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7 Small Hatchbacks: How They'd Fare Against the 2015 Volkswagen Golf

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 11/14/2014 Benson Kong

By now, we hope you've learned the 2015 Volkswagen Golf is Motor Trend's 2015 Car of the Year. The depth of the Golf lineup we tested during the 2015 Car of the Year program — TSI, TDI, GTI, and e-Golf — made a strong, successful case for the Golden Calipers. The upcoming R and SportWagen models will have our high expectations to meet and exceed. We thought you'd like to know where the Golf's seven immediate competitors currently stand.

Volkswagen's two-box compact first asserted its superiority in an enthusiast's comparison between four sporty runabouts — the new GTI dispatched the Honda Civic Si, Mini Cooper S, and Subaru WRX. The Golf TSI then engaged the Ford Focus Titanium, Hyundai Elantra GT, Kia Forte5 SX, and Mazda3 s Grand Touring for bulk-sale hatchback dominance in a Big Test, where VW again emerged on top. The means to victory? Building quality machinery that presents an undisputed step up from past versions and its competitors, and making certain the car is pleasant to live with yet retain fun flair (one-trick ponies need not apply for the win).

Please note these capsules aren't full comparisons between the Golf and the chosen competitive set, though they do provide fairly good ideas for how the competitors can catch up.

Ford Focus

2015 Ford Focus 1.0 Ecoboost European Spec Front Three Quarter View In Motion 11© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 Ford Focus 1.0 Ecoboost European Spec Front Three Quarter View In Motion 11 The standard Focus can take the fight to the Golf TSI on a twisty road, but we were less than enthused with its driving manners while out on the town. When it comes to breadth of a single model, this globally significant Ford is the Golf's biggest rival. There's now a 1.0-liter EcoBoost I-3 in addition to the standard 2.0-liter I-4. There's an ST for performance nuts. There's going to be an all-wheel-drive RS for those who can wait about a year. There's a Focus Electric for those who think the ST, RS, and regular models are gas-wasting nonsense.

Strengths: Enthusiast-grade handling, sharp exterior proportions, cabin build quality

Weaknesses: Twin-clutch auto transmission refinement, rear-seat space, Electric's range (2014 model)

Motor Trend recent sighting:

First Drive: 2015 Ford Focus 1.0 EcoBoost European-Spec

"First gear is very short, and you're into second almost immediately. Second gear, however, is shockingly useful. You could probably get along fine using only first, second, and sixth gear. There's just so much torque available, and for such a long time. Also, NVH levels are low enough that even if you have the little guy spinning close to its 6,650 redline, you don't mind it."

Hyundai Elantra GT

2014 Hyundai Elantra GT© Provided by MotorTrend 2014 Hyundai Elantra GT If we consider the Focus to be Ben & Jerry's Phish Food (many flavors in one fun package), the Elantra GT is vanilla. Still delicious but definitely plain. Hyundai decreed the small hatchback would upgrade from last year's 148-hp, 1.8-liter I-4 to the 173-hp, 2.0-liter I-4, a smart move in our book. The Golf TSI has a tighter overall feel, but the Elantra GT's prime competitor comes from inside its own house, where the Kia Forte5 does everything the Hyundai does but better. E.g., you can get a Forte5 with the more powerful 1.6-liter turbo-four and achieve the same Real MPG as the slower Elantra GT. Hmm.

Strengths: Warranty, ergonomics, nice infotainment interface

Weaknesses: Automatic transmission response, value against Forte5, Real MPG

Motor Trend recent sighting:

First Test: 2014 Hyundai Elantra GT

"Two-box, 'active lifestyle'-ready hatchbacks deserve a dash of sporting pretension to distinguish them from their sedan counterparts, and manufacturers try to comply. With a specific suspension tuned to suit the Style ($2,550) and Tech ($3,250) packages' 215/45-17 Nexen Classe Premiere CP671 tire, the Elantra GT feels like it enjoys tackling twisty roads more than the standard four-door Elantra. It might not have the sporty pedigree bestowed by the years of experience Ford (thanks, Ford of Europe), Mazda, and VW have in building entertaining yet frugal hatches for the masses, but you can tell Hyundai is at least trying."

Kia Forte5

2014 kia forte5© Provided by MotorTrend 2014 kia forte5 Our latest interaction with the Forte5 left us with the same feelings as when we first met the current-generation Forte5: This is a good car. It doesn't set any new bars for performance and utility, but it does help maintain a high standard for the Forte as it continues trying for a bigger chunk of the compact car pie. Its most glaring flaw is its frontal crash safety, but it appears Kia is trying to remedy the situation. The car's structure and safety cage was reinforced for the 2015 model year, helping bump the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's small overlap rating from an initial Poor to Marginal.

Strengths: Available features and options, spacious interior, superb functionality

Weaknesses: Crash safety, steering feel, darkly colored interior

Motor Trend recent sighting:

2015 Kia Forte5 SX First Test

"With strong fuel economy, interior space, value, and an impressive list of available features that is almost unheard of in this segment, the Kia is a strong contender in its class. While we'd prefer the Kia to drive a little more enthusiastically, that's simply not a priority for most prospective owners."

