The Rise of the Hatchback and the Death of the Sedan

More and more these days, people are choosing crossovers and SUVs instead of sedans. The Toyota Camry and Honda Accord are still among the best selling sedans out there, but their sales are slowly sinking in favor of the Highlander, RAV4, CR-V, and so on. Fiat-Chrysler has dumped the smaller sedan market altogether, ditching the Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200 to focus on their “all trucks, all the time, gas will be cheap forever” strategy. But there’s another growing trend that people are overlooking – the rise in popularity of the hatchback.

1987 Dodge Omni
Photo credit: Car Gurus

Traditionally, Americans have hated the hatchback. I’ve always loved them, but I’m weird. Maybe early American efforts, like the Chevy Chevette and the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon, left a bad impression of the hatchback. From Japan, hatchback (and wagon) versions of the Honda Civic and Accord, as well as the Toyota Corolla and Camry, disappeared in favor of sedans, coupes, and crossovers. From Germany, Volkswagen introduced the Jetta as a more popular sedan alternative to the hatchback Rabbit and Golf. The hatchback BMW 318ti and Mercedes C230 were sales flops in the US. Hatchbacks were seen as cheap economy cars, and these more luxurious models from Germany weren’t taken seriously.

XJ Jeep Cherokee
Photo credit: Ran When Parked

I think the change in acceptance of hatchbacks started with the SUV. Most of them, particularly the XJ Jeep Cherokee that helped start the SUV boom, have rear hatches. Only a few used a more truck-like tailgate, like the Chevy K5 Blazer and Dodge Ramcharger. These SUVs were proud of their pickup truck roots and made no apologies for them, but their days were numbered. Even truck based SUVs became more practical and road friendly, such as the Chevy Tahoe and Toyota 4Runner. We’ve seen a few strange variations like the GMC Envoy XUV, whose rear “hatch” area could be converted to a small pickup bed through various awkwardly sliding body panels. But for the most part, SUVs have offered hatchbacks.

1991 Ford Explorer
Photo credit: Ford Authority

People liked four wheel drive and a high seating position, but many did not enjoy the harsh ride and the tippy sensation that came with an SUV originally designed for good off-road capability. Hence the birth of the crossover. It’s the best of both worlds – the height, all wheel drive (no need for low range or locked differentials), and versatile cargo space of the SUV, combined with the smooth ride, comfort, and amenities people associate with traditional cars. Even many traditional SUVs like the Ford Explorer, which used to be an obvious wagon version of the Ranger pickup, evolved into “soft-roaders” more appealing to the masses. The Explorer in particular was among the first SUVs to drop the live rear axle, whose strength is better for off-road use, in favor of an independent rear suspension, which is better for on-road handling and comfort. And it, too, has a rear hatch.

SUVs and crossovers surpassed sedan sales in 2014, and have left sedans in their dust ever since. As they’ve continued to dominate our roads (both literally and figuratively), people have become more accustomed to a rear hatchback cargo area instead of the sedan’s trunk. And so, in an ironic twist of fate, we’ve come full circle. The small cars that remain today now tend to be more popular in hatchback form than as a sedan. They certainly are with enthusiasts – look at Ford’s Fiesta and Focus ST, or the VW GTI. The Subaru WRX used to be available as a hatchback, but they dropped that for the 2015 model year. Bad timing. I bought my own WRX despite it being a sedan, not because of it. Given a choice, I would’ve taken a WRX hatch over the sedan in a heartbeat. (Psst, Subaru – bring us the Levorg!!!)

Subaru Levorg
Photo credit: Motor Authority

But hatchbacks aren’t just for enthusiasts either. The hatches of crossovers and SUVs are warming people up to the hatchback concept, and sales are increasing. According to USA Today:

Though their sales numbers are still relatively small, their percentage of the new car market has almost doubled over the past decade. From a tiny 2.6% in 2005, hatchbacks hit 4.8% [in 2015]. They are on track for a 6.6% share by 2020, says IHS Automotive.

Toyota Prius

And what’s the best selling modern hatchback? The Prius – the anti-enthusiast car. It’s only available as a hatchback (unless you count the Prius V as a wagon, which still has a hatch). This is mostly for aerodynamic reasons. Why do you think the Honda Insight – the modern one, not the original CRX clone – is almost indistinguishable, visually, from its competition from Toyota? The artists didn’t design their shape – the aerodynamic engineers did. And both have nearly identical drag coefficients around 0.25, depending on the year.

Audi A5 Sportback

The war on sedans is being fought on two fronts – by large SUVs and crossovers, and by small fuel sipping hybrids. And more and more, hatchbacks are winning. Germany is even revisiting the concept with the Audi A5 and A7 Sportback models, while BMW has introduced their GT models – hatchback versions of their four door versions of their two door versions of their four door cars. Though the WRX hatch is gone, the Subaru Impreza continues to be available as a hatchback, as well as the Mazda 3. Even Honda recently re-entered the game with the Civic hatchback. The eagerly awaited Civic Type R is also a hatch. Even America is getting back in the hatchback game with the Chevy Cruze, Bolt, and Volt, while the Ford Fiesta and Focus remain solid buys as well. It’s hard to find numbers for hatchbacks vs. sedans in models where both are available, but I personally see more Fiesta and Focus hatchbacks than sedans where I live. Your mileage may vary.

Justin's 2015 Subaru WRX

Will the sedan completely disappear? Probably not, just like the hatchback never disappeared when it was unpopular. Sedans do have certain advantages, such as not requiring a rear wiper, or offering a cargo area totally separate from your passenger compartment for transporting booze. But these days, large or small, simple or sporty, the two-box design seems to be winning out over the traditional American three-box.

I’ll take this as the market’s way of demonstrating that I was right about hatchbacks all along. Hatchbacks are cool.

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