It’s a mystery why U.S. consumers have been so lukewarm about Euro-style hatchbacks. The theory goes that mainstream American buyers generally prefer sedan body styles and think that hatchbacks are somehow less prestigious.
Yet today’s hottest sellers are crossovers, which are essentially hatchbacks that ride a little higher and offer more space.
It’s not just that a hatchback is highly practical and almost as roomy and all-road capable as all but the largest crossovers. The best part is that hatchbacks are far more fun to drive, because crossovers’ extra weight and higher centers of gravity undermine their road manners.
There are only a handful of hatchbacks available in the U.S. market. The longest-lived is Volkswagen’s Golf.
VW essentially created the hatchback segment in 1974 with the original Golf. The vehicle, now in its seventh generation, remains one of the world’s best-selling cars. VW turned up the wick with the Golf GTi version in 1976, which inspired a whole genre of so-called hot hatchbacks.
For 2018, the GTi is alive and kicking, although the performance king of the Golf family is now the R model. A 2.0-liter turbo motor kicks out a sturdy 292 horsepower (up from 220 on the GTi). Paired with a six-speed manual or seven-speed DSG automatic transmission, the Golf R sends its power to all four wheels, versus just the front wheels in the GTi.
As such, the R model delivers an inspiring driving experience. The build quality is excellent; it has that ultra-solid feel of a Porsche for a fraction of the price. The engine’s growl under acceleration is on the harsh side, but its performance is very strong, blasting from 0-60 mph in under five seconds. Steering is crisp and quick and the low profile Pirelli tires provide ample grip when hustling through twisting back roads.
All these benefits and more are delivered in an attractive, five-door body style with room for five passengers and cargo. What’s not to like? Well, possibly the R’s $39,785 starting price.
But if you are looking for a more affordable hatchback, the Golf family has plenty of options. At the lower end of the range is the 2018 Golf S. Equipped with a five-speed manual transmission, the S model starts at $20,910. For that you get the same, solid feeling, practical five-door body style, with a front wheel drive, 1.8-liter turbo motor producing 170 horsepower.
In between the R and S models, there is the Sportwagen, starting at $21,685. Similar in other respects to the Golf S, the Sportwagen, as the name suggests, offers the added cargo-carrying practicality of a wagon body style. The 1.8-liter engine may not be as punchy as the GTi or R models, but it is smoother at high rpms and the ride quality is less busy over rough roads.
Then there is the $25,955 Golf Alltrack, which adds all-wheel drive, increased ground clearance and off-road capability to the wagon formula. “The Alltrack is very distinct,” says Megan Garbis, Golf product manager. “You won’t find anything like it in the market.”
Volkswagen has upgraded the infotainment systems, driver assistance and safety features across the board on all its Golf family models, and added an impressive, transferable six-year/72,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty.
There are other worthy hatchbacks out there — the Mazda3, Ford Focus ST, Hyundai Elantra GT Sport and Honda Civic Type R — but the Golf is arguably the best considered and most versatile of them all. It’s time to give hatchbacks a fresh look.
John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.