Even though you see tons of them zipping along roads everywhere else in the world, hatchbacks are a bit of an anomaly in the United States. Or are they? After all, many of the most popular cars and SUVs have hatched openings to get into their cargo area. And isn’t a station wagon just a long hatchback? What is a hatchback, anyway?
What’s a Hatchback?
To a lot of people, a hatchback is any vehicle that has a hatched opening: that is, the rear door opens from the bottom and swings up, revealing a cargo area that’s as tall as the roof of the car. By this definition, hatchbacks include most SUVs and station wagons. But if you want to get technical, a hatchback is a vehicle with a hatched back, and only three roof pillars (the metal pieces that attach the roof to the body of the car and separate the windows) per side. There’s one at the front, between the windshield and front windows, one between the front windows and the backseat windows and then one between the backseat windows and the rear window. If you’re talking about a two-passenger-door hatchback, there may only be two roof pillars. Station wagons, on the other hand, will have at least four pillars, because there will be a window between the backseat windows and the rear glass. So, to be a true hatchback, there usually isn’t a window on the side that looks into the cargo area.
That said, most hatchback buyers group small station wagons, such as the Mazda3 wagon, with hatchbacks when they’re shopping, and that’s okay. Although hatchbacks tend to have smaller cargo areas than most station wagons and some crossover SUVs, the basic idea is the same: more cargo space.
Why Buy a Hatchback?
There are a number of reasons to buy a hatchback, and for most buyers, practicality is chief among them. Hatchbacks simply tend to hold more stuff than sedans. Take the Nissan Versa: the sedan has 13.8 cubic feet of cargo space in its trunk, but in the cargo area of the hatchback, there’s 17.8 cubic feet of space. And because the cargo area of the hatchback is connected to the passenger cabin, the Versa hatchback can fit up to 50.4 cubic feet of cargo when you fold down the rear seats. The sedan, on the other hand, is still stuck with just 13.8 cubic feet of space.
Some hatchbacks take cargo versatility to a new level. While most hatchbacks have rear seats that fold flat to increase cargo space, the Honda Fit has a “magic seat.” The backseat not only folds forward to make a flat load floor from the rear of the car to the front seats, but the seat bottom in the backseat also folds up, so where passengers would normally sit, you have a flat load floor for tall thin cargo, like a flat-screen TV.
A number of hatchbacks are also built with performance in mind. In Europe, there’s a tradition of the hatchback as a performance car, and some models have made it stateside with that heritage intact. The Mini Cooper, for example, is known as a great performing hatch. The Volkswagen GTI is also a performance favorite among most car reviewers, and the Honda CR-Z is both a performance-minded hatchback and a hybrid.
Because the rear door opening gives the car a wedge shape, a number of hybrids are also hatchbacks. The wedge shape is more aerodynamic, which helps reduce drag and improves fuel economy. The Toyota Prius, Honda Insight, Honda CR-Z and Lexus CT 200h are all hatchbacks. You can also get high-mileage, clean diesel hatchbacks. The diesel Audi A3 hatchback was 2010’s Green Car of the Year; you can also get a diesel engine in the Volkswagen Golf.
But, far and away the biggest draw for many hatchback buyers is the combination of utility and price. Hatchbacks tend to be small, which makes them affordable. They also tend to get good fuel economy compared to larger wagons and sedans. But while they save owners money, they also give a lot of bang for the buck. The hatchback design lets hatchback owners haul a lot of stuff. The Honda Fit has 20.6 cubic feet of cargo space behind its rear seat, which is only 3.8 cubic feet less than the Volkswagen Tiguan -- and the Tiguan is an SUV. When you fold the rear seats down, the Fit actually has 1.2 cubic feet more cargo space than the Tiguan.
Buying a Hatchback
Now that you’ve got the hatchback basics down, let’s dive into the details. In this series of guides on hatchbacks, we’ll help you figure out which hatchback is the right one for you, no matter what your priorities are. We’ll highlight hatchbacks with great fuel economy, loads of cargo space, hatchbacks that will keep you safe, the right hatchback for any budget and hatchbacks that can do family-car duty. No matter what you’re looking for in a hatchback, there’s one out there for you.