Remember when there were just ‘big cars’ and ‘small cars’? That was never actually the case obviously but it did seem that way, right? It seemed that way because today there are, like, a gazillion different styles of car. No exaggeration.
Well, maybe a bit of exaggeration. But the reason we’re awash with different types of car is, you probably won’t be surprised to hear, simple economics. Car makers are desperately seeking your business and so they’re creating ‘new’ body styles all the time to try and get it. The advantage to you, of course, is that there’s an amazing amount of choice now, but the downside is that it can feel a bit overwhelming. And it’s all Nissan’s fault.
Not really, but you can trace the modern obsession with creating weird and wonderful new types of car back to the 2007 Nissan Qashqai, a car that created the world-conquering ‘crossover’ segment. Ever wondered why all new cars seem to look like SUVs these days? It’s because in 2007 Nissan ‘crossed over’ the best characteristics of a medium sized family hatchback (like a Volkswagen Golf) and those of an SUV (a 4x4-type car), in doing so creating a unique take on modest family transport.
That take was a fat hatchback with the high-riding visibility, spaciousness and large boot of an SUV, but the easy-to-park compactness, decent driving dynamics and relatively low running costs of a much smaller car. Today, crossover SUVs of all sizes dominate the European car market; in the UK, the ‘dual purpose’ segment (all crossovers, basically) has increased by 260% over the last ten years, while virtually every other segment has declined.
The Qashqai Ushered In New Styles
We shouldn’t venerate Nissan too strongly, but it does seem that since the Qashqai’s arrival – and its massive commercial success – other manufacturers have rushed not only to make their own copies of the blueprint, but have been emboldened to create new car styles, new niches, of their own.
And so today we have a wide variety of car styles, most of them available in myriad sizes and from manufacturers you’d traditionally consider both ‘mainstream’ and ‘premium’. The idea of what a fancy car looks like is changing quickly too. You can probably blame Apple for that.
It’s an icky phrase, but the “democratisation of premium” idea has become embedded into car company thinking: the idea that today everyone wants their day-to-day stuff to have a ‘high end’ look and feel, and that they’re willing to pay a little more for it. Apple is a master at giving premium feel to the masses, championing the idea that high quality, minimalistic, simple functionality – even down to the boxes that the products come in – should be available to everyone.
Similarly, car companies like Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW now make small, relatively affordable hatchbacks whose equipment and interior quality are on par with their bigger stuff. On the other hand, Citroen has created a ‘luxury’ brand called DS Automobiles to chase the same market, while Volvo has recently launched electric brand Polestar to steal sales from Tesla.
Body Styles Explained
What does this have to do with body styles? And what does it mean for you? Well, for a start it means that there’s definitely a car out there that’s perfect for you. It’s just that you might have to dig a little deeper than you thought to find it. It also means that looking for a smaller car doesn’t necessarily rule out a luxury car. And it means that if you like SUV-type cars generally, you’re definitely in luck.
So, let’s get into body styles. To try and delineate as clearly as we can we’ve tried to keep to categories that you’ll commonly hear about or read about in reviews, roughly from small to large, although there are some exceptions to the rules. We’ve given you a few examples of each to try and help you visualise things, as well as some alternative names for each category, some of which are specific to certain manufacturers. Here goes then.
Also Known As: Fastback, Liftback, Sportback (Audi), Five-Door, Three-Door
So called because the access to the boot (luggage compartment) is via a wide opening ‘door’ that also allows access to the cabin. That’s where the ‘three-door’ and ‘five-door’ names come from. Hatchbacks can generally have their rear seats folded down flush with the boot floor, and they’re more flexible than saloons because the large, wide opening is basically a huge gateway into the back of the car.
Any style of car can also technically be a hatchback, aside from a saloon, which is specifically a four-door car. A ‘liftback’ or ‘fastback’ is generally a car whose hatchback slopes at the rear in sportier fashion, as opposed to the majority of hatchbacks which tend to have a more vertical tailgate, while all SUVs are hatchbacks too. They’re just never described as such.
