In the States, we know that size still matters. Just like our dinner portions, we love our cars and trucks bigger. But times, they are a changin’ again. Just look at the current crop of hatchbacks. Manufacturers are investing more thought, time and money into developing small cars that act big. It hasn’t always been this way for the hatchback, though.
The gas crises of 1973 and 1979 “fueled” much of the first trend toward smaller cars, and the rise of the hatchback was a direct result. Back then, owning one was usually a signal of sacrifice. Buying something that had a large rear door but didn’t qualify as a station wagon implied you couldn’t afford a “you’ve arrived” sedan. Hatchbacks like the AMC Gremlin, the Ford Pinto, the Chevy Vega and the Renault LeCar were far undesirable, bordering on embarrassing. Their only salvation was a modicum of practicality, and this was often offset by the need cover the back with a blanket to hide the shameful collection of fast food bags from the eyes of parking-lot peepers. Examples from the automotive archives like the Volkswagen Rabbit (now Golf), Honda CRX, and the furiously quick Dodge Omni GLH were scant exceptions to the rule.
Though it’s not a completely different game today with regard to fuel-saving measures in the auto industry, the hatchback is no longer an afterthought; driving one doesn’t makes you look like you were holding the door when they were handing out real cars. They’re still practical, but now also boast style, amenities and great fuel economy — and, sometimes, wickedly good performance. It’s a potent combination that has young and old alike turning to some of the best options out there.
We weren’t looking to be left behind. Our month-long chance at throwing around five great examples left us with a solid appreciation for the new hatch (and look forward to a future story on the hot hatch), and with some daydreams as to how we’d use ours.
Best Hatchback for All Seasons: Sure, the CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) makes accelerating feel like Fred Flintstone with oil-coated feet, but the Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive keeps you moving through dirt, pavement and snow with confidence and ease. Thanks to lots of glass up front, the visibility from the driver’s seat is outstanding. Subaru has been making hatchbacks since Crocodile Dundee was teaching punks what a knife was, so they know how to make a car that looks and runs good dirty. That’s important.
Miles Driven: 477
Verdict: Aside from the awful Bluetooth setup, this is your mudding mini-master.
Memorable Moment: Making eye contact with a soccer mom with the same car and “understanding”.
Best Hatchback for the Speed Freak: Despite the ridiculous torque steer from its 263 hp and 280 lb-ft, we loved this car like a five-year-old loves Hotwheels. Okay, so the gaping fish mouth fascia and the myriad body bulges are less than subtle — but this car is a hoot to drive in the dry. (If you mash it in the wet, be prepared.) Sending this kind of power to the front wheels of a formerly practical hatchback is like giving an angry Hillary Clinton a pair of ninja swords at a peace summit.
Miles Driven: 582
Verdict: If you don’t care what the valet thinks, this is your bargain sports car.
Memorable Moment: Turning a freeway on ramp into a launching pad at 80 mph.
The Original Hatchback
Though it was never sold here in the States, the Renault 16 was really the world’s first truly successful five-door
hot hatchback. It was actually classified as a large family car, and the rear seat could be removed entirely for more space. It went on to sell almost 2 million units over a span of fifteen years.
Hyundai Elantra GT
Best Hatchback for the Design Lover: Hyundai’s miniaturized last-gen Elantra wagon is a nifty hatchback that speaks their new design language fluently. It’s just the kind of hatchback that’s practical for everyday use, and it’s sporty and rakish enough not to bore you to tears. About $20K gets you ample storage space, heated seats, remote keyless entry, cooled glovebox, telematics, satellite radio — and a six speed manual, which takes this hatch up several notches for us. You can even spend a little more for the Style package and get tighter suspension, panoramic sunroof and leather. It’s big done small.
Miles Driven: 510
Verdict: No pocket rocket, but it at least looks like one.
Memorable Moment: Seeing two gen Y-ers eye the car while driving through the Target parking lot.
Kia Forte 5
Best Hatchback for the Pragmatist: If you get past the rather (very) vanilla looks, you’ll be surprised by a car with excellent interior styling, an easy-to-use sat nav, and a fair amount of pep (to 20 MPH). Plus, the Forte’s got great in-car tech and lots of options like heated seats, Bluetooth audio/phone, and a proximity key. Say you’re bored with the 2.0 liter EX: you can add a
a whole .4 liters for about $1K and get paddle shifters, sport-tuned suspension (hmm?) and leather wrap for the steering wheel and shifter in the SX trim. Worth it. Just don’t bring the driving gloves.
Miles Driven: 308
Verdict: You get in and wonder if you’re in the same car you just looked at.
Memorable Moment: Cramming what seemed like an SUV’s worth of groceries into the back.
Ford Focus ST
Best Hatchback for the Weekend Trackster: If you like the GTI but have a hankering for the Stars and Stripes, the Blue Oval has just the drug for you. Sounding better than almost any car under $30K and with enough leg room for four, the ST is an example of everything that is good about Ford’s global plan to offer Europe and America the same(-ish) car. Just in case you miss the huge grill up front or twin hexagonal tailpipes and mistake this for a regular Focus, the cozy Recaro seats, ST badging throughout and gauges on the dash for information you’ll never use (“oh, my oil temperature is between yellow and red”) are there to remind you.
Miles Driven: 658
Verdict: American hot hatches never had it so damned good — and so damned fast.
Memorable Moment: Tossing Mulholland Drive like a Chop’t salad.
Additional contribution by Amos Kwon.