Car body types guide

October 03, 2022 by

Cars are available in all manner of body styles; our guide will help you know your SUVs from your shooting brakes, and more besides

There are over 300 different models of car on the market today, and each fits – more or less – into a different body type. Established body types like hatchbacks and estates have been joined in recent years by coupe-SUVs and shooting brakes, which mingle with MPVs, convertibles, and more besides.

Each body type typically prioritises different characteristics, with estates offering large, well-shaped boots, coupes typically putting more emphasis on sleek lines than outright practicality, and coupe-four-doors aiming to provide the best of both worlds

Our rundown of the different body types available should add clarity to what can sometimes be a bewildering landscape; click any of the shortcuts below to jump to a particular shape you’d like to know more about, or head to our configurator to narrow your search down if there’s a particular type of car you’re after.

Coupes    Coupe-SUVs    Cabriolets/Convertibles     Estates Four-door coupes    Hatchbacks     MPVs/people carriers    Saloons Shooting brakes     SUVs

A quick warning…

As nice as it would be if all cars fell into neat categories, there is often a crossover between different body styles, and any attempt at categorising cars involves compromise. Four-door coupes are also technically saloon cars, for example.

We should also highlight that cars can be categorised using more than one system, and a car’s body style is different from its ‘class’, which is another method of classification. ‘Executive car’ is a class, for example (think BMW 5 Series), but executive cars also tend to be saloons (a body type).

This guide will focus on body types – IE the shape a car is – rather than different classes of car.


The Mercedes E-Class Coupe

Coupes are two-door cars which, by their nature, are less practical than four-door models, but offer a greater sense of style. Coupes have sloping roofs and typically a saloon-style boot (though some, such as the Toyota Supra, have boots that open hatchback style), while many sit alongside a saloon in a manufacturer’s range. The Mercedes C-Class and E-Class coupes are offered alongside the C and E-Class saloons and estates, for example.

Coupes can be focussed on sharp handling and performance, as with the Audi R8, or prioritise grand touring, as evidenced by the Bentley Continental GT.


The BMW X6 coupe-SUV; note the sloping rear

Coupe-SUVs are essentially less practical versions of SUVs. You get the high driving position and chunky styling, but with a tapered coupe-like roofline. These cars aim to offer the desirability of coupes with the practicality and imposing stance of an SUV.  The BMW X6 and Mercedes GLE Coupe are popular coupe-SUVs.

Naturally, coupe-SUVs offer many of the advantages SUVs do – the raised driving position and some limited off-road ability – though their boots tend to be smaller and their rear seats offer less headroom than the SUVs on which they are based.


The Audi A5 Cabriolet

In general terms, a cabriolet or convertible (the terms are interchangeable) is a car with a roof that can be opened. Folding metal roofs were once all the rage, but fabric ones have become the norm again due to the reduced weight and complexity they bring.

Convertibles are often coupes that have had their roof removed and replaced with a retractable top, allowing you to enjoy open-air motoring.  Typical cars in the class include the Audi A5 Cabriolet and BMW 4 Series Convertible.

As our first example of things getting complicated, you can also buy a convertible SUV. These are niche models that tend to sell in low volumes, yet while the Range Rover Evoque Convertible is no longer offered for sale, the Volkswagen T-Roc Cabriolet is. The Fiat 500 is also offered as a Cabriolet, though its fabric roof is more of a large sunroof than a proper convertible top.

Cabriolets can also be luxury cars like the Rolls-Royce Dawn, or sporty roadsters like the Mazda MX-5.


The Volvo V90 estate car; its saloon sibling is called the S90

Estate cars are usually based on saloons or hatchbacks and tend to be a little longer than the cars on which they’re based. Estate cars are typified by a large, oblong boot, with a vertical or near-vertical rear window. Volvo’s V90 and Audi’s A6 Avant are perfect examples of the breed.

The obvious advantage is the increased boot space over an equivalent saloon. There are few downsides to estates beyond the fact that some models might look better as saloons.

