Creating sedans from hatchbacks goes way beyond stretching their trunk
Those body styles are closely related and have always been popular, so the way they are designed can render them widely successful or painfully failed
In an ideal world, automakers would develop every car model starting from a blank sheet. That would allow them to worry about nothing but their desires and the needs of their target audience, so the resulting cars would certainly be the best they could make. Reality is different mostly because there are costs for everything. The only way to work with prices which are acceptable for consumers and manufacturers is to try and reduce those costs in all possible ways. Nevertheless, even that comes at a cost.
It’s common to make cars more affordable by using the same components on several models, whether simple or complex ones. That means doing part of the work only once, so the automaker can save both money and time. On the other hand, this strategy has limits which just can’t be ignored: if the considered models are excessively different, there might be problems such as negative effects to their image, elevated costs to apply the part on some of them, and/or overall performance below expectations.
Developing a body style starting from another is one way to execute that. Most cars have their front portion shaped like a wedge (of highly variable dimensions) because of aerodynamics, so the differences which characterize each body style are concentrated on their rear end. As a result, it’s possible to make an entire family of car models whose body is roughly the same up to the rear doors. Pretty neat, huh? That’s what automakers have done for decades. However, as you already know, that comes at a cost.
In this case, problems regarding image and assembly lose importance because the members of a car family are meant to be similar in many aspects. What actually matters here is how the models will look. If their adaption from the base “sibling” is too obvious and/or the result is just plain ugly by itself, they’ll face a level of rejection which qualities of no other types will be able to counter. Not to mention the eternal inclusion in lists such as “the ugliest cars of the 2000s”, which the media love to publish.
Of all the body styles which have been developed together like that, the most common is the duo of hatchback and sedan. It’s rather popular especially among generalist makers because their mechanical requirements are usually simple — no need for robust suspension, high-power engine or an open cargo area, for instance. It’s easy to follow that by saying the design work consists of merely adding (or removing) trunk space, but the title of this post kind of anticipates how debatable that is.
Creating one body style from another has become difficult because car design has become more complex. In order to meet the demands of consumers and to endure the pressure of competitors, the visual elements of any modern car are more numerous, elaborate and connected than ever. Now it’s impossible to obtain positive results without changing pretty much the entire car. Since the best results have the higher costs, automakers have searched all the ways they can possibly work with that.
The safest way to create good-looking sedans and hatchbacks is doing it from scratch. Ford, for instance, applied that notion on the Fiesta and, later, Ka duos to maximize their number of common parts. Nissan, on the other hand, used it on the current March and Versa to give them individual identities without making their production too expensive. As usual, the more variables one manages to identify in the beginning, the better prepared one becomes for the possible outcomes. Sadly, it’s impossible to follow that rule all the time.
Peugeot created the 307 focusing on the European public, but it ended selling rather well elsewhere too, like in China. Since the consumers of those other regions had different needs and preferences, the company decided to give it a sedan sibling. The thing is, the hatchback had a tall, horizontal roofline to maximize its cabin. Peugeot devised a whole new rear section, but the sedan still looked boxy and disproportionate compared to its direct rivals. The smaller brother 206 faced a similar situation earlier with a sedan developed in Iran.
Conversely, Mahindra began to produce the first-generation Dacia Logan under license a decade ago and named it Verito. It decided to add a hatchback counterpart later, but chose not to bring the Sandero: instead, it chopped off the Verito’s third box and adapted new headlights and trunk lid — the Verito Vibe was born. While the new silhouette did retain some balance, it revealed its low-cost character in details such as keeping the original rear glass despite having different inclination from that of the new C-pillars.
Those are only some examples which prove that there are times when it’s impossible to create hatchbacks and sedans the optimal way. Some cases have cost limitations big enough to force the automaker to give up doing its best work in favor of a cheaper one. The car models which result from those are usually marketed with heavy dependence on value-related qualities because they just can’t attract buyers for emotional ones such as pleasant design or prestigious image. They’re not products people buy out of desire.
Since creating both body styles from the beginning is nice but expensive, and adapting one from the finalized project of the other is cheap but risky, makers began to experiment with intermediate options to find a combination of pros and cons which better suited their needs. Over the years, that effort led to the multitude of solutions we observe in nowadays. Some have the primary goal of cutting production costs, others intend to give each model its own identity, others spawn a whole family of vehicles, and so on.
Volkswagen has always produced the Jetta with design and life cycles largely independent from the Golf’s despite being their sedan counterpart. However, the current generation differs on the platform as well: the Jetta did not move to the MQB to remain affordable by the standards of emergent countries, which are its most important buyers. The Jetta is expected to receive that upgrade only at the next generation because the MQB’s production costs will be more manageable by that time.
Chevrolet had a somewhat opposite case. The Agile was supposed to spawn a new family of compact models for Latin America in 2008, but the criticism with which it was met forced the company to change its plans. As a result, the sedan sibling, named Cobalt, was moved to another project and given its own characteristics. Such decision enabled it to compete in a higher market niche, between the Prisma and the Cruze, and brought strong sales and the prospect of a second generation, while the Agile was phased out.
After seeing all those examples, it’s possible to conclude that there is no right way to develop hatchbacks and sedans — nor any other group of body styles, for that matter. Automakers have found ways to do it with multiple levels of interdependence and, after years of practice, have discovered that each one is appropriate to a particular situation. They managed to find an intermediate solution between the aforementioned extreme possibilities which turns out to be appropriate for each case.
The most important consequence of that is the survival of the hatchback and sedan categories. Companies have more resources to make them profitable, so they become more inclined towards offering them. People, in turn, benefit from the existence of more options from which to choose. Whether the buyer is a single person looking for a sporty model or a wealthy couple which wants a rather sophisticated car, there has always been at least one perfect model available — whether as a hatchback or a sedan.