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  • December 19, 2014

Test Drive: Hatchbacks - Ladue News: Diversions

Test Drive: Hatchbacks

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Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2013 12:00 pm | Updated: 11:31 am, Mon Sep 9, 2013.

Aerodynamics seems to be shaping most cars these days. And for sedans and coupes, that means a sharply raked rear window, which, in turn, translates to a relatively small trunk opening, making it hard to insert and remove large objects. An easy solution to this problem is the hatchback. Long popular in Europe, this extremely functional body style is under-appreciated here in the U.S.

Ironically, one of my favorite hatchbacks started the European car craze as a rear-engined coupe. When the Beetle was resurrected by VW in the late ‘90s, however, it appeared as a front-engined, front-wheel-drive hatchback. To their credit, VW designers did a great job of updating the look of the New Beetle. Now after almost 15 years of the New Beetle, we have the new New Beetle, which is wider, longer, and with a flat roof and Porsche-esque tail lights. The Porsche nuances make sense since the first Porsches evolved from the old Beetle. The roofline actually reminds me of the roofline of the old Beetle convertible.

The biggest benefit of the exterior changes, particularly the flattening of the roofline, is the increased head room for back-seat passengers. Adults can now sit in the back seat without having to bow their heads. There’s even a decent amount of leg room, as well, if the front seat passengers scoot up a bit. Heated front seats are firm and moderately bolstered, with plenty of room in all directions. The manual tilt/telescoping flat-bottomed steering wheel adds a sporty flair, as do the three dash-top gauges that display oil temp, turbo boost and a stopwatch. Rear cargo room is quite generous for such a small car, and becomes really large with the rear seats folded. The aforementioned hatchback opening makes loading and unloading even bulky objects a breeze. Ventilation controls are three rotary-knob-simple, though the controls and console felt a bit flimsy. The screen for audio controls is touch screen, which makes it easy to use, and a variety of optional sound systems can provide some serious tunes. The optional electric sunroof contributes to driving fun.

The base Beetle has a 2.5-liter, 5-cylinder, 170-horsepower engine mated to a 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission. The 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder pumps out 200 horsepower through either a 6-speed manual or 6-speed DSG automatic with paddle shifters. A-2.0 liter diesel also is available. With the turbo, gas mileage is 22 city, 30 highway. All cars have stability control, ABS and anti-slip regulation. Acceleration with the turbo is brisk, especially in sport mode, with just a hint of turbo lag. Quite a change from the old Beetle, where zero to 60 times were measured on a calendar. Combined with good brakes and a tight, sporty suspension with responsive steering, the turbo Beetle truly is a fun car to drive.

Brad Gilbert, sales manager at Bommarito Volkswagen in Hazelwood says, “The new Beetle is designed to appeal to a broader range of buyers. It’s lower, wider and longer—appealing more to men with its more aggressive, tighter and sportier suspension.”

The base new Beetle starts at approximately $20,000; $24,000 for the turbo.

Another sporty hatchback is the Mini Sport Coupe. A two-seater, the interior is cozy, but there’s a good amount of cargo area, which is easily accessed by the rear hatch. The most remarkable feature of the sport coupe is its funny roof, which looks like a rearward facing baseball cap.

Once you get past the boy racer looks, though, the interior of the Mini is like a cockpit for serious drivers. With only two seats, and a pass-through to the rear cargo area, no interior room is wasted, but there’s plenty of room for two and the open cargo area prevents claustrophobia. In typical Mini fashion, a huge speedometer dominates the dash, with a tachometer strapped on top the steering column. The heated seats are well-bolstered to hold you in place during spirited driving. Window controls are on the center console instead of the doors, which takes some adjustment. Ventilation is controlled by two dials and a rotary knob, which are fairly easy to use, but the dials were sometimes a bit tricky to adjust precisely while driving. Radio controls also are easy to use. There is a little space behind the seats in front of the cargo area for a briefcase or purse so long as they’re not too wide.

The Mini Cooper S Coupe is powered by a 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, which churns out 181 horsepower to the front wheels via a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic. With the turbo engine, zero to 60 times are less than seven seconds; and gas mileage is 26 city, 35 highway. The sleek roof, which is lower than the standard roof, lowers the center of gravity, which makes an already great-handling vehicle even better. The best feature of the Mini Coupe is its steering, which is nice and tight, allowing for great road feel—which, combined with good brakes and an excellent tight suspension, makes the driving experience extremely sporty and fun. A rear spoiler pops up at about 50 mph, which is sporty and helps handling, but also blocks rearward vision. The automatic transmission has a manual shifting mode with steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, but the true manual would be the optimal transmission to maximize the Mini Coupe’s sporting nature.

Salesman Mark Eversgerd of Mini of St. Louis says the Mini coupe is a great deal. “You can have a ton of fun and still get 32 mpg. For about $32,000 fully loaded (base $26,000), you get the handling and performance of cars costing $50,000-plus.”

So if you’re looking for a fun-to-drive car with the practicality and utility of an easy-to-load, functional cargo area, the Beetle and Mini—both updates of ‘60s icons—are hard to beat.

Robert Paster (robertpaster.com) is also an attorney in private practice, concentrating in estate planning and probate.

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