What's the Difference Between a Sedan and a Coupe?
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What's the Difference Between a Sedan and a Coupe?

By Melissa Spicer | October 7, 2021

In most auto industry circles, there is one major distinction between a coupe and a sedan: a coupe has two doors, and a sedan has four or more. This makes classifying the two simple and easy, right?

Well, you'd think so, since this has been the key differentiator between the two for most of the automobile's existence. But more recently, automakers -- particularly German brands -- take liberties with that distinction.

And 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.

Still, despite the 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 2000s, some sedans had a bench seat upfront 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.

Differnences Between a Sedan and a 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 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.

European "Coupes"

From an aesthetic perspective, all cars want to be coupes, right? It's easy to see why. The shape is sportier and exterior style trendier, but four doors are four doors, no matter what you call it.

As mentioned earlier, German brands, in particular, have an affinity to call some four-door cars "coupes," and it's been this way for a long time. Think about the Audi A7. The BMW 4 Series. The BMW 6. The Toyota Accord. The Mercedes Benz CLA and CLS class. And the Porsche Panamera. Need we say more?

But German automakers are not alone in this misnomer for its four-door vehicles that want to be two-door cars. The Brits have their Aston Martin Rapide S, a four-door coupe, at least for the model year 2021. And then look to the Swedes. Saab came out with a 900 in the late 70s and 80s that is marketed to the world as a so-called "combi coupe," which had four doors.

Some automakers are abandoning the coupe altogether as consumers look for options with more interior size and more cubic feet inside the cabin to get their families from point A to point B without going the minivan route. Honda is one such manufacturer, at least in its Civic line. For the model year 2022, the brand will not offer a Honda Civic coupe - marking the first time in nearly 30 years that a Civic coupe was unavailable.

Although some are giving up on four-door coupes, others are embracing them. For the model year 2022 (and for the second year running), Hyundai's Elantra's specs show that it will have a four-door coupe body. This likely translates to sportier performance and sportier handling for the model in general.

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, which is something that rear passengers appreciate. All throughout the cabin, sedans tend to offer more passenger space and more room under the roofline, including more headroom and legroom, making them better for larger family needs in general.

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.

Door count aside, call them what you will - coupes or sedans - you can find them in spades on Autolist, a jumping-off point for finding your next favorite new vehicle before heading out to the dealership for a test drive.