The word “car” carries many meanings for many different people. For most, it encompasses many different types, makes, models, and brands of vehicles.
Merriam-Webster defines the word car as a vehicle moving on wheels. Therefore, vehicles like vans, pickup trucks, SUVs, and even tractors could be considered cars.
Types of Cars
Generally speaking, even those who do not know too much about vehicles themselves still separate cars, trucks, vans, and SUVs into different categories. As a result, these are the most common types of cars broken down by their general perception.
Many people use the term family car to denote whichever vehicle they use the most whenever they go out with their family. Most “family cars” are minivans or SUVs, but most people, including reviewers and automotive publications, use the four-door, midsize sedan as the standard family car.
They are usually affordable, reliable, practical, and large enough to comfortably seat two adults and two children. Common examples include the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Ford Fusion. Both smaller cars, like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, and larger cars, like the Ford Taurus Toyota Avalon are sometimes also considered to be family cars.
Sports cars can include a wide range of cars depending on who you ask. For many, sports cars are simply sporty-looking vehicles that have higher perceived performance than other vehicles.
For others, sports cars are two-door vehicles that are built more for fun than practicality. Some even classify sports cars as those they perceive to be “fast.” Regardless of how sports cars are perceived, they have a much wider functional definition to the average consumer than many other types of cars.
Convertibles are cars with roof that is not fixed in place. There have been convertible SUVs made, but few will think of convertibles as anything other than a car. Most people classify convertibles as a type of sports car.
Luxury cars are usually synonymous with German brands such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi. This is because they often offer higher levels of technology, more available features, and higher quality materials, thus increasing the initial purchasing cost.
Other brands like Lexus, Infiniti, and Acura are also sometimes seen as luxury brands but are also not perceived to be on the same level as aforementioned German competitors.
Supercars are not always considered different than sports cars, but it is a term sometimes to describe a sports car that is something more than a commonly-seen sports car. Ferrari and Lamborghini are two of the most common cars that the general public perceives as supercars.
Station wagons are much harder to find on the market today than they used to be. Most remember them as large, long cars that were similar to what minivans are today, but lower to the ground.
Typical classic station wagons used to have two or three rear-facing seats in what would be the cargo area. This usage of additional passenger space has long since disappeared due to safety regulations, and station wagons have mostly been replaced by minivans and SUVs.
Hatchbacks are commonly seen as shortened station wagons, as small cars with some added practicality, as sportier versions of a regular four-door car with a trunk, or as all three. Many SUVs are essentially taller hatchbacks with more overall practicality which is why hatchback cars are not as common as they once were.
The performance car category is similar to how many classify sports cars, but it encompasses potentially more actual types of cars than any other general category. Most people associate performance with engine power, and as a result, classify performance cars as those with a substantial amount of speed or horsepower.
The perception of a classic car can vary between individuals depending on how old the individual is. The older the car, the more chance it has to be considered a classic by more people. Classic cars can include any type of car.
Types of Cars: Body Styles
Outlining stereotypes, generalizations, and perceptions about what types of cars exist can help people understand how many types of cars exist and how people see them.
Defining types of cars in a more technical way can help classify cars by narrowing down the broad ranges of perception that exist. The body style is the most general technical category in which a car can be defined, and it is a classification of the overall shape of a vehicle or how it looks.
There are between five and ten different body styles for cars depending on the source of information, five of which are foundational and can be found across nearly all sources of information.
Sedans are defined by two main things: They have a fixed roof and they have a three-box design. A three-box design is a separated passenger compartment, engine compartment, and storage compartment or trunk.
Most have four doors, but they can have two which is less common on modern cars than it used to be, and most have a clearly defined trunk.
Common examples of sedans include the Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, and Chevrolet Malibu.
Coupes are less well-defined than sedans but are often considered to counterparts to the sedan. They have a fixed roof, sloping roofline to the rear of the vehicle, and have two doors.
A recent design trend has attempted to marry the sedan and coupe body styles by giving sedans an exaggerated sloping roofline, thus mimicking a coupe. Some manufactures have even given their sedans the coupe name to emphasize this trend.
Coupes are generally designed to be sportier than sedans and many sedans are manufactured alongside coupe versions of themselves. Because of this, coupes that have four or five-passenger seating often have elongated doors to allow easier access to the rear seats.
Common examples of the coupe body style include the Honda Civic Coupe, Subaru BRZ, Chevrolet Camaro, and BMW 2 Series Coupe.
