The 2010 Volkswagen GTI (VW).

    by: David Kiley | AOL Autos

    If Europeans had their way, America would have national healthcare, espresso on demand, legal smoking in the workplace, and the same rational love of hatchback cars and sport wagons that they have.

    How is all that going? Despite healthcare reform, Americans are no closer to a single-payer healthcare system than they were a year ago. I suppose Starbucks becoming this generation’s McDonalds takes care of the espresso, and at least the Italians running Chrysler are smoking with abandon in their headquarters building, despite Michigan's smoke-free workplace law. And it could be that the U.S.'s love-hate relationship with hatchbacks is warming after years of associating the five-door design with high-school equivalency degrees and those who sniff the screw-cap on their wine coolers.

    For years in the U.S., highly rated hatchbacks have sold like escargot at Waffle House. To Volkswagen's perennial dismay, the Golf, the top selling model in Europe, rarely tops 35,000 sales in the U.S., while the Jetta remains its top selling model. When Ford issued a restyled Focus for the 2008 model year, it dropped the five-door, three-door and wagon versions of the car altogether, as they combined for only about 15% of the volume. And let's not even discuss the short-lived Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, technically classified as a "notch-back," a car so reluctant to be called a hatchback that designers went to great lengths to make it look like a sedan despite the wide-mouthed bass rear opening. Chevy boasted that a person could fit a kayak in the car with the front-passenger seat folded down, but few seemed to try, or care.

    But as Ford unleashes its all-new Fiesta on the U.S., hatchbacks are running at 60% of the sales and production mix. And when the new Focus launches in early 2011, the same allocation is expected. What gives?

    "The market is changing, and so have the designs," says Ed Welburn, chief designer at General Motors. GM is launching a new Chevy Aveo five-door, as well as the new Chevy Spark, which is a hatch-only subcompact. "I think people are viewing them more as small utility crossovers than hatchbacks."

    "Crossover," of course, is marketing-speak for a hatchback station wagon.

    Ford Fiesta exterior designer Kevin George said the original plan for the Fiesta launch in the U.S. was to bring only the sedan version to the U.S. "The insight was that many hatches represented entry-level cars for a lot of people, and did not have the features people associated with an 'aspirational' car," says George. "[Ford global marketing chief] Jim Farley decided we would give it all the features and technology we had to offer, and people would respond ... and they have."

    The disconnect for auto executives who often work on both sides of the Atlantic is how popular hatches and sporty wagons are in Europe. Wagon versions of the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes E Class, Audi A4, and Ford Mondeo all sell in big numbers overseas. On the other hand, the Dodge Magnum sport wagon sold in the U.S. from 2005-2008 was short-lived.

    The frustration comes from the fact that auto companies are trying to design vehicles for world consumption these days. Back in 2006 when Nissan was getting ready to launch the Nissan Versa, a car the company already sold overseas, U.S. executives told Japanese management they didn't really want the car. They felt they could cover the entry-level category with the Sentra. CEO Carlos Ghosn ordered U.S. managers to take the car, and that 60%-70% of the production mix would be hatches. U.S, executives moaned louder, demanding 70% be sedans, despite the awkwardness of the Versa sedan's design. Ghosn proved correct and the Versa has been a solid contributor to Nissan sales.

    Honda introduced the Fit, which only comes as a five-door, in 2007. It too, has been a solid success, selling between 85,000-100,000 a year, with transaction prices trending around $17,000.

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    "Hatchbacks got a bad name in the mid and late 1970s and into the 80s," says New York-based design consultant Robert Cafaro. "It was exemplified by the Pinto, the Dodge Omni, the original Ford Fiesta, AMC Gremlin and the Volkswagen Rabbit." Says Cafaro, "These cars were not well-made and they came on the scene as a response to higher gas prices, so they were associated with sacrifice, not aspiration." Hatchbacks, Cafaro adds, became associated with being the car your college kid packed with stuff in late August to head back to school -- and that image stuck for a long time.

    It was ironic then that in 1994, Ford launched a tiny hatchback called "Aspire."

