You probably have at least one friend who can tell you the make, model, and year of any car from a hundred yards off, but most people only have a basic knowledge of different car types and body styles. Each car’s body influences gas mileage, comfort, safety, and rideability (not to mention aesthetics), so knowing what you want, like, and need is important before purchasing a new vehicle. Here is a crash course in body styles to help you understand what you see when you look at cars.

How to Tell Car Bodies Apart: A Quick Guide

(Pixabay / bowker785)

Two-Box versus Three-Box

You might not know that car body styles are sectioned into two main categories: two-box and three-box. Every vehicle has an engine compartment, passenger seating, and a cargo area, but how distinct the compartments are determines if a car is two-box or three-box. A two-box vehicle will have a separate engine compartment, but the passenger seating and cargo areas blend into one compartment (example: a minivan). In a three-box vehicle, the engine compartment, passenger seating, and cargo area are visibly separate when you look at the car’s profile (example: a Ford Focus sedan).
 

Body Classification

There will be exceptions to every rule, but for the most part, the list below gives a brief description of the most common body styles and their general purposes.
 

Coupe

Let’s start with a joke: Why do the places where chickens live only have two doors? Because if they had four doors, they would be a chicken sedan!

At its most basic, a coupe is a small, two-door vehicle. Some people put a qualifier that it has to have less than 33 cubic feet interior to qualify as a coupe, but other manufacturers are a little more lax on the standard. Some car companies even pass their four-door vehicles off as coupes because they are “coupe-like” in appearance. What it means to be “coupe-like” is that they get great gas mileage and are sleek, generally low to the ground, three-box vehicles.
 

Sedan

A sedan (not to be confused with Sudan, which is a country in Northeast Africa) has four doors plus a trunk. Sedans are usually spacious and comfortable and can fit at least five passengers in the two rows of seats. They generally have great fuel economy and have a three-box style.
 

Pickup Truck

With very few exceptions, a pickup truck’s seating and engine compartment are completely separate from the truck’s bed. They can have two or four doors, and they usually have all-wheel drive capabilities.
 

Hatchback

Hatchbacks are a smallish sedan-like vehicle, but the main difference is that the back trunk lifts up via hydraulics instead of a hinge. Hatchbacks usually have more trunk space than other smallish cars, and they can be a coupe or sedan style. Technically most SUVs, crossovers, and minivans are hatchbacks, but the term generally refers to a smaller sedan-like car.
 

Station Wagons

Station wagons used to be all the rage, but they have fallen from grace in the last 30 years. What sets them apart is their hatchback door and longer trunk compared to other hatchback-style cars. They are usually a two-box style as well.
 

Off-Roaders

Off-roaders are designed to do exactly that: go off-roading. To achieve that goal, they usually have all-wheel drive, high clearance, wide treads, and extra-low gearing capability that lets them move slowly and carefully over rough terrain.
 

Minivan

Ah, the Parent Mobile. Minivans are great for hauling kids and all of their equipment because they have extra seating (up to eight people) and tons of trunk space. They have two front doors, one or two sliding doors, and a hatchback trunk to let all the people and things get in and out quickly. The sliding doors are particularly helpful for families with unobservant children who would otherwise slam the car door into the neighboring car in the grocery store parking lot.
 

Convertibles

Convertibles do exactly what their name suggests: they transform from one profile to another. Usually the roof folds down by hand or through the car’s electrical system, and the car itself is generally sleek and powerful. Convertibles can be coupes or sedans, and the roof can either fold down partially or entirely depending on the style you like.
 

SUV (Sport Utility Vehicle/Crossover)

Some people lump SUVs and crossovers in the same category because they have a lot of similarities, but generally, crossovers are slightly smaller. Either way, both have large interiors and are higher off the ground than most sedans. They can have up to three rows of seats, and most are hatchbacks with a lot of trunk space. They get relatively good gas mileage (which provides a good alternative for families that don’t want a minivan), and they usually have a pretty powerful engine.
 

Compact/Subcompact

Compacts and subcompact cars are also very similar because they are so small compared to just about everything else on the market. The main difference between the two is that compact cars have slightly more passenger and trunk space, even if it’s still not much.

There are other car body styles out there (examples: multi-utility vehicles, buses, hearses, limousines, micro cars, to name a few), but they usually are meant for a specific task or type of person. Learning the basics from the list above will help you feel confident the next time you want to sound intelligent when talking cars with your know-it-all buddies—or when you’re in the market for a car yourself.

And regardless of your car’s body type, it will need regular maintenance and a good set of tires to keep it running at optimal capacity.  Don’t forget to bring your vehicle into our tire and auto repair shops in the greater Salt Lake City area.