Why Are Hatchbacks Used In Rally? 

Rally car hatchback driving fast on a road

If you’ve ever watched a rally race, you might have noticed that nearly every car in the competition is a hatchback. Is that rule that the WRC has, or do drivers just love hatchbacks for some reason? There are actually a lot of reasons why hatchbacks are used in Rally, and I’ll talk about 10 of them in this guide.

The short answer is that hatchbacks are smaller than sedans, have a smaller wheelbase, and are lighter. This allows them to perform much better on a rally track where there are double-digit corners and a stopwatch ticking away. They also have a better shape for aerodynamics and safety.

What Is a Hatchback?

If you take a sedan and give it a fully openable hinged door at the rear like a minivan, then you have a hatchback. The trunk sweeps open and exposes a cargo area as opposed to a recessed hole that a sedan’s trunk has.

When I think of a hatchback, my mind always goes to the Volkswagen Golf. You can also find options on the market that are sold as either hatchbacks or standard sedans, like the long-lasting Civic.

Quick Definition: What Is Rally?

If you want a rally track, you can start with a NASCAR track. Throw in a dozen more turns, get rid of the asphalt and replace it with dirt and rocks, and put trees all around the course — voila, you now have a rally course. Come to think of it, this is nothing like NASCAR.

A rally car hatchback making a turn with dust debris spewing from the rear

Rally uses windy tracks through a forest or other natural environments. The drivers have a co-pilot that helps them navigate through the course. Typically, a single car is on the track at a time and their track time is recorded. Whoever had the fastest lap that day, wins.

In other words, you usually don’t see a dozen rally cars starting on a line together. Since it’s such a dangerous sport and usually goes through tough terrain, it’s a safety concern to have multiple people racing alongside each other through a rally track.

Note: I’m Comparing Sedans to Hatchbacks

People who ask about hatches in Rally are typically asking “why not use sedans?”. The answer is more obvious if you compare hatchbacks to pickup trucks, SUVs, minivans, or motorcycles, so I won’t waste your time with those answers. The rest of this guide will be all about comparing hatches to sedans and understanding why hatchbacks are preferred.

10 Reasons Why Hatchbacks are Used in Rally

Now, let me talk more about hatchbacks in Rally. If you’re a car or rally fan, you already know that these two have been linked together forever. Whenever there’s a new record-setter, it’s done in a hatchback. Why? There are 10 big reasons that I can think of.

1. Hatchbacks are Small

Above everything else, a hatchback is small. The smaller size plays into a lot of the other reasons why they’re used in Rally.

A blue hatchback car on an open field with sunrise and morning dew

In the racing world, smaller is always better. If you can cram the same horsepower into a 2,500 hatchback or a 3,000 sedan, the hatchback will always be the right choice.

Remember, performance is a combination of horsepower and weight (plus a few other factors). If you have a lot of “horsepower” and a small weight, the car will be faster.

2. Hatchbacks are Lighter Than Sedans

Speaking of weight, hatchbacks are one of the lightest options on the market. If you take a hatchback and compare it to a standard sedan, you’ll typically find that the hatchback is hundreds of pounds lighter.

This car is smaller and more compact than a standard sedan, which explains the weight loss.

As I just mentioned, the lightest car is typically the most preferred one in Rally. Since hatchbacks are lighter, they can go faster using the same engine.

3. The Wheelbase Is Typically Shorter

When it comes to corning and turns, your wheelbase is very important. An 18-wheeler has to take massive, wide-swinging turns since the overall length is huge and the wheelbase is long. A Smart Car, on the other hand, can turn on a dime.

Red hatchback side view isolate against a white background with wheelbase

The wheelbase is the measurement between the front and rear axle. You want this number to be as small as possible in order to have the tightest turning radius.

If you’ve ever seen a rally course, there are a ton of tight turns and large corners that the cars have to go through. Since hatchbacks have a tighter wheelbase, they can take these corners even faster, which makes for faster laps.

4. They Offer an Ideal Weight Distribution

The other factor that goes into the performance aspect is how the weight is distributed. If all of the weight is in the rear of the car, then you’ll have a hard time accelerating or taking a turn. If most of the weight is in the front, turning can be an issue and stopping is often harder.

Hatchbacks do a great job of spreading out the weight. A sedan usually has a lighter rear, since that part of the car is so much smaller than the seating area of the car. Since a hatchback stays the same height all the way to the rear, the weight is spread out better.

