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Are Sub-compact hatches dead or alive?

Posted by: David Kiley on February 5, 2007


There is a difference of opinion about the market for sub-compact hatchbacks. And it’s hard to figure out which way to turn if you are an automaker.

The new 2008 Saturn Astra will come only as a three-door and five-door. It replaces the Ion. The Astra is the second best seller in Europe after the VW Golf. And the Golf/Rabbit has been an awfully tough sell in the U.S.

Then there’s the Ford Focus. Frankly, I think the five door Focus is the perfect version. But the sedan represents almost 70% of sales. When the redesigned Focus debuts in the Fall, there will be no five-door or three-door, and no wagon. Just a sedan and coupe.

Why the hatred for hatchbacks? I’ve never understood it. It’s such a more practical package in a sub-compact. I’m contemplating a new car purchase now, and have the Mazda3 on my list of possibles. But the only package I’m even considering is the five-door.

Is anything emotely wagonish seen as just too dowdy? I’m surprised that the Dodge Magnum hasn’t sold better. But as Chrysler execs have found, there’s a whole lot of people who you can’t make take a wagon if you gave it away.

So, who is going to be right on this one, Saturn or Ford?

Reader Comments

Brendan Moore

February 5, 2007 11:40 PM

In this instance, I think GM got it right. The resistance to hatchbacks is steadily eroding in the States. And, furthermore, if Ford could just get the scorching Ford Focus ST (220 hp!) over here from Europe, I think they would would find some converts to hatchbacks awfully quick.


February 6, 2007 8:26 AM

American's lack of hatch affection has baffled me for 20 years. The Saturn two-door version of the Astra may do better than most here because it so good looking. It is extremely distinctive, and younger buyers looking to make a statement may go for it just based on it's Euro good looks and Bauhaus funk interior. I heard McElroy say, "If I could buy stock in Saturn I would . . ." Only letdown is that they went for the cheapest engine, which is a good compromise, but not the 1.6 or 2.0 liter turbos that would have really made it stand out by way of efficiency and performance. All those Focus hatch guys will have to go somewhere . . . no Civic hatch anymore, the Rabbit/GTI is pretty spendy, the Chrysler Caliber is pretty ungainly (although dealers at NADA said "build more"), so I think it'll do reasonably well. Dear Saturn: bring the turbos over, especially the little 1.6.


February 11, 2007 8:36 PM

Saturn will win . The Opel/Vauxhall Astra GT is a sexy car and fast too (low 6's). Bring it on GM but don't detune it.

Johnathan D. Shade

February 15, 2007 9:33 AM

There are probably a host of reasons why Americans have been "anti-hatch", but I suspect the greatest of these is our penchant for the big and luxurious. Economy, to most Americans, means cheap and "bare-bones." Right next to those dirty words are "practicality". We're spoiled and we like it.

However . . . Hatchback (or the kinder sounding "lift-back" which Toyota uses of its Yaris) is becoming a bit more palatable in America. For those who just won't give up their extravegant ways, there are a number of hatch-backs that yell "I'm a SPORTS car . . . the hatch is okay, really!" Take Mini, Subaru and VW for example. These cars make the practicality of a hatch and marry it to speed. Yeah, you loose at the pump (as compared with other standard sedans anyway) and you'll be buying lots of tires for all those smoke-outs and drifts, but you'll be cool and you'll be uncompromising in your continued persuit of extravegance (in a sub-compact car) and you'll suffer for the monthly payment as well! And then, of course, there are a few Americans who have waken up and discovered that a hatch-back is supposed to mean "better on my pocketbook and more versatile in meeting my needs." There are very few of us. And in America, there are very few choices for the enlightened to pick from.

Let's look at it from the get go, shall we? If you're going to buy a sub-compact car you belong to the small sect of people who are looking for utility and economy at a good price. There are plenty of people who will look at, compare and quickly look down their nose at a sub-compact . . . because they're looking for a family sedan or an SUV or a Wagon or something ELSE. A sub-compact car's requirements are thus:
High Economy (over 35 mpg), Utility (high roofline and rear seats that fold for large hauling capacity), and Low Pricepoint (lower than you'd find for a Compact car as we're looking at sub-compact). Got it? Economy, Utility and Price. Now, whose cars fit this profile (and we're not going to cheat and go to Europe)?

Chevy Aveo barely fits. Economy squeeks in at a maximum of 35 mpg. It's important to get below this mark because there are several much larger vehicles that get this or better (Focus,Civic, Corolla, Caliber, etc.) Why buy an economy car that doesn't get very good economy? Utility, perhaps? Well, Aveo (the hatch) has average utility, the back seats do fold giving it decent hauling capacity . . . but the rear seats leave suprising little leg room (surprising considering the greater space the competition manages). And price? Well, it's nothing to write home about, but it is comparable to the rest of this segment's numbers. Between 12 & 14,000 off the lot.

Ford doesn't have a sub-compact in the States. It's Focus is loosing the hatch in its 2008 year and the car never got good mileage (with a manual gearbox and a lot of pampering you might squeeze out 34 mpg . . . and deserve a reward for doing so). Now, there are some in Mexico and Europe . . . but I said we weren't going to go there (Ka & Fiesta for those who must know).

Chrysler. They're working on a sub-compact. But don't have one yet.

And as far as imports . . . well, there are many, but only two do well enough in all three of these requirements to be mentioned.

