When car lovers travel to Europe they always notice the abundance of hatchbacks. When they travel to the USA, they notice that saloons (otherwise known as sedans) tend to outnumber hatchbacks by a large margin. This same trend is noticeable in India as well. Putting aside the reigning supremacy of SUVs in all countries, I wanted to try and understand this trend. What is it that makes hatchbacks so much more popular in Europe and why is it saloons that have a larger market share in the USA and India.
One of the main reasons people in Europe tend towards hatches is the practical aspect of these types of cars. Looking at a car that is sold in both body styles like the Audi A3, the Honda Civic, Volkswagen Golf/Jetta or the Ford Mondeo, it seems like a lower price, better fuel efficiency, ease of loading, interior space, and handling are the factors that makes Europeans choose their respective hatchback forms.
The hatchbacks weigh less (helping fuel economy figures and handling), can be loaded with luggage vertically (which makes it easier to load and unload the boot), have rear-folding seats that provide much more room than saloons, and have a less significant rear-overhang (again aiding handling). Another practical aspect of hatchbacks is that they are usually slightly smaller than their saloon counterparts, a boon on Europe’s narrow roads, and making parking a bit easier. Rear headroom is also a factor as hatchbacks do not need the swooping roof that saloons possess, liberating a few vital inches for rear seat passengers.
An additional point is that it’s much less common in Europe for a family to have more than one car hence they need a multi-tasker. The European needs his/her car for everyday driving, for lugging loads, and carrying people while still being fuel efficient. Good public transport and the comparatively high price of fuel also do their bit to push European buyers towards the hatchback rather than a saloon.
Besides the fact that loads of people in the USA consider hatchbacks to be ugly and unfinished, they also tend to favour size in general. The early hatchbacks launched in the USA, like the Ford Pinto, AMC Pacer, Chevy Chevette, and Chrysler Sunbeam, gave this type of model a bad name due to their inherent less than impressive looks, questionable reliability, and an image of cheapness. This attitude towards hatchbacks has continued in some way despite the brilliant hatchbacks available in the market today.
Doug DeMuro wrote an interesting article about this phenomenon on The Truth About Cars which blamed guns for the preference of saloons. The boot of a saloon offers the person carrying guns in their car a degree of privacy not found in the viewable hatchback boot. A commenter brought up an insightful little nugget of information saying, “You will note that hatchback ownership is lowest in European countries with Second Amendment rights (Serbia, Switzerland and Cyprus – all less than 3 hatchbacks per person).”
While I personally don’t fully agree with this idea, it could discourage a certain number of people from buying hatchbacks, leading to a preference for saloons. Some other people are also worried that without the protruding boot, rear passengers will be less safe during an accident.
In the end, I believe it is purely a matter of image and status. The larger your car, the better off in life you are.
Despite India’s automotive culture being influenced largely by the British (they drive on the same side of the road and have adopted roundabouts in many places rather than signals), their car buying culture is more attuned to the USA. Size means everything to the average Indian buyer, especially when combined with reliability and the added benefit of being extremely frugal.
Hatchbacks are always looked down upon as cheaper cars for students and the less fortunate while saloons are looked upon as a big car offering a higher status. This trend is especially clear when one looks at the “compact sedan” market in the country. In India, cars under four metres (with a petrol engine of under 1.2-litres or a diesel motor smaller than 1.5-litres) have been excused from certain duties, making them more affordable. Such is the love for a protruding boot that many manufacturers have introduced a saloon under four metres specifically for India.
These sub-4-metre saloons have decidedly awkward-looking boots tacked on to standard hatchbacks, yet sell particularly well. Taxis and fleet owners are quite taken with them as well. The drawbacks to this type of saloon compared to their hatchback siblings include their looks, additional weight (hindering fuel efficiency and handling), and the rear-seat room. Besides the lowering of the rear end of the roof to flow better with the added boot, the rear seats are either pushed slightly forward, or have a nearly vertical backrest to liberate more room in the boot.
The age old hatchback v saloons argument won’t ever really have an end. As with most things in life, it takes more than sound logic to convince people that hatchbacks are a better buy, particularly considering their re-sale value. While I’m definitely a proponent of the hatchback (my tribe on DRIVETRIBE is all about hot hatches), it isn’t for purely logical reasons.