Car Body Styles: Everything You Need to Know

Car Body Styles: Everything You Need to Know
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Car shoppers tend to gravitate toward a vehicle that’s eye-catching, something that evokes emotion. Loving how your car looks is great, but sometimes you can get caught up in the excitement of the process rather than looking at car body styles that might actually work best for your lifestyle. It’s the old adage “putting the cart before the horse.”

Rather than focusing on specific models, consider the different car body types that might fit. Read on for a list of the types of car body styles you could be shopping for, where they originated and who they may be good for.

Car body styles

Vehicles you see on the road today are sleek and sexy, but they’ve evolved from far less visually stunning models of the past. A pickup truck could be traced back as far as the steam-powered wagon developed by Nicolas Joseph Cugnot in 1769, initially designed as a hauling bed. Passenger cars and SUVs probably derived from stagecoaches and covered wagons that were horse-drawn until the 19th century or later. More than a century later, imagination and engineering have brought us the diverse lineup of vehicles that you’ll find on highways, byways and backroads all across the globe.

Sedans

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Ask a child to draw a car and 95% of the time it will be a sedan. It’s a four-door car with a rear compartment (trunk) and an engine compartment at the front. Sedans range from subcompact to full-size and run the full gamut in price ranges. Typically, sedans seat at least four people: the driver and three or more passengers.

However, the first instance of a sedan was in reference to a cabinet sat in by a single person and carried on poles by a person in front and another behind. For automobiles though, Studebaker first used the term “sedan” to refer to a vehicle body style that had four doors as far back as 1912.

In today’s auto realm, sedans are less common than in days gone by. The cars that are surviving have a relatively low seating position, plush ride and a swath of power features for driver comfort. You can even find some models with heated rear seats and entertainment systems, emphasizing the fact that sedans are meant for more than a single occupant.

Who they’re good for

At some point, most drivers will own a sedan in their lifetime, simply because of its diversity. It’s perfect for families, commuters, travelers and business people alike.

There’s a chasm between the different price points in sedans. Popular options include the effortlessly affordable Nissan Versa to the best-selling Toyota Camry. At the upper end of the scale, the BMW 4-Series sedan is an excellent option.

Coupes

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A coupe in modern terms is a car with just two doors and a fixed hardtop roof. There’s some flexibility in the definition as to whether the car has a single row or two rows of seating. Some cars push the envelope and consider a four-door car with a truncated backseat a coupe, but that’s less common.

The term couple actually derived from the French word for “cut.” Back in the 18th century, a horse-drawn carriage that did away with the rear-facing seat was considered a coupe. When motor-powered vehicles were developed, the style carried on. Mercedes-Benz is largely credited with developing the vehicle body style early in the 20th century.

There are exceptions to the commonly accepted style, however. Some models like the Mercedes-Benz CLS Class and Mazda RX8 have been classified as coupes, even though they have four doors.

Who they’re good for

Because a coupe usually has two doors and a shortened cabin area, it’s a car that centers around the driver rather than families. They’re great for commuters in many cases and over the years have been popular among the business class as well.

The Honda Civic Coupe is a popular and affordable model, while the Audi A5 Coupe classes it up. But the most popular coupe crosses over with sports cars, too—the Ford Mustang.

Convertibles

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Ragtop or droptop, if it’s a car that has an optional roof, it’s a convertible. Most vehicles that are considered a “convertible” have a roof that can be retracted or detached, exposing the whole cabin to the sky. While it’s not technically impossible to have a four-door convertible, almost all models are variations of a two-door coupe and share many of the same characteristics.

If you go back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, you’ll find that most of the early models were open-air vehicles. Closed-in cabins only became mainstream in the 1920s, and the first example of a convertible with a top that could be opened and closed mechanically was in 1939 by Plymouth.

Today, most (but not all) convertibles have motorized tops that can open and close the cabin in under a minute. Purists often look for manually operated tops, and other variations like T-tops, targa tops, and detachable roofs still exist in limited capacities.

Who they’re good for

Convertibles aren’t considered the most practical cars, since the top usually cuts into trunk storage space. Still, convertibles are popular for fun-loving drivers that tend to be singles or couples. Empty-nesters tend to be the highest-volume consumers.

