What You Should Know Before Buying Hatchbacks
The hatchback, a two or four door passenger car with a 3rd or 5th door at the back, enjoys almost universal popularity – except in the U.S. For American drivers the utility of the hatch makes sense, but its (generally) diminutive size hasn’t. At one point manufacturers offered hatchbacks – two or four door – only at the entry-level edge of their lineup. More recently, volume-oriented models have been introduced by both domestic and import manufacturers, in bth entry-level (Hyundai, Kia, Honda, Toyota and a newly introduced Chevy Cruze) and upscale (Audi’s A7, BMW’s 3-and-5-Series GT) models. And for combining impressive utility with sheer entertainment, there are few things better – or more affordable – than the growing number of hot hatches. Volkswagen launched the category with its evergreen GTI, but recently Ford has jumped in with performance variants of Fiesta and Focus, Honda plans to bring in a way-hot Civic, and at Subaru dealerships the (now discontinued) WRX and STi hatchbacks remain both desirable and respected.
Exterior – The architecture is self-explanatory; hatchbacks are equipped with a ‘hatch’ in ‘back’. And with that, the hatchback owner has essentially doubled the flexibility available with a conventional sedan or 2-door coupe. In advertising its Volkswagen Golf (one of the first to popularize the hatchback) VW famously cast the ad with two 20-something guys and a found-by-the-curb armchair, which they took home in the back of their Golf hatchback. And while Americans resisted the 3-door or 5-door configuration for seemingly forever, younger adults growing up in minivans or crossovers are all about the increased functionality with no increase in weight or footprint. In the market, the hatch can be all about function without flourish (again, Volkswagen), or can usurp ultimate functionality with stylized flourish, such as seen on Infiniti’s all-new QX30. Most hatchbacks are based on subcompact or compact platforms, so will retain the smallish footprints of the donor vehicles.
Interior – One key to the hatchback’s popularity is its versatility. With a hatch that opens wide and rear seats that fold, your bicycle will fit and, if moving an apartment, your sofa sleeper might fit. Back in its entry-level roots, when the interiors may have been a step-up from hose-it-out functionality, you’ll now see improved materials in combination with an increasing number of tech and infotainment upgrades. And while many carmakers are relatively new to the genre, Volkswagen and Honda have taken two different paths to 2017; Volkswagen retains traditional cues, such as its tartan seat inserts, while Honda’s Civic incorporates as much 21st-century vibe as possible.
Powertrains – Four cylinders are not only the rule among hatchback builders, but rarely is there the exception. And in the aftermath of VW’s diesel emissions debacle, most four cylinder powertrains will be gas, while a growing number are turbocharged. And those four cylinders are inevitably connected to automatic transmissions; even among low cost, entry-level hatches the manual transmission is rarely purchased. Notable for its novelty in the States is the 3-cylinder, currently offered by both Ford’s Fiesta and the base Mini Cooper; Ford’s is a turbocharged 1.0 liter while Mini offers 50% more displacement and a bunch more torque.
With the growing number of hatches in the ‘hot hatch’ category, things get more interesting – but invariably remain four cylinders. Ford offers the Focus ST with 2.0 liters of displacement and 252 horsepower delivered through the front wheels, or the same displacement amped up to 350 horsepower delivered through all four wheels in the new Focus RS. And beyond the Civic Si is the rumored arrival of Honda’s Civic R-type, previously only seen in Europe and Japan. Think of these developments as a production outcome of the Fast and Furious franchise, now available in your neighborhood showroom.
Safety - Unlike their crossover or SUV counterparts, there is little in the hatchback menu to be off-putting for anyone, from young families to empty nesters. Given what is typically their lower profile – relative to a crossover or SUV – outward visibility might be compromised, but the reduced ride height also provides a lower center of gravity and better inherent stability. There is a more family-centric culture revolving around the design and build of a hatchback, and to that end the nanny features you’ve come to expect on a crossover or SUV will in all likelihood find their way into a hatch. This includes, but is not limited to, blind spot warning, lane change monitoring and adaptive cruise control. And for those hatchbacks coming from the factory with performance mods to the engine, suspension or braking, know there are fewer better ways to experience that performance than within the relative security of a high performance, 5-door envelope.
Technology – Today, if a manufacturer opts for an introduction at a major auto show the offering is more typically devoted to newly-introduced technology within the product than the outside sheetmetal or under-the-hood enhancements. Of course, automotive technology can take many forms, including those intended to improve safety, efficiency, connectivity or entertainment. With its Tech of the Year Award in 2016, Autoblog recognized Apple CarPlay for its user-friendliness and “overall impact on bringing our connected lives into the car.” If you’re an iPhone user, the control of apps is done via a familiar interface on an infotainment screen while adding features that weren’t originally installed at the factory. Android Auto was second in the voting, delivering to the user essentially the same capabilities via Google’s phone OS.
With automotive technology’s trickle down, you can expect in-car WiFi to enjoy greater availability, and its integration into a ‘media hub’ increasingly common. Of course, what happens in the dash is not all that’s happening with the operation of the sedan. Optional parking assist available from an increasing number of manufacturers will park the car for you. Rearview cameras are the norm, and 360-degree cameras are increasingly available on both luxury and more moderately priced cars.
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