A hatchback is a car with a rear hatch door that opens upward from its hinge points on the roof. Hatchbacks have a fixed roof and can have two or four doors. They usually have a two-box design, which means that the engine compartment is separated from the passenger and cargo compartments which are shared.
Like coupes, hatchbacks often have sedan versions of themselves sold by the same manufacturer and are often designed to be sportier than comparable sedans.
Examples of hatchback cars include the Toyota Corolla Hatchback, Honda Fit, Volkswagen Golf, and Kia Soul.
Stations wagons are similar to hatchbacks, but they are usually longer with the canopy extending out over the rear wheels. They have fixed roofs, most often have four doors, and usually feature a two-box design.
Whereas hatchbacks are comparable to most average SUVs, station wagons are more comparable to minivans. The roof is extended, making the cargo area larger, and the rear hatch is usually much less angled than in smaller hatchbacks. This often means the rear hatch hinge points are behind the rear wheels.
Examples of station wagons include the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, Audi A4 Allroad, and Volvo V90.
The convertible is the most universally recognized type of car regardless of whether or not people realize it is classified as a body style or not. They can have a hardtop or soft-top retractable roof that may or may not be able to be folded electronically.
Most convertibles have two doors with only a few having four. Some seat two passengers, but most offer the possibility to seat four. The ones that do have four seats often have extremely limited rear-seat room.
Convertibles used to be more prevalent than they are today because they are often impractical.
Good examples convertibles include the Mazda Miata, Ford Mustang, and Mercedes-Benz SL-Class.
As with these examples, people often associate sports cars with convertibles, but not all convertibles are sports cars. Many “regular” cars are offered with a convertible variant such as the BMW 4 Series, Mini Cooper, and Volkswagen Beetle.
Convertibles are the last of the most commonly recognized body styles. The following are additional styles sometimes classified separately, but they are much less common or overlap so much with other body styles that it is hard to justify a standalone classification.
The sports car body style does not exist so much by itself as it exists within other more prominent body styles. This is because a sports car is made from more from a combination of performance, design intention, drivetrain layout, and other internal functional elements rather than a general visual style.
This is a hard body style to categorize since the Toyota 86 is a classic example of the coupe body style and a sports car. As a result, the sports car more easily lives within several different body styles as a substyle.
Other good examples of sports cars include the Nissan 370Z, Fiat 124 Spider, and Audi TT RS.
Limousines are another very recognizable body style, but they are not usually seen as personal vehicles. They are usually elongated versions of luxury sedans, though limousine SUVs are becoming more common. Limousines can be classified by the partition separating the driver – usually a hired chauffeur – and the passengers in the rear seat area.
The ute body style is associated with only a handful of cars. Sometimes referred to as a coupe utility, it is essentially a car with a pickup truck bed and two doors.
The Subaru Baja was classified by some as ute as it was based off the Outback station wagon, but others considered it to be more akin to a small SUV than a car.
The Chevy El Camino is the most popular example of the style, but it is no longer manufactured. Holden, the recently-discontinued General Motors’ Australian subsidiary, made a muscle car-based ute as one of their flagship vehicles.
Except for the Holden Ute, most of the cars that carried this body style have resulted in production failures as they are much less practical than pickup trucks. A recent example of this is the Chevrolet SSR, which was meant to be something like a modern El Camino. It had a convertible top and a large, powerful engine, making it potentially also classified as a performance car.
Types of Cars: Subtypes
Body styles are a good way to identify different types of cars, but there are a huge number of different ways that describe a car that can more specifically be described. These are subtypes that give more information about what the car is, what it looks like, and even what it does.
With the rising popularity of SUVs in the past several years, the sedan market has taken a hit, yet they are usually more practical than other types and visually represent the most general idea of what a car is.
Sometimes referred to as a “saloon,” they are still the most common type of car on the market, and there are several main categories into which they can fall.
The EPA defines a subcompact car as one that has a combined interior and cargo volume of between 85 and 99 cubic feet. These numbers may not be immediately obvious to those without a tape measure, but subcompact sedans are usually the smallest sedans available at any given dealership.
Examples include the Nissan Versa, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, and Toyota Yaris.
Compact sedans are a step up from the subcompact segment. By definition, they have a combined interior and cargo volume of between 100 and 109 cubic feet.
Some of the best-selling cars in history are part of the compact sedan segment, and it is the second best-selling sedan segment in the current market.
Examples include the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Subaru Impreza, and Volkswagen Jetta.
