Sedan vs Coupe: What’s the Difference?

By Anthony Sophinos

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It used to be that there was a clear demarcation between a coupe and sedan: one had two doors, the other had four. This was about as common sense as the difference between rice and spaghetti.

But the difference between a coupe and sedan is not as clear as it once was. In the quest for market share, automakers have begun to blur the lines between body styles. Frankenstein rides like a four-door Mercedes SUV coupe now exist, and there’s more such vehicles to come. All this begs the question: what is the difference between a sedan and a coupe?

Despite the liberal usage of the word coupe, there are still a few critical differences that separate the two body styles. We’ve outlined the two body styles below.

The Sedan

For years, the term “sedan” has referenced a four-door vehicle utilizing what the industry calls a three-box design. This is an automotive form that considers the hood, passenger compartment, and trunk as three distinct parts, with each part separate from the other.

The Toyota Camry or Hyundai Sonata are two examples that showcase all the typical traits of a sedan. Both have an engine compartment upfront that’s capped by the hood, which flows into the passenger area by way of the windshield and forwardmost pillars, known as the A pillars. From there the roof pushes back towards the rear glass at a slight downward slope; where the rear glass begins there is a sharp descent down to the trunk. The trunk juts out towards the rear of the vehicle on a flat plane; it may also be angled slightly upward, as in the Chrysler 300 or Ford Taurus

The basic silhouette arising from this design is your classic toddler drawing of a car: hood, roof, trunk. But plenty of modern cars are pushing that silhouette to its most windswept limits. The Honda Accord, for instance, has a profile that looks like a hatchback - a design where the rear glass slopes down into an integrated trunk lid, which is hinged at the top of the glass and opens as one piece - but in fact has a separate trunk. The Tesla Model S, by contrast, looks like a sedan but is actually a hatchback. The Audi A7 is another popular hatchback that likes to masquerade as a sedan.

There’s also been a trend toward four-door coupes, but we’ll cover these in the next section. 

The Coupe

As a sedan has historically had four doors, the coupe has historically had two. For a long time, a coupe was a pillarless - that is, no pillars behind the doors - two-door, fixed-roof vehicle that could either have a separate trunk or hatchback. Vehicles like the Toyota 86, Ford Mustang, and Honda Civic coupe represent the traditional coupe design. Typical attributes of these cars include longer doors, less interior space, severely reduced leg room, and smaller rear windows. In other words, they usually represent a sacrifice in practicality in the name of style.

But the coupe is no longer so easily defined as it once was. Automakers have capitalized on the romance of the coupe in an effort to sell more practical vehicles - perhaps not a surprising move, considering that the sales of traditional coupes have been minuscule since the last hurrah for the body style in the 1980s and 1990s. This effort by the automakers has resulted in various sedans and SUVs being branded as coupes.

Most common among these transmogrified machines are the four-door sedans known as or marketed as coupes. Examples of this breed include the BMW 6-Series Gran Coupe, Mercedes-Benz AMG GT, and the Volkswagen Arteon. These four-doors each put style over pragmatism.

SUVs have also taken to calling themselves coupes, despite having four doors and a fully pillared design. They differentiate themselves from the plebian models they’re based on by way of a dramatic, coupe-like roofline. Examples of this breed include the Mercedes GLE Coupe, BMW X6 Coupe, and Porsche Cayenne Coupe

So what is the difference between a coupe and sedan?

With all the muddling of names, the difference between a sedan and a coupe is no longer so much technical as it is strategic. A coupe is symbolic of driving at its most pleasurable - think sports cars, glamor cars, and pleasure cruises. A sedan has a comparatively far more stodgy image, conjuring up thoughts of Dad driving to the office every morning. Yet there’s no doubting the superior practicality of the sedan over the inherently compromised coupe. 

The solution? Label the most stylish four-doors in the lineup as coupes. Buyers get the usability of a four-door - in either sedan or hatchback guise - with a swept-back profile that can only stem from a rakish roofline. The coupe branding and stylish look are suggestive of the typical two-door image, but there’s an added dose of practicality that can’t be had in a bona-fide coupe. 

If we had to define it today, we would prefer to say a coupe is a two-door and a sedan is a four-door. But with the market how it is, a better, more modern definition might be that a coupe is an image car - a beauty queen to showcase the lineup and sacrifices practicality for styling. A Mercedes AMG GT has four doors, but it checks the necessary boxes for our definition: it has a swoopy roofline, expensive price tag, emotive styling, and acts as one of the flagships of the lineup. It’s appropriately labeled as a coupe by Mercedes.

By contrast, the Mercedes S-Class, despite being a pricey flagship, is a sedan through and through. It has an upright profile, uses framed door glass and visible side pillars, and offers an ample amount of interior room in every dimension. It does not aim to please by style alone, but rather through space, amenities, and comfort. This is unlike the AMG GT, which is willing to leave interior comfort on the table in favor of a more pleasing, youthful aesthetic. That’s a definitive difference in how to determine whether something is a coupe or sedan in today’s befuddled, non-traditional marketplace of misnomers.

The Bottom Line

Whether it has two doors or four, a coupe is inherently a sacrifice. Compared to a sedan, the traditional two-door coupe gives up a usable rear seat, good visibility, and plenty of cargo space and interior space. You’ll also pay more for insurance premiums for a two-door car. 

These drawbacks have kept people from buying coupes in big numbers. But the new wave of four-door coupes tries to marry the image of the coupe with the practical attributes of a four-door sedan or SUV. These new genre-crossing machines might not be traditional coupes, but they are coupes in spirit. 

That’s enough for buyers to embrace these sporty vehicles, and the success of these multi-doored coupes show that buyers don’t care about the number of doors - it’s the product that gets them excited. If the dealerships can continue to sell them, you can bet that the trend of four-door coupe models will continue.

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