What is a car?
A car is any four-wheeled, self-propelled vehicle that is designed to carry passengers rather than cargo.
In 2023 that describes a wide array of vehicle types but the most common car varieties are the sedan, wagon, hatchback, SUV, coupe, convertible and vans.
Read more about types of cars
It’s obviously a broad question as there are so many different types of cars in terms of body style, powertrains and usage.
In this piece we’ll take you through all types of cars and types of vehicles to give you an understanding about the differences between a sedan and a wagon, an SUV and an off-roader and even explain what the heck a Shooting Brake is.
What car types manufacturers produce has evolved over the years to suit the needs and wants of customers.
Perhaps the clearest example of that is the way that SUV-style vehicles have taken over from sedans and wagons in terms of popularity and variety in the Australian market.
In the early cars of the car industry, car manufacturers focused on the mechanical components and left the bodywork to specialist coachworks, allowing customers to personalise the car body styles depending on their desires.
Over time this changed to allow for mass-production and as manufacturing techniques improved carmakers have been able to offer a wider variety of body styles to broaden their market appeal.
In this article we’ll focus on body styles rather than powertrains, so we won’t detail the types of EV cars or hybrid cars; instead you can read about that in-depth in our ‘What is an electric car?’ piece.
Here, then, is your guide to the various types of cars you can choose from today.
Popular examples: Toyota Corolla, Hyundai i30, Volkswagen Golf, BMW 1 Series and Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
The hatchback remains a popular car type as, typically, they are small, affordable models designed to appeal to the mass market.
Hatchbacks can have either three- or five-doors, with the rear tailgate, or hatch (hence the name) considered a door.
Another defining trait is size, with the hatchback generally compact in dimension. However, there are larger, longer variants called ‘liftbacks’ which blur the line between a sedan and a hatchback.
This allows for greater practicality as larger items can be placed in the cargo area than in a traditional separate sedan boot.
Some examples of this type of liftback are the Holden Commodore ZB, Audi A5 Sportback and Kia Stinger.
While hatchbacks are generally affordable, in the past two decades several premium brands began offering their own examples as buyers looked for more efficient cars without giving up luxury.
That means a hatchback can stretch from the pint-sized Fiat 500 all the way to the pricey and high-performance Mercedes-AMG A45.
Popular examples: Subaru Impreza, Toyota Camry, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
A sedan is sometimes referred to as a ‘three box design’ as that describes the three main elements of its shape – the front engine, the middle passenger compartment and the separate boot.
The other defining element of the style is the amount of doors, with four needed for it to be classified as a sedan.
For a large part of the history of the automobile the sedan was the world’s most popular choice, which explains why there is such a huge breadth of sizes and prices within this segment.
A sedan can be a humble Toyota Corolla, an opulent Rolls-Royce Phantom, a sporty BMW M5 or even an electric Porsche Taycan.
Popular examples: Mazda6, Volkswagen Passat, Audi RS6 Avant and Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo.
Sometimes called ‘station wagons’, other times ‘estate’ and Audi prefers the term ‘Avant’, but whatever you call them the defining trait is a sedan variant that has an extended roof that allows for the cabin and cargo area to be integrated, rather than having a separate boot.
This makes them more practical, which for decades made them popular with families that wanted more room for luggage.
One type of vehicle that is often confused as a wagon is the Shooting Brake, which isn’t a wagon by definition because it only has two-doors. Instead, a Shooting Brake is a coupe variant.
Critically, for a wagon to be considered any of these terms it must have four doors.
In recent times the wagon has diminished in popularity as SUVs have taken over as the preferred choice for families, even though they share many traits in terms of body style.
Popular examples: Toyota Yaris Cross, Hyundai Kona, Mazda CX-5, BMW X5 and Toyota LandCruiser.
The acronym officially stands for ‘Sports Utility Vehicle’ which has become a catch-all term for any high-riding vehicle regardless of its drivetrain or off-road capability.
Traditionally, high-riding vehicles were known as 4WDs, 4x4s or off-roaders, because they had four-wheel drive and extra ground clearance so they could handle off-road driving conditions.
