Unexpected Features: 5-cylinders in hatchbacks

There’s something special about the character of a five cylinder, and because it’s just about short enough to mount transversely, they’ve featured in some cars smaller than quite necessary. The obvious one today is the Audi RS3, getting applause left, right and centre for standing up to those disheartening 2.0 litre turbo-four jobs. And shouting. And banging. From a marque best known these days for efficient dual-carriageway tourers, this onslaught of noise in the hands of hooligans normally equipped with asthmatic TDIs is a bit awful. Fortunately, there are alternative ways to enjoy the nuances of 5-cylinders in a lightweight, compact package. And ones not so worshipped by those who enjoy a good dustbin orchestra. So read on.

Strangely enough, it takes an Italian to trade exuberance for subtlety, although we do go back to the 1990s for this one. Without a turbo and at a relatively small two litres, the Fiat Bravo HGT was a bit of a shift away from its predecessor, the Tipo Sedicivalvole. In fact, it’s a shift away from the others here too in that it’s an oversquare engine more similar to the Honda fives of the same era. Its peak power of 152bhp was at a heady 6,500rpm, torque being 137ft/lb at 3,750rpm.

Fiat Bravo HGT 155 with Abarth kit

Even so, it’s no hard edged, rasping, fizzing Italian twin cam of old, despite the loud colours available. Whether in bright orange, aqua, some interpretation of midnight purple, or Come at me Renault Megane RT yellow, its 5-cylinder voice is a different animal. It emits a velvety howl, perceptibly more free-flowing than others, but still weighty and smooth even with aftermarket exhausts. It’s a slick looking car, in three-door only Bravo shape, and suits the powertrain. Dealer-fitted Abarth styling bits were available, adding badges and a body-kit for some extra spice.

I mean, just listen to it
Fiat Bravo interior audio – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6TL-laxIJdc

But if that’s a bit too spicy for you, then there is the nice glass of milk that is the Volvo C30. Like a modern 480, except semi-skimmed (doesn’t even have pop-up headlights), this was a compact hatchback with reasonably funky styling. And some had strong five-cylinder power. A naturally aspirated 2.4 made 168bhp and the 2.5 turbo T5 227bhp, just like Volvos of old. With slightly less lineage, the higher-output D5 diesel option produced 178bhp and 285ft/lbs. It’s a rare member of the sporty oil-burner hatch club, along with the old Fabia vRS.

And here’s one zipping round the Nordschleife
Volvo C30 D5 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbYdhqgYYKA

Of course, there was the whole raft of ‘hey, gimmie back my snack-pack’ Ford ST and RS thefts of this unit from Volvo. The first was the mk2 Focus ST, packing the same T5 engine making 222bhp, and in that more usual undersquare fashion made 236ft/lb between 1,600 and 4,000rpm. RS models hiked that up to 301bhp and with as much twisting power as you might expect from a hulk green muscle-hatch. From a driver’s perspective, the Fords were sharper than the heavier Volvos and so that Swedish gem of an engine was let loose on almost the entire Ford range to make driver’s specials for all of them. But I digress.

What a racket! Rowdy, noisy, glorious
Ford Focus RS – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9zAT4h25po

The 227bhp Volvo C30 T5

Enter the unwavering Golf mk4, equipped with VR5 power. Because the turbo 1.8 20 valve is evil and can’t be trusted to serve the 150-170bhp bracket, there was nothing else to do than develop a strange odd-vee engine. Here is a brief video explaining the unusual engineering details that make that thing work. The upshot is a distinctive, luxurious engine note that quite dramatically brings some drama to the Golf, and, if you can find one, the New Beetle. Now can you imagine one of those with a crackling ASBO exhaust?

Kind of…
VW Beetle 2.3 VR5 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQKAXFcRUMk

Please don’t though. I’ve found that best way to enjoy a 5-cylinder isn’t with volume, but to experience the whole range of sounds made from that inherently imbalanced engine. All the better that it’s transverse, too, and in light, less insulated bodies you can properly appreciate those nuances. A warbling low end, perhaps best from those Volvos, shifting tune and note through the mid-range to a howl at the top that competes with the best of sixes for exhilarating charm. Add intake, valve-gear, cam noise too, and enjoy the small-band jazz.

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