► The best hatchbacks you can buy
► From premium to budget brands
► We're waiting for the new A3, Octavia and Leon...
Many countries like their C-segment cars with three boxes and a boot. In Britain, though, we prefer the practicality of a hatchback. Last year, three of the top 10 sellers – the Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus and Mercedes A-Class – came from this category. Fiercely fought, it includes cars from every mainstream manufacturer.
It was Citroen, perhaps unsurprisingly, that introduced the first production hatchback in 1938. But the 1961 Renault 4 democratised the idea, its success inspiring the larger Renault 16 hatch in 1965. Others soon joined the party, including Volkswagen with the original Passat in 1973 and all-conquering Golf a year later. By the time the Ford Escort morphed from Mk2 saloon to Mk3 hatchback in 1980, tailgates were on-trend.
Today, some buyers have migrated to ever-larger superminis – witness how Fiesta has supplanted Focus atop the sales chart – while others have swapped into crossovers and small SUVs. The choice can be bewildering, with the market further fragmented by purpose-built EVs. Still, the humble hatchback continues to serve many needs.
Read on for short summaries of our favourite hatchbacks, or click the links below for our full reviews. If you fancy something spicier, check out CAR’s guide to the best hot hatches, while those taking the leap to electric should read our guide to EVs.
- Volkswagen Golf
- Ford Focus
- Mercedes A-Class
- BMW 1-series
- Toyota Corolla
- Kia Ceed
- Mazda 3
Best hatchbacks 2020: a buying guide
There are many reasons to choose a hatchback. Far more versatile than saloons, plenty are scarcely less spacious than an equivalent crossover. They also tend to be cheaper and more efficient than anything with skid plates and raised ride height – not to mention better to drive.
That said, a medium hatch is on the small side for a family car. If you want to transport a baby buggy, luggage for two weeks in the Dordogne or enough windsurfing gear for an aspirational car ad, you may need an estate. Helpfully, several cars here offer that option. Sleek, hatch-based wagons such as the Kia Proceed and Mercedes CLA Shooting Brake won’t even cramp your style.
Ah, style. For all the perceived benefits of crossovers, it’s their upwardly-mobile image that appeals to many. Yet the plethora of premium-brand hatchbacks means you can drive a ‘normal’ car and still impress the neighbours. Those buying on finance may discover little difference in monthly payments, as the cachet of an upmarket badge pays dividends in terms of depreciation.
There are plenty of capable cars in this class, so shop around for the best deals and always try before you buy. Don’t discount a diesel, particularly if you do lots of motorway miles, and beware of costly options. Few add value at resale time, and even an entry-level hatchback may have all the niceties you need.
Best hatchbacks 2020
1. Volkswagen Golf
According to Volks-logic, the Beetle was ID.1 and the Golf was ID.2 – the epitome of the brand in their respective eras. Wolfsburg sees the electric ID.3 as its future, yet the Golf remains the people’s car of the present. Now in its eighth iteration, this model covers plenty of bases. Choose from petrol, diesel, mild-hybrid or plug-in hybrid drivetrains, plus manual or DSG auto gearboxes. A smorgasbord of sportiness – including a new GTI, GTI TCR, GTD, GTE and R – also waits in the wings. Just don’t expect another e-Golf: the ID.3 plugs that, er, socket.
The new Golf majors on tech, with a minimalist cabin and textbook German solidity. A standard 10.25-inch ‘Innovision’ cockpit and widescreen infotainment are joined by flat ‘black panel’ switches like a Porsche Panamera. Voice commands are powered by Alexa, while over-the-air updates keep everything current. Ironically, it’s the zeitgeist-defying 2.0-litre 148bhp diesel that proves our favourite engine so far. Comfortable, well-mannered, accessible and aspirational, ‘Das Auto’ has plenty of life in it yet.
Read our Volkswagen Golf review
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2. Ford Focus
Ford says this fourth-generation Focus is the best car it’s ever launched. We beg to differ – the accolade surely belongs to the 1998 original – but that car’s incisive steering and deft dynamics survive more-or-less intact. There are some caveats, though. Only more powerful versions have ‘Control Blade’ multi-link rear suspension (most 1.0-litre petrols and 1.5 diesels make do with a torsion beam) and optional CCD adaptive damping ruins the ride. Our pick would be the three-cylinder 1.5 petrol, offered in 148 and 180bhp outputs. It’s eager, efficient and sounds uncannily like a Porsche 911.
Inside, the Focus follows the same template as the Fiesta, with common-sense ergonomics and an easy-to-use touchscreen. Perceived quality is slightly short of the Golf, but there’s ample safety and connectivity tech. Plenty of choice, too, including the roomy estate and feisty ST hot hatch. The Focus deserves to be on your shortlist – just tread carefully with the configurator.
