Rubin:Why the U.S. hates hatchbacks (but loves hatches)

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

We Americans do not care for hatchbacks, nosirree. Not unless you count vehicles with hatches on the back.

Those, we love.

Mike Mazzella, Erich Merkle and Chris Terry of Ford Motor Co. bring up the rear of a 2018 EcoSport — which may or may not be a hatchback. It’s on display at the North American International Auto Show.

SUVs? Gotta have ‘em. Crossovers? Likewise. Crossover utility vehicles, a heretofore undiscovered blend of SUV and crossover that came up during press previews at the North American International Auto Show?

Bring ‘em on, hatches and all. Throw in a station wagon. But hatchbacks?

Nah. Only 4.8 percent of cars sold in the U.S. in 2015 were officially hatchbacks. So why raise the issue?

Because Donald Trump did, and because it’s sort of fun listening to car experts try to decide what exactly a hatchback is. Or isn’t. Or was.

At Cobo Center, Chris Terry of Ford’s product communications team was walking past the Ford EcoSport, a compact SUV scheduled for the 2018 model year. Already available in 80 countries, it’s small and cute and you can put stuff in the back, even though the gate opens sideways instead of up.

He had already pointed to a slightly larger SUV, an Escape. “None of of those get counted,” he said. “It’s silly.”

Bottom line for him: “A hatchback is a vehicle with a hatch.”

Chevrolet, which inadvertently began the conversation, introduced the Cruze hatchback in August. That’s the model Trump was harrumphing over last week when he tweeted about GM shipping cars from Mexico and facing a “big border tax!”

Chevy also makes the straight-backed minicar Spark and subcompact Sonic. Both are smaller than the Cruze with a rump that lifts upward, but they’re not hatchbacks, at least around corporate headquarters.

“A hatchback generally has a sloping back,” said Mary Kubitskey, senior marketing manager for Chevrolet passenger cars. “If the roofline starts to tip past the doors and the hatch opens up, that’s how we’ll define a hatchback.”

Liftback, notchback...

The stylish Cruze hatchback, imported from a town called Ramos Arizpe, was purchased by about 4,500 Americanos in its limited 2016 release. Kubitskey said GM expects to sell 32,000 of them in 2017, compared to 140,000 Cruze sedans built in another place of unfamiliar language and culture known as “Ohio.”

Elsewhere in the world, said Ford analyst Erich Merkle, hatchbacks are appreciated for their flexibility, fuel economy and in some cases hotness. Few would be as smoldering as Ford’s Focus RS, which tops out at 165 mph, but Europeans, Asians and South Americans drive them in bulk.

Here, hatchbacks fell so out of favor a decade or two ago that manufacturers started calling them “liftbacks” or “notchbacks” — anything to separate them from your father’s hatchback, or more likely your grandmother’s.

Now they account for about 40 percent of sales for Ford’s Focus and Fiesta models, Terry said, an unusually robust number. Baby boomers buy them for ease and economy, and millennials buy them because they’re too young to have painful thoughts of Chevy Chevettes and Dodge Omnis.

The zippy Mazda3 is another small hatchback whose looks and performance distances itself from the cheap used cars the 46-year-old Terry was stuck with when he a teenager. (His first: an ’82 stick-shift Chevette.) The Mazda3 is actually slightly larger than the all-wheel-drive CX-3 a few steps away at the auto show.

The CX-3 has four doors and a hatch, but according to the company’s senior vice president for U.S. operations, it’s a “crossover, allegedly.”

“We’re stuck on terminology,” Robert Davis said. “Everybody looks at a car — or anything — and draws their own conclusions.”

A Bolt with 5 doors

Back at Chevy, Kubitskey is already fond of the 2017 Bolt EV, the North American Car of the Year.

“It’s cute, isn’t it?” she said. “It’s a pretty car that just happens to be electric.”

Performance-wise, it goes like a bat out of Ohio. It’s small and rakish and has five doors, and it has an estimated range of 238 miles per charge.

“Is it a crossover?” she asked.

Maybe. Or it could be a hatchback. But don’t spread that around, ‘cause the U.S. and hatchbacks don’t mix.

Except when they do.