Once upon a time, we lived in a far simpler world. Open the Observer’s Book of Automobiles and, with a few exceptions, cars could be split into a small number of categories. Saloon, hatchback, estate, coupe, sports and off-roader: clear and simple. Sure, you could find the odd supercar or luxury car, but the point remains, we knew where we stood.
Today, we’re faced with crossovers, SAVs, coupes with four doors and ‘coupes’ that are little more than a cosmetically-challenged SUV with restricted rear headroom and a questionable rump. Yes, we’re looking at you, Mercedes-Benz. And don’t get us started on the subject of four-door shooting brakes.
Here, we select 20 different types of car and attempt to provide a definition for each one. Where possible, we’ve included a little background and an example for each classification.
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Defining the hatchback is far simpler than pinpointing the origins of the body style. Some will point to the Aston Martin DB2/4 of the mid-1950s, while others will credit the Innocenti-Austin A40S Combinata, which was very much ahead of the curve.
Our love affair with the hatchback arguably began when Renault launched the iconic 4 in 1961. The wide-opening tailgate presented estate-like loading potential, and more than eight million were produced over three decades.
But the saloon and estate refused to roll over and die, with innovative cars such as the Renault 16 and Austin Maxi failing to propel the hatchback into the mainstream. But things changed in the late 1970s when motorists finally saw the potential of the saloon-cum-wagon.
The Oxford Dictionary defines the hatchback as: “a car with a door across the full width at the back end that opens upwards to provide easy access for loading.”
A hatchback might be classed as a three-door or five-door, depending on the configuration, with the tailgate considered to be a door in itself. Today, the three-door hatchback is less popular, with designers working hard to disguise the rear doors.
The current Renault Clio and Suzuki are good examples of the rear door handles integrated within the C-pillar, to create the look of a three-door hatch.
Without the hatchback, there wouldn’t be a hot hatch, which provides the proof that practicality can be fun. Although the hot hatch is seen as an 80s thing, there were fast hatchbacks before the term was used.
Cars such as the Simca 1100 TI, Renault 16 TX, Chrysler Sunbeam TI and Renault 5 Gordini provided the necessary groundwork for the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Peugeot 205 GTI: the first cars to be labelled hot hatches.
For us, a real hot hatch needs to be front-wheel drive, ideally with three doors. That said, a modern hot hatch is just as likely to feature five doors.
“A car having a closed body and a closed boot separated from the part in which the drivers and passengers sit,” is how the Oxford Dictionary defines the saloon car.
For generations, the family saloon was a familiar sight on Britain’s roads and the car you doodled in your sketchbook during double maths.
The traditional three-box saloon might be a dying breed, but the likes of the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4 keep the segment alive.
For estate car, see Volvo.
Whatever you call it, what we class as a minivan, people carrier or MPV (multi-purpose vehicle) can trace its roots back to the Chrysler Corporation’s Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, launched at the tail-end of 1983.
It didn’t take long for the rest of the world to catch on, with Renault blazing a trail in Europe with the Matra-designed Espace. It spawned a multitude of competitors, designed from the ground up to carry many passengers – usually five or seven – and their luggage.
Compact MPVs soon followed, often based on the platform and mechanicals of traditional family hatchbacks. Examples include the Renault Megane Scenic and Citroen Xsara Picasso.
Today’s MPVs are characterised by flexible seating arrangements and often sliding doors. While the market is in decline, cars such as the Volkswagen Touran, Ford Galaxy and Citroen C4 Picasso remain faithful to the concept of practicality over style.
An SUV is a Sport Utility Vehicle, a term used historically to categorise a 4×4 or off-road vehicle. The SUV has its roots in military-derived vehicles, such as the Willys Jeep and Land Rover.
As time moved on, the SUV became less workmanlike and more lifestyle-led. The Jeep Wagooner pioneered the idea of a sport utility vehicle long before the term was first used, feeling more car-like than any other 4×4 on the market.
Other SUVs soon followed, most notably the Range Rover, which first appeared in 1970. Early SUVs offered an off-road bias, with some feeling a tad primitive and unwieldy on the road, but today we expect them to offer a perfect blend of on- and off-road capabilities.
