Performance Specials: Who does it best?

20 February 2018 | by Aidan Walsh

GTI, Type-R, RS, M, AMG, Abarth... from hot hatchbacks to super saloons (sedans), high-performance range toppers are a must for any upwardly-mobile marque nowadays. It’s a tried and tested formula; a turbo here, a supercharger there, throw on some sticky rubber then nail the Nürburgring.

Almost as important however, are the visuals. The question of how to ensure these fast-moving A-road predators aren’t mistaken for their undernourished, common-or-garden brethren isn’t always an easy one to answer. While many opt for pumped-up, steroid-infused aggression, others prefer stealth tactics.

Which strategy is best? Let’s take a look.

The Loud & Proud Approach

As exemplified by: Honda Civic Type R (FK2/FK8), Ford Focus RS, Ford Escort RS Cosworth, Mercedes-AMG GT R, Subaru Impreza WRX/STi, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo…


Little divides opinion quite like a car festooned with lairy performance addenda. Wings, scoops, swollen arches and acidic hues have the ability to delight and disgust in almost equal measure.

Although these things are voguish today, the likes of Ford have long been proponents of such four-wheeled lager louts. The Sierra RS Cosworth, Escort RS Cosworth and modern Focus RS are very much the Nike Air Max of the motoring world: loud, garish and in-your-face.


The appeal of the fast Ford is an interesting one to ponder. Although oddly divisive (hailing from this most mainstream of brands) and perhaps even offensive to some onlookers, their lack of aesthetic restraint and decorum does help bestow a ‘down to earth’ quality which clearly strikes a chord with a hefty subset of enthusiasts.


Though many among this group lack the means to actually purchase such vehicles (or stomach the associated insurance premiums), the hero-worship they bestow upon RS products surely serves to bolster the blue oval as a whole, allowing it to permeate the collective consciousness of generations of ‘boy racers’.

The eye-popping prices achieved by classic Fords at auction recently are perhaps indicative of this; some old boy racers may have grown rich, but few have forgotten their first (Ford) love.


But it’s no longer just working-class heroes who get shouty; today’s high-end brands must court oligarchs, sheiks and purveyors of aggressive rap music should they wish to prosper, leading to many becoming ever more Ford-like in their approach.

Unlike days of old, when automotive exotica were the preserve of old-money aristocracy, modern wealth prefers to scream and bellow, rather than whisper, as the Mercedes-AMG GT R and its ilk clearly demonstrate.


Beyond this, designers must also consider that some cars, like the cutesy Fiat 500, dishwater-dull Mitsubishi Lancer and OAP-friendly Toyota Yaris could simply not be perceived as credible performance contenders without visual changes significant enough to disguise the inherent nature of the base product, hence the jutting bodykits and gaping grilles sported by their go-faster variants.


What’s more, one suspects the increasingly extreme aesthetics of the Honda Civic Type-R are as much a diversionary tactic, necessitated by the lumpen, amorphous silhouettes of recent Civic generations, as they are an attempt to steal the thunder of Ford et al.

The slinky EK9 Type-R (1997) required no such adornment at all – just a roof-mounted spoiler and a splash of Championship White on the wheels.


On the other hand, should a manufacturer go as mad as shoehorning a V6 engine into a front-wheel-drive hatchback, as Alfa Romeo did for the 147 in 2002, flared arches and giant grilles are only right and proper.

Ditto the mid-engined Clio V6, although the barmy Renault’s added width was as much for packaging and cooling as anything else.


Sometimes aesthetic extremism is just a no brainer. For old ‘homologation specials’ like the E30 M3, Sierra RS Cosworth and the king-of-wings Mercedes 190E 2.5-16 Evo II, it was even a regulatory necessity, allowing them to attach the same wings and flares to racing versions.

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

As exemplified by: Mazda6 MPS, Volkswagen Passat W8, Volkswagen Golf G60 Limited, BMW M5 (E28), Peugeot 306 GTI-6, Lancia Thema 8.32 (pictured below)...


While many choose to peacock their performance credentials, there have always been those who’ve opted to hide their fog lights under a bushel.

Perhaps best suited to those in the business of – or looking to avoid – undercover law enforcement, the lesser spotted ‘Q-car’ is remarkable only by its visual un-remarkability, being almost indistinguishable from lesser siblings.


Peugeot’s 306 GTI-6 was an example of the breed. The fact that it could’ve been mistaken for a lowly D-Turbo wasn’t an entirely bad thing, in that it allowed the 306’s attractive form to remained unsullied by excessive clutter.

On the other hand, one wonders if the low-key looks have contributed to its failure to attain the iconic status of the seminal 205 GTi.


BMW’s shark-like E28 M5, like many executive expresses, was another handsome car whose form remained mercifully free of fripperies, bar a tasteful set of cross-spoke alloy wheels.

This typically Teutonic restraint proved no barrier to a glowing performance legacy, even if recent generations are not quite so discreet anymore.


Conversely, Mazda’s 6 MPS (Mazdaspeed6) had no such luck, enjoying none of the cult following of its more ‘out-there’ compatriots, the Subaru Impreza WRX STI and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.

Of course, the subtle 6 lacked their rally-bred pedigree, but the ability to pass for a minicab surely didn’t help its cause...


Volkswagen’s short-lived, little-known Passat W8 is another Q-car almost entirely forgotten today (despite its unique Bugatti-derived power-plant), adroitly demonstrating the perils of extreme understatement.

Goldilocks Cars

As exemplified by: Audi RS series, BMW M3, Volkswagen Lupo GTI, Volkswagen Golf GTI/R32/R, Peugeot 205 GTI, Citroen Saxo VTR/VTS...


As with so many things in life, performance car design arguably works best when a delicate balance is achieved, with many of the best-loved and most commercially successful performance dynasties having made this happy middle ground their own.


Volkswagen’s Golf GTI has consistently nestled in this ‘just right’ zone, assertive without being loutish – a unique set of wheels and red-rimmed mesh grille, along with trademark tartan cloth and dimpled gear-knob, mark out a GTI as something ‘a bit special’ without shouting from the rooftops about it.

VW Lupo GTI_rear.jpg

This successful formula is versatile too, having been extended to the Golf R, Up GTI and Lupo GTI among others. The little Lupo in particular stands as a masterful piece of performance design, with its wide track, flared arches and squat stance lending a healthy dollop of pugnacious attitude to the car’s boxy silhouette.


Further reinforcing the Germanic knack for ‘just right’ are Audi and BMW with their ‘RS’ and ‘M’ brands respectively. Both navigate the tricky middle market with aplomb. Not an easy task, since middle-class buyers are so seemingly averse to the excesses which characterise many a fast Ford or limited-run Lamborghini.

Audi-Porsche RS2 Avant.jpg

The prominent use of Porsche components by Audi’s mould-breaking RS2 stands out as a particular highlight, providing a silent hint as to the beast within.

Departing Deutschland, it must also be said that Citroën’s once popular, but now much-maligned Saxo VTR/VTS models deserve credit here too.


These little hot hatches successfully corrected the tottering, jacked-up stance of base car, adding a cladded effect to lower body in order to beef-up the formerly weedy looks and creating an underrated visual gem (and sales smash hit) in the process.

To Sum Up

As we can see, there’s more than one way to re-skin a performance car, with each strategy having its own set of merits. Whether careful and considered triumphs over loud and lairy is very much dependent on the nature of the product at hand and its intended audience.

While this writer may be partial to the demure charm of a Golf GTI, the automotive world would certainly be a much duller place without the wild and wacky. Long live variety!

Clio V6, anyone?

Clio V6 Phase II_blue.jpg