What is a coupe? We answer this popular question and many others to help you become a smarter, more informed car buyer.
As with any purchasing decision, knowledge is power when deciding what car to buy. Of the many different types of cars currently available, coupes are undoubtedly the least practical. But that’s not to say they don’t serve a purpose.
What is a coupe, and why would anyone want one? This expert researched buying guide provides all the information you need to decide whether or not a coupe is right for you.
What Is A Coupe?
In the most technical sense, a coupe is a car with separate compartments for the engine, passenger seating area, and cargo bay (trunk); a fixed roof with a sloping, truncated rear section; and two doors.
Coupes may or may not have rear seats, and their two doors are usually wider than normal to compensate for the absence of rear doors. Getting in and out of the rear seats, if any, requires the front seats to be folded and pushed forward.
There has been some blurring of this definition in recent years, however. Some models such as the discontinued Mazda RX8 have the proportions of a conventional coupe but feature two extra doors for the rear passengers, while cars like the Mercedes-Benz CLS are marketed as coupés even though they are technically sedans.
Coupes are generally either built from a modified sedan platform or purpose-built from the ground up. When a model is offered in both coupe and sedan body styles, the coupe variant is typically smaller and sportier than the sedan variant.
What Does Coupe Mean?
The word “coupé” is the past participle of the French verb couper (“to cut”). Loosely translated, it means “chopped off”, an apt descriptor considering that coupes tend to be noticeably shorter than most other passenger vehicles.
The term was first applied to horse-drawn carriages of the 19th Century, particularly those that had their rear-facing seats removed. In Europe, it is pronounced ‘koo-PAY’, while North Americans (Americans and Canadians) pronounce it ‘KOOP’.
Pros And Cons Of Coupes
Every type of vehicle has its usefulness: sedans strike a good balance between fuel efficiency and usability, hatchbacks are very versatile and maneuverable, trucks can haul and tow, minivans are people-movers, and so on.
What about coupes? Are they all show but no substance? We’re going to look at the advantages and disadvantages of owning a coupe and let you decide for yourself.
Here are five good reasons for buying a coupe.
- Design: Coupes look more attractive than practically any other type of vehicle and have long been the benchmark for what gorgeous vehicles are supposed to look like. The omission of rear doors gives designers more freedom to realize sleeker and sportier designs.
- Space: Because less importance is placed on the back row, more of a coupe’s cabin space is dedicated to the front row. That translates to more leg and knee room for the driver and front passenger.
- Accessibility: Coupes have bigger door openings than other vehicle types, which makes it easier for the driver and front-row passenger to get in and out of the vehicle.
- Performance: Coupes prioritize handling and performance. Their compact size and lower ride height result in a lighter weight, lower center of gravity, and better acceleration and braking than comparable sedans and SUVs. Most coupes are rear-wheel-drive, which further improves handling and acceleration.
- More valuable: Because coupes are produced in far lower numbers than sedans, hatchbacks, and SUVs, they’re more exclusive and, therefore, become more valuable in later years. Their scarcity makes them a hotter collector’s item.
Why Buy A Coupe
These performance-oriented vehicles are about looking good and having fun. Consider getting one if you’re single and don’t drive with more than one other passenger.
Coupes are not practical vehicles, and most of their shortcomings revolve around their impracticality. You may not want a coupe for the following reasons.
- Passenger space: The cramped back seat of a coupe makes them unsuitable for carrying people and installing a child seat. These aren’t family vehicles.
- Cargo space: Not only does the coupe’s short length reduce its rear seating area, but it also cuts into its cargo room. Remember, these vehicles are built for performance, not practicality.
- Accessibility: The absence of rear doors makes accessing the cramped rear seats a hassle for most people. Also, the fact that a coupe’s existing doors are longer and wider than normal increases the likelihood of swinging them into nearby objects.
- Capability: If you tow or drive off-road regularly, a coupe isn’t for you. Unlike SUVs and pickup trucks, these vehicles typically have a delicate construction, low ground clearance, and rear-wheel-drive configuration, qualities that make them unsuitable for towing and driving on difficult terrain or in inclement weather.
Why Not Buy A Coupe
If you have a family or regularly carry people, live in an area with bad roads or weather, or use your vehicle for heavy-duty work, a coupe isn’t for you.
Types Of Coupes
The word ‘coupe’ has come to connote style, power, and speed, so car manufacturers play fast and loose with the term in hopes of spreading some of that positive image to their non-coupe models. “Four-door coupes” are a prime suspect as they are sedans that are marketed as coupes.
What is a coupe? Definitely not a four-door coupe! No matter what anyone tells you, these cars are sedans through and through, not coupes.
The same goes for SUV coupes as they are nothing more than crossover SUVs with a short, dramatically-sloping roofline intended to mimic the look of a real coupe. Learn more in this detailed SUV buying guide.
Also, while some coupes have roof-hinged cargo doors (liftgates) similar to hatchbacks, we don’t consider three-door hatchbacks such as the Fiat 500 and MINI Cooper to be coupes since their design and layout are more inline with a hatchback than they are with a traditional coupe.
