Hatchbacks stage comeback as other cars slump
Detroit Free Press, Mark Phelan , May 27, 2017 | Updated
While cars sales plummet and buyers switch to SUVs, the underappreciated hatchback body style is enjoying a minor renaissance as a rush of new models go on sale.
In 2017, compact and subcompact car sales are down 25%. But hatchbacks in those classes have risen 16%.
A rush of new models will test the strength of that demand.
“Hatchbacks are the nugget of hope for the small car segment,” Ford sales analyst Erich Merkle said.
It’s been a truism in the auto industry for decades that Americans don’t want hatchbacks. The body style never seemed to recover from the bad first impression it made long ago with models like the Chevrolet Chevette, Dodge Omni and Ford Pinto. Weak sales of more recent vehicles like the Dodge Caliber, Honda Crosstour and VW Golf seemed to support the theory.
Through it all, Ford kept the faith. Its persistence may be paying off.
“Ford’s been in the hatchback small car sector since we introduced the Fiesta in 2010 and the Focus hatch shortly thereafter,” Merkle said. “They’ve both been strong.
Hatchbacks account for about a quarter of industry small car sales. The Fiesta and Focus outperform that significantly at 1/3 and 40% respectively.
Chevrolet, Honda, Hyundai and Subaru all have new hatchbacks, in addition to longstanding players like the Golf and Mazda 3.
“They’re currently enjoying their own little renaissance,” buying guide website KBB.com’s editors wrote in a recent comparison of several hatchbacks. “With this year’s introduction of the Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback, Honda Civic Hatchback and Toyota Corolla iM, compact car shoppers now have nine hatchbacks from which to choose.
“You don’t have to give up the efficiency and affordability of a mainstream compact car to get SUV-like cargo versatility.”
That versatility has long made hatchbacks a favorite in Europe, where hatchbacks’ combination of modest overall length and generous cargo space is a major selling point.
For instance, the 2017 Chevy Cruze hatchback is 8.4 inches shorter than the sedan, but has 67% more cargo space behind its rear seat: 24.7 cubic feet versus 14.8. With the rear seat folded flat, the hatchback’s cargo space mushrooms to 47.2 cu. ft. The same applies to the 2017 Honda Civic coupe: 4.4 inches shorter than the sedan with 42% more cargo space behind the rear seat.
The hatchback body style makes a lot of sense,” Merkle said. “There’s more cargo room in a smaller overall package, and the design has a European flavor that attracts younger buyers.”
There’s also a body of opinion that hatchbacks look sportier and more modern than sedans. That’s in the eye of the beholder, but it could help explain why automakers can often charge more for them.
For instance, Chevrolet doesn’t build a hatchback version of the two lowest Cruze trim levels, L and LS. The hatchback joins the party with the well-equipped LT model and prices starting $4,000 above the base L sedan.
Civic hatchbacks start at $19,700 — $960 above the sedan.
The least expensive Focus hatchback stickers at $19,765, a full $2,990 more than the sedan.
Ford has leveraged that premium by offering sporty versions of the Focus and Fiesta only as hatchbacks.
The Fiesta and Focus ST sell at a premium and offer lucrative features like Recaro sport seats and Sony audio. Hyundai makes a similar pitch with the Elantra GT hatchback, which has 26 hp more than the sedan and a base price $1,660 higher.
Even farther upmarket, the outrageously powerful Focus RS offers all-wheel-drive and 350-hp engine for prices starting at $36,120. It competes with hot hatches from around the world like the $35,655 VW Golf R and Subaru WRX STI.
“We’ve had great success with the ST and RS performance hatches,” Merkle said. “They attract a younger and more affluent buyer than the sedans.”
Other automakers hope to share Ford’s experience as they rely on hatchbacks to offset the drop in sales of their compact and subcompact sedans.