- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2002

Hatchbacks, both three-door and five-door models, are making a major comeback after being forgotten for more than a decade by the American public.
Six new models have hit the market recently, the Acura RSX, Ford Focus ZX-5, Honda Civic Si, Hyundai Elantra GT, Mazda Protege 5, and Mercedes C230. The Mazda 6, Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Matrix and more luxury hatchbacks will soon join them.
Hatchbacks were big in the United States in the 1970s through the early 1990s. They never completely disappeared from the domestic market, but the growth of light trucks, primarily sport-utilities and minivans, cut deeply into their popularity. Minivans and SUVs may have offered an alternative to the hatchback's utility, but there were other problems, too.
Hatchbacks were heavy, prone to rattle and could be difficult to raise. There was another problem, the dreaded wet head, caused by rain blown on backseat passengers when the hatch was raised.
There was another issue, according auto analyst Art Spinella with CNW Marketing/Research in Brandon, Ore. "They were so damned homely," he said.
But the new hatchbacks such as the Mazda Protege 5 and Ford Focus ZX-5 provide a more sporty image and fun-to-drive attributes. They offer younger buyers an appealing combination of versatility and sportiness without the negative baggage of a station wagon.
Another analyst, Jeff Schuster, director of product analysts at J.D. Power and Associates, says wagons have "that family image that most people just don't want to portray. The younger buyer doesn't want a station wagon. A sporty five-door hatchback, with a tweaked engine is different, but it is really not that different."
Hatchbacks have never lost their popularity in Europe because they have a little bit more of a sporty, active lifestyle personality, according to Tony Fouladpour, a spokesman for Volkswagen of America. In the United States, buyers still prefer VW sedans to hatchbacks, but that's changing slowly, he said.
The new generation of hatchbacks is selling well. Ford expects to sell 20,000 ZX-5s annually. Bob Fesmire, the brand's marketing manager, said the vehicle is targeted at buyers in their early to mid-20s. The ZX-5 has a sticker price of $16,169, including transportation.
Mazda is predicting hatchbacks will account for 25 percent of Protege 5 sales. "We're selling just over 2,000 a month now, which for us is significant because they are buyers we have not seen before," said Stephen Odell, executive vice president of Mazda North American Operations. The Protege 5 carries a sticker price of $16,815, including transportation.
Automakers are taking a different road this time around. Early hatchbacks essentially added a hatch to established two- or four-door models. The new arrivals are aiming for a wide range of styling variations. The 2003 Pontiac Vibe and its sister vehicle, the 2003 Toyota Matrix, will offer all-wheel drive, and have a taller profile with more ground clearance.
Imported luxury brands are expected to take a different approach. They will attempt to woo current SUV owners who are ripe for a switch. "We are seeing that in some of the research," Mr. Spinella said. "We're seeing that among people who went to luxury sport-utilities, didn't like the ride and handling, and returned back to their typical sedan."
They are saying that one of the things missing in their sedans is the flexibility they enjoyed with their sport-utilities, said Mr. Spinella. He pointed out SUVs can carry bulky things, such as a piece of furniture bought on the spur of the moment.
Mr. Schuster is predicting a flood of hatchbacks from the luxury brands, Audi, Volvo, with further expansion with BMW at the lower end. He also said the Japanese makers are expected to follow suit.
N. AMERICAN AUTO WRITERS SYNDICATE


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