In the States, we know that size still matters. Just like our dinner portions, we love our cars and trucks bigger. But times, they are a changin’ again. Just look at the current crop of hatchbacks. Manufacturers are investing more thought, time and money into developing small cars that act big. It hasn’t always been this way for the hatchback, though.

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The gas crises of 1973 and 1979 “fueled” much of the first trend toward smaller cars, and the rise of the hatchback was a direct result. Back then, owning one was usually a signal of sacrifice. Buying something that had a large rear door but didn’t qualify as a station wagon implied you couldn’t afford a “you’ve arrived” sedan. Hatchbacks like the AMC Gremlin, the Ford Pinto, the Chevy Vega and the Renault LeCar were far undesirable, bordering on embarrassing. Their only salvation was a modicum of practicality, and this was often offset by the need cover the back with a blanket to hide the shameful collection of fast food bags from the eyes of parking-lot peepers. Examples from the automotive archives like the Volkswagen Rabbit (now Golf), Honda CRX, and the furiously quick Dodge Omni GLH were scant exceptions to the rule.

Though it’s not a completely different game today with regard to fuel-saving measures in the auto industry, the hatchback is no longer an afterthought; driving one doesn’t makes you look like you were holding the door when they were handing out real cars. They’re still practical, but now also boast style, amenities and great fuel economy — and, sometimes, wickedly good performance. It’s a potent combination that has young and old alike turning to some of the best options out there.

We weren’t looking to be left behind. Our month-long chance at throwing around five great examples left us with a solid appreciation for the new hatch (and look forward to a future story on the hot hatch), and with some daydreams as to how we’d use ours.

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