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What Is A Coupe?

David Collins6-minute read
February 08, 2022

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A coupe can be one of several things, including a type of glass or a style of plate, but in automotive terms the coupe has historically been defined as a two-door car with a sloping fixed roof, at least two seats in at least one row, and at least two side windows. Coupes also tend to be on the smaller side, but that can be relative—what was considered a small car in the 1950s might have a wheelbase longer than a large SUV of today.

The first vehicle referred to as a coupé was actually not an automobile at all, but a small horse-drawn carriage with a forward-facing bench that sat two. The word coupé is a variant of the French word “couper,” meaning “to cut,” and referred to making the carriage much smaller. Over time in the United States the pronunciation changed from the French “koo-PAY” to the Americanized “KOOP.”

There are many factors that go into labelling a car a coupe, but in the broadest sense, especially in the marketing philosophy of American carmakers, a coupe is a small, sporty car that is fun to drive. Think of the Ford Mustang, the Porsche 911, or the car James Bond drove in the latest 007 movie.

Types Of Coupes And Car Door Styles

At some point in time, the Society of Automotive Engineers decided it needed a more precise definition of what a coupe was. What makes a car a coupe, they proclaimed, was if it had less than 33 cubic feet of space in the rear compartment. While this is the textbook definition, it seems that a more important factor in qualifying a coupe is whether the manufacturer calls it one or not.

Especially in recent years, more and more coupes have four doors and a backseat with plenty of room for two passengers. This is because today’s consumers overwhelmingly favor four doors for easier ingress and egress. Customers care less about terminology and more about what they want from their vehicle. Put simply, as long as the car looks like a coupe and drives like one, and as long as the car buyer wants it to be a coupe, it’s a coupe.

Vehicles equipped with a hatchback have also begun to be marketed as coupes. Instead of having separate areas for passenger seating and cargo/storage (the trunk), a hatchback connects those two spaces and is accessed by a sloping fifth door that opens upward from the rear of the car. Configured with the rear seats folded down, the hatchback adds space and versatility to the cargo area.

With so many broad definitions of the coupe, over the years automakers and the people they hire to market their cars have come up with names of different variations on the coupe that have gathered into categories. Here are some:

Berlinetta: Berlinetta is an Italian word meaning “little saloon.” It came into use in the 1930s to describe a sports coupe with a low roof and typically two seats but occasionally also a 2+2 configuration (see below). The Berlinetta concept became popularized in the 1950s by legendary Italian manufacturer Ferrari.

Club coupe: Car historians can and do argue about everything, and this definition is no different. A simple definition of a club coupe that should satisfy most is a fixed-roof two-door car with a shorter-than-sedan size body and the convenience of a back seat.

Hardtop coupe: This term became popularized in the 1950s when “hardtop” referred to a coupe car with a fixed steel roof that was configured like a convertible, which conversely has a foldable soft roof. Neither the hardtop or the convertible has a “B” pillar, which is the structure that normally sits between the front and rear passenger windows and connects the body to the roof.

Four-door coupe or quad coupe: Both the Saturn Ion and Mazda RX8 were marketed as quad coupes, or four-door coupes. These cars had two rear-opening rear doors and no “B” pillar.

Three-door coupe: This term usually applies to a two-door coupe car that also has a rear hatchback door that opens upward and allows access to a small storage area, where normally the trunk would be, as well as the back seats.

Coupe SUV or coupe crossover SUVs: Normally there is not a lot of comparison to be made between a traditional coupe and a modern SUV. The term Coupe SUV sounds like some marketing wiz thought “well if a coupe is good, and an SUV is good, if we put them together it must be twice as good!” This is probably not far off. But there are some smaller four-door SUVs that attempt to join the roominess and practicality of an SUV with the sloped roofline and sporty handling of a coupe.

2+2 body style: This style was more prevalently employed in the early days of the coupe. It refers to a two-door coupe that has a small backseat, with very cramped legroom, more fit for a child or for cargo.

Sedan Vs. Coupe

Just like the lines blur in the definition of a modern coupe, it is also getting more difficult to define a sedan. Some might argue that the sedan style is disappearing altogether. As SUVs and pickup trucks continue to eat up market share, the era of the sedan appears to be mostly over. Gone are the days when Dad drove home from work in his big, boxy Oldsmobile Cutlass, or, when he really made it big, a massive and luxurious Lincoln Continental.

Even the sedans still being produced in the 21st century are much smaller than the big gas-guzzling sedans of the 1960s and ’70s. The top-selling sedan of 2021, the Toyota Camry, has a wheelbase of just over 111 inches. By comparison, the Ford Mustang, the top-selling coupe of the same year, has a wheelbase of more than 107 inches – an almost imperceptible difference.

But if we’re to compare the two body styles as an engineer would, a sedan is a three-box car with separate compartments for the engine, passenger seating, and trunk space. A sedan has four doors, a “B” pillar between the front and rear passenger windows, and usually a flat roof. When the Society of Automotive Engineers classified a car with less than 33 cubic feet of passenger space a coupe, they also defined any car with more than that a sedan.

But as we’ve discussed, as car designers continue to grapple with the changing needs of consumers, ever-higher levels of government-mandated fuel efficiency, rapidly changing technology, and intense global competition, the distinctions between body styles become less relevant as well as less prominent. In terms of performance, styling, technology, and luxury amenities, there are many choices for coupes and sedans that range between the low $20,000s all the way up to $80,000 MSRP or more. The biggest difference may be that the average sedan has more room for passengers and cargo than the average coupe.

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Is A Coupe Right For You?

In general, coupes are built to deliver a sporty, fun performance. While most people hear the word coupe and think “expensive sports car” (BMW M3/M4, Porsche 911), there are also many coupes on the market that are quite affordable, such as the high-performing Subaru BRZ or the Chevrolet Camaro. And in recent years engineers have been loading these cars with jaw-dropping power. The 2020 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat can top 700 hp, and it has plenty of competition for the horsepower crown.

The downsides of a coupe are less interior space, accessibility, and versatility. It’s more difficult to get into the back seat of a car with only two doors, and the back seat of a sedan might provide extra space for a fifth passenger. An SUV, even a small one, is much more versatile and accessible than a coupe.

For single people, or couples without children, or even someone looking for a fun weekend roadster, the coupe is still a force on American roads.

The Bottom Line: Modern Coupes Continue To Excel With Americans

The factors that have distinguished what a coupe is in the American automotive lexicon have changed. As marketers have broadened the limits of what they call a coupe, the traditional sedan has gotten much smaller and better performing and therefore closer to the coupe class. Even some small SUVs are trying and succeeding to their best impression of a coupe.

But the coupe car endures for a reason. As a fun, spirited adventure vehicle for negotiating urban traffic or a mountain switchback, the modern coupes being manufactured today are as good as they’ve ever been.

Still not sure what to get? Learn more about the different types of cars and what each does best.

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David Collins

David Collins is a staff writer for Rocket Auto with experience in publishing as well as communications, public relations, and web content creation for automotive manufacturing. He has a B.A. in English from the University of Michigan.