In theory, the hatchback is the best combination of spaciousness, fuel-efficiency and handling, but something happened to US car buyers on the way to the altar. Some blame the ascension of the SUV; others simply shake their heads and say, "AMC Gremlin." Whatever the case, the hatchback began a long swoon in early '80s, according to Ward's Auto, shrinking from 40 percent of new-car production in 1982 to well under 10 percent by the turn of the millennium.

Fast-forward to the present, though, and watch out, America-hatchbacks are back. With the advent of $4-per-gallon gas and widespread environmental awareness, the traditional SUV has exited stage right. Its replacement, the "crossover" SUV, still requires fuel-economy compromises despite its carlike underpinnings. Right on cue, automakers have rolled out a wide variety of hatchbacks over the past few years, paying particular attention to style in order to ease the transition from cool-looking utility vehicles. Add it all up and you've got a perfect sales storm: once considered as dead as the mullet, hatchbacks could approach 20% of sales for 2012.

But is this new crop of hatchbacks any good? We knew you'd ask. In short, yes, very-but you want more than that, so here's a rundown of the ten coolest hatchbacks on the market.

FIAT 500

Hey, JLo drives one; what more do you need to know? Okay, so the car used in her television commercials reportedly broke down during the shoot, but when you're this sexy, you're allowed to be a diva. We jest-early consumer reviews suggest that the spunky little 500 actually has nothing in common with the notoriously high-maintenance FIATs of yore. Plus, US models get a ton of upgrades (including more power) compared to the same car sold in Europe. The two-door "Cinquecento's" combination of curb appeal, fuel economy, and hatchback versatility is hard to beat at its sub-$16,000 starting price.

Chevrolet Sonic

Suddenly serious about small cars, Chevy has fired a loud shot over the bows of Ford and the imports with the new Sonic. The hatchback version looks and feels unusually substantial for this modest price point, and it even offers a turbocharged engine with a six-speed manual for more vigorous drivers. A nifty motorcycle-inspired gauge cluster completes the ensemble. Jury's out on the relatively inefficient 1.8-liter base engine, but otherwise, this Sonic is pretty super.

Ford Fiesta

So many notable hatchbacks have arrived lately that it's easy to forget the original subcompact trendsetter: the Ford Fiesta, which debuted waaaaaay back in 2011. Sure, larger cars like the Mazda3 (see below) have been making hatches cool since the early '00s, but the Fiesta was the first to pair subcompact affordability with genuine desirability. Starting at $15,500 for 2012, the Fiesta hatchback offers great fuel economy, excellent Euro-tuned driving dynamics, and endearingly bold styling. No wonder half of Fiesta buyers opt for the hatch; in fact, we're surprised more don't, as the Fiesta sedan is arguably the dorkiest-looking car on the road.

Kia Rio

Similar under the skin to the redesigned Hyundai Accent, the new 2012 Rio hatchback gets the nod here because it's just hotter than the Hyundai, especially with the SX model's striking 17-inch wheels. Interior quality varies by trim level, but the higher trims are arguably class-leading. With stellar fuel economy (up to 34 mpg combined) and a sporty driving character to boot, the Rio is what this hatchback renaissance is all about.

Ford Focus

Turns out the first-generation Focus hatchback was ahead of its time a decade ago, offering extraordinary style and practicality to a buying public that still preferred SUVs. Indeed, the Focus hatchback was even discontinued for a spell, leaving a de-contented Focus sedan to soldier on in its absence. But that was a few years ago, and this is now. The 2012 Focus hatchback looks great, drives great, and has one of the nicest interiors you'll find under $20,000. It also lets you choose between efficiency (33 mpg combined with the SFE package) and performance (the upcoming Focus ST packs well over 200 horsepower courtesy of Ford's turbocharged "EcoBoost" 2.0-liter inline-4).

Mazda3

The smiley 3 hatchback has been around for a few years now, but it's back in the news for 2012 thanks to Mazda's all-new "SkyActiv" 2.0-liter inline-4, which finally gives the 3 competitive fuel economy of 31-32 mpg combined. The SkyActiv motor feels stronger than its 155-horsepower rating suggests, and it's paired with the sportiest suspension you'll find in the compact class. For maximal thrills, there's the turbocharged Mazdaspeed3, and a torquey 2.5-liter inline-4 is also offered.

Volkswagen Golf/GTI

As the elder statesman of compact hatches, the Golf is often overshadowed by newer entrants, and that ain't right. Everything about this VW screams "quality" except the sub-$20k starting price. From the authoritative thunk of its doors to the upscale plastics and fabrics inside, the Golf flaunts its obsessive attention to detail. You get your choice of three very different engines-an endearingly quirky inline-5, a hyper-efficient turbodiesel inline-4, or the GTI's sporty turbocharged inline-4-but every Golf comes standard with excellent road manners and an adult-friendly backseat. Dollar for dollar, it might be the best car VW makes.

Mini Cooper Hardtop

The retro-chic Mini has such a distinctive brand that it's easy to forget what it actually is-a humble pint-sized hatchback. Well, maybe "humble" isn't the right word for a subcompact that starts at nearly $20,000 and can easily extend into the $30s. But when you consider that Mini is basically BMW's front-wheel-drive division, those prices start to seem a little more reasonable. Beyond its unmistakable styling, the Mini provides endlessly entertaining handling and a true gem of a motor under the hood, regardless of whether you ante up for the S model's twin-scroll turbo. What's more, the Mini's a certified fuel-sipper, netting up to 30 mpg combined even with the S's 181-horsepower inline-4. A base Mini Cooper with the 1.6 liter engine does even better at sipping fuel to the tune of 32 mpg in combined city and highway driving; 37 mpg if you stick to highway driving.

Audi A7

Who says budget friendly hatchbacks should have all the fun? Luxury-car shoppers in search of something different have a number of appealing hatchback options these days, and the 2012 Audi A7 hits the sweet spot. Equipped with Audi's delicious supercharged 3.0-liter V6, the A7 can certainly scoot, but it's the coupe-like driving experience that really stands out from the A7's low-slung driver seat. And while the car's shapely hindquarters may appear to be all about style, there's a handy 49 cubic feet of cargo space under the hatchback trunk if you fold the rear seats down.

Porsche Panamera

Cost (and perhaps styling) is no object, the Panamera is the clear driver's choice among the new hatchback crop. Wider than a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the Panamera somehow shrinks to 911 dimensions when you're pushing it, and its interior quality is second only to the Rolls-Royce/Bentley crowd. Awesome engineering abounds, from the 380-horsepower, 25-mpg Hybrid (which is based on the A7's supercharged V6, incidentally) to the world-beating 550-horsepower Turbo S. Plus, the backseats are true business-class buckets, and the hatch gives you up to 44.6 cubic feet in which to store your bullion and such.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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