What is a hatchback, and should you get one? You’ll get the answer to both questions and many others in our comprehensive hatchback buying guide.
If you’re looking to buy a new or used car, chances are you’ve pondered about the different types of cars currently available. In North America, SUVs and sedans are the most popular body styles, but in Europe, it’s hatchbacks that rule the roost.
What are hatchbacks, and why would anyone choose one over a sedan or SUV? To help you become a more informed car buyer, we’ve put together a detailed hatchback buying guide that answers the most common questions about this class of vehicles.
IN THIS GUIDE
What Is A Hatchback?
A hatchback is a type of vehicle with a two-box design and a roof-hinged rear door that opens upwards. In other words, there is a separate compartment for the engine and a second, larger one that’s shared by the passenger and cargo (trunk) areas.
Unlike the trunk of a sedan, which is often enclosed, the cargo bay is opened to the seating area, with a large opening at the back providing easy access.
Most hatchbacks come with a removable parcel shelf or roll-up tonneau cover for covering the cargo space behind the rear seats, and the rear seats themselves can often be folded down to increase cargo capacity.
Pros And Cons Of Hatchbacks
While not big sellers in the United States and Canada, hatchback have been the most popular body style in Europe and elsewhere around the world for decades, though they are being displaced by SUVs as the go-to vehicles for the general populace.
We’re going to look at the advantages and disadvantages of hatchbacks to see what exactly they offer motorists.
Here are five big reasons why hatchbacks are among the most popular vehicle types in the global automotive market and why you should consider getting one.
- Cargo space: A high rear roofline, big cargo opening, and foldable rears seats give hatchbacks far more cargo room than similarly-sized sedans.
- Affordability: For most automakers, building and maintaining a hatchback is easier and cheaper than most other types of vehicles, which translates to lower prices and cost of ownership.
- Drivability: Hatchbacks are small and lightweight, making them easier to drive and maneuver than most other types of vehicles. Navigating narrow or crowded city streets and parking in tight spaces is easiest with these vehicles.
- Fuel economy: Thanks to their small size and light curb weight, hatchbacks require smaller, less powerful, and less thirsty engines to move. They are the second most fuel-efficient vehicle class, just behind sedans.
- Safety: Hatchbacks have a low ride height and center of gravity that make them less likely than SUVs to rollover during high-speed maneuvers.
Why Buy A Hatchback
Hatchbacks pack a lot of space in a compact size, making them very practical vehicles. They also tend to be affordable, very easy to drive and park, and deliver great fuel economy.
If you’re a value-conscious buyer, hatchbacks are a very smart choice.
Hatchbacks are great cars, but they’re not perfect. Here are five reasons why you might not want to own one.
- Towing, hauling: Unlike SUVs and pickup trucks, the lightweight, compact size, and small engines of hatchbacks make them unsuited for hauling or towing heavy items.
- All-weather driving: A high ground clearance and all-wheel-drive drive mode are beneficial in areas with rough terrain and/or terrible weather. Unfortunately, most hatchbacks have a low ground clearance and do not offer all-wheel-drive.
- Off-roading: Their low ground clearance and limited availability of all-wheel drive make hatchbacks less than ideal for off-roading.
- Visibility: Hatchbacks provide a less commanding view over the road because of their low driving position, at least when compared to SUVs and pickup trucks.
- Privacy: The open nature of hatchbacks makes it easy for onlookers to see the contents of the cargo area, increasing the risk of theft.
Why Not Buy A Hatchback
A hatchback would be the wrong vehicle to get if towing and hauling heavy items is a top priority. They also don’t offer the best privacy and are not particularly well suited for driving on difficult terrain.
Types Of Hatchbacks
The term “hatchback” is often used to refer to a utilitarian, economy-minded small car. However, hatchbacks in the technical sense come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
3-Door or 5-Door Hatchback
Hatchbacks are typically offered with either a three-door or five-door configuration, though a few models have four doors. Now, before you comment that you’ve never seen a hatchback with five doors, let me explain.
The rear hatch is often counted as an extra door since it offers a wide enough opening to allow people to get in and out of the car if they wanted to, so models with two passenger doors are considered three-doors, while those with four passenger doors are 5-doors.
