Today, the choice of car body types is becoming bewildering, as manufacturers offer buyers ever more diversified options to meet their individual needs. From hatchbacks to SUVs, MPVs to coupes, there’s a style for everyone.
Let’s take a look at the different body types available along with their advantages and disadvantages. You can always use our car chooser if you still need a little more help picking from the 400+ cars on sale and our car configurator once you’ve made your decision.
City cars are generally the smallest types you’ll encounter. Designed to work in tight streets, their bodies are typified by very short bumpers, wheels pushed out to the very edges of the chassis and as large a cabin as can be squeezed onto the frame. Common examples include the Volkswagen Up, Hyundai i10 and Peugeot 108.
Their obvious advantage is that, thanks to their diminutive exterior dimensions, they’re very easy to drive in the city. Parking is straightforward because it’s easy to see where the corners of the car are and manoeuvring is easy thanks to steering that’s usually light. The only downside is the limited space – you won’t be carrying much in a city car.
Superminis are halfway between larger family hatchbacks and smaller city cars. They’re very common in the UK with the Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa and Volkswagen Polo being among the best-selling cars. These cars typically seat four occupants easier than a city car and can often hold a little more luggage, too.
Many superminis turn their compact size into a selling point – setting the car up to feel light and agile on the move. Quite a lot of premium manufacturers now make upmarket superminis such as the Audi A1 and Mini Hatchback for buyers that want the luxury without the size. Like city cars, they struggle as your cargo needs increase.
A hatchback – sometimes called family hatchback – is the largest option before you move up to a saloon car. Crucially, for a car to qualify as a hatchback, its boot lid and rear windscreen must be one unit that moves together. Some well known hatches include the Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf and Mercedes A-Class.
The only disadvantage of a hatchback is that, for family use, you might have to make the decision between having comfortable passenger space or enough storage. Models including the Honda Civic, however, offer a decent amount of both.
If you’re looking for something a bit more practical than a standard hatchback but don’t fancy a saloon or estate, a mini-MPV might be for you. These range from the likes of the Nissan Note to more premium rivals such as the Mercedes B-Class – a considerable gap in terms of size and price.
The slightly raised driving position, easy access and hip-height seat bases mean they’re popular with older drivers and those transporting young children. The downside to some buyers is the increased cost over a hatchback and the fact that taller mini-MPVs often look a bit more awkward than their regular car counterparts.
MPVs are practical vehicles that appeal to family buyers who need even more space. Larger models including the Ford Galaxy often have seven seats, usually with the rear rows folding flat into the floor to create a van-like load bay. A car-like driving experience and more affordable running costs than many equivalent SUVs make MPVs the ultimate large family transporters.
The same criticisms of mini-MPVs can apply to MPVs – they’re more expensive than the cars they’re based on and often don’t look as appealing. Even those with smaller families can benefit from an MPV – for example, if your children are especially good at making friends, the extra seats can make after-school parties easy to handle.
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. Some saloons struggle to offer the same boot space as some large hatchbacks thanks to their more awkward boot shape.
Estate cars are usually based on saloons or hatchbacks and tend to be a little longer than the cars on which they’re based. Where a saloon’s rear window ends at the cabin, an estate’s extends to the bootlid increasing cargo room. Volvo’s V60 and Audi’s A6 Avant are perfect examples of the breed.
The obvious advantage is the increased boot space over an equivalent saloon but, for some fans, the longer roof afforded by estates makes them more desirable than other options. There are few downsides to estates beyond the fact that some models might look better as saloons.
The biggest issue with saloons is they don’t offer the desirability of coupes, but no two-door car can match the practicality of a saloon. As a result, many premium manufacturers now make four-door coupes – either saloons with a more curved roofline, or coupes with a longer wheelbase and an extra pair of doors squeezed in.
Common cars in this segment include the Mercedes CLS, Audi A7 and BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe. The lower look and more streamlined roofline means four-door coupes tend to look more exciting than saloons, but the extra seats make them much more useable everyday. The downside is that the lower roof means headroom can be compromised – especially in the rear.