    What auto executives and product planners can’t explain is why the Focus five-doors didn't sell in the U.S., but the Honda Fits do. Ed Kim of auto industry consulting firm AutoPacific says it seems to boil down to a combination of the design and the image of the brand. "To some degree, SUV’s and crossovers have legitimized the hatchback, but to most people they still identify hatchbacks with one of too things, cheap, or -- and this isn’t necessarily bad -- 'young'" says Kim. "Vehicles like Volkswagen GTI or Audi A3, and even Mazda3 to some extent aren’t downmarket at all. They are perceived as sporty, high performance, and youthful. Those are the so-called "hot hatches."

    Indeed, the enthusiasts who doll up their small cars with performance accessories love small hatchbacks, especially when they have go-fast engines in them.

    Some would say that Americans never really scorned hatchbacks, just small ones without much in the way of performance. After all, every minivan, compact SUV and crossover is technically a hatchback. It is undeniably a useful tool to have whether one is a city mouse or a country mouse. In a country that has turned perfectly good one and two garages into storage sheds because of all the crap we keep on hand -- despite such handy riddance mechanisms like garage sales, Craigslist and eBay -- its understandable that we like utility vehicles of any kind on hand for hauling it all place to place.

    Part of the reason automakers are planning for more and building more small hatches is the expectation that gas prices will climb above $3.50 a gallon by mid-decade and stay above that level -- or perhaps climb higher for a "new normal" in gas prices.

    "People will demand better gas mileage, but they won't want to give up utility," says Peter Savard, a New York-based trend analyst.

    Hatchbacks are still a bit of a hard sell in the luxury category. BMW, Audi and Mercedes all sell touring wagon versions of their cars in Europe in healthy numbers. But in the U.S. they've been but a blip, with the Audi A3 and Volvo C30 selling in small numbers. But there is no arguing with the success of the MINI Cooper, which is selling about 50,000 a year. It has influenced every automaker on how it thinks about both premium small cars and hatchback.

    Hatchbacks seem to have lost their stigma. Now, they are part of the overall "utility" class of vehicles that is here to stay. But as sales trends indicate, their popularity seems to depend on the price of gas and how good the designs are. So, memo to automakers: More like the MINI and Fit, fewer Aspires and Gremlins.

    Now, if we could just get the single-payer healthcare.

