It’s one of the oldest vehicle choices. Okay, so maybe the first widespread use of the hatchback was in the 1970s, which wasn’t that long ago; but few realize that the hatchback design is actually from the 1930s. Over the decades it has proven to be one of the handiest vehicles on the road, earning a reputation as a versatile, economical miniature station wagon. However, many things have changed since the days of the Ford Pinto and the Chevy Chevette. Here are a few of the categories you may want to look at if you’re in the market for a new model; this is our guide on how to choose the best hatchback.

Style

Remember that versatility we mentioned earlier, this is one of the main areas it comes into play. Hatchbacks are not just miniaturized versions of a station wagon, they can be sporty, economical, and luxurious. Choosing the style of one can be as difficult as choosing a sedan or any other type of vehicle, if not more so. There are economical versions that can provide a low MSRP as well as decent fuel efficiency, like the Hyundai Accent Hatchback, the Chevy Aveo Hatchback, and the Ford Fiesta Hatchback. All of these models can be had for $15K and below.

For those who are looking more for versatility and cargo space, there are also several options to choose from. Cargo space in a hatchback is going to average around thirty-five cubic feet at max capacity. There are a few that offer less, but if you’d like more you can jump up to class leaders like the Honda Fit at 57.3 cubic feet (which matches many small crossover SUVs) or the Volkswagen Golf at 46 cubic feet. There are also models that can provide a different look and feel than any other vehicle made, models which display a uniqueness all their own; models like the MINI Cooper, Volkswagen Beetle, and Scion iQ.

Then, just when you think style choices are running thin, here come the performers. These are the hatchbacks designed for agile handling, peppy acceleration, and pure fun. They could technically be classified as sports cars. Most are turbocharged with sport-tuned suspension and tight steering. If you’re looking for a little excitement from your hatchback, look to models like the Audi TTS, BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo, and the Subaru WRX STI 2.5GT.

Powertrain

The diversity of the hatchback doesn’t stop at style choice. If anything, it only deepens with the choice of powertrains. The range spans from small, economical four-cylinder engines to the thumping horsepower of twin-turbocharged V8s. Many come standard with manual transmissions but automatics are available. As with most vehicles, the biggest choice stems from two-wheel or all-wheel drive. Unlike most other vehicles, all-wheel drive in a hatchback isn’t necessarily going to be bought for better traction in inclement weather. While it will indeed provide this attribute, hatchbacks are naturally lower to the ground, lessening the chances that they’ll perform well in deep snow or mud to begin with. The all-wheel drive feature of a hatchback is more for better handling and acceleration. The decrease in fuel efficiency for many models may not be worth the additional traction you receive, unless you’re looking for better performance. Adding to the mix of powertrain options is the hybrid category by way of the Toyota Prius and Honda CR-Z.

Safety

Being some of the smallest automobiles made, safety should be a natural concern for hatchback owners. Especially given the size of some of the other vehicles that will be occupying the roads with them. Some of the main things to look for on hatchbacks regarding safety are: Does it have side-curtain airbags? Does it come standard with stability and traction control? Does it have active front head restraints? On the luxury models you should be looking for features such as blind-spot warning systems, lane-departure warning systems, and rear-seat airbags. As always, crash test ratings are a big clue as to how a vehicle performs safety-wise. With the NHTSA increasing their standards for the 2011 model year, the newer hatchbacks are going to provide some of the most telling stories of hatchback safety. You can find these at the NHSTA Website.

Price

Prices on hatchbacks range from very economical to does it do my dishes too? The low end starts with the Hyundai Accent at $9,985 and climbs to a peak at the BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo with an MSRP of $56,500. However, the top spot will likely be relinquished with the 2012 model year as Audi introduces the A7 hatchback with an estimated starting price of $60,000.

Speaking of the higher end, if you’re looking for a luxurious or sporty hatchback, some of your best choices are:

2011 Audi TTS Hatchback          New Model MSRP: $47,000

2011 Subaru Impreza WRX STI          New Model MSRP: $32,995

For some economical choices that also offer great fuel efficiency, you may want to check out:

2011 Toyota Yaris          New Model MSRP: $12,855

2011 Ford Fiesta Hatchback          New Model MSRP: $15,120

However, if you’re looking for the middle of the road in the broad spectrum of choices offered here, you could choose from any of these top models:

2011 Kia Forte Hatchback          New Model MSRP: $16,895

2011 Volkswagen Golf          New Model MSRP: $17,995

2011 Mazda 3 Hatchback          New Model MSRP: $20,045

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