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the great divide

Toyota will no longer sell the Matrix in the U.S., but the hatchback was a big seller in Canada.

In late 2013, Toyota announced that it would no longer be selling its Matrix hatchback in the United States. Having not sold well south of the border, it has joined identical sibling, the Pontiac Vibe, on the scrap heap.

In Canada, however, the Matrix carries on. Canadians generally seek cars that are easy on fuel, dependable and reasonably comfortable. The price of fuel and higher taxation – both on our paycheques, and on the retail price of a car – factor into buying decisions. Gas is cheaper in the U.S., and Canadians pay more for cars than Americans do. Bottom line: Versatility matters more here.

"Canadians have always loved hatchbacks," says Larry Hutchinson, Toyota Canada vice-president of sales. "The Canadian market registered 4 per cent more hatchback sales vs. the U.S. in 2013. The Matrix was our best-selling hatchback in 2013."

Indeed, overall hatchback sales for Toyota Canada account for at least 25 per cent of its passenger car sales. Mazda, with a hatchback amongst its bread-and-butter 3 series, reports that in 2013, hatchback sales in the U.S. represented about 30 per cent of the total, while in Canada that number jumped to almost 40 per cent. Ditto with the Volkswagen Golf, arguably the definitive hatchback. "Yes, it is skewed more towards the Jetta in the States," offers VW Canada's manager of public relations, Thomas Tetzlaff. "We sell 3.8 Jettas for every Golf in Canada, compared to 4.5 in the U.S."

The Matrix is far from the only hatchback rejected by American buyers. The Chevy Optra, Pontiac Wave, VW City Golf, Chevy Orlando, and Mercedes B-class have all failed to make the cut in the U.S. Going way back, MG introduced a "special" version of their MGB GT hatchback in the 1960s, in a failed effort to lure buyers away from the company's two-seater roadster, while The 1970's generation Toyota Starlet, despite being manufactured for some 23 years worldwide, lasted a mere three years in the U.S. And let's not forget the Toyota Celica, Mazda RX-7 and AMC Gremlin, all of which have had their day in the sunshine, only to became automotive footnotes.

Most manufacturers offer a hatchback in one form or another in the Canadian market, some more than others. Including the Lexus and Scion brands, Toyota has no fewer than 10 different models on the market.

The company that virtually introduced the offshore hatchback to the North American market, Honda, is hanging in there, with the ever-popular Fit and low-volume CR-Z hybrid.

"Hatchbacks are kind of a middle ground," says Joe Veltri, vice-president of product planning for Chrysler Group LLC. "In the U.S., SUVs, crossovers and pickups are king … these are the markets that are growing right now. Hatchback buyers tend to be younger, and are looking for more sporty performance, with interior flexibility."

Nissan knows exactly who buys its hatchbacks: everybody. "The average age for the Versa, for example, is around 50," says Andrew Wilton, Nissan Canada's chief marketing manager. "We're getting empty-nesters and young intenders, both, and we definitely see opportunity for growth in this market." The "buyer split" between the Versa sedan and hatchback is 90 per cent in favour of the latter. So it's no surprise then that a new Canada-only Micra hatchback is being released in Canada, but not in the U.S.

Like the lucky loonie and the Tim Horton's double-double, hatchbacks are part of our culture, here to stay.

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