BUYER’S GUIDE: Understanding Different Types of Cars

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There are so many different kinds of vehicles out there that it can be confusing deciding which one is the right one for you. Do you need a full-size SUV or a crossover, and what the heck is the difference between the two? Read on to understand the lingo before you shop.


Any vehicle with a roof that retracts is a convertible. Sometimes these are cloth tops and sometimes they’re hardtops. Smaller two-seat convertibles are often referred to as “roadsters,” and convertible variants are often sold alongside similar coupe models in a manufacturer’s lineup. Some SUVs even offer removable soft-top variants.


This is any car with two full-size doors, a fixed roof rather than a convertible top, a trunk and no lift- or tailgate. They are smaller than sedans and typically have a small back seat. Coupes are the sportier cousins to sedans.



Add two more doors to your coupe andand you have a sedan. These cars have back seats that accommodate 2-3 people and come in a variety of sizes. Smaller sedans are great for those who don’t need a huge back seat or trunk while larger sedans offer more room for families.

Some manufacturers have confusingly taken to calling their sedans coupes, but for people who don’t spend their entire life in the marketing department, cars with four doors are sedans.


Hatchbacks were all the rage in the 1980s, but quickly went out of favor. They’re back — in a big way, even from luxury manufacturers — but you won’t find the word “hatchback” in any of their marketing materials, because the term isn’t exactly the sexiest thing in the world.

Hatchbacks can have either two or four doors, and have a rear cargo hatch that blends into the body’s lines. They offer much better cargo volume than their sedan counterparts because of the cargo area’s flexibility, but don’t have the boxy look of a station wagon.

Station Wagon

Station wagons were once the favorite family vehicle. Crossovers are often doing the job today, but there are still wagons on the road. Wagons are closely related to their four-door sedan cousins, offering five-passenger comfort, along with a liftgate and a cargo area that opens into the passenger area.

Wagons generally have drivelines that mirror the availability of coupes and sedans in the same line: front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive.



Minivans came along in the 1980s to fill the gap between big, body-on-frame station wagons and full-size vans. Like the crossover, they’re exclusively based on a similar car platform.

Minivans have seating for up to seven people, and now treat the rear seat passengers as well as those riding up front, with separate temperature controls, media options and first-class-style seating. For a while the minivan market was stagnant, but in recent years, manufacturers have upped their game, providing every amenity a luxury car offers, plus an on-board vacuum to clean up Cheerio spills.


Quietly, the van market has completely transformed in the last half-decade. Before 2010, van manufacturers were essentially selling the same body-on-frame trucks that they did in the 1970s, mostly to contractors and church groups looking to haul 15 people without much consideration for fuel efficiency, package efficiency or ease of use.

As car manufacturers have become more global, though, the van market has changed completely. New models of vans have arrived in the United States that have been sold in Europe for years, that are not only more fuel efficient, but are easier to drive and easier to work with than their ladder-frame, V-8-powered American counterparts.

Vans are also available in much smaller sizes than ever, allowing small businesses to zip in an out of their communities without the massive girth of the vans of the 1970s.

Crossover (or CUV)

Crossovers are like sport utility vehicles in their passenger and cargo-hauling ability, but the distinction is in the platform on which they’re built. Crossovers are based on the same basic chassis as a sedan, coupe or wagon, while SUVs are more closely related to a manufacturer’s truck line. Because they’re based on car platforms, they are generally offered in either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive configurations. The big difference here is towing capacity and off-road ability. Since crossovers share a car’s unibody construction, they’re typically maxed out at 5,000 pounds worth of towing capacity. SUVs offer greater towing capacity, and often are designed to handle the rigors of off-road excursions.


The major distinction between SUVs and CUVs is rooted in the vehicle on which they’re based. CUVs started life as front-wheel drive cars. SUVs are either all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive and are based on a much more rugged chassis. They’re often all-wheel or four-wheel drive with a higher ground clearance for off-road driving. Serious off-road models have a four-wheel drive transfer case with a low range for the most extreme off-road excursions. Seating may include a third row, but some are two-row SUVs only. Their size makes them great for those who have lots of people and cargo, but it’s a drawback in cities where crossovers are easier to maneuver.