Three-door hatchbacks tend to be very small vehicles — superminis, city cars, etc. — with rear seats that are accessed by folding the front seats forward, not unlike a two-door coupe.
Five-door hatchbacks are far more popular than their two-door counterpart and for good reason. They offer more passenger and cargo room, and accessing the rear seats is much easier thanks to extra doors at the back.
Instead of the rear end being vertical, this hatchback variant has a more horizontal hatch. The rear window is often sloped with the roof to achieve a sleeker, more aerodynamic form; however, this design feature may cut into rear headroom, as well as the cargo area.
Needless to say, fastback hatchbacks are less space-efficient than hatchbacks with a more vertical rear section. Examples include the BMW 3 Series GT.
Marketers play fast and loose with the terms ‘sedan’ and ‘coupe’ when describing what are, essentially, hatchbacks. Case in point, liftback ‘sedans’ such as the Tesla Model S, Kia Stinger, and Audi A5 Sportback.
While these cars have the outward appearance of a sedan, they are technically hatchbacks since they have a two-box configuration with a shared interior volume for passengers and their cargo and a roof-hinged rear door that opens upwards.
Liftback sedans are usually longer than traditional hatchbacks, offering more room for passengers but not necessarily more cargo room. They are also usually more expensive.
Are SUVs And Wagons (Estates) Hatchbacks?
Like hatchbacks, station wagons, crossovers, and SUVs have a two-box configuration in which the passenger and cargo areas are connected and opened to each other and the cargo area is accessed via a roof-hinged rear door that opens upwards. So, yes, they can be considered a type of hatchback.
However, as mentioned earlier, the term ‘hatchback’ is generally used to describe a boxy vehicle that’s affordable, compact in size, sits low to the ground, and cheap to operate, hence why automakers make an effort to distinguish them from wagons, crossover SUVs, and liftback sedans.
You can learn more about SUVs in our detailed SUV buying guide.
Hatchbacks are not a one-size-fits-all type of vehicle. They come in a variety of different sizes, so you’re sure to find one that ‘fits’ your lifestyle like a glove.
There are four main size classes, but we’ll cover the three largest ones: subcompact, compact, and midsize/large hatchbacks.
Subcompact Hatchback (Supermini)
Subcompact hatchbacks, or ‘superminis’ as they are known in the UK, are usually the smallest, lightest, and most affordable models in an automaker’s lineup, just behind minicars.
Examples: Mazda2, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris Hatchback, Mini Cooper, Nissan Versa Hatchback.
- Hatchback body style provides real cargo capacity in a small package and at a low price
- Tight dimensions make them highly maneuverable and easy to park
- Light weight and small engines make them very fuel-efficient
- Poorly executed models may feel unrefined
- Interior can be cramped for large passengers
- Usually noisy at highway speeds
This is your entry into the hatchback segment. While not the most refined vehicles on the market, subcompact hatchbacks are affordable, nimble, fuel-efficient, and surprisingly spacious for their size.
Compact hatchbacks are by far the most popular size class, offering more space, performance, tech features, and refinement than subcompact hatchbacks while still being easy to drive and fuel-efficient.
Examples: Volkswagen Golf, Mazda3, Kia Soul, Honda Civic Hatchback, Toyota Corolla Hatchback.
- More passenger and cargo room than subcompacts
- Availability of more powerful engines, creature comforts, and tech features
- Maneuverable and fuel-efficient
- Some models can still feel too tight inside
- High trim levels of near-luxury models can be pretty pricey
As the heart of the hatchback segment, compact hatchbacks strike an excellent balance between the maneuverability, fuel-efficiency, and affordability of subcompacts and the spaciousness, power, and refinement of large hatchbacks without most of their drawbacks.
Midsize or large hatchbacks are usually not what people imagine when they think of a hatchback. That’s because most of the models in size class have the outward appearance of a sedan despite having a two-box layout and a rear hatch.
Examples: Tesla Model S, Porsche Panamera, Audi A5 Sportback, Kia Stinger.
- Longer wheelbase results in more spacious rear seats and cargo hold
- Usually more powerful than compact and subcompact hatchbacks
- Offer many of the best tech and convenience features from the automaker
- The bigger the car, the more expensive it is
- Larger mass and more powerful engines translate to lower fuel economy
- Larger size makes them less maneuverable
These cars look like sedans but function like hatchbacks. They tend to be the most spacious, refined, and powerful of the bunch, but also the least nimble and fuel-efficient.
