by Greg Wilson

Hatchbacks are back, but they’re no longer inexpensive entry-level models

At least seven new compact hatchback models will be introduced over the next year, but they’re not the inexpensive, entry-level hatchbacks that were so popular with first-time buyers in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. The new crop of hatchbacks are well-equipped models with higher price-tags and an emphasis on performance.

New models include the 2002 Ford Focus ZX5, 2002 Mazda Protegé5, 2002 Hyundai Elantra GT, 2002 Subaru WRX and TS Sport Wagon, 2003 Honda Civic SiR, 2003 Toyota Matrix and 2003 Pontiac Vibe. Most have, or are expected to have, a base price in the $18,000 to $23,000 price range.

Tim Lindsay, Editor of Carguide’s 2001 Buyer’s Guide says the new breed of hatchbacks will appeal to a different kind of buyer than previous hatchbacks. “I think they’re aimed at buyers with family obligations, but who want something fun and sporty – there’s definitely a performance angle to them. Previous hatchbacks, like the Honda Civic hatchback – it was a value leader – a bargain car that you could buy for not a whole lot of money.”

2002 Mazda Protegé5
2002 Mazda Protegé5

The new Mazda Protegé5 hatchback, due in dealerships in May, will be priced close to $20,000 and will be equipped similarly to the top-of-the-line Protegé ES sedan with the optional GT package. That’s a far cry from Mazda’s last hatchback, the 323 two-door hatchback which was discontinued in 1996. At the time, it was priced between $10,620 and $16,480.

“Previously the 323 was positioned as an entry level car, a second car, and an attractive vehicle for fleet buyers,” said Mazda Canada’s Director of Corporate Public Relations, Greg Young. “The position of the entire Protegé5 line up has evolved from the old 323 days. The value proposition hasn’t changed, but lately we targeting young, and young-at-heart, buyers.”

2002 Ford Focus ZX5
2002 Ford Focus ZX5

Ford’s sporty hatchback, the two-door Focus ZX3, was introduced in October, 1999. It will be joined this Fall by a four-door ZX5 hatchback model. Currently, the two-door ZX3 hatchback has a base price of $16,970, but the new four-door will be priced closer to the top-of-the-line Focus ZTS sedan which starts at $20,520. For comparison, Ford’s previous hatchback, the 1996 Escort, was priced between $13,995 and $15,695.

Most ZX5 buyers will be over 30, according to Ford of Canada’s Product Information Manager, Chris Banks. “We expect buyers of the ZX5 to be thirty-plus trend-setters who want the fashion bodystyle but need the capacity and convenience of five doors,” he said.

2002 Hyundai Elantra GT
2002 Hyundai Elantra GT

2002 Subaru Impreza WRX
2002 Subaru Impreza WRX

Hyundai will introduce a new 2002 Elantra GT hatchback in July, and though retail prices haven’t been released, it is expected to start just below $19,000. This compares to the 2001 Elantra sedan (upon which the Elantra GT is based) which ranges in price from $14,875 to $17,525.

Hyundai Auto Canada Marketing Manager, Mark Orlando, says the Elantra GT will be positioned as a “sports sedan appealing to younger singles and couples with no kids or younger children”.

Subaru’s new WRX version of the redesigned Impreza hatchback (also available as a sedan) emphasizes high performance with its 227 horsepower turbocharged four cylinder engine and a price of $34,995. But even Subaru’s bottom-of-the-line Impreza hatchback model, the 2002 TS Sport Wagon starts at $21,995 – about $3,500 more than the 2001 Impreza Sport Wagon Brighton model.

Honda will introduce a new Civic SiR hatchback early in 2002, a performance-oriented two-door hatchback to replace the 2000 Civic SiR Coupe.

“The Civic SiR buyer will interested in the performance and styling of
the car,” said Bill Bunting, Honda Canada’s Supervisor of Public Relations. “The previous Civic “hatchback” buyer was basically of two types: one group, approximately 30%, purchased the car for it’s styling and function – the other larger group, approximately 70%, purchased the hatchback because at the time, it was the lowest-priced Civic model.”

In the 2000 model year, Civic hatchbacks ranged in price from $14,300 to $16,300. The new Civic SiR is expected to be priced in the “upper range for Civic”, which is now in the $22,000 range.

Pontiac Vibe
Pontiac Vibe

2003 Toyota Matrix
2003 Toyota Matrix

In the Spring of 2002, General Motors and Toyota will introduce two new sporty four-door hatchbacks based on a revised Toyota Corolla platform: the Pontiac Vibe and the Toyota Matrix. The Matrix will be built at Toyota’s Cambridge, Ontario plant and the Vibe will be built at the joint GM/Toyota NUMMI plant in California.

The Vibe, which will be positioned between the Pontiac Sunfire and Grand Am, will be available with front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive and have a “..moderate level of standard equipment, with some unique features,” said Lynn Smith, Assistant Manager of Product Communications at GM of Canada. Smith says buyers will be in their 20’s to mid 30’s, 50/50 male/female, and 50% will be college graduates with an annual household income of $60,000. Prices have not been announced.

Toyota’s version, the Matrix, will offer similar features and will be offered in three trim levels. Base models will have front-wheel-drive and a 130 horsepower four cylinder engine, but the model making the rounds at auto shows in Canada includes all-wheel-drive, 17-inch alloy wheels and performance tires, special ‘ground effects’ body cladding and the same high-performance 180 horsepower 1.8 litre engine offered in the Celica GT-S.

Volkswagen can be given credit for starting the trend to ‘premium’ hatchbacks in 1998. When the Golf hatchback was redesigned in the Fall of 1998 as a 1999 model, its base price jumped from $15,645 to $18,950.

“We added content, over forty standard features, in part to distance ourselves from the competition”, said J.J. Hochrein, Account Supervisor at VW’s advertising agency, Arnold Worldwide. “Our strategy was to elevate the brand”.

Hochrein said buyers of the redesigned Golf tended to have higher incomes. Todays typical Golf buyers, says Hochrein are 53% male/47% female, have a median age of 36, a household income of $70,000, 52% are university grads, and half are married.

Volkswagen also pioneered the premium ‘retro’ hatchback: the 1999 New Beetle. Unlike the original Beetle, the New Beetle was well-equipped and started at $21,500. Chrysler joined the retro revolution last year with the PT Cruiser, a wagon/hatchback hybrid which offers a high level of standard equipment and a starting price of $23,200.

Consumers looking for a cheap, entry-level hatchback now have only three choices: the Hyundai Accent, Suzuki Swift, and Daewoo Lanos, all of which start under $13,000. But if market trends continue, these inexpensive hatchbacks are likely to join their predecessors, the Mazda 323, Toyota Tercel, Honda Civic, Nissan Micra, Ford Escort, Ford Festiva, Subaru Justy, Dodge Omni, Dodge Colt, Plymouth Horizon, Chevy Sprint, Pontiac Firefly, Pontiac LeMans/Passport Optima/Asuna GT, Plymouth Sundance, and Lada Samara in the dustbin of discarded hatchbacks.

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