Mazda3

2014 Mazda3© Provided by MotorTrend 2014 Mazda3 Since relieving the Protege of Mazda's compact car service after 2003, the '3 has stayed true to its enthusiast roots. You can order a 2.0-liter engine with a manual or automatic transmission. You can order a 2.5-liter engine with a manual or automatic. And it continues to introduce new technology for the segment with each successive generation (active crash avoidance this time around). The overdue Mazdaspeed3 can't come soon enough. If Mazda ever figures out how to get the also-overdue 2.2-liter diesel into the Stateside Mazda6, we'll be praying it gets shoehorned into this hatchback for the '3 Skyactiv-D vs. Golf TDI matchup.

Strengths: Interior design, fuel economy, Mazda handling

Weaknesses: Interior spaciousness, road noise, Mazda ride quality

Motor Trend recent sighting:

2014 Mazda3 s GT Long-Term Update 2

"Of course, as I said this, I glanced in the rearview mirror at my dad and could tell he wasn't impressed with the backseat room. It is tight back there by any standard, making it truly only comfy for kids, groceries, and luggage. But that being said, with those seats down I'm able to fit my mountain bike into the back with the front wheel off. No doubt there are other C-segment hatchbacks that can fit even more in the rear, but none offer the taut, handsome, Italian-esque styling of the '3."

Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback

2014 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback© Provided by MotorTrend 2014 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback We don't get many Mitsubishi cars around these parts (plenty of SUVs though), and it's been nearly five years since we tested any Lancer Sportback (a Ralliart). The Ralliart model had some moves, but it wasn't what we'd consider a compelling product. With only inconsequential changes to show for its stay in the U.S., the Lancer Sportback is a fastback shell of whatever former glory it had.

Strengths: "Stunning European styled design" (per mitsubishicars.com), warranty, land a great deal on a 2014 leftover

Weaknesses: Fuel economy, dealer network, general oldness

Motor Trend recent sighting:

First Test: 2010 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart

"The Ralliart sedan has all of 10.0 cubic feet of it (or 9.1 if fitted with the optional Rockford Fosgate audio system). The Sportback, on the other hand, starts out at 12.1 cubic feet that can be expanded to a cavernous 49.2 cubic feet by folding the rear seats, which also creates a flat load floor. An extra 10 cubic feet or so probably could have been available had Mitsubishi opted for a less-sloping D-pillar design like that of the previous-generation Lancer Sportback (which offered up 60.7 cubic feet), but the automaker's decision to sacrifice space for style is understandable given how funky the last model looked."

Subaru Impreza

2014 Subaru Impreza© Provided by MotorTrend 2014 Subaru Impreza For consumers living in the right climate, the Impreza's all-wheel drive (of Subaru's famed Symmetrical variety, no less) has already decided the small hatchback sale. Adhering to its brand values, the Impreza is a very safe and very well-thought-out vehicle that doesn't try to stand out from the crowd. The complete feeling of safety and control can be a strong sales motivator. It doesn't take long to realize the development priority was total occupant comfort, not driver enjoyment. No wonder the WRX and WRX STI are no longer Imprezas.

Strengths: Standard all-wheel drive, airy cabin, hatchback functionality

Weaknesses: Apathetic powertrain, Real MPG, interior materials

Motor Trend recent sighting:

The Big Test: 2014/2015 Hatchbacks

"It's an IIHS Top Safety Pick and 5-star-rated by the NHTSA. Our $24,990 test car, with a $24,822 IntelliChoice target purchase price, would have cost $32,483 to operate over five years. The cost of ownership would increase had the Impreza been equipped with the missing navigation -- the price as tested would have jumped to $26,090 -- but the car's superb projected 57 percent residual gives the Impreza a distinct leg up on the cost front."

Nissan Leaf

2015 Nissan Leaf© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 Nissan Leaf The original electric car (of this decade) was released for our consumption to prove EVs are viable in the marketplace. The Leaf catalyzed a tailpipe emissions-free movement that has since seen a lot more than a handful of EVs enter the conversation. And as was predicted from inception, trickling of gained efficiencies has made the Leaf more attractive to lease since the very first 19 landed in customer hands way back in December 2010 (lower starting price, EPA range increase from 73 to 84 miles). Would Volkswagen have brought the 83-mile e-Golf to our shores without the Leaf's groundwork?

Strengths: Look-at-me styling, CHAdeMO support, quiet drive and ride

Weaknesses: Look-at-me styling, crash safety, its success helps crowd public charging stations

Motor Trend recent sighting:

2012 Motor Trend Car of the Year: Contenders and Finalists

"When is a car … actually a car? That debate got sometimes, ah, pointed as our staff struggled with the Leaf's restricted driving range between chargings (in our experience, around 75 miles.) Although that's comfortably beyond the daily distance most people typically commute, it's clearly a big limitation in sprawling metropolitan areas. Moreover, it's almost a philosophical issue. Since the time of the Model T, the automobile has always winked with the eternal allure of letting you just take off in a direction -- pick one -- and, via quick fill-ups, keep on going until you eventually plunge into an ocean."

7 Small Hatchbacks

7 Small Hatchbacks
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