Hatchback cars are notoriously difficult to categorize. Some trace their roots to the station wagon; others have a rally-car heritage. The cars even range from tiny two-doors to large four-door versions.
But one thing hatchbacks aren't any more is forgettable--just as auto makers have given compact cars all the trimmings of larger, luxury sedans, hatchbacks are getting the same treatment. Next year, BMW is putting out the pumped-up 5-Series GT. And this month, Porsche begins sales of its much-awaited Panamera, a 911 lookalike that's been given the hatchback treatment. Subaru and Audi are also introducing hatchbacks of their own.
In Depth: 2010's Hottest Hatchbacks
"A lot of companies are still bringing vehicles to market that have that look, and they absolutely have their place," says Mike Caudill, an automotive expert for NADAGuides.com, a vehicle pricing and information Web site. "The industry has done a great job of kind of blurring the lines between a hatchback and a wagon."
Behind the Numbers
To compile our list of the year's hottest hatchbacks, we scoured the new offerings from each major auto maker that sells vehicles in the U.S. Some, like Buick and Lincoln, don't offer any hatches. Others, like Mazda, offer several. (Bona fide station wagons, like the Volvo XC70, and crossover/wagon hybrids, like BMW's X6, were not included.) We then consulted with several industry analysts, including Caudill and Mike Quincy, an auto specialist for Consumer Reports. They gave us their take on the best-looking, most relevant hatchbacks of the year.
Among the most anticipated is Subaru's $34,995 Impreza WRX STI. (Note, all prices are in U.S. dollars). The 305-horsepower car, with its unique turbo boxer engine, treats the driver to a race-day feel. It goes from zero to 60 in under five seconds, and has tight handling, spunky cornering ability and all-around rough-and-tumble demeanor (thanks largely to standard all-wheel-drive, traction control and a performance-tuned four-wheel independent suspension).
The WRX is designed to appeal to a young, male audience; Volvo's $24,100 C30, on the other hand, caters to a broader demographic. While the car looks distinctive--it has a large glass rear door--it's still, unmistakably and reassuringly, a Volvo. With 227 horsepower, it'll hold its own on the highway, but it also has more options--like a navigation system, Bluetooth capability and leather trimmings--than most compact hatchbacks. It also has a highly versatile rear configuration (read: lots of flexible cargo space).
"The consumer is asking for luxury, creature comfort and versatility as opposed to a big part of the vehicle that you can put your dog in," Caudill says. "They want a vehicle that gets better gas mileage, but still has all the versatility of a wagon, but not all that extra space, because if they need that extra space, they'll just get an SUV."
Room Without the Guzzle
Nissan's $13,150 Versa hatchback isn't known for incredible power (it comes with a 122-hp four-cylinder engine), but that hasn't stopped it from far outselling its non-hatch counterpart, also called a Versa. Year-to-date sales for the hatchback are more than 40,000. They're 23,000 for the sedan.
"The first time I drove that, I said to myself, 'Wow, this is a perfect kind of SUV alternative for most people,'" says James Bell, an automotive specialist for Kelley Blue Book. "To be really honest, most of the time, those vehicles are being driven around with very nice leather-upholstered rear seats that only have occupants 5 per cent of the time, so you're just driving yourself around."
The Versa gets an admirable 34 miles per gallon on the highway and has 50 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats folded--more than the Mazdaspeed3 (43 cubic feet) and MINI Cooper (24 cubic feet).
The $25,361 Audi A3 and $23,230 Volkswagen GTI on our list are both hatchbacks with devoted followings. But it remains to be seen if consumers will similarly embrace BMW's new GT or Porsche's new Panamera, both born of the increasingly blurred lines between station wagons, crossover SUVS and large sedans.
The V8 GT boasts the same wheelbase as the 7-Series sedan and the same look from the front, but from the back, it could be easily mistaken for the X6 sport activity coupe--a vehicle that created a "completely new segment," says BMW spokesman Sean Lobosco. The GT also has the space of a "sport activity"-type vehicle without actually being a wagon or minivan: 60 cubit feet of room in the back, with the seats folded.
Porsche's Panamera looks mostly like an elongated 911. Caudill speaks highly of the car, praising its 500-hp engine and handling. The delicate rear hatch is a strong departure from the heavy, clunky doors hatchbacks like the Nissan 240Z had years ago. As far as hatchbacks go, the Panamera could set a completely new agenda.
"It's an animal, but it's luxurious," Caudill says. "But it's very, very Porsche."
In Depth: 2010's Hottest HatchbacksReport Typo/Error