The Mazda MX-5 Miata is one of the highest-acclaimed and popular convertibles over the past few decades, and the VW Beetle convertible is among the most iconic. The Porsche 718 Boxster is a great choice for a premium convertible.

Sports cars

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If a car’s primary purpose is to provide knee-shaking acceleration, on-a-dime handling and top speeds most people only dream of, it fits into the “sports car” category. Most people think first of a two-door coupe or convertible as car body styles befitting a sports car, but sedans can also fit the bill.

The original term for a sports car was either a “touring car” or “roadster” around the turn of the 20th century. The 60-horsepower 1903 Mercedes Simplex is one of the first examples. From there, higher-displacement engines, elongated hoods, large wheels with low-profile tires and a two-seat configuration became the trademark look.

A sports car today is often lightweight, and a 5050 front-to-rear weight ratio is desirable for the best handling. Some sports cars are front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, but the most common drivetrain is rear-wheel drive. Design features include an aerodynamic style, low-to-ground posture and composite body panels. Some luxury cars are exceptionally well-equipped, but a more spartan environment compared to other models is usually the norm.

Who they’re good for

Generally, there’s little focus on storage or passenger space, so sports cars aren’t the ideal family car. They tend to be more popular among single guys, people with money to spare and those going through a midlife crisis.

Exuberant youths love sports cars like the Dodge Challenger and the Subaru Impreza WRX, and an iconic model that’s been around since the ‘50s is the Chevy Corvette.

Hatchbacks

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The hatchback car body style is a derivative of sedans and coupes through the years. Rather than a trunk, hatchbacks have a large panel hinged at the roofline that often incorporates the rear window. It’s usually sloped toward the rear end of the car and provides a larger opening to the cargo area. At the same time, hatchbacks don’t have a solid separation between the passenger compartment and the trunk. Most are based on cars between the subcompact and the midsize range.

The original purpose for a production hatchback was to accommodate tradespeople who needed to carry bulky or larger objects in their vehicle. The first was a Citroën 11CV Commerciale in 1938. From there, sports cars and sedan body styles of various makes and models have used the hatchback design, although it’s most popular among smaller, cost-efficient cars.

You may hear hatchbacks referred to as three-door or five-door models. Another recent term you’ll encounter is “hot hatch”—a hatchback with sporty styling and performance aspects.

Who they’re good for

Since they’re usually smaller cars, hatchbacks tend to make excellent vehicles for commuters and students. However, they’re so versatile that almost anyone can find a use for a hatchback.

Among the most popular hatchback models worldwide is the Toyota Prius, followed closely by the Ford Focus. The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron pushes the limits of the hatchback style as well.

Station wagons

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Also known as “estate wagons,” station wagons are passenger vehicles with either a tailgate or a liftgate at the rear. The interior space is continuous from the front row right through to the back. A station wagon is very much like a hatchback except that the rear is more square-shaped. It also commonly has side windows in the cargo area and often has folding third-row seats.

In 1910, a Ford Model T chassis was fitted with a wood-paneled carriage in the back to transport more people. The first model to be mass-produced as a station wagon was the 1922 Essex Closed Coach, but the 1935 Chevrolet Suburban made the term popular.

If you’ve heard the term “woodie,” it refers to a wood-paneled station wagon. This was an ultra-popular design that carried on through the ‘90s, and retro kits are sometimes sold for modern station wagons today.

Who they’re good for

Station wagons are well-known as family cars, but they’re also wonderful for anyone who needs plenty of interior space in an easy-to-drive vehicle.

There are fewer examples of station wagons in today’s market, but the Subaru Outback, Volvo V60 and Jaguar XF Sportbrake are a few good examples.

Minivan

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One of the most recognizable car body types is a minivan, probably because it often gets a bad rap. Minivans have a high roof, low floor height and a sliding side door on one side or both. With at least two rows of seating and usually three, the intention for this vehicle segment is clear cut: a people hauler. However, select minivans with only front seats have been used as cargo vans by tradespeople.

The first minivan was introduced in 1984 by Chrysler Corporation as the Dodge Caravan. It featured a much smaller body than a full-size van (hence “mini”) and had a wide-opening liftgate and passenger-side sliding door built on a unibody frame. Other entries used a full truck-like chassis, including the Ford Aerostar and Chevy Astro.

