In automobiles, as in nearly every field, public tastes do vary around the world. What’s sought-after in one region can be shunned in another. Why, for instance, have hatchbacks been so unpopular in the U.S., compared to other body styles, but so devotedly appreciated in Europe and much of the rest of the world? For some reason, when it comes to passenger cars, Americans seem to have an attachment to sedans with trunks.
Then again, defining a hatchback isn’t so easy. There’s a blurry line between some hatchbacks and similarly-designed wagons or small crossovers. Still, many a manufacturer has developed a hatchback variant of a popular four-door sedan, only to find that sales fail to approach expectations.
Three boxy little cars, cleverly blending cuteness with practicality, arrived on the automotive scene in the 2008-10 time frame: Kia Soul, Nissan Cube, and second-generation Scion xB. Immediately noticeable and impressively capable, each appealed to the youngster in everyone, attracting buyers who sought something different. Plenty of vehicle developers strive for a look that stands apart, but only a handful actually find it.
Only the Soul remains, still able to stimulate a smile, whether you’re driving it or looking at one. Like its now-extinct companions, the Soul is youthful, not just youth-oriented in a quest for sales.
Older folks need not shy away. Kia got a lot of mileage out of its TV commercials featuring fun-loving hamsters ambling through the streets in a Soul. Silly? Sure, but take a good look at any Soul. Isn’t this the vehicle those little scamps would likely be driving, if only they were big enough?
Now that Toyota’s groundbreaking Prius hybrid comes in a selection of body styles, not just the original hatchback, including the tiniest version in a list of favorites might seem like an odd choice. Not at all. The subcompact Prius c is an example of broadening a basic and worthy concept (in this case, battery/gasoline power), yielding a vehicle that turns out to be exactly what was promised.
Impressively nimble around town, a Prius c provides no surprises, except for doing the exact job for which is was designed. Better yet, for doing it efficiently, in an exceptionally small scale. Most important, the Yaris-based Prius c delivers a welcome helping of fun and personality, at least to drivers who appreciate the delights of mini-size hatchbacks. Road-going joy is not a trait for which the regular Prius and Prius v wagon are known. Curiously, despite its shrunken dimensions, the Prius c sips a bit more fuel than bigger Priuses; but it’s more affordable. That’s fun, too.
Plenty of plug-in hybrids and a handful of all-electric cars have come along since Chevrolet released the Volt as a 2011 model. Launched to great fanfare, the Volt has more recently been fading out of awareness, but still delivering on its fuel-efficient promise.
Neither an electric car nor a hybrid, Chevrolet's Volt is an “extended-range” vehicle that will run on battery power for a short distance after recharging. Then, its gasoline engine kicks in to continue providing energy for the battery pack. Electricity always propels the car; the gas engine is there to charge the battery.
The Volt demonstrates quite a different use of the hatchback body style than we’re used to seeing. At a glance, viewed from the side, it doesn’t even look like a hatchback. Nor does it resemble any other models in the General Motors vehicle line. Nissan took a similar path with its fully-electric LEAF, creating or adapting a hatchback body that’s used by no other model.
After a brief flurry of enthusiasm when it appeared in the U.S. as a 2013 model, the C-Max seemed to settle into the background. Roomy and sensible, a C-Max is especially easy to drive. Popular for years in Europe before its American debut, it simply isn’t drawing the attention it warrants, in my view.
“Max” may as well stand for huge headroom. Few fuel-efficient cars are more versatile and practical than a C-Max. Confident and sure-footed, this tall hatchback exudes quiet efficiency, with an enjoyable European feel overall. An excellent ride complements the satisfying handling, with a moderately light touch. Driving a C-Max would be a pleasure even if it didn’t yield frugal fuel economy.
Just one little disappointment: C-Max is available only as a hybrid or plug-in. Europeans can get a C-Max with a conventional gasoline engine. Hmmm, our list of favorites seems to lean heavily toward hybrids. Could be a coincidence, but something about hatchbacks does suggest efficiency.
Picking favorite hatchbacks is particularly taxing, because of the bounty of stylishly enticing examples from automakers as diverse as Audi and Honda, BMW and Subaru. Hatchbacks tend to earn favorable impressions even when their tangible merits don’t exactly stand apart from the competition. When in a quandary, I typically gravitate toward what’s different in some way.
Innovation is one factor that helps place a vehicle on my list. Not just new gadgetry or superfluous frills, though. The only innovation that counts is the kind that reacts to a real problem or imperfection and supplies a tangible, workable solution.
Acknowledging the difficulty that many people -- older and less agile -- face in getting into the back seat of a two-door coupe, Hyundai chose to install a third door on one side of its Veloster. This wasn’t exactly a new idea. Saturn, for instance, had offered three-door coupes years earlier; but what seemed like a logical approach never really caught on elsewhere.