Hatchback stages a comeback
The hatch is back.
After enjoying a brief vogue in the 1970s, the hatchback is again a familiar sight in U.S. showrooms.
And unlike the first time around, when misfires such as the AMC Gremlin, Ford Pinto and Chevy Chevette carried the flag, the latest crop features some of the hottest -- and hottest-selling -- vehicles in the market. The Honda Fit, Mini Cooper, Volkswagen Rabbit and Nissan Versa all notched double-digit sales increases in July, when new-vehicle sales were down overall.
More are on the way, with entries from Volvo, Hyundai and others on tap for the coming year.
As in the ‘70s, high gasoline prices are a key driver of the trend. Many Americans want alternatives to gas-hungry sport utility vehicles that will provide more storage space than a sedan while costing less and getting better mileage than the car-based crossover utility vehicles that have hit the market in recent years.
“More people are looking at vehicles that offer efficiency and value, and the models that promise these features are basically hatchbacks,” said Ron Pinelli, president of research firm Autodata Corp.
There were 57 hatchback models sold in the U.S. during the 2007 model year, including the popular Toyota Prius hybrid. That’s up from 35 models in 1997 and 51 in 2002, according to data tracker Edmunds.com.
Art Zasadny of Wyandotte, Mich., is among the converts. The 46-year-old information technology professional plays drums in his church band on Sundays, accompanied by his wife on keyboards and his son on bass. Zasadny relies on his Mazda3 hatchback to get band members and equipment to the church on time.
The car “combines practicality and fun in a very nice package that’s reasonable to insure, too,” he said. “I think a hatchback is great for those who’ve outgrown their minivans, and it’s much more practical than an SUV.”
And it gets 32 miles to the gallon.
Modern-day hatchbacks such as the Mazda3 and the Versa also come in a variety of performance-enhancing sport packages that amp up the coolness factor.
“Your sedan can look like any other car out there, but the hatch still looks unique and sporty,” opined one poster at an online forum for Mazda3 owners.
Not everyone agrees. “I like the speed and concept of the hatch, but it looks too much like a wagon for me!,” wrote another poster. “I can’t get past the whole soccer-mom appearance.”
Still, the combination of utility, fuel economy and price that hatchbacks provide can be compelling, especially to the under- 30 crowd.
“Younger people want one car that fulfills a lot of needs, and a hatchback fills that role,” said Mark Perry, head of product planning for Nissan’s Versa.
For example, the Mazda3 four-door hatchback has 17 cubic feet of cargo space, compared with 11 1/2 in the sedan version. Fold down the rear seat and the cargo capacity expands to almost 44 cubic feet. And with a base sticker of $18,630, it costs about $5,000 less than the Mazda CX-7 crossover, while delivering around 30% better mileage, according to Edmunds.com.
The Versa, with 18 cubic feet of cargo space and a base sticker of $13,350, has actually turned the usual sedan-hatchback equation on its head. Nissan initially expected the Versa’s sedan version to account for around 60% of sales, with the hatchback getting the rest. Instead, the mix has been closer to 70%-30% in favor of hatchbacks.
“You have a surprising amount of interior room, a five-star crash rating, 30 miles plus per gallon -- and people are all over it,” Perry said.
At Volkswagen, demand for the reintroduced Rabbit has been so strong that it caught the German automaker a bit by surprise. Combined with the success of VW’s sporty GTI, the Rabbit’s rebound “is further proof that hatchbacks have once again found favor in the U.S. market,” spokesman Steve Keyes said.
That’s a big change from the ‘80s and ‘90s, when hatchbacks all but vanished from these shores.
“One thing that hurt the hatchback was that people associated them with cheap little cars,” said Karl Brauer, editor in chief at Edmunds.com. “People said, ‘I’d rather wait in line to get gas than drive one of those.’
“As soon as gas prices fell, those vehicles disappeared.”
One sign of the lingering stigma is that some manufacturers are still reluctant to label a vehicle as a “hatchback.” Mazda, for example, prefers to call its version a “five-door” (four passenger doors, plus the hatch).
Brauer notes that hatchbacks have long been popular in Europe, where high gas prices and narrow urban streets make SUVs impractical.
“Europeans got to this point years ago,” he said. “They have a greater appreciation for hatchbacks and station wagons than this country does.”
The tide hasn’t been running all the hatchback’s way. Ford Motor Co., for instance, decided to drop its two-door and four-door Fusion hatchbacks when it added a coupe to the car’s lineup for the 2008 model year.
But other automakers are forging ahead. Volvo’s new C30, due out in October and targeted squarely at a younger audience, is a sporty, two-door hatchback. Next spring, Hyundai Motor Co. will bring to the U.S. market a version of the i30 hatchback it sells in Europe, dubbed the Elantra Touring.
And Hyundai, which wasn’t selling cars in the U.S. back in the 1970s, is embracing its inner hatch-ness.
“We’re not afraid of the hatchback name around here,” said Miles Johnson, a spokesman for Fountain Valley-based Hyundai Motor America. “A hatchback is what it is.”
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