25 August 2022 Concept Car
This may be a controversial article. And certainly we have a strong opinion on hatchbacks. But especially in the current climate of uncertainty, we thought it would be a good idea to reflect a little on a car type which may well be a lot better than its reputation.
In a recent forum debate, someone openly wondered why anyone would still want to buy a hatchback in 2020. What seemed like a weird question sparked a lively debate. To some involved, few things appear as outdated as a hatchback.
Which must come as a surprise.
For decades, after all, hatchbacks used to dominate UK roads. They were the car body type we could all agree on. They offered something for everyone. In many cases, drivers were even willing to pay more for them than a regular sedan.
Over the past years, all of that has changed quite rapidly. Suddenly, customers are dropping hatchbacks like hot potatoes. Some even predict that some of them will soon disappear completely.
If you, too, are wondering if there are still reasons to opt for a hatchback in 2020, read on. In our opinion, the good old hatch still has a lot going for it.
The car market has always been one of changing constellations and shifting moods. A car is a high-tech product. By innovating processes and technologies, manufacturers constantly come up with new solutions to the same fundamental problem: How to get from point A to point B as safely, comfortably and quickly as possible. Not even the most advanced car type can be expected to remain on the market forever. If everything’s in flux, then that’s a good thing.
What this means is this: If the hatchback is indeed disappearing, it wouldn’t be the first car type to do so. And it won’t be the last. In that sense, it certainly wouldn’t be the end of the world.
Until the 70s, car makers were experimenting with the exterior form of their vehicles a lot more than they are today.
Slowly, but surely, however, certain shapes and solutions simply turned out to be better than others. For a while, the market was dominated by a fairly small general range of types:
The advent of small city cars like the Fiat 500 brought a new concept for the trunk. These smaller cars had a combined passenger and luggage part. But the trunk would close thanks to a fifth (or third) door. The hatchback was born. It would quickly gain a loyal followership and remain the dominant car body form for decades.
And yet, all of a sudden, the hatchback looks like an endangered species. Blame the Special Utility Vehicle, or SUV. Within a mere decade, SUVs and crossovers have completely taken over the market. In some countries, they are outselling ‘regular cars’ by almost ridiculous percentages.
The US are a great example. Here, jeeps and pickups already enjoyed widespread popularity long before the SUV. Still, hatchbacks, sedans and especially the station wagon were considered the mainstream option.
The breakthrough of the SUV has turned the pyramid upside down. SUVs turned from a clever niche product, originally introduced to circumvent environmentally friendly tax regulations, into the number one vehicle type. Station wagons all but disappeared. Sedans lost a lot of ground. And the hatchback turned from poster child to a cause for worry.
Manufacturers quickly responded. In their eyes, there was no longer a future for traditional body types. Instead, they focused their main efforts on SUVs. Chrysler took this to its radical conclusion, virtually discontinuing their entire non-SUV and -pickup palette.
In the USA, if you want to buy a hatchback, you now need to turn towards European and Japanese brands. On the European and Japanese markets, traditional car types are still being produced and sold. Here, too, the SUV has made gigantic strides and moved into pole position. But manufacturers are hedging their bets. Although even the most reluctant and improbable brands have started to build crossovers – from Volkswagen to Lamborghini – they still believe in a future for the sedan and hatchback.
As Brian Smith, chief operating officer of Hyundai Motor America told the New York Times in an in-depth feature:
“I can’t answer why some people would walk away from [non-SUV] cars,” Mr. Smith said. “Because I don’t get it.” He said the trick was not to stop building sedans but to make them more distinctive, versatile and exciting. “Ten years ago, vanilla was O.K., but it’s not anymore,” he added.“
So which is it going to be for the hatchback: A bright future or a slow descent into meaninglessness? Let’s take a closer look at its history to find out.
In the beginning, there was the Ford Model T. And then? In the history of the automobile, the first decades were reserved for what we today call sedans. It is more than likely that makers were thinking of cars as a contemporary version of horse carriages. Which, in many ways, of course, they were.
And yet, as early as the 1930s, a few brands came up with the first attempts at hatchback concepts. French manufacturers played an important role in this right from the start.