Again, this leads to faster laps and better corning.

5. More Space for Tools and Spare Parts

It might not seem obvious, but sometimes a rally team needs to bring some tools and parts with them. This allows them to do quick adjustments in the field and helps them get back on the track to do another lap.

View of the rear trunk cargo space of a red car hatchback with the rear seats folded down

With a sedan, there’s very little storage. A hatchback has that glorious cargo area in the rear. The best part? The navigator can reach back and grab something without even leaving the car.

6. Bigger Window in the Rear Means More Visibility

Some sedans have a visibility problem. Since the rear of the vehicle swoops down to the trunk, the rear window is at an awkward angle and can be pretty small. In addition, the rear passenger windows can be a little small, depending on the sedan.

Since a hatchback has that massive hatch on the back (hence the name), the window is a lot bigger. This gives drivers better visibility which can lead to safer maneuvers.

The rear passenger windows are usually larger too since the body doesn’t swoop down at the rear.

Even though rally cars aren’t typically in races with other drivers, it always helps to have more visibility.

7. In General, They Have Great Fuel Efficiency

Sedans and hatchbacks both have really good fuel efficiency. This matters on tracks where multiple laps are required, or the race is a specialty race that lasts a few hours. The fewer pitstops you have to make to refuel, the more time you can spend zipping around the track.

8. Their Shape Is Ideal for Roll Cages

Roll cages are installed in rally cars to keep the driver safe. This is a metal frame that goes inside the car, and it helps prevents the car from crumpling on the driver in the case of an accident.

Interior view of a racing rally Peugeot 207 car winner of Rally Della Romagna 2013 with roll cage visible
Interior view of the Peugeot 207 Rally car – winner of the 2013 Rally Della Romagna

With a sedan, the awkward curves in the rear make it a lot tougher to fit a roll cage. Since the body of a hatchback is much more open, it’s easier to design and install an efficient roll cage.

Whenever you’re driving at high speeds, safety matters. These roll cages help save countless lives each year on rally tracks.

9. The Sloped Rear Offers Great Aerodynamics

If you pretend that you’re a particle of air, you can cleanly trace your path over a hatchback all the way to the rear wing.

With a sedan, there’s more drag since the car is larger, has a bump in the middle, is longer, and has a drop at the back. A hatchback has a gradually sloped roof that eventually leads to a rear wing.

Patrik Sandell Rally car driver making a jump in a Rally race car hatchback
Patrik Sandell Rally driver jumps at the 2014 Red Bull GRC Global Rallycross at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, CA

It might not seem important, but a car’s aerodynamics can shave fractions of a second off of each lap. In a race that counts down to the millisecond, this is a big deal.

This time savings goes into every single lap since the hatchback’s aerodynamics are always superior. Those extra half-seconds start to add up over time.

10. The Spoiler Works Harder

The main purpose of a spoiler is to give a car more downforce. When air hits the spoiler, it’s forced upwards. This, in turn, pushes the car down and “plants” it on the track under it.

The car is physically lowered when the spoiler starts working. Without a spoiler, it’s possible for air to get under the front bumper of the car and raise it. I’ve seen videos of drag cars going too fast without enough downforce, and the car does a backflip.

To put it simply, a high-quality spoiler will let a car go faster, turn harder, take corners faster, and accelerate quicker since the body is lower to the ground.

Rally car hatchback driving fast down the road on a bright sunny day with the large spoiler creating good downforce - Hustopece, Czech Republic June 18, 2016
Hustopeče, Czech Republic

With a standard sedan, a spoiler only works when it’s nearly as tall as the roof of the car. This leads to ridiculous-looking spoilers that don’t even catch all of the incoming air.

With a hatchback, the roof doesn’t drop down. That means that a tiny wing at the rear will work as well as that tall spoiler on a sedan. In other words, a spoiler on a hatchback creates better results and works harder than one on a sedan.

This factors in a lot for Rally. As I mentioned, every millisecond matters. If your car can perform better, then you’ll win more races. A hatchback’s spoiler helps the driver do just that.

Conclusion

I hope that this guide cleared up some questions you had. I just talked about 10 of the big reasons why hatchbacks are so popular in Rally. If you have any other car questions, explore my site. I upload three articles a week, so there’s plenty of content to go through. As always, feel free to look through my ultimate list of car products and buy some for yourself.

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Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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