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December 19, 2010

News & Features

The hatch is back: Several new five-door models spark US interest

Special to NWautos

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Ford has sold more of its 2011 Fiestas as hatchbacks than sedans. (Ford)

Americans, for the most part, love European stuff. We covet their cuisine, swoon over their accents, follow their fashions and remake their movies and TV shows. When it comes to transportation, though, the divide is as wide as the Atlantic.

Our streets bustle with sedans and SUVs -- the larger the better. Across the pond, however, narrow roads are snarled with cars small enough to be tucked into a Chevrolet Suburban or Toyota Sequoia as a spare vehicle. They're also commonly hatchbacks.

So why have we dismissed hatchbacks over the years? Some manufacturers blame the first energy crisis of the 1970s, when Americans turned to small imported cars -- and found that we loathed being jammed into tiny Civics, Rabbits and Fiestas.

But there's evidence that we're discovering what our cool overseas cousins have known for years: Hatches are useful, stylish and efficient cars.

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While visiting Italy this year, the author took this photo of a parking lot dominated by hatchbacks. (Tom Voelk)

Exhibit A? Ford's new Fiesta. It's also available as a sedan, but the order rate for the hatchback is a surprising 60 percent. And that's not all for Ford. The automaker killed off the Focus hatchback when it redesigned the unique-to-America version a few years back, but the 2012 car triumphantly returns to its five-door roots.

It could be argued that the Toyota Prius' greatest accomplishment is that it has turned us on to hatchbacks. (Environmentalists may beg to differ.) And Honda's Fit may be called the Jazz in other countries, but it should have been named Magic. Its interior morphs into all sorts of configurations and truly seems larger than the exterior would have you believe.

Moving upscale, the MINI Cooper and Audi A3 show how hatchbacks can boast fuel- and space-efficiency without compromising style. And Lexus could have produced its upcoming CT 200h hybrid as a sedan but chose to put a big door in back. The CT's mission is to snag younger buyers and get them addicted to the company's legendary customer service.

The hatch family
  • Although they're cousins, the industry separates hatchbacks, station wagons and crossovers into different segments. All combine their rear glass and trunk lid into one piece, but wagons tend to have a more upright rear end and more space behind the rear seats, while crossovers are taller and generally have more rugged styling.

And really, it's the younger generation that will lead growth in the hatchback segment. Scion, with its young demographic, has been churning out xBs, xDs and tCs for years now, all of them with liftgates.

Not that Americans are totally ready to embrace the hatch. Olivier Francois, president and CEO of Chrysler and Fiat's Lancia brand, recently arranged a focus group to determine whether the midsize Lancia Delta appealed to Americans. It did not. The car was striking enough to star with Tom Hanks in "Angels and Demons," but its hatch design left the group cold.

Francois says European buyers tend to view small sedans such as our Toyota Corolla as a bit odd. They lack flexibility. Why buy a Volkswagen Bora (known as the Jetta here) when the hatch-equipped Golf can carry a room full of furniture bought at Ikea?

It could be argued that we've already embraced hatchbacks, in the form of crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Chevy Equinox. But if you don't need a large vehicle or all-wheel drive, open your mind to the big fifth door.

Being youthful and Euro-chic has never been so easy -- or practical.

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