Citroën’s 11CV Commerciale was probably the first commercially produced proto-hatchback ever. Looking at it with hindsight, it is remarkable how visionary the French make’s designers were. The 11CV’s third door was a lot chunkier. But other than that, it looked pretty much like a modern version of the same idea.
And yet, other brands arrived at different designs. Most manufacturers would work with a two point hinge hatchback well into the 50s. This meant that doors were made up of two parts. One part would open upwards like a contemporary hatchback. The other, smaller, part would open in a downward direction. It was a good enough solution, but hardly the stuff that dreams are made of.
Then, the brilliant design of another French producer changed all that.
In the early 60s, Renault was outwardly doing well. Its small and affordable models were selling millions all across Europe. It held a reputation for building cheeky little vehicles which were also fun to drive.
And yet, its managers were dissatisfied.
Sales of Renault’s larger models were faltering. For the time being, this was hardly an issue. But long-term, the bosses feared that its still valuable brand could deteriorate and its market share plummet.
And so, Pierre Dreyfus, head of the group, personally initiated a project which would change the landscape of the car market. He invested heavily into the development of a car which could rival the German car makers’ leading position in the mid-size car category, while retaining Renault’s unmistakable charm.
This project would soon turn into the Renault 16, one of the French brand’s most iconic designs.
By this time, smaller cars like the Fiat 500 or the Renault 4 had already made use of a more advanced hatchback design based on a single hinge. This had the double benefit of creating a more respectable trunk and allowing for more space within the passenger compartment.
With these smaller cars, the case for such a solution was easy to make. So far, however, most producers still shied away from using it for larger cars. The Renault 11 was therefore pretty unique when it arrived in 1965. What made it so utterly different is that the hatchback was not a stopgap. It was an integral part of the overall design.
Dreyfus saw cars as moving volumes of space. Accordingly, the 16 felt almost like a container of air on wheels. The interior was spacious and light-flooded. There was ample leg room for all passengers. The hatchback design added to this sensation by opening up the trunk and making it larger.
It was a revolutionary approach:
“The world’s first hatchback, or as it was advertised – a car with the styling of a sedan and the roominess of an estate, but also a car that you have never seen before. The design of the Renault 16 was dictated by market demands. The car’s designer, Gaston Juchet, had a large, three-box sedan with a V6 engine in mind, but management told him that that was not what the company needed to make money and get out of their financial hole. The new model desperately needed to be as practical as possible, or people simply wouldn’t buy it.”
Since then, hatchbacks have come and gone. But that one word has remained key throughout: Practicality.
This, too, began to change with the introduction of the 3-door city car hatch. It was generally understood that very small cars had to be 3-door hatchbacks, simply because of their size. Slightly bigger cars would usually be available as 5-door versions. (such as the Golf, for example)
In a clever twist of thought, some manufacturers suddenly started offering the same cars as 3-door versions. It seemed like a bad idea on paper: Why make it harder for people in the back to get into the car? Why give the front seat passengers more legroom and reduce the available space for all others?
And yet, 3-door models sold like hot cakes. They were, as Car Throttle put it, the choice of an egotistical generation, which didn’t care about the many obvious disadvantages of this approach, simply because these cars looked amazing and because they were lighter and therefore often faster than their traditional counterparts.
The 3-door version was the closest the hatchback ever came to being cool. And yet, its success carried over into the more traditional market. At least for a while.
Around the year 2006, Japanese manufacturer Nissan introduced a car whose influence would rival that of the Renault 16. With the Qashqai, it practically invented a new idea of what a car could be: Bigger and heavier, stronger and more versatile, built like a jeep but aimed at city traffic, the Qashqai seemed like a contradiction in terms. And yet, it made complete sense to millions and millions of buyers. Voting with their wallets, they made it one of the most sold models of the past decades.
In doing so, it also unleashed a wave of copycats, flooding the market with similar SUVs. Rather than being annoyed, customers fell head over heels for them. Europe, which had long looked down on Americans for their unecological ethics and their love for oversizing their cars, turned into a continent of SUV drivers.
And yet, this development was far from being a case of blindly following American culture. SUVs had very clear advantages over sedans and hatchbacks, some of which even manufacturers themselves had not been entirely aware of.
Let’s take a look at why the SUV body type has managed to turn into the most popular format of our time.