Fastback hatchbacks and liftback sedans were designed for people who like the versatility of a hatchback but prefer the look of a sedan.
Hatchback vs. Other Car Types
Having gone through the benefits and drawbacks of hatchbacks, we’re now going to compare them to sedans, crossover SUVs, and wagons to give you added perspective.
Hatchback vs Sedan
Hatchbacks are commonly compared to sedans when someone is looking for a car, and why not? They are two of the most popular vehicle classes.
As car-based vehicles, they are only distinguished by the layout of their trunk or cargo area. A sedan’s cargo space is an enclosed compartment separate from the passenger cabin, while hatchbacks have no such divide between the passenger and cargo areas.
General overview out of the way, let’s see how they stack up to each other in all the ways that matter to car buyers.
- Passenger space: Front passengers will have the same amount of room; however, rear passengers may enjoy more headroom in the hatchback thanks to its higher, squared-off roofline.
- Cargo capacity: Hatchbacks offer far more cargo space than comparably-sized sedans. Being as the cargo area is opened to the passenger compartment and is accessed via a large, flip-up rear door, you can loan far more and far larger items.
- Visibility: The large, more vertical rear window of hatchbacks provide better rear visibility, assuming there is nothing in the cargo area that obscures your view. Front and side visibility is virtually identical between the two.
- Drivability: Hatchbacks tend to be a little shorter than sedans, which can make parking in tight spaces easier.
- Performance: Being as hatchbacks and sedans are usually different body styles of the same underlying model, performance is similar between the two. They usually offer the same powertrains and comparable driving capabilities, be it on the beaten path or off-road.
- Fuel efficiency: Hatchbacks tend to be a little heavier and less aerodynamic than sedans, which can make them less fuel-efficient. However, the difference in efficiency is often negligible at best.
Which Should You Buy?
Hatchbacks and sedans are so similar in their underpinnings that the decision to buy either one will ultimately come down to your style preference and how much cargo space you need.
For people who carry a lot of things frequently, a hatchback may be a better choice. Otherwise, you may want to get a sedan for the slightly better fuel efficiency.
Hatchback vs SUV
Hatchbacks and SUVs are similar in that they both have a two-box configuration in which the passenger and cargo areas are joined as one large compartment and the cargo area is accessed via a large, roof-hinged door (liftgate) that opens upwards.
Other than that, SUVs typically have taller bodies, a higher ride height, and all-wheel-drive capabilities.
Now that you have a basic understanding of what each vehicle type is, let’s look at why you might choose one over the other.
- Passenger space: The taller body of SUVs may offer front and rear passengers more headroom than similarly-sized hatchbacks.
- Cargo room: A taller body also gives SUVs more cargo room and a wider opening to load and carry larger items.
- Visibility: Compared to hatchbacks, SUVs have taller windows and a higher driving position, which gives drivers and passengers a better view of their surroundings.
- Drivability: Hatchbacks are smaller, lighter, and sit lower to the ground, making them easier to drive and park than SUVs.
- Capability: SUVs are built tougher and have more powerful engines than hatchbacks, allowing them to carry and tow heavier items. Their higher ground clearance and all-wheel-drive systems also make them better suited to drive in inclement weather and difficult terrain (off-roading).
- Fuel efficiency: Being smaller and lighter than SUVs means hatchbacks require smaller, less powerful and thirty engines for propulsion. This gives them notably more fuel-efficient.
- Safety: A low ground clearance gives hatchbacks a lower center of gravity, making them less likely to roll over during high-speed maneuvers than SUVs. Conversely, SUVs are better able to absorb impacts due to their larger size and mass, especially in collisions with smaller objects.
- Price, cost: Hatchbacks are generally cheaper than comparably-sized crossover SUVs and may even depreciate more slowly over time. They are also less expensive to repair and maintain.
Which Should You Buy?
Hatchbacks are well suited for those who have a tight budget and/or live in areas where parking is limited. That’s because they are cheaper than entry-level crossover SUVs and deliver great fuel economy, factors that make them cheaper to own.
On the other hand, if you go camping or hit the trails often, or live in an area with very bad weather, a crossover SUV will serve you better.
