Like vinyl records, hatchbacks nearly died off a decade ago. But just as “lp’s” have staged a recent comeback, so too have hatches. High gas prices and manufacturers getting serious about fuel economy have led to a whole new round of excellent small cars, and you won’t find a manufacturer launching one today that’s not available as a hatchback.
While the sedan is still immensely popular, it’s just inherently a design ill suited to small cars. A hatchback design, however, maximizes interior space and utility. This makes hatchbacks under-appreciated workhorses, capable of swallowing furniture, televisions, lumber, bikes, and pretty much anything else you might have reason to transport. They’re particularly popular among urban car owners, but make a smart choice for anyone looking for maximum versatility and value in a new car purchase.
Here’s are our picks for the three smartest hatchbacks on the market, along with three to avoid.
Smartest - 3. Volkswagen Golf TDI
MSRP: $24,235 - $24,935
Invoice: $23,266 - $23,937
Fuel Economy: 30 mpg City, 42 mpg Highway
The VW Golf is one of the great automotive sleepers. Volkswagen sells so many Jetta sedans that the compact Golf tends to be overlooked, and the diesel model is even less popular. But those that own VW's TDI diesels love them, and they command great resale value, thanks to their durability and impressive fuel economy. A 42 mpg highway rating for the Golf TDI is outstanding -- and particularly attractive to those that do a lot of freeway driving. The fuel economy also gives the Golf TDI a theoretical range of over 600 miles.
We love the Golf’s styling and its nimble handling, and the 2.0-liter turbodiesel’s 236 lb-ft of torque makes it fun to drive. Consumer Reports picked the Golf TDI as its top choice for fuel-efficient hatches, outgunning the Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf in the CR editors’ apples-to-oranges comparison. The Golf is rated at 34 mpg combined by the EPA, and it’s available in both three- and five-door models. Pricing starts at $24,235.
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Smartest - 2. Chevrolet Sonic
MSRP: $13,865 - $18,625
Invoice: $13,518 - $17,694
Fuel Economy: 26 mpg City, 35 mpg Highway
The five-door Sonic is an all-new model from GM, replacing the dismal Aveo in the Chevrolet lineup. It’s an impressive car, with sporty styling and the look of a much more expensive product. We particularly like how the rear doors are hidden to make it look like a three-door.
The Sonic’s handling is best-in-class, and the optional 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder is great fun, what with its 138 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque. Chevy says the Sonic with the turbo and a manual transmission can do 0-60 mph in 7.8 seconds, which is quick for this class. Ponying up $700 for the turbo engine is money well spent, as it also returns the best fuel economy, boasting as much as 40 mpg on the highway and 33 mpg combined.
The Sonic is still an unproven quantity, however. And despite a low $14,765 entry price, it can get downright expensive, topping $20,000 for a top-of-the-line model.
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Smartest - 1. Honda Fit
MSRP: $15,175 - $16,910
Invoice: $14,644 - $16,309
Fuel Economy: 27 mpg City, 33 mpg Highway
The Fit is a subcompact five door that packs a surprising amount of interior room into a small package. With a passenger volume of 91 cubic feet, according to the EPA, it’s on par with many cars in the compact class. Although the 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine only makes 115 horsepower, the Fit weighs less than 2,500 pounds, so it’s still fun to drive.
The Fit’s fuel economy is solid, with an EPA rating of 31 mpg combined. Pricing starts at just $15,175, which gives the Fit the best bang for buck of almost any car on the market.
Consumer Reports would likely agree with that statement, as the Fit took its top two spots in the subcompact hatchback category, with the manual-transmission-equipped Fit Sport model ranking first and the base car coming in second. Of particular note is that CR gave the Fit its highest marks for reliability, which just adds to the value proposition.
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Dumbest - 3. Volvo C30
MSRP: $24,950 - $31,850
Invoice: $23,453 - $29,939
Fuel Economy: 21 mpg City, 29 mpg Highway
There are reasons to like the Volvo C30, starting with its turbocharged, 227-horsepower, five-cylinder engine. And it’s a neat looking design, meant to conjure up images of a vintage Volvo P1800ES wagon. But the C30 isn’t really that sporty and has some limitations that make it a particularly poor value among hatchbacks. An oddly shaped hatchback opening hampers loading, and interior space is limited. The EPA says the three-door C30 has just 89 cubic feet of passenger volume, which is five cubic feet less than the similarly priced VW Golf TDI. The Volvo C30 also has a base price of $24,950.
The biggest drawback to the C30 is its fuel economy, which is EPA-rated at 24 mpg combined, and tops out at 30 mph on the highway with the automatic-equipped model. The fuel economy is a byproduct of the C30’s age, as it’s been on the market since the 2008 model year, meaning it was developed before gas prices had ever spiked over $4.00 per gallon. It’s hard to recommend the C30 to anyone but the most slavish fans of the Volvo brand.
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Dumbest - 2. Dodge Caliber
MSRP: $17,380 - $18,765
Invoice: $16,944 - $18,232
Fuel Economy: 24 mpg City, 32 mpg Highway
Launched as a replacement for the Neon for the 2007 model year, the Dodge Caliber was a dud from day one. Its quasi-SUV styling looked dated when new, and the interior can only be described with one word: Cheap. Now some five model years later, the Caliber only fares worse when compared with the newest crop of hatchbacks. That it starts at $17,380 only means that it’s not even competitive on price, let alone any other areas. That probably explains why Chrysler has reportedly canceled the Caliber.
While the manual-transmission equipped version of the Caliber at least manages 32 mpg on the highway, choose the automatic (which is actually a continuously variable transmission) and you’ll be stuck getting only 24 miles per gallon combined. The Caliber’s 2.0-liter four cylinder makes 158 horsepower, but the car still feels slow. It’s a loud, noisy, uncomfortable car to drive, and we can’t recommend it for anything other than providing the most basic transportation.
Even Chrysler's own CEO has bad-mouthed the Caliber to the media. Look for huge sales as the company phases out the car. If it stickers below $15,000...maybe we'd say take a chance. But only maybe.
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Dumbest - 1. Smart fortwo
MSRP: $12,490 - $17,690
Fuel Economy: 34 mpg City, 38 mpg Highway
Consumer Reports rated the Smart fortwo last in its fuel-efficient hatchbacks category, and we entirely agree. But the Smart Fortwo isn’t just the most miserable hatchback on the market, by many measurements it’s the worst car, period.
While the fortwo is rated by the EPA at 36 mpg combined, it takes restraint with the throttle to achieve that number. Its little three-cylinder engine makes only 70 horsepower, which might be sufficient if it weren’t for an automatic manual transmission that’s balky and unrefined.
The one thing the tiny two-seater has going for it is a low starting MSRP of $12,490, but then again, you’re not really getting a whole car when you buy a Smart. With no backseat and almost no cargo capacity, the car has little utility. Considered in a vacuum, the Smart is cute and interesting and that counts for something, but compared to other cars it just doesn’t match up and we can only recommend against it.
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