That out of way, let’s look at the two main types of coupes currently available to car buyers, namely sedan-based coupes and performance coupes.
Automakers often make coupe variants of existing sedans to reduce manufacturing costs. Because these models are based on a modified sedan platform, they tend to be roomier but less sporty than purpose-built coupes.
Coupe versions of popular front-wheel-drive sedans such as the Honda Civic, Honda Accord, and Nissan Altima once proliferated, but, alas, front-wheel-drive coupes are all but dead and you’d be hard-pressed to find any new examples in the marketplace.
Examples: Dodge Challenger on the affordable end; BMW 4 Series, Audi A5, Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe on the premium end.
- Cheaper to make and, therefore, more affordable than purpose-built coupes
- Usually the most spacious coupes
- Sedan platforms are heavier than purpose-built coupe platforms, impeding handling, and overall performance
- Not as visually striking as purpose-built coupes
Sedan-based coupes are ideal for those who have a predilection for the coupe body style and aren’t too concerned about having the best performance.
These coupes have custom-built platforms that are optimized for speed, handling, and outright performance, though some are designed to be luxury cruisers. They are almost always rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive and account for many of the best-driving cars ever made.
Examples: Toyota 86, Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, Toyota Supra on the affordable end; Chevrolet Corvette, Porsche 911, Mercedes-AMG GT on the premium end.
- Purpose-built platform results in better driving performance than sedan-based coupes
- Some models provide incredible driving thrills for a very affordable price
- Inexpensive models can have cheap-feeling interiors
- Less interior space and cargo capacity than similarly priced sedan-based coupes
Performance coupes emphasize high-performance driving. Though generally more expensive and less spacious than their sedan-based counterparts, they deliver the striking looks and great driving experience that people normally associate with coupes.
Coupe vs Other Car Types
If you’ve reached this point in the guide, then you already know what a coupe is and what the benefits and drawbacks of owning one are. To provide you with an even better perspective of what they have to offer, we’re going to pit them against two vehicle types that they’re often compared with — sedans and hatchbacks.
Coupe vs Sedan
Sedans and coupes are two of the most commonly compared vehicle types. A sedan has traditionally meant a low-riding vehicle with four doors and an enclosed trunk (learn more in our sedan buying guide), while a coupe is essentially a sedan with a short sloping roofline and only two doors.
However, it’s not only the number of doors that sets these two body styles apart. Coupes also tend to be shorter and narrower than sedans, which impacts their capabilities for better or for worse. Here are the important factors to consider.
- Styling: Coupes tend to have sleeker, sportier, and more dramatic styling than sedans, which, due to their emphasis on practicality, have a more reserved appearance. The removal of two doors gives designers more liberty to stretch the design envelope.
- Space, seating: Most sedans are long and spacious enough to seat five people in relative comfort, while the more compact coupe typically seats four passengers at most. The rear seats in coupes are often too tight and uncomfortable to be usable, however.
- Cargo space: The larger size of sedans also grants them a larger cargo capacity than coupes.
- Performance: A coupe’s lighter, more compact frame allows for better acceleration and sportier handling, though sedans sometimes have more powerful engines to make up for their larger mass.
- Price: While not always the case, coupes are generally more expensive than sedans. If the coupe and sedan are variants of the same underlying model (e.g. BMW 3 Series vs 4 Series), expect the come to cost more.
- Value retainment: Coupes hold their value better than sedans. They are rarer and more coveted, factors that make them hotter collector items.
- Cost of ownership: Coupe owners have the unfortunate reputation of being younger and more reckless than the average driver, so insurance companies usually charge them a higher premium. In addition to having a higher purchase price, coupes are also more expensive to repair and maintain than sedans on average.
Which Should You Buy?
If you want a vehicle that has enough room to carry up to five people and carry a decent amount of cargo, then a sedan will be the smartest choice. However, if an attractive design and sporty ride are of the utmost importance and you’re not too worried about practicality, a coupe may serve you well.
Coupe vs Hatchback
Whereas coupes are two-door vehicles that typically have a separate compartment for passengers and another one for the cargo area, with hatchbacks, the passenger and cargo areas comprise one large compartment and are open to each other, with an upward-opening rear door granting access to the cargo area.
Coupes have sleek, sloping rooflines, while hatchbacks have boxier, vertical rear-ends to maximize cargo and rear passenger space. You can learn more about hatchbacks in our detailed hatchback buying guide.
Basic overview out of the way, let’s dive deeper to see how these two body styles truly compare to each other.
- Styling: Most hatchbacks place functionality above style and are, therefore, far less exciting to look at than the sleeker, sportier bodies of coupes.
- Space, seating: Both vehicle types are typically shorter than sedans; however, while many hatchbacks can seat five passengers comfortably, coupes are mostly limited to four passengers, and their rear seating area is often too tight to be comfortable.
- Cargo space: Having a cargo bay that’s open to the passenger area, a wide-opening rear door, and fold-down second-row seats give hatchbacks significantly more cargo room.