Since then, minivans have become more luxurious, with roof- or headrest-mounted entertainment systems available, cabin monitors, optional leather upholstery and more.

Who they’re good for

Minivans are appealing to a range of buyers including families, travelers, businesspeople and people who prefer plenty of cargo space and high seating.

Over the past 26 years, the Dodge Caravan has remained the best-selling minivan in North America. Other popular models are the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna.

Crossovers

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Crossovers are based on car platforms rather than a full chassis like a truck and are designed for a combination of comfort, fuel efficiency and versatility. Compared to a passenger car, they have a higher seating position, larger cabin, a liftgate and often have AWD or 4WD.

The move toward crossovers began in 1980 with the AMC Eagle, a station wagon–style car that had greater ride height and 4WD. The segment didn’t take off until the mid-90s when the Toyota RAV4 arrived on the scene.

The array of crossovers in the market ranges from some of the most basic features possible to elegant luxury models with extreme horsepower. Somewhere in the middle, you can expect heated seats, a sunroof, seating for five, and an AWD system that can handle tougher terrain than a passenger car can.

Who they’re good for

Arguably the most versatile type of vehicle, a crossover appeals to most people from singles and families to seniors and travelers.

Among the top-selling crossovers nationwide are the Toyota RAV4 and the Honda CR-V. Stepping up into something more luxurious, the Lexus RX series gives you more substance.

SUVs

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Abbreviated from “Sport Utility Vehicle,” an SUV brings more muscle than a crossover. It’s traditionally built on a truck-style chassis for better durability and capability. Even higher ground clearance, engines with more horsepower and torque, rear-wheel drive or 4WD, and the ability to tow substantial payloads are common characteristics. Visually, most are four-door bodies with a liftgate at the rear to access the cargo area.

The Willys Jeep in WWII inspired the segment, with its go-anywhere abilities and rudimentary style. Looking to the post-WWII era, SUVs were typically called station wagons with 4WD like the International Harvester Travelall or the Willys Jeep Station Wagon. Intended to traverse tougher roads than a car, they had higher ground clearance. But when it came to a version more directed to sport, the Ford Bronco and Chevrolet Blazer became popular, as did the Jeep Wrangler.

Today’s SUVs are often mid-level or luxury models that seldom go off-road. Many have powerful engines and three rows of seating and are primarily used as people haulers. Fuel efficiency is less of a concern.

Who they’re good for

True SUVs are on the pricey end of the scale. You’ll find the comfort-based models make a great substitute for people who are turned off by minivans while the hardy varieties are sought after by adventure-seeking off-road enthusiasts.

The iconic Jeep Wrangler continues to be one of the most popular models. The GMC Yukon and Mercedes-Benz G-Class Wagon are other SUV models that have become popular.

Pickup trucks

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There’s no mistaking a pickup truck body style. It has a passenger cab and an exposed cargo area, typically with box sides and a tailgate about half the height of the cab. Cabs can be a single row or two rows, with half-size rear doors or full rear doors. Trucks commonly have higher-than-average horsepower options and are almost always either rear-wheel-drive or 4WD, although the midsize pickup truck segment offers select FWD and AWD options.

Pickup trucks were among the first body styles since chassis were offered separately from the body. Early examples include the one-tone pickup truck from Rapid Motor Vehicle Company in 1902, although the Ford Model T made the style popular. They were intended as workhorses, not typically as passenger vehicles, until the ‘50s.

In today’s auto market, pickup trucks are among the most popular vehicles. They’re an awesome blend of passenger space and dedicated cargo capacity, plus active lifestyles can use them to tow or haul surprising amounts of weight. Options range from stripped-down, no-frills trucks to extremely luxurious models with massaging seats, leather upholstery and ridiculous amounts of tech.

Who they’re good for

Pickup trucks make a good choice for those who need to tow or haul, carry people or get through somewhat challenging terrain. There’s a pickup truck that fits virtually any lifestyle.

The best-selling pickup truck ever is the Ford F-150, and the Ram 1500 has won award after award for their tech options. The Toyota Tacoma is a great option for a slightly smaller truck.


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Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.