What Is a Hatchback Car?

Rebecca Lindland | April 29, 2020

Hatchback cars are like parental advice: frequently practical, often useful, but not always on-trend. Hatchbacks have been around to varying degrees of popularity since the first model launched in 1938, with a U.S. heyday in the 1970s and 1980s when people sought fuel-efficient yet practical vehicles to drive.

What Is a Hatchback Car?

What constitutes a hatchback car today? How does a hatch compare to a sedan or a coupe or an SUV? Grasping the differences and analyzing these different types of cars can help you to find the right vehicle for your lifestyle.

What Is the Difference Between a Sedan, a Coupe, and a Hatchback?

A traditional sedan features four doors, a square profile, and a three-box configuration, meaning the engine bay, passenger compartment, and trunk are three separate areas. Examples of this type of car include the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry.

A traditional coupe has the same three-box configuration but comes with two doors instead of four. Examples of this type of car include the Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger, and Ford Mustang. However, the overall shape of a coupe is often sleeker and sporter than a sedan.

In both sedans and coupes, the trunk opening is at the base of the rear window and hinges up. With a hatchback, the trunk opening is at the top of the rear window and hinges up, creating a much larger opening that can accommodate much larger pieces of cargo.

What is a Hatchback Car?

A traditional hatchback features a two-box configuration with either two or four doors. The engine bay is separate and distinct from the passenger compartment and cargo area, which is a combined and shared space. Due to its size, the hatchback is often counted as a door, leading to body style descriptors such as three-door or five-door. Examples of modern hatchbacks include the Hyundai Elantra GT, Mazda3 Hatchback, and Volkswagen Golf (pictured with this article).

Modern hatchback car Volkswagen Golf

The main differentiator between a sedan, a coupe, and a hatchback is the roof-height hinged opening. It should be noted a station wagon also has a roof-height hinged cargo area opening, but wagons are generally longer and larger than hatchbacks. Similarly, crossovers and SUVs have a top-hinged liftgate, but the ride height and off-road capabilities differentiate them from a hatchback.

Types of Hatchback Cars

Hatchbacks come in two- and four-door configurations (or three- and five-door if you count the rear hatch.) Descriptors include hatchback, liftback, and sportback, the two latter terms invented by car company marketing people to avoid using the word ‘hatchback,’ which carries an economy-minded connotation. 

Marketers also play fast and loose with the terms ‘coupe’ and ‘sedan’ when describing what are, essentially, hatchbacks. Examples include the Kia Stinger and the Volkswagen Arteon (they’re both hatchbacks, not sedans). Some hatchbacks are called ‘multi-purpose vehicles’ or are pitched as crossover SUVs, such as the Hyundai Venue and Kia Soul.

Not all hatchbacks are cheap and efficient, characteristics that people tend to associate with the body style. In addition to the appealing Kia and VW models mentioned above, Audi sells the A5 and A7 Sportback models, while BMW sells the 4 Series Gran Coupe. Even the Tesla Model S is a hatchback.

No matter what you call it, a hatchback is exceptionally practical, especially when you fold down the back seats. A Honda Fit, for instance, is just as roomy inside as many small and compact SUVs. And I once moved almost an entire apartment of goods in an Audi A7, packing that four-door Sportback with a five-drawer dresser, queen-size bed frame, and countless large boxes. 

For security, hatches feature a detachable stiff parcel shelf or a roll-up cover for the cargo area, just like an SUV. Plus, depending on the design, the lower cargo floor height of a hatchback provides easier loading and unloading of gear. Lifting and packing a bike, baby carriage, or a large pet carrier into and out of a hatchback car can be much easier for some people. 

Fuel economy with a hatchback is often better than a bigger, heavier, and less aerodynamic crossover SUV, with little compromise in terms of utility. Many hatchbacks also offer all-wheel drive for when the weather goes from bad to worse.

It is critical to compare cars when shopping, keeping in mind activities specific to your lifestyle. Different types of cars will suit you better than others. If you have an item you haul around a lot, such as a bike, wheelchair, or something else, bring it with you to the dealership and test it out before you decide on a specific make and model. After all, a vehicle is an expensive purchase, as any car loan calculator will tell you.

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