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Car body styles & types explained

heycar editorial team

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heycar editorial team

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If you’re in the market for a new car, the first thing to do is to understand what type of car you need. That’s easier said than done. There’s a baffling number of car body shapes available. We explain the different sorts with examples of each, plus their advantages and disadvantages.

What is a hatchback car?

A hatchback is a car with what’s known as a tailgate, a boot that opens with the rear window. There are multiple types of cars that fall under the hatchback category. Some have two doors plus the tailgate (also known as three-door cars), the majority have four doors plus the tailgate (also known as five-door cars).

What is a city car?

These are the smallest types of car on the road and are sometimes called A segment. They’re designed for use in and around towns so have compact dimensions to make manoeuvring and parking simple. They also have tiny engines to ensure that they are super economical. But they do have smaller boots and mostly will have four seats.

Examples: Volkswagen Up, Hyundai i10, Toyota Aygo

What is a small hatch?

The small hatch is the best-selling shape of car on UK roads. Also known as a supermini segment, they’ve grown incredibly over the past years. With their popularity, they’ve evolved to become very comfortable and roomy inside whilst staying agile to drive, easy to park and economical. They have five seats and can hold a small family, although boot space can be limited.

Examples: Ford Fiesta, Volkswagen Polo, DS 3

What is a small family car?

These are also called C segment or small family hatchbacks, and provide a great compromise for daily life. Most have comfortable seating for five (taller adults might struggle for space in the back) and a reasonable sized boot. Their big strength is versatility, with folding rear seat backs that create a larger load area.

Examples: Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf, Nissan Leaf

What is an MPV?

The MPV, Multi-Purpose Vehicle, or people carrier is perhaps the ultimate family wagon. Need to chauffeur several people at once? Many MPVs have seven seats. Need to move some furniture? Just fold the seats flat and you’re left with van-like space. If there’s a downside, it’s probably that with all seven-seats up, boot space can be limited. The two furthest rear seats are really meant for big enough kids only.

Examples: Citroen Grand C4 Picasso/SpaceTourer, Volkswagen Touran, Ford S-MAX.

What is a mini MPV?

Also known as compact MPVs, these are smaller versions of people carriers. They always have five rather than seven seats, and underneath they’re usually the same as superminis but with a more versatile body.

Examples: Vauxhall Meriva, Ford B-MAX, Fiat Qubo

What is a saloon car?

If you want something bigger than a small hatchback, then it’s time to upgrade to a saloon or D segment car. These have four doors and a fixed rear window that’s separate to the boot. However, confusingly, some D segment cars are five-door hatchbacks. There’s plenty of room to relax in the back and boots are often big enough for a family’s luggage.

Examples: Ford Mondeo, Vauxhall Insignia, Volkswagen Passat

What is an estate car?

Like the idea of a family saloon or hatchback but need more space? Go for an estate. These are increasingly major on smart design over practicality but they have more boot space than the hatchbacks or saloons they’re based on.

Examples: Ford Mondeo Estate, Volkswagen Golf Estate, Skoda Superb Estate

What is a coupe?

With coupe meaning cut in French, it’s not surprising these have just two doors. They’re designed to be fun to drive and often only have two seats, although many claim to be what’s known as a 2+2. This is when they have two seats in the back that are big enough for a couple of young kids, depending on the size, head and legroom can be a little tight.

Examples: Audi TT, Mercedes E-Class Coupe, BMW 2 Series Coupe

What is a four-door coupe?

There’s an increasing trend for car makers to produce four-door coupes. These are based around the mechanical bits of a saloon, but with a much sleeker profile. The downside of this more stylish design is limited headroom in the rear seats.

Examples: Volkswagen Arteon/CC, Mercedes-Benz CLS

What is a crossover?

Like hatchback, the word crossover is a kind of catch-all term that takes in different sizes of car. It’s used to talk about a car that blurs the boundary between a regular model and a more off-road focused vehicle.

What is an SUV?

This stands for Sport Utility Vehicle and now takes in a vast collection of cars. They have the high driving position of a 4x4, and although some do have this function readily available, not all do. They are predominantly designed for driving on the road and have limited off-road capability. Sizes vary from the equivalent to small family hatchbacks to large saloons and they usually have five doors and five seats.

Examples: Nissan Qashqai, Volkswagen Tiguan, Audi Q7

What is a compact SUV?

Usually built around the same mechanical parts as a small hatch, these feature a rugged look and higher driving position. Despite their chunky appearance, hardly any are four-wheel drive, which helps them to be economical. As with a small hatch, space in the back and boot can be limited.

Examples: Nissan Juke, Dacia Duster, Volkswagen T-Roc

What is an SUV Coupe?

These are SUVs with a sleeker profile. They still have five doors but they’re not quite as practical as a regular SUV. Head space in the back seats can feel a bit tight.

Examples: BMW X4, Mercedes GLE Coupe

What is a 4x4 or offroader?

If you need something that’s capable of getting you out of trouble in the countryside, then go for an offroader. These are called 4x4s because the engine sends drive to all four wheels. And as well as looking the part, they can be highly useful when the going gets tough. Just don’t expect them to feel refined on-road.

Examples: Land Rover Defender, Jeep Wrangler

What are cabriolets and convertibles?

Want a car to pose in with your friends or simply to enjoy the sun? Choose one of these. Often based around saloon or hatchback mechanicals, the cabriolet/convertible has a roof that disappears. They do have four seats but boot space can be deceptively small: often the folding roof takes up most of it.

Examples: Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet, Audi A5 Cabriolet, BMW 4 Series Convertible

What is a roadster?

Strict two seaters which are designed to be fun to drive. They tend to be small so that they can be agile and manoeuvrable. A roadster will always have an open top and there’s a choice between folding hard roofs and soft tops.

Examples: Mazda MX-5, BMW Z4

What is a grand tourer or GT?

Imagine wafting down to the French Riviera in luxurious comfort. That’s exactly what the grand tourer or GT is designed for. Some are available as convertibles, some as coupes, some come with folding hard roofs for the best of both worlds. All have sporty looks, powerful engines and they’re mostly expensive to buy and run.

Examples: Mercedes SL, Porsche 911, Bentley Continental GT

See also: 

Best small hatchbacks for £15,000

Best large crossovers for £20,000

Best MPVs for £10,000