Midsize sedans are the king of the sedan world. They include some of the most popular and best-selling vehicles of all time. Even though sales have declined, the midsize sedan segment still contains several of the top 25 best-selling vehicles to date in the United States.
To achieve midsize status, cars like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Chevrolet Malibu have to have a total of 110 to 119 cubic feet of combined cargo and interior space.
The full-size sedan is currently the least popular and least populated segment of the sedan subtypes. Interior and cargo space must exceed 120 cubic feet, and current examples include the Chrysler 300, Chevrolet Impala, Toyota Avalon, and Nissan.
To this point, size has been the differentiating factor between sedan subtypes, because the sedan is very clearly defined as a type of car.
Luxury or Executive sedans do not have a size requirement, specific guidelines, or a specific point in which they become more luxurious than utilitarian. For a sedan to obtain luxury status, it must generally achieve a few extra goals:
1. Comfort: A luxury sedan must be generally more comfortable in which to travel than other sedans. Comfort encompasses size, features, and technology; therefore, luxury sedans are usually full-size sedans with high-end technology and features.
2. Performance: Luxury sedans are not always meant to go fast, but because they are bigger and heavier as a result of the extra features and technology, they usually have a larger engine to help get them going.
3. Pedigree: It may not seem fair, but established luxury automakers are the only ones who can truly produce luxury vehicles. Because of public perception, automakers like Kia and Hyundai who produce luxury sedans – but who primarily and traditionally have produced affordable and popular entry-level vehicles – are often seen as having second-rate options to the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi.
4. Price: Luxury sedans are usually more expensive than entry-level sedans because of the number of features and technology offered. Recently, luxury automakers have begun to produce more entry-level luxury sedans which are smaller, more affordable cars from traditional luxury brands. Even though these are smaller and less feature-rich than regular luxury offerings, they still usually carry a higher starting price than a comparable sedan from a more affordable automaker.
Examples of luxury or executive sedans include the BMW 7 Series, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Volvo S90, and Genesis G90.
Because the coupe is more loosely-defined than a sedan, they are not defined as much for their size as the sedan segment is. This is not always the case as coupes can come in many sizes, but most coupes would fall under the subcompact or compact size scale that sedans follow.
Coupes used to be more prominent in the market than they are today. Popular sedans many years ago often had a coupe version of themselves available including the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Nissan Altima.
Today, if coupe versions of sedans exist, they are usually based on the compact segment, a good example of this being the Honda Civic. Coupes that are not based on another model are often considered to be sports cars.
The technical definition of a coupe has changed several times throughout history. Currently, the definition only includes a fixed roof and a sloping roofline, though it used to include more stipulations. Even though the coupe body style contains a wider array of sub-designs and is more loosely-defined than sedans, there are still some categories in which they can fall.
The traditional coupe follows the closest original meaning of the coupe body style. It is a car with a fixed roof, two doors, a three-box design, and a sporty appearance.
The Subaru BRZ, Toyota Supra, and Dodge Challenger are good examples of the coupe style. All have two doors, a trunk, a limited rear seat area, and sporty characteristics.
Notchback is another term for a traditional coupe, though the term was much more historically common than it is now. It means that the rear window and the trunk form a prominent angle as opposed to forming an uninterrupted slope from top to bottom. In other words, the rear window and trunk area are distinguishable from one another looking at the car from the side.
A fastback is a coupe where the rear window and trunk form a relatively uninterrupted line from the roof to the rear bumper. The Nissan 370Z is a good example of the fastback style though the Ford Mustang is known for being marketed as a fastback in the past.
Fastback coupes can be difficult to define as they technically also fit within the parameters of the hatchback body style. Because of the historical marketing of the fastback car, specifically with the Ford Mustang and other similar vehicles like the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, two-door cars like these more comfortably fit within the coupe body style than the hatchback body style.
Historically, coupes have almost always exclusively been two-door vehicles. With the latest design trends, the inclusion of four-door vehicles into the coupe body style has brought up a debate.
Starting with several traditional luxury manufacturers and trickling down to many others, numerous four-door sedans have been styled with a roofline more akin to a coupe than a traditional sedan. Marketing efforts have been made to create this new style of “sedan coupe.”
The best example of a true four-door coupe is the Mazda RX-8. It is no longer in production, but it was a notchback that had a three-box design and two rear half suicide doors to allow rear-seat passengers easier access. The car was odd, but besides the rear door situation, the RX-8 almost perfectly followed the technical definition of what a coupe should be.