Crossovers tend to be hatchbacks with the chunky styling of an SUV and a raised ride height. Unlike their larger 4×4 counterparts, they often lack heavy off-roading gear – making them more fuel efficient and better to drive on the road. Common cars from this segment include the Nissan Juke, Citroen C4 Cactus and Jeep Renegade.
Like MPVs, crossovers have higher ride heights and the seat bases are closer to your hips making entry easier for elderly people and parents with child seats. Unlike big SUVs and 4x4s, however, their hatchback-based running gear means they’re often surprisingly efficient. In fact, the only downside is they’re not quite as efficient as the hatches they’re descended from.
There isn’t a concrete distinction between SUVs and crossovers but, in general, SUVs tend to be bigger and offer more power and cargo capacity. Well known examples include the Mercedes GLE, Nissan X-Trail and Kia Sorento – the latter two, like some SUVs, offer seven seats for even more practicality.
Unlike rugged 4x4s that compromise the driving experience for extra off-road ability, SUVs still tend to be road-biased. This means many are comfortable and stable at motorway speeds and have controls light enough to make city driving easy. They can’t match true 4x4s off-road and their larger size means they’re not quite as good as saloons on it but, as a means to get the best of both worlds, SUVs are a great choice.
SUV-Coupes 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. Common cars include the BMW X6 and Mercedes GLE Coupe.
Naturally, they offer many of the advantages SUVs do – the large cargo area, the raised driving position and the limited off-road ability. While it’s subjective, many buyers like the combination of coupe style and SUV image, too. Their downside is that some dislike the way they look and that regular SUVs will always offer more interior space.
4x4s and off-roaders
If you live somewhere out in the country or regularly need to go properly off-road, only a true 4×4 will cut it. The very toughest – including the Land Rover Discovery and Toyota Land Cruiser – bolt their off-road components to a giant ‘ladder’ frame running underneath the car making them almost unstoppable.
These models are the only way to go if you’re planning seriously off-road excursions. Equally, their large bodies mean they’re often very practical and can accommodate plenty of passengers. Their off-road ability does mean they can be somewhat less agile and stable than SUVs on road, however, and their massive weight often means fuel bills are high.
Essentially, a coupe is a two-door version of a saloon with a hard roof. The Mercedes E-Class Coupe and Audi TT are excellent examples of the class. The former is more luxurious and the latter is towards the sportier end of the spectrum. Some have a rear bench but this is often only suitable for very small people for very short trips.
Naturally, a smaller body and fewer doors means less interior space, so practicality suffers compared to a hatchback or saloon. In addition to being smaller, the added desirability of many coupes means manufacturers can often charge more for them than the more practical cars they’re typically based on.
Simply put, a cabriolet or convertible is a coupe that’s had its roof removed and replaced with a retractable fabric or metal cover. These cars offer the desirability and sporty character of coupes with the added dimension of a removable roof. Typical cars in the class include the Audi A5 Cabriolet and BMW 4 Series Convertible.
Unsurprisingly, the benefits of a cabriolet mean you get an attractive car that’s great to drive but also one that’s even more fun when the sun comes out. They have the same limited practicality as coupes but this is exacerbated by the need to store the roof when it’s retracted.
Roadsters are a sub-category of convertibles. The name usually only applies to two-seater sports cars with retractable roofs so the Mazda MX-5 and Porsche Boxster are prime examples of the breed. Naturally, only the sportiest cars come in this format so desirability is often very high.
Most issues with roadsters stem from their two-seat layout significantly limiting their practicality compared to saloons and even coupes. Equally, roadsters typically fail to offer the same levels of refinement and weather-proofing offered by hard-top cars – but, if you’re buying a sports car, you’re unlikely to care.
A Grand Tourer is usually just a big, posh coupe. They’re usually noticeably bigger and more expensive than lesser models – the Bentley Continental GT is nearly as wide as a Range Rover and more expensive, too.
These cars’ back seats tend to be a little more useable than your average coupe’s but still can’t quite match a full saloon. They often get very powerful engines under the bonnet to provide plenty of power for overtaking and to feel relaxed at high speeds, but this makes a marked dent in their fuel economy. Like roadsters, though, potential buyers are unlikely to care.
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