They come in all shapes and sizes, from the Suzuki Jimny compact 4×4 to the Bentley Bentayga, which is the fastest SUV ever built. Whatever, to be classed as an SUV, we’d expect a car to offer a commanding driving position, a practical interior and some off-road skills.
This is where things get slightly trickier. You’ll have heard the ‘crossover’ word being bandied about in the motoring press, but Joe Public might not have a clue what the word actually means.
In essence, a crossover is a car with the lofty suspension and practicality of an SUV, but with the running costs of a family hatchback. In other words, more urban-roader than off-roader.
The lines have been blurred by the increasingly car-like and more efficient SUVs, which spend more time on the road than off it. In our book at least, a crossover should be two-wheel drive, while an SUV should offer four-wheel-drive capabilities.
But then you find four-wheel drive variants of traditional crossovers and the lines become blurred once again…
The claim that Nissan invented the crossover when it unveiled the Qashqai in 2006 is nonsense, although it unquestionably led to the introduction of the term.
In respect of a front-wheel drive-crossover, the Matra Rancho led the way, although the world wasn’t quite ready for a car with off-road styling but next-to-no off-road ability. You could also point to the AMC Eagle as a crossover pioneer, although its inclusion would shoot a hole through the idea that a crossover should be front-wheel drive.
It’s a tough one. For now, can we all agree that a crossover is a daft name, but if it must be used, it needs to denote a front-wheel-drive vehicle with SUV styling and family car-like running costs?
Good, moving on.
There should be no problems describing a city car, which is a small, fuel-efficient vehicle that is best suited to urban driving.
The BMW Isetta, Fiat Nuova 500 and Mini were early pioneers of the cutesy urban car concept, while today’s city cars might offer up to five doors and the level of kit you’d expect to find on a much larger and more expensive vehicle.
According to Austin 1100 Club historian, Chris Morris, the 1100 “was the first supermini, as we know them today.” You can understand the logic: here was a natural extension of the Mini, with compact proportions and a roomy interior.
Today, the Ford Fiesta is the archetypal supermini, with a size falling between a city car and a family hatchback, cheap running costs, and as good to drive in town as it is on a long journey.
A coupe is traditionally a closed two-door car with a fixed roof, either with two seats or with two additional seats in the rear (known as a 2+2).
Some of the German brands have attempted to stretch the definition by creating four-door coupes, but in reality, these tend to be nothing more than four-door saloons with restricted rear headroom.
In Europe, only the Germans purchase more convertibles than the British. Turns out our far-from-tropical climate is no barrier to getting the top down at any given opportunity.
A convertible – or cabriolet – is four-seater or 2+2 with a removable or folding roof. Examples include the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet, Mini Convertible and Range Rover Evoque Convertible.
The words are mostly interchangeable, with ‘Cabriolet’ a French word first used in the 18th century to describe a light horse-drawn carriage. Convertible has more modern origins.
Once again, the word ‘roadster’ has its origins in the equine world. In the 19th century, the term was used to describe a horse with an ability to draw a carriage over vast distances in a single day.
From an automotive perspective, a roadster is an open sports car with seating for two, with the MGB and Triumph Spitfire two prime examples from the past. Today, the Mazda MX-5 is the archetypal roadster.
A Targa top is a semi-convertible body style with a removable roof section and a full-width roll bar behind the seats. The name was first used by Porsche when it unveiled the 911 Targa in 1965, with the German firm having the foresight to trademark before the launch.
The 911 wasn’t the first car to feature a Targa roof. In 1961, Triumph created a ‘Surrey Top’ for the TR4, with the equivalent of a rear section of a hardtop and a removable canvas to bridge the gap between the windscreen and the rear of the car.
Defining a sports car is a bit like explaining the offside rule to a non-footballist: in your head, it’s easy to grasp, but try educating somebody on the subject.
Google ‘what is a sports car’, and you’ll find that subject is the cause of some debate. “No one knows what ‘sports car’ actually means anymore,” proclaims Road & Track, while Jalopnik asks: “What is a sports car, exactly?”