Similar to coupes, hatchbacks are not defined as much by their size as they are by other factors, some of which being performance and hatch angle.
They have well-defined parameters governing their body style, so there is not as much crossover between styles nor as many types of hatchbacks as there are with coupes. Hatchbacks are not as popular as sedans even though they offer more practicality because of their increased cargo capacity.
Microcars, sometimes referred to as city cars, are not always hatchbacks. The majority are hatchbacks because they are so small that the upright rear of the vehicle provides as much extra space as possible. These types of hatchbacks are far less common in the United States than they are in other countries where the roads are better-suited for smaller vehicles.
They are essentially miniature versions of the smallest hatchbacks available in the United States market. Though they are not popular, the best examples of microcars are the Smart ForTwo and Fiat 500.
Hatchbacks are usually considered to be sportier than sedans, but hot hatchbacks seek to combine the practicality of a hatchback with the performance of a sports car.
Hot hatches used to be much more popular during the 1980s and 1990s, but they have since waned in popularity. Very few hot hatchbacks are standalone models.
The Honda Civic Type R, Hyundai Veloster N, and the Volkswagen Golf GTI – the car that originally kicked off the “hot hatch” movement – are excellent examples of the style.
Both the terms liftback and sportback are unofficial types of hatchbacks that relate to the rake of the rear window. Both are also used mainly for marketing terminology and neither carry a hard definition. The rear hatch and window in a liftback are very upright, resulting in a hatchback with a boxy shape. Examples of liftback hatchbacks include the Kia Soul and Honda Fit.
Sportback is a more recent term, but it refers to a much more angled rear window and hatch to give the vehicle a streamlined and elongated look. It is also used frequently as a term for a four-door coupe.
Many of the largest hatchbacks are sometimes referred to as sportbacks including the Tesla Model S, Audit A7, and Kia Stinger. Some even consider smaller vehicles like the Toyota Prius and Hyundai Veloster to be sportbacks.
Stations wagons can also be called estate cars in foreign markets. The difference between hatchbacks and station wagons can be subtle, but the one main factors are the number of pillars and windows a wagon has as opposed to a hatchback.
Hatchbacks usually contain an A, B, and C pillar which allows for a front passenger and a rear passenger window. Station Wagons usually have an A, B, C, and D pillar which allows for a front passenger window, a rear passenger window, and a cargo area window.
Some hatchbacks do have four pillars and a small cargo window like a station wagon would, but the cargo area windows in station wagons usually extend much farther toward the end of the car and allow wagons to have a more upright stance.
Unlike hatchbacks and coupes, station wagons are a fairly one dimensional kind of a car. There is a type of station wagon that is unconventional called the shooting brake.
It is up for debate whether or not the shooting brake is actually a type of hatchback, a station wagon, or if it is a separate body style, and it comes down to where you look for information.
The shooting brake is basically a station wagon without the rear doors – a wagonette. It still has an elongated rear window that covers the cargo area, so it is about the size of a regular hatchback. Even though the shooting brake has only three pillars like a hatchback, the lengthy rear window places it under the station wagon subtype.
These cars are very uncommon, but one of the most notable examples of this style was the BMW Z3 M Coupe – ironically named. The car was nicknamed the clown shoe because of its appearance. A more modern example of the style is the Ferrari FF.
Convertibles are a straightforward type of car – they do not have a fixed roof. However, there are more subtypes of the convertible than many realize.
Convertibles can have three main types of retractable or removable roofs.
Soft tops are roofs usually made of cloth or leather in older vehicles. They may be electronically or manually operated.
A hardtop is a removable or retractable folding roof made of metal or other hard material. Hardtops are almost always electronically operated unless the top is removable. They offer better protection from the heat, the cold, and accidents.
A “T-top” consists of two removable panels above the driver and passenger seat with a bar connecting the middle of the windshield and a roll bar or body panel behind the front seats. A convertible’s roofing does not define any type of convertible sub-style but any type of convertible can have several roofing options.
Cabriolet is the French word for a convertible, and it is often used interchangeably with convertible to mean a car with a foldable roof.
Cabriolets are like the sedans of the convertible world. Few convertibles are very practical because of the space used for the retractable top, but cabriolets often have a small back seat. Rather than sheer performance, the cabriolet focuses more on the open-air aspect of driving.
The Mercedes-Benz C Class, the Buick Cascada, and the Volkswagen Beetle convertible are all examples.
Roadsters or Spiders are two-seat convertibles. They are like a coupe would be to a sedan in that coupes can be derived from sedans but are usually designed to offer more sportiness.
