For many years, fast hatchbacks, or “hot hatches,” as they are colloquially known, were extremely popular in the United States. Volkswagen Golf GTI, Ford Focus ST and RS, and the Subaru WRX STI hatchback were just a few of the vehicles that gained cult status. The Golf GTI and Golf R are currently the only hot hatches available in the United States.
Trucks and SUVs are clearly more important to American automakers in 2022 than compact hatchbacks, hot or not. Ford phased out the Focus, along with much of its lineup, in 2018, and Chevrolet phased out the Cruze hatchback in 2019. Dodge had the Omni hatchback long before the Cruze and Ford Focus. The Omni was an economy hatchback to complement Chrysler’s K-car sedans and coupes for many years after I introduced it in 1978. When viewed from a distance, it resembled a Volkswagen Golf. They did not consider the Omni a hot hatch until Carroll Shelby looked at it.
Carroll Shelby, a legendary designer and car racer, and his team at Shelby Automobiles were done with Ford in the mid-1980s, and Dodge became the racing icon’s new playground (via Car and Driver).
Initially, the similarities between the VW Golf were more than skin deep. The Omni borrowed a Volkswagen engine, but by the mid-1980s, we powered it by a Chrysler-built 2.2-liter inline four-cylinder engine that produced “enough” horsepower (via Allpar). The Omni GLH (literally “Goes Like Hell”), a slightly more upscale version, used a turbocharger to boost horsepower to 146. When Carroll Shelby and his team of engineers got their hands on it, they installed an inter-cooled turbocharger and increased the horsepower to 176. Shelby also upgraded the suspension, added new wheels, and painted the car black. The Omni GLHS was the name given to the new Super Omni (Goes Like Hell – Shelby). I ever produced only 500.
At this point in Chrysler’s history, the company had essentially said goodbye to sedans and wagons powered by massive emissions-strangled V8s that barely provided any power. Forced induction was the way to go, and Dodge was slapping turbochargers on everything from minivans to convertibles in the 1980s, which was practically unheard of among American automakers. Ford and Chevy models certainly used turbochargers, but not on the scale that Chrysler did.
Reviews from the 1980s praised the special Omni, noting that it was not only incredibly fast, but could also compete with V8-powered cars without missing a beat. It had only 176 horsepower, but it was a powerhouse over 30 years ago, thanks to the adjustable suspension components and the fact that it weighed just over 2,500 pounds, making it extremely light.
The GLHS was one of the first conventional American “hot hatches,” decades before Ford decided to give American versions of the Focus a “go fast” makeover with the Focus ST and RS. It also used Chrysler’s then-common turbocharged engine. With Ford’s EcoBoost engines and Chevrolet’s EcoTec line of engines, it’s difficult to find an economy car that doesn’t have a turbo option.
Although the Omni GLHS had a brief run, it showed to American automakers at the time that you didn’t need a V8 to go fast. All you needed was a turbocharger, a four-cylinder engine, and some engineering know-how from one of the greatest minds in automotive history. It’s as simple as that.