Family Car Guide: Five Hot Hatchbacks You Can Afford

October 25, 2010

Consumers love a good deal, especially when it comes to affordable transportation. Sometimes we get lucky and automakers fall all over each other to provide a plethora of stylish and well-performing hatchbacks we’d love to buy – if they were affordable.

The good news is: they are. We’ve got five hot hatchbacks you can afford, even if your budget is small.

What makes these hatchbacks hot? While everyone has their own take on what’s hot and what’s not, automotive reviewers generally single out most of these contenders as right at the top of the must-have list of inexpensive hatchbacks. Of course, they’re all small cars. That’s a given. But just because they’re small doesn’t mean they aren’t fun to drive, easy on gas, and great to look at. Some more than others. Here goes.

Ford Fiesta

Almost anyone checking out new affordable hatchbacks agrees that by all measures, the 2011 Ford Fiesta has got it down. Hitting on all fronts, Fiesta claims the uncontested crown of hot 2011 hatchbacks you can afford. I mean, you could opt for a Nissan Versa, which is bargain-basement priced with a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) of $9,990 – but, let’s face it, the Versa isn’t exactly a hatch you’d drool over (no offense, Versa owners). The Fiesta, on the other hand, definitely is.

In fact, reviewers are unanimous that Fiesta sets a new benchmark for small cars. Priced right – with starting MSRPs ranging from $13,320 to $17,120 – the Fiesta also leads the hot hatchback segment with a projected 29 mpg city/40 mpg highway. That’s near hybrid-like numbers without hybrid-like price. So, saving on purchase price and fuel costs are two pretty compelling factors.

One area where the Fiesta really stands out is its styling. It’s just terrific to look at. Not only that, but it’s a blast to drive, the cabin is comfortable and upscale – especially nice for an affordable compact car – and the Fiesta offers standard or available features uncommon in the small car class. These include Ford’s SYNC system, heated seats, and seven standard airbags (there’s even one for the driver’s knees). And the 2011 Ford Fiesta is a Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Right up there with styling is how the small hatchback handles on almost any road. The Fiesta is powered by a 120-hp 1.6-liter twin independent variable cam timing (Ti-VCT) in-line four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission, although consumers can opt for a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual. Handling is crisp and responsive, say reviewers, whether in traffic, on the open highway, or on twisty back roads. This is the kind of zippy handling that will give Mazda MAZDA3 owners a run for their money.

The Honda Fit Sport

The Honda Fit Sport

Honda Fit

Honda hasn’t released information about the 2011 model, but the compact 2010 Honda Fit hatchback has certainly racked up a number of accolades, including Kelley Blue Book’s “Top 10 Back-to-School Car” and “Top 10 Coolest Cars Under $18,000,” as well as “Excellent Value” and “SmartChoice” from Intellichoice. Let’s not forget three years running as a Car and Driver “10Best.” Starting MSRPs range from $14,900 (Fit) to $19,110 for the Fit Sport with navigation.

The Fit is fun to drive, everyone agrees. Power for Fit comes from a 117-hp 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. EPA-estimated fuel economy is 28 mpg city/35 mpg highway (automatic) and 27 mpg city/33 mpg highway (manual).

The Fit also is easy to fit things – and people – in, thanks to the roomy interior and especially roomy backseats. The second-row Magic Seat and reconfigurable interior, tons of innovative storage space, and high-quality overall are Fit standout features.

As for safety, Fit has six standard airbags, while vehicle stability control with traction control is standard on the Fit Sport with navigation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave the Fit a five-star rating in frontal crash testing.


Mazda MAZDA2

All-new for 2011, the Mazda MAZDA2 subcompact hatchback certainly seems to be, as the automaker says, “Zoom-Zoom. Concentrated.” Consider it a super cute urban runabout that’s easy on the wallet. Available in Sport and Touring models, starting MSRPs are $14,180 and $15,635, respectively.