Roadsters and spiders are the same way when compared to the average cabriolet. These are usually the convertibles that cross the line between a sports car and a convertible, and they often emphasize the performance of a vehicle more than the typical convertible.
A Targa top, sometimes referred to as a semi-convertible, contains a removable roof panel that sits between the top of the windshield and a roll bar that spans from either side of the car behind the front seats. A rear window encloses the area behind the roll bar.
Targa tops function similarly to sunroofs in normal cars if the sunroof did not have sides.
A classic example of a Targa top is the Porsche 911 with a more recent example being the C5 and C6 Chevrolet Corvette.
The Barchetta is a little-known type of convertible that is uncommon. It is a convertible that has no roof at all – it does not come with a top. Early examples included small race cars from Ferrari and Abarth that barely had windshields.
More modern examples include the Lamborghini Murcielago Barchetta and Ferrari 550 Barchetta Pininfarina.
Even though sports cars can include cars within several different body styles, they are a universally recognized type of car, even though each person may define “sports car” a little differently than the other. Because it is so broad of a category, there are some generally recognized types of sports cars that can be sorted to make sports cars a little easier to understand.
In their broadest sense, a sports car can come from any body style or cross the lines between several body styles. When defining a sports car more carefully, the majority come from the coupe, convertible, or hatchback body styles.
True Sports Car
True sports cars are the odd ones that do not fit anywhere else, but because of the number of cars available both today and in the past, and because so many styles have evolved over the years, they are the sports cars that have remained closest to the traditional definition of a sports car.
Sports cars have traditionally been simple, small, nimble cars that have a front-engine layout and rear-wheel-drive. So many people think of speed and power when they think of sports cars, but true sports cars perform because they are set up to handle better than other cars rather than outpace them.
The Mazda Miata is the perfect example of a modern-day true sports car as it was built to be a Japanese version of the traditional British sports cars of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Grand Touring Car
Grand touring cars are built with both performance and comfort in mind. They are often rear-wheel-drive and have large, powerful engines, but they also have many luxury features and provide occupants with a comfortable ride.
Grand tourers can be thought of as sports cars with enough power to show off, burn rubber, and head to the track but that is more comfortable cruising down the twisting country roads on a weekend drive.
Examples include the Bentley Continental GT, Aston Martin Vanquish, Maserati GranTurismo, and Lexus LC500.
Most people either love muscle cars or hate them. They are traditionally known as hugely powerful cars that are loud, annoying, and ill-handling. This used to be the case with traditional muscle cars of the 60s and 70s, but times have changed.
Muscle cars have become slightly more refined and can handle better than they used to, but they still offer huge amounts of performance, usually at a fairly reasonable price.
Most muscle cars come from American manufacturers like the Dodge Challenger, Chevrolet Camaro, and Ford Mustang, but some European cars – several of which are made by Mercedes-Benz AMG – have obtained muscle car status due to their enormous engines, horsepower figures, and torque output.
Supercars, sometimes called exotic cars, do not have an exact definition. The most consistent factor in their broad definition is that they are high-performance cars. Usually, this just means that they are sports cars with more of just about everything in terms of performance numbers and outcomes.
They are usually rarer, more expensive, and more luxurious than normal sports cars, and may come in a variety of different drivetrain layouts. Because they are set up to perform at the highest level, their engines are mid-mounted for handling balance, but this is not always the case.
Examples include the Audi R8 V12, McLaren MP4 12C, Mercedes AMG GT-R, and Lamborghini Huracan.
Hypercar is a relatively recent term used to describe supercars that are exceeding the limits that supercars have traditionally set. The evolution of technology, materials, and aerodynamics has allowed supercars to push the limits of what was once unattainable.
Even though they are not a separate type of car, the hypercar has evolved so much that it may be soon considered an official type of sports car rather than falling within the supercar spectrum. They are faster, handle better, more expensive, and more specialized than any other car on earth.
Examples include the Bugatti Chiron, Koenigsegg One:1, Lamborghini Centenario, and McLaren Senna.
There are so many different types of cars that it can be dizzying trying to sift through them all. Different makes, models, body styles, and substyles can be too much information for many people, so it is easier to break it down into these narrower categories.
We have broken down all this information in many different ways, from the general perception of different car types to their more specifically-defined body styles and sub-styles. There are still potentially so many more sub-variants of the most prominent types of cars, but this guide is a great, easy-to-understand starting place for anybody who wants to learn more about the various types of cars.