Honda Fit. Economy? Nearing 40 with a pretty solid 37-38 mpg. Not bad, at least it's better than most everyone out there. Utility? Honda's got this one nearly perfect. Cargo space is ample BEFORE you move those magic seats. The only improvement here would be the car's low-to-the-ground quotient. Practicality and utility do include the ability to pull in and out of gas stations (with humps) and up to concrete barriers in parking lots without worrying about scraping your bumper (or taking it off completely). Finally, price. Well, here we hit a bit of a snafoo. Fit is a bit pricey at around 14-16,000. Again, you could go up in size and pay about the same . . . so why shrink?

Nissan Versa. Economy? 35 or so and so what. Utility? Good, though not anything spectacular. Price? Worse than most, right around the Fit.

Toyota Yaris. Economy? Not surprisingly, the best you're going to get without going diesel or hybrid. A very solid 40-42 mpg. Utility? Hmmm. Tiny, tiny cargo space, but better leg room than most of the competition. The rear seats go down, and this does improve cargo area, but not so much as many others. Price? About the best of the bunch at between 10,500-14,000, but if you're going to talk over 10,000, it sometimes seems as if the differences don't amount to much (though of course they do). And the Yaris lift-back only comes in a 2 door.

And if you want a 4 door with a hatch that comes from Toyota, look to the Scion xA. It reaches the Fit's 38 mpg, has the four doors and the hatch and also the Fit's price . . . but not the fit's utility.

So, if you want everything a sub-compact hatch is supposed to have, what do you end up with?

It's really, really unclear. Seems as though you have to sacrifice at least one of the three prerequisites to buy a sub-compact in the U.S. I suppose that's one good reason we don't sell many. We want have our Hummer and our Festiva/Metro in one vehicle, but we really just want our Hummer. Of course, the other reason we don't sell many sub-compacts in the U.S. is because there's less of a profit margin in them. They cost almost as much to make as their larger siblings . . . . leaving little room for profit. And what car salesman wants to make less?

I hope Ford's got something great up its sleeve for post 2008. We'll see. For now we're stuck with the best of the batch, the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris & Scion xA . . . just enough better in the three key areas to make a few of us buyers, but not enough to drive a big trend toward this segement.

P.S. It's a tightly held secret, but sub-compacts, being smaller and lighter than their larger siblings, usually have a lot of pep and great handling too--but these are just bonuses, not part of the three qualifying necessities of a sub-compact: Economy, Utility & Low Pricepoint.

cathy b

March 1, 2007 5:43 PM

I can hardly wait to see the new Saturn Astra. i want to buy American and I have owned a Saturn for 10 years. It still looks new.

John Borowski

June 14, 2007 6:59 AM

I’m not a fantasy woods driver, a fantasy race car driver, or a fantasy sex idol driver so I plan to buy a 2008 Yaris.


June 29, 2007 10:53 AM

I will look at the new Saturn Astra.

Love the Aura, like the Vue…..But I want a DIESEL.

Don't want an overpriced VW or 3 series. Where is my Polo or a 2 series?

Smart is coming but no diesel, won't buy that either

I will keep my 01 Metro LSI commuter car and wait for something that does a real 40 city/50 hwy is available.

Can't understand why the big 3 don't get it. Guess I wait for Honda.

Donald MacDONALD

July 8, 2007 8:29 AM

SMART will not succeed in the US at any price (apart from novelty sales in very congested cities - but there will not be enough of those). it is one of the worst mistakes the great car maker in the world has ever made. The problem is increased because the price is not appealing - it being built in Alsace Lorraine (France) with engine and transmission in high-cost Berlin. I mean no disrespect to United Auto Group and to Roger Penske who is well and favourably known here from car-racing and Detroit Diesel. I make this claim as there is a reference to SMART above. Bad history from Dr. Hayek the promoter (more than the developer alone - Ernst Thomke deserves more credit than what he is given - of Swatch who though that building a cheap and novel watch not in cheap labor Asian countries was similar to building a car. It was not. His idea of "wrap and take it with you" did not work for retailers either. VW perhaps in the time of Kurt Hahn was originally drawn in - and then withdrew. In came Helmut Werner from Continental Gummiwerke then head of DaimlerBenz to take over the VW share. Bad move. On further capital needs and difficulties on cost being revealed, Dr. Hayek and SSIH dropped out - leaving DB with the "baby". It was originally not even inspiring to drive - had no plans as a hybrid, and had nothing in common with any other DB product even the moose-dodging A and its cousin B which are double-floored (at present) and front-drive. Its looks inspire either contempt, pity, scorn, or laughter. There is a fibreglass device used at crowds called a portaloo - you no doubt have equivalents in the US - pulled along as a trailer. It could with a height addition be a self-powered one of these. Alternatively with a power take-off and sweeper brushes or mowing blades below it may for light duties be able to undercut (a pun in the case of mowing) existing larger products. Only a few on the road in Australia - not enough to be well supported naturally in parts and knowledge. I doubt if there is even a fan club here and one can have such clubs for the most unlikely products.


October 9, 2007 2:08 PM

I guess you'all haven't seen the new Fiat 500! Over 65 mpg with a diesel! They'll choke a lot of models with this baby!

Peter Piper

August 24, 2009 10:11 PM

Nobody's written anything since 2007.
Now it's 2009 and already there are lots of choices of hatchbacks:

Toyota Yaris
Scion XD
Chevy Aveo
Chevy Aveo5
Honda Fit
Mini Cooper
Nissan Versa
Hyundai Accent Hatchback
Kia Rio Hatchback
Kia Soul
Kia Spectra5
Audi A3
Volkswagen GTI

There are others too:

From Kiley: And more on the way.....Fiesta and Focus coming in Hatches. Chevy hatches coming, too. Hatches rule!!!!

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