Before SUVs and then CUVs became wildly popular, hatchback sedans were some of the most versatile vehicles on the road. Now with ever-increasing gas prices, hatchbacks are worth another look, especially if you are thinking about buying a new car.

What makes hatchbacks so versatile and desirable? These four-door sedans with a fifth "door" in the rear makes for an overall great driving experience for those who like to commute to work, shuttle kids around town, haul equipment, go on shopping excursions or take off on road trip adventures.

We picked four hatchbacks to road test for their better-than-average styling, versatility, options, fuel efficiency, sporty drive and price.

MINI Clubman vs. Mazda3

It's hard to compare MINI's new Cooper Clubman with other cars on the road because of its quirky retro styling and super sporty drive, but the Mazda3 may be the best comparison. Which did we like better? Well, both hatchbacks match up closely and provide enough eye-pleasing design, heart-thumping power, superior handling, versatile passenger and cargo space and good fuel efficiency to keep any driver happy. Too close to call on this match up.

2008 MINI Cooper Clubman || Get a Free Price Quote

MSRP: $19,950

Fuel Economy Range: 37 mpg highway, 28 mpg city

Driving Impressions: Excellent acceleration and braking, legendary handling holds true.

Best Features: Retro interior comfortable and quirky, good cargo space in back

Low Points: Back seat leg room is quite cramped

MINI's Clubman looks like a "stretch" MINI with its longer stance, slick windows, passenger-side club door and split rear "barn" doors. With more cargo and leg room, the Clubman is truly a family car with MINI's legendary handling, super cool retro-inspired interior, great gas mileage and lots of options at a reasonable price.

2008 Mazda3 || Get a Free Price Quote

MSRP: $13,995-$20,295

Fuel efficiency: 32 mpg highway, 24 mpg city

Driving Impressions: Fairly fast acceleration, excellent handling and braking

Best Features: Stylish exterior, superior interior design

Low Points: Still thinking ...

Mazda truly knows how to make cars with great design and driving traits. Its entry-level Mazda3 is perhaps the best deal in its class with a handsome exterior silhouette, racy drive and good gas mileage. Mazda3's interior, however, is where this car shines as the driver cockpit, back seat and large rear cargo area offer Euro-inspired styling, technology and comfort.

Pontiac Vibe vs. Saturn Astra

Although both made by GM, Pontiac's Vibe shares its platform with Toyota's ever-popular Matrix and Saturn's Astra is based on GM's European Opel platform. So, it's no wonder these GM hatchbacks seem miles apart in both styling and performance. Which did we prefer? Pontiac Vibe.

2008 Pontiac Vibe || Get a Free Price Quote

MSRP: $16,855

Fuel Economy Range: 33 mpg highway, 26 mpg city

Driving Impressions: Excellent acceleration, handling and braking

Best Features: Versatility of fold-flat rear and front passenger seats, controls are pleasing to the touch and well placed

Low Points: Interior has a bit of a goofy minivan feel

It took a few days driving around Pontiac's five-door Vibe to see its true benefits as a highly versatile get-around-town car. But it didn't take long for this winner to shine with its excellent gas mileage, great driving abilities, roomy and comfortable seating, flexible cargo space, minimalist controls and lots of good design extras.

2008 Saturn Astra || Get a Free Price Quote

MSRP: $15,875 - $18,375

Fuel Economy Range: 32 mpg highway, 24 mpg city

Driving Impressions: Better-than-average acceleration, handling and braking

Best Features: Comfortable seats, lots of leg room and cargo space

Low Points: Interior design was too minimalist for my tastes, cup holder in a weird place, lack of extra storage for cell phone or iPod.

Saturn's Astra is a well-rounded hatchback and its great gas mileage (32 mpg hwy) may certainly help you make a buying decision as gas is nearing $5 a gallon. The fairly fast acceleration and above-average braking and handling makes the driving experience more than fun. However, we do wish the interior was designed more for families who live in their cars. We found the one cup holder in the car was placed in an awkward spot usually reserved for an armrest. And, the one niche built into the console for digital equipment wasn't deep enough to hold a cell phone, which doesn't make any sense for today's mobile-hungry consumers.

Read More About Small Cars:

- Small, Big Sellers

- Dodge Caliber vs. Honda Fit

- Review: 2008 Saturn Astra XR

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