Also Known As: Sedan, Four-Door, Three-Box
Saloons are cars with a ‘separate’ boot – as in, a boot whose opening doesn’t allow access into the cabin without the rear seats also being folded. That’s where the three-box moniker comes from. Viewed from the side saloons appear to have three specific compartments: engine, passenger, luggage. Three boxes, if you like.
Saloons used to be a staple on the roads but are much less common now because they’re far less flexible than hatchbacks, mainly because by nature the boot access itself is much smaller. Saloon cars tend to be bigger and for some buyers their shape still carries a certain ‘big car’ prestige. Small saloons based on popular hatchbacks like the Renault Clio are still popular in some European markets but are rare in the UK because their layout hinders practicality.
Also Known As: Wagon, Avant (Audi), Touring (BMW), Sportbrake (Jaguar), Load Lugger (slang), Two-Box
As if to prove the point about saloons and practicality, estate cars are big hatchbacks that tend to be based on a three-box counterpart (though some estates are based on family hatchbacks), hence you’ll see them called “two-box” cars on occasion. Picture an old Volvo in your mind and you’re probably thinking of an estate car**.**
The rise of the crossover SUV has seen sales of estate cars fall of late because buyers tend to favour the SUV’s higher driving position, but there’s no doubt that estate cars are some of the most practical on the market. Their longer rooflines make their total luggage capacity far superior to the hatchbacks or saloons they’re generally based on, and they often come with practical flourishes in the boot itself, including cargo nets, additional bag hooks, ski hatches and underfloor storage compartments.
Popular Examples: Ford Focus Estate, BMW 3 Series Touring, Volvo V60
Also Known As: Crossover SUV, Family Crossover, Compact Crossover, 4x4, Dual-Purpose Vehicle
This is the big one. Crossovers of all sizes dominate the new car market these days, and although they mostly tend to have the look of an SUV (more on ‘proper’ SUVs below), it’s a segment that’s diversified hugely even in the short decade-and-a-bit since the Nissan Qashqai came along. A crossover is a car with two or more specific characteristics, hence “dual-purpose”, which is to say that they combine two or more traditional car types into one. Overwhelmingly the two types of car being ‘crossed’ are an SUV and a standard hatchback, which means that the car looks like a 4x4– that distinctive tall, chunky look – but isn’t engineered to go off-road and is instead designed to be a spacious family car. That’s very general though. Lots of crossovers are also decent at the off-road stuff, it’s just that they’re not really designed for that primarily.
That principle applies across a range of sizes, from smaller crossovers like the Nissan Juke and Ford Puma, to large ones like the Citroen C5 Aircross and Kia Sorento. Even the Land Rover Discovery Sport is a crossover really, because it’s available without a 4x4 system. Yep, a Land Rover that looks like a 4x4 but with no off-road ability. That’s today’s car market for you.
Most of today’s weird and wonderful new types of car fall under the crossover banner too. The German companies are largely responsible because they make ‘SUV-coupe’ type cars of various sizes, which are raised up SUV-proportioned cars but with sloping hatchbacks like a ‘sports car’. Those quotations are very necessary there. We’re talking about cars like the BMW X6, the Audi Q3 Sportback and the Mercedes-Benz GLC Coupe. A couple more examples include the Kia XCeed, which is a raised up five-door sort of combines the characteristics of a family hatchback, a coupe and an SUV, and the MINI Paceman, a fat MINI in the SUV style but with only three-doors, like a coupe.
Popular Examples: Nissan Qashqai, Audi Q3, Fiat 500X
Also Known As: Two-Door, Sportscar, Gran Coupe (BMW), Sportback (Audi)
The coupe is the classic two-door, low slung, sporty car. Think of a Ford Mustang or an old Jaguar E-Type and you’re thinking about a coupe. Anything you see with just the one door at either side is probably a coupe, although it’s not quite that simple anymore because the segment has been touched by the crossover phenomenon these days. Of course.
