Downsizing, '80s style: A guide to the decade's silliest superminis

Alex Grant looks at the maddest hatches from the decade that brought us stonewash jeans and Wham.

Downsizing is one of the automotive industry's biggest buzz words at the moment, with most manufacturers swapping large engines for small turbocharged versions to cut fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. Sounds great, but the idea is nothing new.

Back in the 1980s, there was an entire crop of forced induction superminis breathing fire into the small-car segment. By the 1990s they'd almost all died out as small hot hatches used larger, naturally aspirated engines. It's ironic to see their descendants going full circle.

There's still a lot of fun to be had with a boxy, boosted old hatchback. Turbo and supercharger engines mean easy power gains, and light, tinny bodies mean you don't need many more horses to really scare yourself. Plus these pre-2001 cars all benefit from cheap road tax as a result of their tiny engines. Here's a guide to some of the silliest city cars of the 1980s.

Daihatsu Charade GTti Looking a little like the Fiat Cinquecento, the square-backed Charade had a 993cc turbocharged three-cylinder engine and was the first production car to offer over 100 bhp per litre. Just. Its factory 99 bhp can easily be heated up, taking advantage of a sub-800kg kerb weight.

Fiat Uno Turbo The boxy Uno took its first step into turbocharging in the mid-1980s, using a 103 bhp 1.3-litre engine from the larger Fiat Ritmo. Chronic rust problems put plenty of these into early retirement, the rest hit by over-boosted engines and trips through B-road hedgerows. Fragile, fast, and fun.

Lancia Y10 Turbo The Uno Turbo's smaller sibling, the Y10 gave most of the same enjoyment but in a smaller and less well known package. Power this time came from a 1.0-litre engine, producing 84 bhp with plenty of tuning potential and even less weight to carry around. Rust problems were similar to the Uno's.

MG Metro Turbo British Leyland didn't quite capture the Mini spirit with the Metro, but the Mini didn't get a turbocharger until BMW took over. Tuned by MG and Lotus Engineering, the Turbo built on the basic MG Metro's 1.3-litre engine to reach 93 bhp. Rust and engine-scavenging Mini owners mean there are few left.

Mitsubishi Colt 1400 GT Turbo Long before the Lancer took over as the hot Mitsubishi of choice, the Mirage (known in Europe as the Colt) was being sold in Japan as a 103 bhp GT Turbo model. It's a rare car outside Japan with a bit of a cult following, helped by the natty and typically '80s go-faster graphics and bonnet scoop.

Nissan March SuperTurbo Unique in this list as the only car to feature both a supercharger and a turbocharger, Nissan's boxy first-generation Micra had 108 lag-free horsepower on offer from its 1.0-litre engine. There's never been another quite like it, so 24 years forward its 7.7-second sprint to 60mph means it's still the fastest-accelerating Micra ever made.

Renault 5 GT Turbo Beloved of the Max Power generation and Ali G, it's easy to forget just how good-looking the Renault 5 is without being fiddled with. It wasn't quite as silly as the midengined road-going rally cars of the early '80s, but with 113 bhp on tap and more boost easy to find, it's a deserved performance icon.

Suzuki Cultus (Swift) Turbo Europe got a selection of hot Swifts, but not the Turbo sold in North America and Japan. This had a three-cylinder engine producing 80 bhp, later 82 bhp, reaching 60 mph in around 9 seconds. Admirable effort, but ultimately slower than the European-spec 1.3 GTI that followed.

Volkswagen Polo GT-G40 Another unique car in this list, the Polo G40 had a small supercharger bolted onto its 1.3-litre engine, producing almost as much power as the 8v Golf GTI. A full production model was sold from 1990, but in 1987 Volkswagen made 500 pre-face-lift cars and sold them to its employees. They're all black, all left-hand drive, and almost all modified above their 113 bhp factory output.

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About the author

    Alex is a B2B motoring journalist and technology geek, based on the doorstep of the car magazine's playground that is South Wales. Incapable of owning anything electronic or mechanical without finding ways to "improve" it, a lifelong interest in cars progressed naturally into modifying. His bank balance has never looked back.

     

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