Four-door coupes

The Mercedes CLS invented the four-door coupe formula when the Mk1 arrived in 2004 (we’re now on the Mk3 model, pictured)

Many premium manufacturers now make four-door coupes, which are essentially saloon cars with a more curved, sloping roofline.

Cars in this segment include the Mercedes CLS and BMW 8 Series Gran Coupe, though smaller four-door coupes like the Mercedes CLA are also available. The lower look and more streamlined roofline means four-door coupes tend to look more exciting than saloons, but their extra space and doors them much more useable everyday than a proper coupe. The downside is that the lower roof means rear headroom can be compromised.

Just to make things more complicated, the boot on a saloon car is not counted as a door, but the boot of a hatchback is. This leads to the situation where a car like the Audi A5 Sportback (which is either a coupe version of the Audi A4 saloon, or an Audi A5 Coupe with two extra doors) is technically a five-door coupe thanks to its hatchback boot. For the benefit of everyone’s peace of mind we’ll ignore that, and classify it as a four-door coupe.


The Volkswagen Golf; note the rear window and boot being one piece, and hinged at the roof

Perhaps the most popular and well known body type outside of an SUV, a hatchback has a boot lid and rear windscreen that open together on a roof-mounted hinge. Some well-known hatches include the Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf and Mercedes A-Class, though these are family hatchbacks, with smaller superminis like the Ford Fiesta, and even smaller city cars like the Volkswagen Up also being hatchbacks.

Many consider family hatchbacks to be the Goldilocks of cars, offering just the right amount of practicality, while also being affordable, economical, comfortable, refined and easy to drive.

MPVs/people carrriers

The Ford Galaxy people carrier. Note the high roofline

MPV is short for for multi-purpose vehicle, though these cars are also referred to as people carriers. Whichever your preference, MPVs are practical vehicles with tall roofs that appeal to family buyers who need even more space.

Often coming with seven seats and sometimes having sliding rear doors, MPVs offer a car-like driving experience and can be more practical than an equivalent SUV. Popularised by the original Renault Espace of 1984, MPVs have fallen out of favour in recent years as SUVs have grown in popularity, but a number of people carriers are still offered, including the Volkswagen Touran and the Ford Galaxy.


The BMW 3 Series; note the three distinct ‘boxes’: boot, cabin and bonnet

Saloons come in all shapes and sizes and, in the UK, tend to be offered by premium brands such as Audi and Mercedes. Saloons are often described as ‘three-box’ cars – meaning they have an engine bay (box 1), a cabin (box 2) and a separate boot (box 3), compared to a hatchback’s two boxes.

Models range from the Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4 compact executive saloons, to full-size luxury saloons, such as the Mercedes S-Class. Their longer wheelbases traditionally make saloons more comfortable than hatches, and offer more legroom in the cabin. Saloons struggle to offer the same practicality as hatchbacks due to the fact their bootlids don’t open as wide or offer as much vertical space.

Shooting brakes

The VW Arteon Shooting Brake and it’s its tapered estate boot

We debated including shooting brakes as a discrete body type, as they’re essentially estate cars with a slightly sloping bootlid; but if four-door coupes get their own category, it’s only fair to apply the same approach to shooting brakes.

Named after the horse-drawn wagons used to transport hunting parties across country estates (which themselves leant their name to a body type) only a handful of cars are offered/marketed as shooting brakes, with the Volkswagen Arteon Shooting Brake, Mercedes CLA Shooting Brake and Genesis G70 Shooting Brake being prime examples.


The Skoda Kodiaq is a popular seven-seat family SUV

Short for sports utility vehicle, SUVs have become the default option for many family buyers, with the ever-popular Audi Q5, Kia Sportage, and Land Rover Discovery Sport finding homes where once a hatchback would have rested.

Coming in all shapes and sizes, and with a number of different characteristics, the SUV class includes small crossovers like the SEAT Arona, large, off-road focussed cars like the Jeep Wrangler. All are defined by being taller than an equivalent hatchback or saloon, while SUVs also tend to feature a hatchback-style boot, though some have side-opening tailgates.


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