- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

What do the following cars have in common? The Ford Focus ZX3, ZX5, and Focus SVT; the Hyundai Elantra GT; the Mazda Protege5; the Hyundai Elantra GT; the Honda Civic Si; the Acura RSX; the Mercedes-Benz C230; and the new MINI Cooper.

They are all hatchbacks.

Could we be seeing a resurgence of hatchbacks? Not the lowly models, but hatchbacks with attitude. Their proliferation does not mean we are seeing a trend now, although it could get there eventually, said James N. Hall, vice president of industry analysis for AutoPacific Inc. in Southfield, Mich. Mr. Hall points out that with a few exceptions Chrysler PT Cruiser, Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe the hatchbacks are low-volume models.

Other analysts differ. "I think you can use the 'trend' word without it being a problem, but it's just at the very beginning," said Wes Brown, associate with Nextrend, a market research consumer trend and consulting company in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

The hatchback a body style in which the conventional trunk and lid are replaced by a rear door that is generally hinged from the top and includes the rear window has never been as popular in the United States as it has been in Europe.

In Europe, high gasoline prices and limited space make the utility and flexibility of hatchbacks attractive. The beauty of a hatchback is the ability to switch between carrying people and hauling stuff. Many hatchbacks have rear seats that fold down to provide the cargo-carrying space of a larger vehicle.

In the United States, on the other hand, vehicles such as the Ford Pinto, the Chevrolet Vega and Dodge Omni helped link hatchbacks with "low-end bottom-feeder cars," Mr. Hall said. While the hatchbacks of the past were traditional three- and five-door vehicles, today's hatchbacks include high-performance models, such as the Ford Focus SVT and Honda Civic Si.

Mr. Hall says that turning around the image of the hatchback depends on having a new group of buyers embrace them. And that group would be anyone younger than baby boomers (age 38 to 55), but especially Generation Y (ages 7 to 23), which isn't as enamored with trucks, said Mr. Brown.

The desire to capture this youth market is one reason we will be seeing sporty performance hatchbacks with attitude, such as Honda's Civic Si, which has 160 horsepower while the regular Civic EX has only 127 horsepower.

While manufacturers are pushing the idea, consumers are not clamoring for them, Mr. Hall said. "They are small cars, and small cars are not aspirational for the majority of buyers," he said. This could create a sales problem.

Still, the image of the hatchback in the United States is improving, said Tony Fouladpour, spokesman for Volkswagen of America Inc. VW has had hatchbacks in the United States since 1974, when it started selling the Rabbit, which became the five-door Golf. "I think we've contributed to that greatly because we've advertised and marketed it as a hip car but others have as well," he said.

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