BMW is a case in point because it produces five-door versions of most of its coupes and gives them the name ‘Gran Coupe’. It’s a marketing thing really though, because they’re technically just liftback style hatchbacks that are a little lower than a standard saloon.. Very occasionally you’ll see a manufacturer call a three-door hatchback a coupe too, but it’s the same thing, it’s marketing that plays on the slight sense of exotica evoked by a word associated with, again, stuff like classic Jaguars and American muscle cars. SEAT did this when it called the three-door Leon the “Leon SC”, the “Sports Coupe”.
Popular Examples: BMW 4 Series, Audi A5, Jaguar F-Type
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Also Known As: Cabriolet, Drop-Top, Open-Top, Targa
A convertible is very simple to define: it’s a car whose roof can be retracted. There are loads of different ways of achieving open top motoring, but the principle is the same. Convertibles often have four seats but are always two-door cars by nature because engineering four doors along with a retractable roof would be incredibly complex. And nobody buys a convertible for practicality reasons anyway, right?
You’d be surprised at the sort of cars that have been given the convertible treatment, though. It’s usually coupe-type cars, which lend themselves well to the conversion, but Land Rover has made a convertible out of the Range Rover Evoque in the recent past, and Nissan even made one out of a big SUV called the Murano. Mind, neither of those cars was especially good. To put it kindly.
The majority of convertibles use an electrically operated fabric roof because they’re lightweight and can be folded down easily into a compact space behind the rear seats, without too much loss in boot space. Occasionally you’ll see folding hard top convertibles, like the Mazda MX-5 RF, which have a metal roof. They’re rarer though because, although they improve refinement – a fabric roof lets in more noise than a metal one – they also take up more room when folded, and the folding mechanism itself tends to be complicated and heavy.
SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle)
Also Known As: 4x4, Off-Roader
The explosion in crossover cars that look like SUVs means that it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish the actual SUVs, as in cars that are designed to go off-road or at least be more ‘rugged’ generally than the average tall family runabout. Large ‘premium’ SUVs are in a grey area – stuff like the Audi Q7 and Mercedes-Benz GLS – because while they tend to have four-wheel drive as standard and some off-road ability, it’s generally accepted that they’re aimed primarily at buyers looking for a large and luxurious family car
A ‘real’ SUV would be a car like a Toyota Landcruiser or a Land Rover Defender, something that’s built first and foremost as an off-road vehicle and with measures that help it overcome all sorts of rough terrain. These cars can be used as family transport, of course, but their abilities are generally measured in terms like ‘wading depth’ (the depth of water it can drive through) and ‘approach angle’ (the angle of a hill it can tackle from a flat surface without ripping the front bumper off).
Proper SUVs can be any size but tend to be less comfortable as day-to-day transport because the work it takes to make them good off road tends to work in opposition to general comfort. For example, the suspension needs more ‘travel’, which means the wheels need to be able to move up and down a lot relative to the body of the car. They also generally have interiors that are more hardwearing and less focussed on creature comforts, although the Range Rover is an obvious exception.
Popular Examples: Land Rover Defender, Suzuki Jimny, Mercedes-Benz G-Class
MPV (Multi-Purpose Vehicle)
Also Known As: People Carrier
The poor old MPV has fallen out of fashion in a big way lately, the victim of the crossover SUV trend. That’s mainly because MPVs are designed solely for maximum space and practicality, and are therefore seen as ‘family wagons’ and not the choice of the fashion conscious consumer. ‘Cool’ is an abstract concept, obviously, but that’s just the way it is. We’re not saying it’s right.
It’s a shame too because MPVs really are some of the best and most versatile cars on the market, offering unrivalled space and flexibility and often without being as bulky and tricky to park as a similarly sized SUV. They’re always hatchbacks and have high roofs, long wheelbases (the length of the floor between the front and rear wheels) and bulky rear ends, which makes them very spacious. They’ll often come with three proper seats across the rear (unlike most cars, whose rear benches offer little space for a middle occupant), and sometimes with seven seats, like the BMW 2 Series Gran Tourer.
Popular Examples: Citroen Grand C4 Spacetourer, BMW 2 Series Active Tourer, Mercedes-Benz B-Class