In the 90s, the mini van had been another example of a change. It was the obvious response to a new generation of babyboomers. Mini vans were flexible and spacious, economical and fun to drive. They were aimed specifically at families, a customer group most major makes had so far ignored. Their success made manufacturers rethink a lot of their basic premises.
The SUV’s triumph can also be explained by the fact that it answered needs the brands had ignored for too long. And once again, it was all about space.
The SUV’s standard trunk was hardly impressive. But once you expanded it by folding down the rear seats, you suddenly had a huge space which even the biggest hatchbacks couldn’t match. Objects like a pram or a wheelchair would often not fit into a hatchback. But they were no problem whatsoever for the crossover generation of vehicles.
The elevated driving position of these cars meant they were ideal for smaller drivers and anyone with eye disabilities. Which explains why so many women prefer SUVs, whereas men actually have a surprising affection for hatchbacks and sedans. It also explains why the Qashqai remains the number one motability car.
The dominance of SUVs did not affect all car body types equally. City cars essentially stayed the same and attempts at winning over customers with crossovers between smaller cars and the SUV aesthetic have remained the exception (see: Dacia Sandero Stepway).
Sedan sales have obviously declined. But the saloon remains a valuable proposition in the business world. Here, their slick, elegant design still feels more appropriate – it simply oozes class. Although, we’re sure that some will be impressed by the exquisite looks of the Rover Evoque or the Porsche Cayenne, their excessive price tag automatically means they are hardly for everybody.
The estate or station wagon, meanwhile, has been hit hard. In many respects, the SUV has made this particular design superfluous. Station wagons offer less space than most SUVs, are not quite as business-compatible as sedans, hardly more spacious than hatchbacks and they are usually fairly expensive. Although they are still an excellent idea on paper, they are almost certain to disappear from sight rather sooner than later.
In a way, the estate has been caught in the middle. But the same can be said about the hatchback. To many drivers, it’s the odd one out, somehow never quite fully convincing:
And so, the hatchback looks doomed to disappear. In fact, the 3-door hatchback is already on its way out, as many publications have claimed.
“Consumers now think carefully about the balance between comfort, usability and design, especially European consumers looking for small cars. We are seeing a shift, design is no longer the primary concern of consumers – convenience is increasingly important. This explains why 3-door hatchbacks are disappearing from European roads.”
And yet, hatchbacks could well have a bright future – as long as potential customers realise how great they still are.
A commentator summed up the benefits of a hatchback over a sedan thus:
“They are easy to drive. Have compact design, making them easier to park. Less expensive (cheaper) to maintain.”
If there’s anything at all that makes a sedan more interesting, it’s the fact that it offers, as Autotrader has put it, more ‘trunk privacy’:
“Most shoppers enjoy the comfort of a locking trunk, and they don’t like that hatchbacks offer a window into the cargo area that can be broken by thieves. Modern hatchbacks, however, usually offer a privacy shelf that can hide items just as well as a trunk.”
That, however, seems like a very weak argument in favour or against buying a car.
So what about the hatchback’s arch enemy, the SUV? We’ve talked about the benefits of a SUV before and some of them certainly apply.
And yet, hatches also have quite a few advantages:
Hatchbacks have a reputation for being more expensive than sedans. But is this really true?
In fact, when you compare the prices of different models, you’ll quickly see that it’s hard to arrive at any general rule. Some hatchback models are cheaper than their sedan counterpart. Some are more expensive. The difference may seem baffling at first. But the solution usually lies underneath the bonnet.
Especially in the USA, where hatchbacks have never really fared all that well (except for, you guessed it, the Renault 16), hatchbacks often come with a lot more extras than sedans. Even in Europe, there can be technical differences between the two body types.
Take the current edition of the Toyota Corolla. The Sedan is slightly cheaper than the Hatchback, which might seem to make it the better deal. On the other hand, the Hatchback offers a more powerful engine, a superior cargo capacity and better fuel efficiency.
Which of the two you prefer therefore remains a question of personal preferences.
In any case, it always makes sense to take a closer look and compare. In the end, you wouldn’t want to base your decision, as some have, on which of the two offers better sound quality for your hifi system.
25 August 2022 Concept Car