What you get for that is a zippy 100-hp 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine that Mazda hails as “tuned for spirited driving.” Two available transmissions are a five-speed manual or electronically-controlled four-speed automatic. EPA-estimated fuel economy is excellent, with 29 mpg city/35 mpg highway (manual) and 27 mpg city/33 mpg highway (automatic).

What makes the MAZDA2 hot – besides its looks? Six airbags, stability and traction control, ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist are very appealing standard features to safety-conscious consumers who are also looking to save. Stability and traction control are extra-cost items on some competitors. There’s also great versatility in the five-passenger MAZDA2, with 60/40 split-folding rear seat back that can accommodate boogie boards and passengers, and an extra-deep cargo floor for taller items. And the standard six-way driver’s seat is nice too.

MAZDA2 is also nicely equipped with standard air conditioning, power mirrors, windows and door locks, and remote keyless entry. Where the subcompact falls a bit short is cargo volume – 27.8 cubic feet with rear seats down and 13.3 with them up. The Honda Fit, by comparison, has 57.3 and 27.6 cubic feet with rear seats up/down, respectively.

2011 Kia Forte Hatchback

2011 Kia Forte Hatchback

Kia Forte

All-new and arriving sometime this fall, the 2011 Kia Forte hatchback just looks aggressive, versatile, and practical, doesn’t it? While it’s no Kia Forte Koup, it does have the same engines as Forte sedan and Koup, promising to offer sprightly performance from the 156-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine or the 173-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine available in EX and SX models, respectively. Transmission choices are a new six-speed manual or six-speed automatic with Sportmatic shifting. No EPA or Kia-estimated fuel economy numbers are available yet, although they should be good with the new six-speed manual. Note that the 2010 Forte EX with 2.0-liter engine and five-speed automatic with fuel-saver package achieved an EPA-estimated 27 mpg city/36 mpg highway.

Other great standard features on the 2011 Kia Forte hatchback include Bluetooth, MP3 connectivity, and Sirius satellite radio capabilities. Kia says the Forte hatchback offers “intelligent cargo combinations” for real-world practicality while the hatch-wagon is meticulously engineered for practicality. The new Forte 5-Door hatchback sports a new grille, redesigned front bumper, alloy wheels, center console, paddle shifters, push-button start, and optional navigation system.

Pricing isn’t yet available, but should be relatively inexpensive, all things considered. And Kia’s outstanding 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty is a definite draw.


Volkswagen Golf

Sure, you can opt up for the performance variant, the Volkswagen GTI, but that’ll set you back about five grand more in starting MSRP. As an alternative, the 2011 Volkswagen Golf provides attractive and classic – but not earth-shattering -- exterior hatchback styling, choice of two hatchback models, Golf 2.5L 2-Door and Golf TDI Clean Diesel 2-Door and two engines. Starting MSRPs range from $17,965 (2.5L 2-Door) to $22,810 (TDI Clean Diesel 2-Door).

For powerplants, there’s the 170-hp 2.5-liter in-line five-cylinder engine in Golf 2.5L 2-Door and the 140-hp 2.0-liter TDI clean diesel. Transmission choices include standard five-speed manual and optional six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic and sport mode. EPA-estimated fuel economy is a respectable 23 mpg city/33 mpg highway for the 2.5L and impressive 30 mpg city/41 mpg highway for the TDI clean diesel.

The Golf’s German engineering, reflected in the hatchback’s interior and exterior design, features, and functionality, is similarly pretty compelling. On the inside, there’s the optional premium touchscreen stereo and optional touchscreen navigation system, and available heated front seats. Safety features include six standard airbags, ABS with hydraulic brake assist, and electronic stability control.

Volkswagen’s 3-year/36,000-mile (whichever comes first) no-charge scheduled carefree maintenance program is a good value proposition for consumers looking to keep their Golf fit and not have to pay for it.

[Ford, Honda, IIHS, Kia, Mazda, Volkswagen]

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