Once-struggling hatchback makes a U.S. comeback

Freshly hatched
New U.S. hatchbacks


New models

Acura RSX

Ford Focus ZX-5

Honda Civic Si

Hyundai Elantra GT

Mazda Protege 5

Mercedes-Benz C230


Coming soon
Mazda 6

Pontiac Vibe

Toyota Matrix

More luxury hatchbacks

The hatch is back - hatchback, that is.

Three-door and five-door models, largely abandoned by buyers a decade or so ago, are gaining ground and acceptance in product portfolios.

New hatchback entries this year include the five-door Ford Focus ZX-5, the Mazda Protege5, the Hyundai Elantra GT and - on the three-door side - the Honda Civic Si, the Acura RSX and the Mercedes-Benz C230. The Acura and Mercedes arrivals are expected to lead a wave of luxury hatchbacks.

In the 1991 model year, automakers offered 44 hatchback nameplates in the United States. For the 2002 model year, the count is 17 - and growing.

"We're kind of at the beginning'' of a trend, said Jeff Schuster, director of product analysis at J.D. Power and Associates' office in Troy, Mich. "Essentially, all (the makers) are interested in this type of product. It has some legs."

Versatile and sporty

What's so appealing about a hatchback? It offers buyers - especially younger buyers - an appealing combination of versatility and sportiness. And it carries none of the negative baggage of a station wagon.

A station wagon has "that family image that most people just don't want to portray," said Schuster. "The younger buyer doesn't want a station wagon. But a sporty five-door hatchback with a tweaked engine is different, but it is really not that different."

While the hatchback makes a U.S. comeback, it has remained popular in Europe for decades.

In Europe, "younger people seem to gravitate toward the hatchback (because) it has a little bit more of a sporty, active-lifestyle personality," said Tony Fouladpour, a spokesman for Volkswagen of America. In the United States, buyers still prefer VW sedans over hatchbacks, but that's changing slowly, he said.

Hatchbacks were popular in the United States in the 1970s through the early 1990s, and a wide range of domestic and imported models were offered.

The hatchback design never disappeared from U.S. showrooms, but the number of models was reduced dramatically in the past decade. The sales shift to light trucks - primarily minivans and sport-utilities - offered an alternative to the utility of the hatchback.

There were other issues, too. Hatches were heavy and prone to rattle, and could be difficult to raise. There also was the dreaded wet head, caused by rain blown on back-seat passengers when the hatch was raised.

In the view of Art Spinella, an auto analyst with CNW Marketing/Research in Bandon, Ore., there was another issue, too: "They were so damn homely."

But hatchbacks such as the 2002 Ford Focus ZX-5 and Mazda Protege5 provide "a sporty image and fun-to-drive attributes," said J.D. Power's Schuster. They are "stylish products, kind of all blended together in fairly affordable packages."

And they are attracting younger buyers. "That could be because a lot of these buyers grew up in minivans, so they are used to having versatility in a vehicle," Schuster said.

Ford expects to sell 20,000 ZX-5s annually. Bob Fesmire, Ford Focus marketing manager, said the vehicle is targeted at buyers in their early to mid-20s. The ZX-5 has a sticker price of $16,160, including transportation.

Mazda estimates that the Protege5 will account for 25 percent of Protege sales.

"We're selling just over 2,000 a month now, which for us is significant because they are buyers we haven't seen before," said Stephen Odell, executive vice president of Mazda North American Operations. The Protege5 carries a $16,815 sticker price, including transportation.

Variety

While automakers took a cookie-cutter approach to create the hatchbacks of the 1970s and 1980s, essentially cutting a hatch into an established two-or four-door model, this time around, makers are aiming for a wide range of styling variations.

Some will be inspired by rally cars, have all-wheel drive, and havea taller profile with more ground clearance "to kind of create an assertive or aggressive" look, said Schuster.

Among those cars will be the 2003 Pontiac Vibe and its sister vehicle, the 2003 Toyota Matrix. Both models go on sale early next year.

The imported luxury brands will take a different approach. They will attempt to woo sport-utility owners ripe for a switch.

"We are seeing that in some of the research," Spinella said. "We're seeing that among people who went to luxury sport-utilities, didn't like the ride and handling, and returned back to their typical sedan."

They are saying that one of the things missing in their sedans is the flexibility they enjoyed with their sport-utilities, said Spinella. A sport-utility, for example, can carry bulky things, such as a piece of furniture bought on the spur of the moment.

Adds Schuster: "We're expecting a flood of hatchbacks from the luxury brands, Volvo, Audi, further expansion with BMW at the lower end. They are all looking at this type of product." Japanese makers are expected to follow suit.

The Mercedes-Benz C230, which was introduced this summer,sticker price of $25,595 and is expected to draw 10,000 buyers annually.

And in 2003, Mazda will replace the mid-sized 626 with a new, larger car called the 6. The line will include a four-door sedan, a wagon and one new variation - a five-door hatchback.

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