Image: Mazda
Mazda
Mazdaspeed3, shown left, is the hotted-up variant of the Mazda3. It’s only available as a hatchback.
By
updated 10/31/2007 4:06:53 PM ET 2007-10-31T20:06:53

Hatchbacks have a bad rap.

“If you say ‘hatchback,’ people tend to think of a yellow Pinto,” says Art Battaglia, product manager for the Volvo C30, one of the latest vehicles in a new crop of hatchbacks from luxury manufacturers. The C30 is a highly customizable three-door that offers hatch practicality without, Volvo hopes, the baggage of the name.

Battaglia, like many auto executives, avoids the term altogether. Volvo calls the C30 a “coupe.”

And Volvo’s not the only automaker wary of the term. At Audi, the A3 is always referred to as a “sportback.”

You might surmise that luxury automakers steer clear of any “hatchback” connotation because they don’t think consumers consider these vehicles upscale, no matter how well appointed. But this avoidance isn’t just endemic to luxury brands. The hatch-equipped Mazda3 is called a “5-door.” And Toyota prefers the term “liftback” for a version of its wee Yaris.

Then there’s the “hatch or wagon” question — what’s the difference between a four-door wagon and a five-door hatch? Sometimes, it’s just in the name.

Hatchbacks, common in Europe and Japan, have long been disdained in the U.S. “Americans have a problem with small,” says cultural anthropologist and marketing consultant Clotaire Rapaille of Tuxedo, NY. Also, older Americans may recall the small, cheap hatches of the ‘70s energy crisis and have no fondness for revisiting those times, he says.

But having adopted fresh names, the new generation of hatches — which do not hark back to those economical relics from three decades ago — are winning over the masses.

According to a study by CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., cars with traditional trunks are still the most popular body type among new car buyers, but hatches are generating significant interest. In the “near luxury” category of CNW’s report, just over 20 percent of new car buyers said they preferred a hatchback to a sedan or station wagon.

While younger buyers are the main target market, even older buyers looking for “near luxury” vehicles are keen on hatches. More than 20 percent of people from 35 to 65 years old listed hatches as their top choice over other body types, and nearly 30 percent of those in the 55- to 65-year-old age bracket preferred hatches.

One reason behind the recent surge in enthusiasm for hatches is the rising popularity of small cars in general. Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis at Power Information Network in Westlake Village, Calif., says that sales of small cars have been driven by the rising price of gasoline. Thus, up goes the hatch market as well. “Hatchback sales are up about 20 percent in the last two years,” Libby says.

As sales of small cars continue to rise — Power Information Network reports that the compact vehicle market share rose from 27.9 percent in 2005 to 31.2 percent in 2006 and is predicted to continue upward — even more hatches should appear.

Still, hatchbacks account for a relatively small portion of U.S. auto sales. Many of the most successful are not seen as hatches at all, according to Libby. The New Beetle and Mini Cooper, the latter an especially sought-after vehicle, are likely regarded as small, cute and fun cars first, and hatches second, Libby says. Furthermore, few would say that the Toyota Prius, with sales up 76 percent this year, is selling so well because it has a hatch. It’s seen as a hybrid, maybe even the hybrid, above all.

Today's hatchbacks increasingly emphasize style and sportiness over economy and efficiency. Cute new hatches like the Yaris and Fit appeal to first-time car buyers. Mazda’s 3 and 6 hatches, including the sporty Mazdaspeed3, have proved beneficial for the brand by appealing to families and young people. Mazda sales rose about four percent a year in the two years since the company introduced the hatch versions of its Mazda3 and Mazda6, according to Libby.

Some companies are moving away from hatches. The hatchback version of the Ford Focus was popular, but Ford stopped offering the hatch version with its latest redesign of that car. Chevrolet refreshed the sedan version of its Aveo economy car, but let the hatch languish another year with an outdated look. BMW has decided against including a hatch when its diminutive 1 Series line goes on sale here next spring, even though the hatch version sells briskly in Europe. And Saab, once known for its quirky hatches, has given up on them in favor of small wagons, which they call “SportCombis.”

Volvo’s eagerness to put out a new hatch of its own is in sharp contrast. For better and for worse, Volvo was long thought of as a company that made safe, conservative-looking cars. The company brought out the C30 in an effort to change its image, Battaglia says, and attract younger buyers. "People still think of us as selling boxy wagons,” he says.

The C30 comes in two flavors, named 1.0 and 2.0 like computer software. (However, in computer software, such numbering typically designates sequential releases, not two versions of the same program.)

For the C30 Version 1.0, the base price is $22,700, and for the C30 Version 2.0, it is $25,700. Each adds a $745 destination charge as well.

Both versions are front-wheel drive and are powered by a five-cylinder 227-horsepower engine. But the 2.0 is the sportier-looking one thanks to more aggressive 18-inch wheels, a premium audio system, aluminum dashboard inlays and a sporty body kit.

The C30 is aimed at singles and couples without children. “We told the dealers, if you see [customers] loading up a stroller, don't even show them the C30,” Battaglia says.

Volvo is promoting the C30 as an opportunity for personal expression, with 17 exterior colors (including “Gecko Green”), a dozen interior schemes and a full complement of accessories, allowing for what Volvo estimates at 5 million possible unique combinations. This high degree of personalization was a technique recently employed to great success by Mini, even if it sometimes took a while for those personalized Minis to be built. Volvo is one-upping Mini by aiming for a delivery time of around two weeks, Battaglia says.

A fully rigged and totally one-of-a-kind C30 could end up costing $40,000, but Battaglia says he expects most of the cars to sell for closer to $25,000.

If you want the practicality of a hatchback without sacrificing luxury, take a look at your seven choices by clicking on the “slide show” link above.

© 2007 ForbesAutos.com

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