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What Is a Sedan?

David Collins5-Minute Read
February 28, 2022

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The broad modern definition of a sedan is a car with two rows of seats, a fixed roof and three separate compartments for engine, driver/passengers, and cargo. Two of the best-selling sedans on the current market are the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord. Among light vehicles, the traditional sedan has always been highly differentiated from its smaller cousin, the coupe.

In the current era, however, and mostly due to federal fuel efficiency standards and manufacturers’ integrated production systems, the differences between sedan, coupe, and even a smaller SUV are becoming less distinct. Some might argue that the sedan style is disappearing altogether as SUVs, pickup trucks, and mega-horsepower coupes continue to eat up market share. Some manufacturers have ceased marketing a sedan altogether. Still, certain sedan brands such as Camry and Accord endure and sell extremely well.

Sedan Origins

The first recorded use of the word sedan dates to the 17th century and it referred to a one-person enclosed box with windows that was built on two poles and was hoisted by porters, presumably to carry aristocrats or royalty. The first automobiles to be marketed as sedans were the Studebaker Four and Six in 1912. If we stick to the definition of a sedan as an enclosed auto with two rows of seats, though, the first known sedan was the American-made Speedwell in 1911.

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What Separates The Sedan From Other Body Styles?

The sedans still being produced in the 21st century are much smaller than the big gas-guzzling sedans of the 1960s and ’70s, such as the Oldsmobile Cutlass, the Ford Fairmont or dozens of other sedans of that era. Sedans of today are much smaller. For instance, 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 (so far, basically the same definition as a coupe). A sedan has four doors and two rows of seats (a traditional coupe has two of each), a structural steel “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 as 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 among body styles become less relevant as well as less prominent. In terms of performance, styling, technology, and luxury amenities, there are similarly sized coupes and sedans that range in price 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.

As SUVs have become so popular over the last 30 years or more, automakers have designed so many of them that several are hard to distinguish from a sedan. The main difference between an SUV and a sedan is that the SUV has a combined passenger and cargo compartment, whereas the sedan has separate compartments for passengers and storage. Additionally, the SUV has higher ground clearance than a sedan, which makes it more capable off-road.

Overall, today’s sedans, coupes and SUVs are constantly being redefined and often overlap with each other in terms of form and function. There are modern coupes with a longer wheelbase than some sedans and modern sedans with more interior space than some SUVs. The best news is that with so many makes and models, there is literally something for everyone.

Types Of Modern Sedans

Like all car types, the sedan has changed drastically over the decades since the early 20th century. Close-coupled sedans, coach sedans, and club sedans are all extinct, except as they exist in car collections and museums.

Some of the coolest sedans ever built, and which you still have a good chance at seeing in a classic car show today, are the pillarless hardtops of the 1960s and ’70s, often referred to as just “hardtops.” These were cars with a front and rear seat like a sedan, but no B-pillar like a coupe. The front and rear side rolldown windows were joined together by an attached rubber seal. Examples of these cars are the 1961 Lincoln Continental Pillarless and the 1972 Buick Electra.

Modern sedans are distinguishable from each other, but not by much. The number one reason a modern sedan is called that is because that is how the manufacturer wants to market it. Probably the most common feature of all modern sedans is they will all have two rows of seats and a B-pillar. But there are variances, and we can group the modern sedan into three types.

Notchback sedan: Car marketers today refer to a car with a relatively vertical rear window and a horizontal trunk lid as a “notchback,” mostly to distinguish it from the fastback style of sedan. An excellent example of a notchback sedan styling is any recent model year Ford Taurus.

Fastback sedan: A fastback sedan has a curved rear window and sloping trunk lid. The visual effect is a continuously sloping profile on the rear of the car, and is intended to give the car a more aerodynamic and sporty appearance. Examples of a modern fastback sedan are the Genesis G80 and Porsche Taycan.

Hatchback sedan: The hatchback sedan has the appearance of a fastback, except that the trunk and rear window act as a fifth door that opens upward, making both the rear storage and backseat accessible from the rear. With the back seats folded down the hatchback has more available cargo space for items that would not fit in a normal-sized trunk. Examples include the Subaru Impreza and the Volkswagen Golf.

The Bottom Line:

In the mid-1970s about 80% of new cars sold in the United States were sedans. Now, with SUVs and pickup trucks grabbing more and more market share, sedans are about 30% of total cars sold. Most of these are made by Japanese automakers Honda (Civic and Accord) and Toyota (Camry and Corolla). But there are other makes and models of sedans, some from Europe, some from Korea, that are also very popular with consumers. Some American companies are phasing out production of sedans altogether, focusing instead on more profitable trucks and better-selling SUVs.

The best sedans of today get solid fuel efficiency and are extremely reliable for individuals and families as everyday vehicles for highway driving in town or country. Most sit five passengers comfortably and come in everything from less expensive base models to trip packages that are  fully loaded with options. At any given time, there will be hundreds of thousands of them available on the used car market. With replacement parts readily available, and an army of dealer service centers and small shop mechanics having decades of experience repairing them, most of these cars should be able to far exceed 100,000 miles of road life.

Curious what used sedans dominate the market? Check out some of the best used sedan options today.

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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.