Markets have come a long way from being value-for-money family vehicles to stylish, spacious and even powerful alternatives to a sedan so long as a spacious boot is not a necessity.
Over time, people have embraced these compact cars because they are not only well appointed, but are also more practical, cheaper to own, have higher fuel efficiency, and are, importantly to many, easy to park.
In the market today are three powerful diesel-powered hatchbacks that are top of the class: the Fiat Punto Evo 90HP, Hyundai Elite i20 and the Volkswagen Polo 1.5 TDI.
Which of the trio ticks all the boxes?
Italian car maker Fiat may be far from topping the sales charts, but credit must be given to it for tirelessly working on the Punto Evo's nip-and-tuck job.
Thankfully, the end result didn't show a cosmetic faux pas like some Bollywood actress' nose job.
Far from it, the hatch is gorgeous to the eye and is the second-best looking car in its segment.
That's not a typo.
We will soon get to which one is the best looker.
The Punto Evo's grille has a chrome strip running across it and the new, swept-back headlamps add to its contemporary looks. Chrome surrounds the fog lamp area too.
The rear more or less remains the same as in the earlier model except for the addition of LED lights.
Volkwagen's Polo has stuck to its subtle yet muscular looks.
The German company has redesigned the nose and bumper for the new version, and it now sports a thin chrome streak.
But what really stands out is the sporty twin-pod headlamps.
Apart from this minor tweak, the Polo remains Germanic to the core with its solid looks.
This is purely my opinion, but I am sure many will back my theory that Hyundai's newly launched Elite i20 is the most radical-looking hatchback in India today. Period.
The Koreans have confidently given their successful curvaceous Fluidic design the boot, and what we see now is the Fluidic Sculpture, a design line that is sharper and edgier.
Many may accuse Hyundai of taking a leaf out of Audi's concept of the front grille -- the Bavarian beard, as it is called -- but in all honesty, the Elite i20's massive honeycomb front fascia with the chrome outline look impressively evil and aggressive, a first in this segment.
If the razor sharp elongated headlamps elevate your aesthetic pleasure, then the Alfa Romeo-inspired rear lamps will make you a true believer in beauty.
This means there are more positives than negatives to it. I have always liked and continue to love the Punto 90HP's sporty, all-black interiors.
The dashboard design is premium and the entertainment system complements the design, but its orange dot matrix display font is a major let down.
The Punto initially appears to be solidly built, but you soon realise that the hard-plastic finish could have been slightly more upmarket.
The Volkswagen hatchback's interiors remain virtually the same as in the earlier versions. No complaints here.
Besides, the new leather-wrapped flat bottom steering looks and feels very sporty.
The toggle swtiches on the steering wheel are impressive and classy.
The red multi-functional display in the instrument cluster is now white and has a larger font, making the display far more readable than before.
The Elite i20's cabin lives up to its name.
The design of the dashboard looks like a German luxury car's, though in terms of build quality I would reckon it comes second to the Polo.
The irregular shape of the multi-information display is arty now that it has been shifted to the centre console.
A special mention must be made of the soft yet very easy to use steering-mounted controls.
Hyundai's attention to details is evident in the insertion of a piano-black finish on the outside rear view mirror controls as well as a touch of chrome on the gear stick.
Both the Punto and i20 come with rear AC vents, a boon in India's long summers and short winters.
In terms of cabin space, especially in the rear, the Polo continues to suffer from limited dimensions, but the other two cars offer ample knee room and yes, three adults can sit very comfortably on the back seats.
All three come with all the most modern features that top variants today boast, but it is the i20 that is the feature king with its reverse parking camera, an entertainment system with 1GB internal memory space for your playlist and numerous storage options.
On paper, both the i20 and Polo have 89 bhp of power under the hood, while the Punto generates 90 bhp. Does this mean that everything is even-Stevens?
No. The Fiat, the most powerful car, at least on paper, suffers from initial lag, which is quite a dampener.
The Polo and the i20, on the other hand, are responsive from the word go, though the German car is a lot more eager to get going.
While Hyundai and Fiat have retained the 1.4 litre and 1.3 diesel engines for their cars, the Polo has got a new 1.5-litre engine to replace the previous 1.2-litre engine.
This new engine provides a big improvement when it comes to refinement, reduction in vibrations and boosted power.
The Punto Evo is a decent handler, and though not the best, it does stay stable on corners. The gear shift is very rubber-band-ish and can leave you second guessing at times.
The Polo is a razor sharp handler even if the gearbox is slightly knotty. Both these cars provide excellent ride quality and carpet almost anything the roads throw at them.
The Volkswagen's new steering wheel feels great, is precise but lacks feedback.
The surprise package here is no doubt the i20. Hyundai, for some reason, has always preferred soft suspensions that time and again has made users plead for tightening up.
This time, however, there is no wobbly, boat-like feel to the car.
The suspension is perfect as the Elite attacks the corners and emerges with its head held high.
This has to be the best Hyundai car within the Rs 800,000-range.
Unfortunately, the steering wheel remains vague, but the gear shift is smooth and slots effortlessly.
When it comes to safety, all the three cars are sorted as they come with twin airbags.
Kudos to Fiat for daring to dream.
The Punto Evo is a good product with smart and spacious interiors, Italian design flair and has the highest ground clearance in the segment, but the image still needs improving. Fiat has restructured its service set-up and has widened its network.
The Polo is the best built and finished car with great handling and now comes with a powerful yet refined engine. But there has to be more than just the badge, and that's where it lacks the wow factor.
Also expensive servicing goes against the car. Now ladies and gentleman, please stand up for our winner.
Meet the Elite i20.
Where do I start? I love the bold design, endless number of features that are practical and helpful, the well-designed, airy and spacious cabin, brilliant suspensions and, thank you, Hyundai, for getting rid of the tacky LED lamps.
The Elite i20 will be my contender for car of the year.
Engine: 1,248 cc
Power: 90 bhp @ 4,000 rpm
Torque: 115 Nm @ 1,750 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Fuel economy: 20.5 kmpl (ARAI)
Price: Rs 7.19 lakh (Ex-showroom, Delhi)
VOLKSWAGEN POLO 1.5 TDI
Engine: 1,498 cc
Power: 89 bhp @ 4,200 rpm
Torque: 230 Nm @ 1,500-2,500rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Fuel economy: 20.1 kmpl (ARAI)
Price: Rs 6.27-7.37 lakh (Ex-showroom, Delhi)
HYUNDAI ELITE I20 CRDI
Engine: 1,396 cc
Power: 89 bhp @ 4,000 rpm
Torque: 220 Nm @ 1,500-2,750 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Fuel economy: 21.76-22.54 kmpl (ARAI)
Price: Rs 6.10 - 7.67 lakh (Ex-showroom, Delhi)