A coupe is a class of vehicle body style that typically is applied to a sportier, more compact version of an auto manufacturer's sedan vehicles. For example, the Honda Accord and Volkswagen GTI are both available in coupe form. Traditionally, coupe models are 2-door versions of their sedan counterparts, though 4-door coupes are available. It is also possible for a coupe to be available as a standalone model (with no comparable sedan body style). The lack of a definitive definition for the coupe body style sometimes leads to confusion when distinguishing between a coupe and a sedan. While the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) defines a coupe as a fixed-roof vehicle with less than 33 cubic feet of rear interior volume, few manufacturers abide by this definition when classifying their vehicles. Ultimately, the class is determined by the vehicle's manufacturer on a case-by-case basis and is determined by factors such as marketing and brand positioning of the particular model. Specifically, the term 'coupe' is often used to insinuate a sportier or more luxurious design.

History of the Coupe Body Style

The coupe as we know it today gets its name from a 4-wheel horse-drawn carriage that was used in the 19th-century. The term, meaning "to cut" in French, refers to the vehicle's "cut" rear dimensions. When the term first hit the automotive market in the 1950s, it was used to further classify open-roof vehicle models (for example, "convertible coupe"). In the 1960s, the term was used on its own to describe fixed-roof body styles. Initially, a fixed-roof vehicle was called a coupe when the body style eliminated the B-pillar that is present in sedans to provide roof support. This resulted in a hardtop design that many manufacturers marketed as a coupe. By and large, this distinction remains relatively accurate to this day.

Types of Coupe Body Styles

As the term 'coupe' is largely used as a marketing term, automobile manufacturers have taken it upon themselves to dream up a plethora of names for different coupe varieties. Some common types of coupe body styles produced since the 1950s include:

  • Business coupe: 2-door coupes intended for traveling salesmen that had only two seats and rear storage space
  • Club coupe: sometimes called a closed-couple coupe, these 2-door vehicles include two rows of seats and a trunk
  • Opera coupe: 2-door coupes with a permanent front row of seating a fold-down back seat for occasional passengers
  • Hatchback coupe: a coupe that includes a rear hatch that swings upward
  • Sports coupe: a coupe with a sloping roof that resembles a fastback design
  • Sport utility coupe: a compact, 2-door SUV

Compact Cars

The compact vehicle class constitutes the second smallest class of passenger vehicles in America. The class slots between the subcompact and mid-size vehicle classes. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines all vehicle classes for the purposes of standardizing fuel efficiency comparisons. The EPA defines a compact vehicle as one that features a total interior cabin area between 100 cubic feet and 109.9 cubic feet.

Estimated Compact Passenger Car Size

While interior cabin space dictates the technical definition of the compact vehicle class, cars within the category generally maintain other standard dimensions. Vehicles with the following dimensions are likely classified as a compact:

  • Wheelbase: 100 to 105 inches
  • Length (hatchback or coupe): 161 to 175 inches
  • Length (sedan): 173 inches to 181 inches

Other Compact Vehicles

While the compact vehicle class is technically reserved for car-based vehicles, the term may also be used to describe SUVs, pickup trucks and wagons. Definitions for each vehicle class can be defined as the following:

  • Compact wagon: less than 130 cubic feet of interior volume
  • Compact SUV: two rows of seating and a total length of between 15 and 16 feet
  • Compact pickup truck: a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of less than 4,500 lbs.

History of the Compact Vehicle

The 1950 Nash Rambler is widely considered the first American market vehicle in the compact vehicle class. Its 100-inch wheelbase was available in a wagon, hardtop, convertible and sedan body style, each of which was wildly successful. The popularity of the Rambler spawned numerous competitor alternatives and helped proliferate the compact class as a long-lasting vehicle class. Prior to the 1970s and the introduction of subcompact vehicles (such as the AMC Gremlin), compact vehicles were the smallest class in the United States.