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By Paul A. Eisenstein

The Honda Civic has long been one of the country’s best-selling automobiles, but buyers could be in for a shock when they get a look at the latest in a growing line-up of variants the Japanese maker is bringing to the U.S. market.

With its winglets, diffusers, scoops and spoilers, the new Honda Civic Type-R is not your typical, plain vanilla compact. It is the latest entry into a fast-growing niche known as the “hot hatch.” And while utility vehicles may be getting most of the attention these days, demand for these high-performance three and five-door rockets is rapidly growing.

The Honda Civic Type-R is the most powerful version of the compact Honda line ever, churning out 306 horsepower.

So are the number of options available for performance fans on a budget. Though the Civic Type-R has been available in Europe and Japan for the past two decades, it marks the first time it has been offered in U.S. showrooms.

Europe and Asia Love Them

Hatchbacks have been around seemingly forever, but after gaining traction in the 1980s and early 1990s, they all but slipped off the sales charts. Back then, they were largely pitched as high-mileage economy cars, but they tended to be slow, boring, and often suffered from quality problems, such as leaks around their hatches.

In Europe and Japan, however, demand has remained strong — encouraging aggressive competition. Targeting young, performance-minded buyers, especially those on a budget, manufacturers started stuffing ever more powerful engines under the hood.

The first automaker to give it a try was Volkswagen, which in 1976 unveiled the Golf GTI. Other European manufacturers followed, and then the Japanese got into the game. Subaru, which has had a knack for winning over niche audiences, scored with its WRX STI, today the best-selling of the performance hatch models in the U.S.

Subaru's WRX STI is the best-selling of the performance hatch models in the U.S.

While demand is relatively modest compared to more mainstream offerings, “these types of vehicles provide a street-cred halo for other products,” said Stephanie Brinley, a senior analyst with IHS Automotive.

While Europe and Japan have seen a flood of high-performance hatches come to market, manufacturers have been far slower to supply the U.S. based on the overall weakness of the hatchback market. There are a handful of what some call “warm hatches,” like the Honda Civic Si — a new version just rolling into showrooms in recent weeks.

With conventional hatchbacks starting to regain momentum it’s likely no surprise that U.S. buyers are getting more hot hatch choices, as well. Volkswagen amped things up beyond the GTI a couple years ago with the launch of the Golf R. Ford struck back with the Focus RS. And now, Honda is bringing the Civic Type-R to the U.S. for the first time.

The Ford Focus RS has three times as much power as a regular Focus.

The most powerful version of the compact Honda line ever, it churns out 306 horsepower. And that’s nowhere near the upper limits. The AMG-powered performance version of the compact GLA makes a full 375 horsepower, enough to launch from 0 to 60 in just 4.3 seconds.

So What Exactly Is a Hot Hatch?

The term, “hot hatch” is a bit vague, and it can take on a variety of different forms. Some models, like the Mercedes-AMG GLA 43, could just as easily be referred to as crossovers. But they provide a generally affordable alternative to classic muscle and sports cars. The new Type-R straddles the middle of the price range at around $35,000.

Will we see even more hot hatch options? Quite likely, said Brinley. The industry faced a chicken-and-egg problem. It couldn’t build demand when there was nothing to sell. “New product is bringing new customers.”

The shift from cars to trucks is likely to continue, Brinley added, but by emphasizing something special, like performance, manufacturers could give buyers a viable alternative to SUVs.