Richard Truett covers engineering for Automotive News
Holding up a picture of the Honda HR-V in the newsroom the other day, I asked a couple of editors what makes it and similar vehicles crossovers and not hatchbacks?
“The marketing department,” Phil Nussel, Automotive News’ online editor, blurted out, half-joking. We laughed. But then I thought about it. He’s right.
Small utility vehicles -- or maybe small vehicles with a lot of utility -- are starting to look like The Next Big Thing. And so automakers are tattooing what are basically hatchbacks with the crossover label.
Will buyers be fooled?
Yes, they will, says AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan. “Dress a hatchback up as a crossover, and people will buy it,” he says.
The hatchback’s desirability in the U.S. is not strong and never really has been thanks partially to such notable duds as the Ford Pinto, Chevrolet Vega, Dodge Omni, Suzuki Swift, Geo Metro, Hyundai Excel, Mitsubishi Mirage and a dozen others.
These were mostly bare-bones cars aimed at rental fleets and drivers who couldn’t care less about design, performance, technology or advanced safety features. Their legacy lives on. Today’s hatchbacks take about 15 percent of the new-car market, according to Chrysler.
Because hatchbacks are not afforded the same kind of affection, loyalty and high sales here as they are in Europe and Asia, creative names like “liftback” and “five-door” came along. Now, these same basic hatchback vehicles are being marketed as crossovers.
Raising the ride height a few inches and adding an optional all-wheel-drive system does not -- in my view -- turn a hatchback into a crossover. It just makes it a big hatchback that has more traction.
To make a crossover -- a cross between an SUV and a car -- metal has to be bent. The Lexus RX, debuting in 1998, may have been the original crossover. It didn’t look anything like a hatchback.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let’s examine the evidence.
Exhibit A: We present the Volkswagen Golf, the longest continually produced hatchback sold in the United States. The Golf debuted as the Rabbit in 1974 and has been here ever since.
This is the prototype hatchback that has been the template for nearly every competitor for 40 years: Two or four doors, rear hatch that opens out and then folds up. Take a look at the Golf’s styling. The basic shape hasn’t changed dramatically in five decades.
Exhibit B: the Mercedes-Benz GLA.
Same deal as the Golf, just bigger. Note the car’s the rear door folds up, just like the Golf.
Exhibit C: the new Honda HR-V. How is this car’s configuration different from, say, a Dodge Caliber, which was marketed as a hatchback, or the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe, also sold as hatchbacks?
In Europe, the new Citroen Cactus is being marketed as a hatchback, but if it were sold here, it would be billed a crossover. Despite the Fiat 500X having the same body style as the Cactus, it is being marketed here as a crossover. So is the Mini Cooper Countryman.
“Crossovers are just hatchbacks in disguise,” says Sullivan. “Americans despise hatchbacks, but if you market it as a crossover and add 2 or 3 inches to the ride height, people will buy it,” says Sullivan.
One longtime communications veteran who works for a Detroit area automaker says car companies shouldn’t play games with names.
“As manufacturers, we should be honest with consumers with what they are getting; a car is a car, whether it is a hatchback or a sedan,” she says.
To be sure, vehicles such as the BMW X6 and Honda Crosstour are blurring the lines between hatchback, wagon and crossover. But vehicles have to be labeled for marketing reasons.
“If consumers can’t box it into a segment and definitively call it something, it seems like they won’t buy it,” says Sullivan, citing underwhelming acceptance of such vehicles as the Mercedes-Benz R class and the Ford Flex.
To put a crossover label on what is basically a hatchback is a cheap attempt -- in my view -- to buy acceptance.
Hatchback is not a bad word. It is a body style that will sell well here when it is given a good chassis and premium features.
Our final exhibit: the Ford Focus. Ford spokesman Aaron Miller says 60 percent of Focus sales are sedan and 40 percent are five-door. He didn’t say the word “hatchback,” but that is what he was talking about.
I rest my case.