Pickup Truck

Pickup trucks are the pack mules of the automotive industry, with open cargo beds suited for loading heavier, messier and taller items than you’d be able to stow in the closed, carpeted cargo area of an SUV. Over the last 20 years, pickup trucks in the higher trim levels have offered more and more amenities, but at their core, pickups are built to work.

Pickup trucks are — with one exception in the Honda Ridgeline — available in two drive configurations: rear-wheel drive and four wheel drive. Like a CUV, the upcoming 2017 Honda Ridgeline is unique in that it’s based on a car, so it’s the only pickup available in the US that’s either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.

Pickups also come in three basic cab configurations: Regular cab (with room in the cab for two, or three if you can squeeze a third in the middle spot of a bench seat), extended cab (with access doors and occasional room for a few passengers in an abbreviated passenger area behind the front seat) or crew cab (with full rear doors and room for three comfortably in the back seat).

With very few exceptions, pickup trucks are body-on-frame construction, meaning that the body is mounted to a ladder frame with bolts and bushings to isolate vibration. Most cars today are unibody construction, meaning that their “frame” is actually part of the body. Body-on-frame construction’s greatest advantage  is the ability to haul stuff, either in the cargo bed, or behind in a trailer.

Midsize pickup trucks are up to the basic tasks of homeownership or weekend fun, with the ability to handle runs to Home Depot, or to tow up to 7,500 pounds worth of watercraft or snowmobiles.

Full-size trucks range from lighter duty “half-ton” pickups, medium duty “three-quarter ton” pickups, and heavy duty “one-ton” pickups. Heavy duty pickups offer dual rear wheels as an option, for even more stability when hauling massive trailers up to an incredible 30,000 pounds.


A hybrid has nothing to do with the size or style of a vehicle. It’s all about the powertrain. Instead of relying solely on gas or diesel as with traditional vehicles, hybrids use multiple power sources.

When hybrids were first on the market, they used electric motors and gasoline engines in unison, switching back and forth depending on which power plant was best suited to the task. In city driving or heavy traffic, electric motors are most efficient, offering outstanding torque from a standstill, and consuming very little energy at idle. On the open road, gasoline engines are more efficient, offering power to cruise at highway speeds in top gear.

The earliest hybrids used sophisticated controllers to use that gasoline engine running time to charge the batteries for the electric motor. These efficient cars, trucks and SUVs also used regenerative braking to recharge the batteries. Since they used on-board methods of charging, hybrids were attractive because they didn’t require an outlet like an electric car does.

Modern hybrids are available in a range of different flavors to suit different driving conditions and customer demands, though. The original hybrid drivelines are still available, but manufacturers also offer plug-in variants. These hybrids can be plugged in to a home or office charger, and rely primarily on the electric motors for most of their energy. When the batteries are depleted, the gasoline engine provides the propulsion, while simultaneously recharging the batteries.


Electric cars originally ditched conventional combustion engines to run purely on electric power, and needed to be plugged in for recharging. Electric cars can usually be plugged into a standard 110v wall socket, but charging time is lengthy. Most electric car owners will opt for a home charging station, which requires 220v power (a relatively simple job for an electrician), to allow for much quicker charging.

In recent years, though, manufacturers have experimented with ways of balancing the benefits of full electric power with the convenience of filling up at a gas station to reduce drivers’ “range anxiety” of being caught out without a ready supply of electrons.

Manufacturers have developed fully electric cars that are backed up with a small conventional gasoline engine that acts as a generator. All the power to the wheels comes from the electric motor, but the gasoline generator charges the batteries on the fly. Vehicles like this aren’t “hybrids,” that use gasoline engines for power, but fully electric vehicles.

Nicole Wakelin

Nicole Wakelin