Things were simpler in the black and white days of Terry Thomas. A sports car was an open two-seater with just enough power to perform. A chariot built with entertainment in mind, along with post-Sunday lunch galivanting through the countryside with your significant other. Ding dong.
An MGB was a sports car. A Ford Capri wasn’t. A Porsche 718 Boxster is a sports car. A Ford Mustang isn’t. And yet all four cars were built in the name of fun, with practicality sitting further down the list of priorities.
But where does the ‘open two-seater’ definition leave cars like the Toyota GT86, Subaru BRZ and Jaguar F-Type Coupe? Nobody could deny their sporting intent, but are they more ‘sports coupe’ than the classic definition of a sports car?
Does it matter? Answers on a postcard to the usual address.
Euro NCAP uses the ‘executive’ tag to categorise cars such as the BMW 5 Series, Jaguar XF, Audi A6 and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. In other words, cars slightly larger than the archetypal company motor.
There’s an aspirational quality to the executive car, seen as a cut above the ordinary family runabout. Something for middle managers to aim for: the carrot used as a motivational tool by MDs and CEOs.
The Vauxhall Carlton was the carrot for Cavalier drivers. See also: Granada and Cortina, 605 and 405, and Safrane and Laguna.
Today, as carmakers push further upmarket, the ‘executive’ tag is more far-reaching. Everything from the Ford Mondeo to the Tesla Model S can be classed as an executive, with size no longer a barrier to entry. Which is why the ‘exec’ label fits the BMW 3 Series and the 5 Series.
There’s a distinct gap between a premium motor and a luxury car. To be considered luxurious, a car must leave nothing to chance in the pursuit of perfection. The most exquisite materials, impeccable craftsmanship and, in today’s world, the most cutting-edge technology.
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the BMW 7 Series, the Audi A8 are luxury cars, as is anything built by Rolls-Royce and Bentley.
From the sublime to the, er… ridiculous. Actually, that’s a little unfair, because the Renault Twizy can be a barrel of laughs, given the right set of circumstances.
It’s just that a quadricycle isn’t really a car. Instead, the EU places the four-wheeled vehicle in the same category as mopeds, motorcycles and motor tricycles.
There are two sub-categories: light and heavy quadricycles. Nip across to France, and you’ll find a multitude of these tiny, low-powered and lightweight vehicles. The predominant brands are Aixam and Ligier.
What is a supercar? Again, it’s a hard question to answer, but it provides a useful extra layer above and beyond a standard sports car.
Perhaps it would be easier to start by naming the first supercar: the genesis of the breed. But this will spark yet another debate.
Was it the Bugatti 57SC Atlantic of 1936? Maybe the Mercedes-Benz 300SL of 1954? How about the Lamborghini Miura of 1966? A tough call, but the trio helps to form a precise definition of what makes a supercar.
What do you they have in common? An expensive price tag, exhilarating performance, drop-dead gorgeous styling and the capacity to make grown men (and women) go weak at the knees.
Above all else, if a child makes room on their bedroom wall for a poster of said car, then it is almost certainly a supercar. Think Ferrari 812 Superfast, Porsche 911 GT3 RS and Lamborghini Huracan.
“We can agree that both supercars and hypercars are expensive, exotic and fast. The difference between them is really a matter of extremeness. And in the case of companies with multiple models, the car’s position in the model line.
“No hypercar has a more expensive or more exclusive corporate sibling.” Maxim presents a pretty decent summation of the supercar versus hypercar debate.
Maxim goes on to claim that the Bugatti Veyron was “probably the first bona fide hypercar,” which is something many people would agree with. Although we’d also add an honourable mention for the McLaren F1.
It’s all about excess and pushing the boundaries. The McLaren P1, Ferrari LaFerrari, Bugatti Chiron and Rimac Concept One are 100% hypercar.
We conclude our rundown of the different car classifications with an easy one: the pick-up. There are various types – double cab, crew cab, single cab – but thanks to the Ford F-Series, the pick-up is the best-selling vehicle in the world.
Agree or disagree with our definitions? Let us know. In the meantime, we’re off to ask BMW why it felt the need to invent the Sport Activity Vehicle (SAV) tag, as well as sending a ‘cease and desist’ letter to Mercedes-Benz concerning its SUV coupes.