Read our Ford Focus review
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3. Mercedes A-Class
This is a car to review from the inside out. Get excited with options and its stylish, ambient-lit cabin feels like a shrunken S-Class. Mercedes’ super-sharp MBUX infotainment looks stunning (check out the augmented reality sat-nav) and its ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice control works well. Quality also feels best-in-class, although the A-Class isn’t so pleasurable for passengers: its rear seats are a tad cramped.
From 114bhp A180d to 416bhp AMG A45 S – not to mention saloon, GLA crossover, CLA coupe and CLA Shooting Brake – the list of derivatives is longer than a Heston Blumenthal taster menu. We enjoyed the meat-and-potatoes 134bhp A180 SE petrol, which has a snappy manual shift, well-weighted steering and rides comfortably on 16-inch alloys. For now, the A-Class is our pick of the premium players, although the Golf arguably treads on its toes. Could the forthcoming Audi A3 claim its crown?
Read our Mercedes A-Class review
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4. BMW 1-series
Yes, it’s front-wheel drive. Or indeed four-wheel drive. And no, most owners won’t notice – let alone care. But should CAR readers care? Well, yes and no. The baby BMW has lost its USP and is a less interesting car as a result. That’s doubly true of the 302bhp M135i xDrive, which also defaults to four cylinders, making it a straightforward AMG A35 and Golf R rival. However, the 1-series is much improved overall, and it’s still a decent steer, with lively turn-in and a planted, sporty feel.
Roomier rear seats mean the 1er is more suited to families, while a 380-litre boot is about average for the class. Its interior can’t match the showroom swagger of an A-Class, but there’s no faulting its functionality: choose from clickwheel, touchscreen or voice controls. Upgrade to iDrive 7.0 (as found in the 3 Series) and you get one of the finest infotainment systems around. Both the 138bhp 118i petrol and 148bhp 118d diesel are hushed and efficient, although we’d pick the dual-clutch auto over the stiff six-speed manual.
Read our BMW 1-series review
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5. Toyota Corolla
There was a time when CAR derided the Corolla as ‘white goods on wheels’. Now it boasts standout styling and a winningly ‘woke’ hybrid drivetrain. Hell, if they make a GR version, it could even become cool. Let’s not get carried away, though: this is still a steadfastly sensible choice, not least thanks to Toyota’s peerless reputation for reliability. The hybrid versions are also credible alternatives to diesel, especially for city-dwellers: expect between 55 and 65mpg from the mid-range 1.8.
The 178bhp 2.0 hybrid, meanwhile, is the leftfield answer to a Golf GTD. Despite low-down electric torque, it needs revving and the CVT gearbox mutes its enthusiasm, but the Corolla is swift enough – with a refined ride and a more-than-passing interest in corners. Inside, you’ll find a plusher cabin than the now-departed Auris, featuring soft surfaces and an array of safety tech. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity are new for 2020, too.
Read our Toyota Corolla review
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6. Kia Ceed
The Ceed isn’t like the Korean music your kids listen to. While K-pop serves up a sugar rush that soon starts to grate, the Kia unwhelms at first, but earns your esteem over time. Partly, that’s because this third-generation Ceed – now minus its nonsensical apostrophe – is roomy, well-equipped and easy to live with. And partly it’s the peace of mind offered by its belt-and-braces warranty. Among new cars, Kia’s seven-year deal is matched only by MG and SsangYong (don’t even go there).
Buyers can choose a traditional five-door hatchback, XCeed crossover, Sportswagon estate or Proceed shooting brake. There’s also a stylish 201hp GT warm hatch, although the brilliant Hyundai i30N is only a few dollars more. The regular Ceed handles tidily, with accurate steering and good body control. The pay-off is a rather unsettled ride, although it’s not a deal-breaker. Avoid the dozy DCT auto and lethargic 99bhp 1.4 petrol. We’d go for the 118bhp 1.0 turbocharged triple and manual ’box instead.
Read our Kia Ceed review
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7. Mazda 3
Whether it’s Nagare ‘Born from nature’ or Kodo ‘Soul of motion’, Mazda design always comes packaged in pretension. But just look at the 3. Crisp and curvaceous, it’s more four-door coupe than MOR hatchback – and easily the most stylish car here. Its cabin is also pleasingly premium: doors close with a Germanic thunk and the dashboard is driver-focused. Mazda has bucked the trend for touchscreens, preferring a rotary controller, physical buttons and a standard head-up display. It all feels refreshingly intuitive.
It arguably edges the Focus as the best driver’s car in the class, too. Its lucid steering and snick-snick manual gearbox are just joyful, while the chassis strikes an artful balance between pliancy and poise. Engines are more of a mixed bag, though. The 120bhp Skyactiv-G petrol is no firecracker, while the compression-ignition 178bhp Skyactiv-X petrol impresses on paper, but underwhelms on the road. We prefer the willing and efficient 114bhp diesel. The 3 isn’t the most practical choice either, thanks to limited rear-seat space and a small boot.
Read our Mazda 3 review
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We’ll be updating this page regularly, so keep checking back for our latest thoughts on the best hatchbacks.
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