The likes of the Toyota LandCruiser and Nissan Patrol define this type of SUV, but they’re a world away from the modern interpretation.
These days SUVs span everything from compact examples like the Nissan Juke all the way to extreme performance machines like the Lamborghini Urus and Porsche Cayenne.
Notably, many modern SUVs do not offer four-wheel drive, with many simply using front-wheel drive platforms borrowed from hatchbacks or sedans.
Buyers seemingly prefer the higher view of the road, the ease of entry and the perceived safety benefits, because SUVs now dominate the Australian sales charts.
In 2022 SUVs accounted for more than 53 per cent of every new vehicle sold in this country, a huge change from a decade ago when SUVs made up just 27 per cent.
Coupé and Convertible
Popular examples: Toyota GR86, Ford Mustang, Porsche 911 and Ferrari 296 GTB.
These two terms generally encapsulate most types of sports cars, as opposed to sports sedans and hot hatches.
Coupé is derived from the French words ‘to cut’ which refers to the fact the defining traits of them are a sloping roofline and two-doors.
Notably, a coupé can have two seats or four – sometimes referred to as a 2+2 – depending on its size and layout of the powertrain.
That’s because the coupé term also covers cars that can be front-engined, have a mid-mounted engine or, in rare cases such as the Porsche 911, a rear-mounted engine.
Also, a coupé is by definition a two-door car, so the recent trend of ‘four-door coupés’ are more accurately a sedan with a sloping roofline.
A convertible is typically a coupé with a removable roof, historically a fabric ‘soft-top’ but in more recent times car makers have developed folding metal hard-tops.
Another popular term for a convertible is roadster, or they can be called spider (also spyder) or cabriolet.
A coupé can take many forms and fit many price points, with affordable examples such as the Toyota GR86 and Subaru BRZ and more exotic options such as the McLaren 720S and Bentley Continental GT.
Just because a car is a coupé does not mean there is a convertible version – or vice versa. A good example of this is the Mazda MX-5, which is only available with a removable roof (both a hard-top and soft-top) so cannot be considered a coupé.
And, not all coupé and convertibles are sports cars. Range Rover famously (or infamously) launched the Evoque Convertible to see if a drop-top SUV could work. It didn’t.
Ute and Pickup
Popular examples: Ford Ranger, Toyota HiLux, Mitsubishi Triton and Chevrolet Silverado.
The story behind the creation of the first ‘utility’ has become the stuff of Australian legend.
A farmer’s wife in Gippsland, Victoria writes to Ford asking for a car that can go to church on Sunday and carry pigs to market on Monday.
It spawned the Ford Coupe Utility which evolved into the ute we know and love today.
But the concept of the ute isn’t actually an Australian idea, with several American brands developing the ‘pickup’ in the 1920s.
While that cultural divide remains with each country preferring their own term, the premise of the two vehicles is the same – a passenger cabin up front and tray for carrying a load in the back.
The tray is a defining principle of the Ute, with those without any bodywork behind the cabin known as a cab chassis and designed to allow for custom elements on the rear.
Utes can be either a single-cab or dual-cab, which means two- or four-doors, and several brands also offer an ‘extra- or space-cab’ that have a two-door layout but two rows of seats.
In Australia we’ve seen a sharp increase in the popularity of utes in the last decade as they become more family-friendly and buyers could enjoy tax breaks on what was traditionally a working vehicle, so much so that the Ford Ranger and Toyota HiLux are the biggest selling new vehicles.
While they’re popular, US-style pickups like the Chevrolet Silverado and Ram 1500/2500 are attracting increasing attention from local buyers.
Popular examples: Kia Carnival, Hyundai Staria and Volkswagen Multivan.
While a relatively small segment of the Australian new car market, the people mover is an ideal choice for larger families or groups.
A people mover is defined by its size, with a long body and integrated boot area to accommodate seven or eight occupants.
They are often based on a commercial van, the Hyundai Staria and Staria-Load duo is a good example of this, but in recent years we have seen some based on an SUV platform; such as the popular Kia Carnival.
In Australia the term People Mover is common but they can also be referred to as a minivan or multi-purpose vehicle (MPV).