Hatchback vs Wagon
What’s the difference between a hatchback and a wagon? Not much. Also known as a station wagon or an estate, you can think of wagons as a longer, more spacious hatchback with a different name.
Both vehicle types are based on a car platform with a two-box design layout in which the cargo hold is opened to the passenger area and is accessed via a roof-hinged liftgate. They have a low ground clearance, drive like regular cars, and deliver good fuel economy relative to their size.
Wagons are further distinguished by their third row of side windows and elongated roofline, which gives them a larger cargo hold. The extra length makes them more expensive, less maneuverable, and less fuel-efficient than your standard hatchback, however.
Which Should You Buy?
The decision to get either a hatchback or wagon will come down to how much space you need. If you haul a lot of things on a regular basis, consider getting a wagon. Otherwise, a hatchback will deliver the same capabilities in a smaller, more affordable package.
What To Look For In The Best Hatchback
A hatchback is a great choice for anyone looking for a practical, versatile, and economical car; however, not all hatchbacks are made equal. To make the most of your money, make sure the one you get has the following attributes.
1. Split-folding rear seats. Seats that fold down in separate sections rather than in one piece will allow you to increase cargo space while seating a rear passenger.
2. Rear seats that fold flat. With many hatchbacks, the rear seats rest at an angle, making it difficult to keep items still and robbing you of space.
3. A low cargo opening lip. The lower the lip, the easier it will be to slide long or bulky items over the bumper and into the cargo area without doing too much lifting.
4. Sliding rear seats. Being able to slide the rear seats forward and backward will allow you to create more legroom for rear passengers or increase cargo space.
5. Parcel shelf or roll-up cover. The open nature of a hatchback’s cargo bay may expose your valuables to prying eyes. Having something to cover it addresses this issue.
Hatchback FAQS And Answers
What is a hatchback? If you’re still wondering, the answers to these common questions regarding what exactly these vehicles are summarize many of the major points made in this guide.
Are Hatchbacks Good Cars?
Yes, hatchbacks are great cars that offer a lot of practicality for relatively little money. Not only do they offer most of the benefits of sedans — minimal weight, great fuel-efficiency, superior maneuverability, and low purchase price and cost of ownership — but they also offer notably more cargo room.
The only drawback is their car-like ground clearance makes them less capable of driving over difficult terrain and providing a commanding view of the road, unlike SUVs.
Are Hatchbacks Dead? Are They Disappearing?
With everyone and their grandmother seemingly buying crossovers and SUVs, it’s easy to think hatchbacks, like sedans, are dead. That isn’t the case, however.
Hatchbacks won’t disappear because there will always be people who prefer the styling, value proposition, fuel-efficiency, and incredible maneuverability they offer, a combination of attributes that crossover SUVs simply can’t match. Plus, subcompact SUVs are essentially hatchbacks with slightly taller bodies.
Hatchback vs. SUV vs. Wagon: Which Should I Buy?
Hatchbacks and wagons offer most of the cargo-hauling versatility of SUVs without the drawbacks normally associated with a heavy, high-riding vehicle. They have better handling, thanks to their smaller size and lower center of gravity, while their lighter curb weight and better aerodynamics result in superior fuel efficiency.
Hatchbacks and wagons are also more affordable and less expensive to run than SUVs. However, they can’t match the impressive towing and off-roading capabilities and superior visibility that high ground clearance, all-wheel-drive drive, and more powerful engines grant SUVs.
Plus, since they can only accommodate up to five passengers, an SUV will be the better choice if you need seating for more than five people.
Hatchbacks are a great vehicle class with very few compromises. They are affordable, cheap to maintain, easy to drive and park, very fuel-efficient, and incredibly space-efficient.
Can hatchbacks handle rough terrain or inclement weather as well as SUVs? No. But for most driving conditions and most active lifestyle needs, they are all the capability a person could need.
Are hatchbacks dead? Absolutely not! No other type of vehicle offers SUV-like versatility in a small, lightweight, and budget-friendly package. Plus, there will always be people who just prefer the look and feel of hatchbacks over any other vehicle class.
So, what is a hatchback? A smart choice for no-nonsense car buyers. It’s a practical, easy to drive, and fuel-efficient vehicle that offers enough versatility for most people.