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What's the Difference Between a Coupe vs Sedan?

By Autolist Staff | November 21, 2018

Traditionally, the key difference between a coupe vs sedan was the number of doors a vehicle had. But more recently automakers -- particularly German brands -- have started taking liberties with that distinction. This means the historical line between the two styles -- the number of doors -- no longer is a sure indicator of what is a sedan and what is a coupe. Despite this evolving use of the term, coupes generally have two doors, while sedans have four.

What is a Coupe

Named after passenger-friendly horse-drawn carriages, coupes originally had full-size front and rear seats and two doors. This generally remains true today, though the space in the rear seats is rarely equal to that in the front seats. More recently, some automakers have added a third door on some coupe models to provide easier access to the rear seats.

What is a Sedan

Sedans today typically have four doors and ample seating for up to five adults. Even as recently as the early 2000’s, some sedans had a bench seat up front and could seat six adults in total. Historically sedans have had a more utilitarian look compared to coupes, but the distinction has lessened in recent decades. Sedans come in a variety of compact, mid-size and full-size configurations, creating a wide range of storage and comfortable seating arrangements.

Sedan vs. Coupe

Doors

As stated, coupes generally have two doors and sedans typically have four. Aside from this distinction, coupes usually have longer doors, allowing greater access to the rear seats or storage space. On coupes with three or four doors, especially where the rear doors have rear-opening hinges, there is generally not a separating pillar between the doors. This creates one large opening when the doors are opened or when the windows are rolled down.

Sedans typically have full-size front and rear doors, although on some compact or sub-compact models the rear doors are shorter than the front doors. Overall, sedans provide greater access for both seating and interior cargo space. Shorter doors also make sedans easier to exit and enter when parked in many lots or along the curb.

Seating

With the exception of compact models, modern sedans and coupes offer comparable legroom and overhead space for drivers and front-seat passengers. Passengers seated in the back of sedans, however, often have more room than their counterparts in coupes. Most sedans have a rear seat that holds up to three adults, while some four-door coupe models feature full-size rear bucket seats with an armrest or space between them, meaning the vehicle only seats four.

Many coupes have small seats in the back that are more suited to children than adults, especially for longer rides. However, the use of interior space in coupes, more than in sedans, varies significantly between manufacturers, or even among models. Thus, some coupes provide comfortable rear seating despite limited legroom.

Body Style

Automakers have long positioned their coupes as the more sporty of the two body styles and thus, they tend to have more sporty, curving lines than sedans. Top-end sedans, meanwhile, strive for a balanced, luxurious appearance. Mid-range and economy sedan models tend to be more understated than comparable coupe models by the same manufacturer.

As mentioned previously, it’s become a trend -- particularly with German luxury brands -- to offer a four-door model with the sleek lines and silhouette of a traditional coupe. Automakers call these models “Four-door coupes” and they can even be found in as crossovers with a more sporty silhouette.

Storage

Because they can be longer, sedans sometimes have larger trunks and more storage cargo space than coupes. Some coupes make up for a small trunk size by allowing the rear seats to fold down, although this feature is also common in sedans. In addition to a shorter length, the sporty rear design of many coupes also reduces the interior height of the trunk, limiting the size of items that can be placed inside.

Performance

While many automakers offer several engine options for both sedans and coupes, others only include high-performance engines in their coupe models. Even where the engines are the same, coupes tend to promise better performance, particularly if they weigh less than their sedan counterparts since the reduced weight can make a difference in braking and acceleration. Brands often position their coupe models as the more sporty and dynamic alternative to the sedan.

Hatchbacks, Convertibles and Other Overlapping Names

Several other types of cars fall under the definition of either a sedan or a coupe but tend to be classified by another name.

While convertibles share many attributes of a coupe, most automakers do not list them (or roadsters) as a subcategory of coupes; coupes have fixed roofs.

A hatchback refers to a vehicle where there’s no structural separation between the rear cargo area and the back seats. Many automakers make two- and four-door hatchback models that are often classified simply as hatchbacks rather than as a hatchback coupe or hatchback sedan.

This is especially true for manufacturers that count the hatchback as another door, resulting in three- or five-door vehicles. But it is common for coupes to have a cargo area that is open to the rear seats and a hatchback-style tailgate rather than a trunk closure.

The term sports car is also often used as a standalone classification, although most sports cars are also coupes in that they both have only two doors. Sports cars generally don’t have rear seats at all, while most coupes do.

Conclusion

Sedans and coupes come in many different configurations. Generally, passenger cars with two doors are coupes and those with four doors are sedans. But recently some automakers have started to blur the line between the two types by calling sporty four-door cars or crossovers “coupes.”

Additionally, the rear seats in a sedan are generally more practical and offer more room than in a coupe.

Automakers generally design their coupes as a more sporty offering than a sedan so they usually perform better and have a sleeker design. Sedans on the other hand, typically provide more storage and seating space.