI, and there's no better place to start than the car that we're (repeatedly reminded) invented the hot-hatch segment.

There's no need to be picky about your GTI to get a pass here: I count only the Mk1 and much-maligned Mk3 (it was a 16v one actually, and really rather good) on my own driving CV but it's enough to be able to utter the immortal phrase "my GTI" or "my old Golf" - vocabulary capable of bridging any socio-economic divide.

The GTI really was a great idea, and one that, like Noel Gallagher's 4-chord "Wonderwall" progression, you'd fancy your chances at inventing yourself if it hadn't been done already.

In the early days, the powertrain and performance hikes over and above the common-or-garden models were nothing like they are today (where the 300bhp Golf R and Focus RS now battle it out at the top of the hot-hatch tree) but if anything, that shows how minor the changes really need to be to create something that will go down in history.

Stick a mildly liberated 1.8 or 2.0L lump in where you would normally find a wheezy 1.4 or 1.6, uprate the dampers and roll bars, chuck in some tartan trim and a golf-ball gear knob and watch them fly off the forecourts. The Mk1 isn't even that good - its controls feel wooden and lumpen in comparison to pretty much anything built in the last 20 years. Doesn't half look cool though...

The 3-door hatch has always been an oddly handsome thing and executed correctly, results in a vehicle that can look sporty, seat 5 and/or swallow a washing machine. If the performance package is right, the hot hatch is quite literally all things to all men.

2. Subaru Impreza (or Mitsubishi Evo)

In much the same way as there being no better place to start than the Golf GTI, there's no better place to go next than the cars that (apparently) superseded the hot hatch in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

I must confess to remembering the early 2000s as being somewhat meagre times for hot-hatch pickings after the explosion (80s) and progress (90s) of the previous decades. The sharp European GTI lines of Golfs and 205s gave way to bespoilered, turbocharged World Rally homologations from old adversaries Subaru and Mitsubishi.

Being a McRae fan, I was always firmly in the Subaru camp - the looks of the '90s Impreza always seeming slightly cleaner and subtler than the various and forever incrementing Evo incarnations around at the same time - although neither were exactly restrained in terms of their styling or general approach.

With the WRC already mentioned twice in this short article, the origin and appeal of these cars is obvious. Who wouldn't want a slice of the heroic action Messrs McRae, Makinen and Burns doled out on a fortnightly basis? Meanwhile, as long as you hadn't followed their example of removing the interior and fitting a competition roll-cage, you could enjoy similar if not better levels of family practicality to the aforementioned hot hatches.

From a powertrain point of view, 4WD and 2.0L turbocharged engines were, of course, de-rigueur - necessitated by the competition rules but also adding an extra dimension to the performance of the now commonplace and somewhat hum-drum hot-hatch. Both cars in standard trim put out more than twice the power of the original Golf GTI, and their JDM counterparts a good deal more than that.

In a similar vein to, but not to the same extent as, the Nissan Skyline GTRs of the period; chassis and engine electronics started to play a bigger part in the performance equation - in a precursor to what we see today. ECU remapping, big turbo kits and big power hikes took over where old fashioned fettling and breathing mods had yielded much more modest gains in the previous generations of NA hot hatches.

The Evo is forever vaunted as a devastating "point-to-point" car - whatever that means. I can't count the number of times I read that it can outpace a Lamborghini down a section of B-road..."especially in the wet". Of course, if the "point-to-point" in question was two ends of a runway, the Lambo would piss it but I think we can all relate to the real-world usability this theoretical comparison is trying to convey.

If I had my pick, I'd go for a UK-spec Turbo 2000 N Series ("The McRae one") Impreza; it has actually become a surprisingly good-looking car with the passage of time - externally at least. If budgets allowed, an RB5, P1 or the ultimate 22B Impreza would all be welcome and worthwhile. I've never been able to make head-nor-tail of the WRX and STI designations of grey-import cars but there are certainly some spicier versions available if you can be bothered to, especially as, with only 208bhp a Turbo 2000 is comprehensively outgunned as a performance car by modest modern alternatives as this fantastic retrospective will tell you.

Evo-wise, I was always partial to the III, but they're rather long in the tooth these days and wouldn't leave you with much choice if you were to limit your search. The IV and V were where things really started to hot-up in the fight with Subaru; the Tommi Makinen Edition Evo VI considered a high water-mark, with current prices to match.

If you prefer to splash around in the UKDM, the VIII was the first to be officially imported by Mitsubishi UK, it was available in various "FQ" levels with increasingly heady power outputs and became a staple of gym car parks across the nation.

Whichever one you pick and whatever the preconceptions about ownership can't be denied that they triggered a modern redefinition of the segment started by the Delta Integrale and Escort Cosworth and are currently far more accessible than either.

Pick one from around the time the Impreza vs. Evo war was at its peak, watch some reruns of 1998 Rally GB and marvel at how some engine and chassis tech can transform a dull-as-dishwater Japanese mid-range saloon into a supercar "beater" and darling of the petrol head community.