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    1 - 20 of 87 Comments
    Pateraangus Mar 04, 2011 2:07 PM
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    n8doggod9 Sep 29, 2010 3:48 PM
    the accord and camery rank number 1 and 2 in domestic content.
    Report This
    n8doggod9 Sep 29, 2010 3:46 PM
    google: Cars.com American-Made Index
    Report This
    n8doggod9 Sep 29, 2010 3:39 PM
    Do all of you "buy American" folks realize you probably employ more americans when you buy a Nissan, or Hyundai than you do when you buy a Chevy?
    Report This
    jeffnow329 Sep 29, 2010 2:06 PM
    SUV's, station wagons, hatchbacks and mini vans they are all really the same.
    Report This
    wi3leong Sep 29, 2010 1:42 PM
    I went from a hatchback to a coupe in '99 & miss having the ability to transport outsized items in a vehicle that handles like a car instead of a truck. If I replace my current car with another 1, I'm getting a station wagon - or whatever they're calling them these days. You hearing me, manufacturers?
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    wmwsail Sep 29, 2010 1:15 PM
    I am a one car family. For 22 years I drove Camaro/Firebird hatchbacks. On one occasion I actually transported a water heater (with hatch open). When my last Camaro got old, I looked for a sporty hatchback. The new Camaro trunk design is very limited. I gave up on the other hatchbacks and got a little BMW 128i - not a hatchback, but a very useful trunk.
    Report This
    jrepairguy Sep 29, 2010 1:09 PM
    Hatchbacks are UGLY, period.
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    dcgorlando Sep 29, 2010 12:37 PM
    I don't what the big deal is. Many people have a stigma about stationwagons and would never own one. How many people drive SUV's? Same thing if you ask me. So what is the big deal about a hatchback? Give them some cool name and they will sell. There function works.
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    misfitmom1 Sep 29, 2010 12:26 PM
    I have a taurus station wagon. They have stopped making wagons. I hate the look of the mini van. Any suggestions??? Or could you still make a wagon for us that grew up with them. My family had an olds vista cruiser like the one on that 70's show. Ahhh.... the memories.
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    pazuzuking Sep 29, 2010 11:53 AM
    Love wagons n' hatchbacks. Hate the F*n heathcare reform!
    Report This
    xinglvdi Sep 29, 2010 11:44 AM
    It has been 1 years alrealdy since i retired from the military. I'm 30 ,rich but still single.It's hard to get a girlfriend in my town ,most of them like my money more than like me.Ijust want to find my true love.so i uploaded my hot photos on uniformedmingl e.c om under the name of sammy561.It's the best club for seek ing Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Police Force, and their admirers.if you girls see this comment,i hope you will check my photos out there.maybe you are the one who i'm looking for!!!
    Report This
    tincity1968 Sep 29, 2010 11:38 AM
    The auto maker have sold it self and the people of the USA out, At one time we made the best cars on the road that the working person could afford. Now the makers have taken their money out of the country,then the cars that they build in the USA { look under the hood and find made in mexico,or some other country that we have been supporting with our TAXes} or Look at Japan after they tried to kill us all then we soved that problem then we sent $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ of to rebuild their country, and they treat their own people like dirt, Come on USA let pull as one and we can build a car and all the rest of the items and put the PEOPLE of our country BACK TO WORK. BUY IT,BUILD IT, PUT IT TOGETHER, PUT THE PROUD TO BE MADE IN THE USA ON IT. MANY OF OUR FAMILYS HAVE GIVEN THEIR LIVES FOR THIS COUNTRY AND WE HAVE SOLD THEM OUT. PUT PRIDE IN WHAT YOU BUILD OR DO AND BRING THE FEELING BACK TO YOU. GOD BLESS THE USA. LEW
    Report This
    princesskaren68x Sep 29, 2010 11:13 AM
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    petryks Sep 29, 2010 11:11 AM
    This article is silly. The car manufacturers decide what Americans want and it has nothing to do with sales figures. How they can make it cheaper is top on the list. For example,, two door automobiles have sold in droves over the decades until the big three decided that "American's don't want two door mid size and full size cars" and except for a few exceptions, eliminated them. Remember, we're not talking about small econo-boxes, I mean Impalas, Malibus, or what is called full and mid size cars. Build hatchbacks? I wonder why they decided to return to them? Remember, the big three doens' t care about what YOU ********** what makes the biggest profit for them. Accountants of the US auto makers are probably sitting around the table going over the plans of putting hatchbacks on four door cars. It's the accountants that have the biggest influence on the design of our cars. The days of automotive designers who in the past design works of art on wheels is over. Why Hatchbacks Are Back? Is a interesting story by David Kiley but the real reason is something only the bean counters can truly say. Think I'm wrong? Go to ANY car show and count the two door cars vs four door cars. After you get your total, then tell me with a straight face that Americans don't like those two door cars. While you're at it, find me an owner of a two door '57 Chevy who would gladly turn in his car for a four door model. See you at the show!
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    redrider312 Sep 29, 2010 11:01 AM
    92 fox 5.0 GT hatch Mustang...AMERICAN...if you drive imports YOU ARE PART OF THE PROUBLEM I have 7 cars/trucks..ALL AMERICAN..AL AS GOOD AS YOU TAKE CARE OF THEM
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    bsk7202 Sep 29, 2010 10:55 AM
    Had a six year old 71 Gremlin for 350 bucks, anvil tough 232 six with an all syncro 3 speed on the floor. Drove this car for a year, Rockford turns, burnouts with big second gear rubber and banzi runs down Hunter Mt. I beat the wiz out of this poor little Gremmie, sold it for what i paid for it. It became a 358 class stock car, the prefferd body style of the day.
    Report This
    bikergrl30 Sep 29, 2010 10:51 AM
    I love my 2006 Malibu Maxx...it has so much room.....I wish GM would make it again....I know they have smaller ones...like the Aveo...but I would like a redesigned Maxx
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    mcsstx88 Sep 29, 2010 10:32 AM
    Personally, I have no desire for any car manufactured by ANY foriegn company. I also have no desire for a WORLD economy, or a One World Order. I've seen Star Wars but knew right away that it was just a movie. Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, I don't care,,,,, BUY AMERICAN DUMB @#$ or face the consequences and pay rent for the rest of your natural born days and live in poverty like these other countries have now. Can't buy a house because you lost your job? Live in your Toyota stupid!
    Report This
    jomalus Sep 29, 2010 10:28 AM
    Hatchbacks are convenient. David does a wonderful job making the article clever and entertaining.
    Report This
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    It could be that the U.S.'s love-hate relationship with hatchbacks is warming after years of scorn.


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