- Accessibility: While the larger doors of coupes make accessing the front seats easier, the lack of rear doors means passengers will have to endure a certain amount of body contortion to get in and out of the back seats. That isn’t the case with five-door hatchbacks.
- Performance: Coupes are performance-focused vehicles, while hatchbacks prioritize functionality. Understandable, they offer more power and better handling than the average hatchback.
- Price: You’ll pay more for a coupe and than a similarly-sized hatchback because they are rarer and more coveted. They hold their value better for the same reasons and are more likely to become a collector’s item.
- Cost of ownership: Because of the performance-oriented nature of coupes, insurance companies associate them with younger, more reckless drivers and, therefore, charge owners a higher premium. Coupes are also more expensive to repair and maintain.
Which Should You Buy?
Hatchbacks are made to haul people and things, while coupes are designed to look good and drive well. If looks are more important to you than practicality, a coupe will be right up your alley. Otherwise, the extra passenger and cargo space of hatchbacks make them better everyday vehicles.
Hybrid And Electric Coupes
Automakers have placed pure electric coupes on the backburner as they tackle the highest volume car segments first, notably crossover SUVs. While a new Tesla Roadster is on the way and boutique companies such as Rimac offer a few exotic options, there are currently no pure electric coupes for the average, cash-strapped car buyer.
However, automakers are betting heavily on electrified powertrains to make their sports cars faster and more fuel-efficient, which is why many of the most exciting sports coupes of recent years have combined electric motors with traditional gasoline engines for propulsion.
If you have some money to spend and are willing to consider hybrid sports cars, there are some excellent options in the marketplace. The new Honda/Acura NSX is a bone fide supercar that outperforms many exotic supercars for a fraction of the price, while the Lexus LC and Polestar 1 are fun, incredibly-styled coupes that are sure to turn some heads.
History Of The Coupe
The first automotive coupes arrived in the 1800s and were fashioned after horse-drawn coupe carriages of the time. The driver sat in the open and at the front of an enclosure that sat two passengers on a bench seat.
The term “coupe” took on a slightly different meaning in the early 1900s: A two-door car with an enclosure that accommodated both the driver and up to two passengers. An exception was the coupé de ville or coupé chauffeur, which retained the opened seating section at the front of the enclosure for the driver.
The Society of Automobile Engineers gave the term a proper definition in 1918, describing it as an enclosed vehicle that is operated from the inside, seats up to three people, and sometimes has a fourth seat that faces backwards.
Decades later, it would be applied to a variety of vehicles featuring front seats and rear seats that were positioned further back and further forward, respectively, than was the norm. These vehicles were also known as close-coupled cars.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that the term coupé came to mean a two-door, fixed roof passenger car, while the early 2000s saw the arrival of the so-called “four-door coupe,” a sedan with a sloping roofline that is marketed as a coupe even though it doesn’t fit the long-accepted definition of what it means to be one.
Coupes were a fairly popular body style from the 1960s to the mid-2000s; however, the market’s recent shift towards more practical and economical vehicles, especially crossovers and SUVs, has seen their sales dwindle to a pittance.
Front-wheel drive coupes are all but dead, while rear-wheel models have become a niche product.
Coupe FAQs And Answers
The answers to these popular questions about coupes and sports cars summarize many of the key points we highlighted in this guide.
Are Coupes Good Cars?
Yes, but they are only for a certain kind of person. While their truncated body and two-door layout come at the expense of rear-seat space and cargo room, coupes offer a level of style and performance that more popular car types such as SUVs, sedans, and hatchbacks simply can’t match.
These cars are for people who want to drive in style and have fun, not for those who place a premium on practicality.
Are Four-Door Coupes Real Coupes?
No. Four-door coupes are almost always sedans that are marketed as coupes. Although these vehicles have dramatic sloping rooflines that people normally associate with coupes, their underlying design points to a different class of vehicle.
By definition, a coupe has only two doors, so the term ‘four-door coupe’ is a contradiction.
Which Coupes Are The Most Fun To Drive?
Coupes that are built from the ground up tend to be sportier and more fun to drive than those built on a modified sedan platform. Having a purpose-built platform allows engineers to make them lighter, faster, and nimbler than sedan-based coupes.
What Is An SUV Coupe ? Are They Real Coupes?
An SUV coupe like the BMW X6 is a crossover SUV with a chopped, dramatically-sloping roofline that’s intended to resemble a coupe’s roofline. Much like the four-door coupe, it isn’t a real coupe but rather a utility vehicle with some questionable design elements.
SUV coupes are yet another example of car manufacturers playing fast and loose with the term ‘coupe’. Interestingly, they are also called sports utility coupes, or ‘SUCs’ for short.
Should I Buy A Coupe Or A Sedan?
It depends on what the car will be used for. If you regularly carry people around or have fully grown children, the extra doors, roomier back seats, and larger trunk of a sedan will be better suited to your lifestyle.
While coupes generally offer a better driving experience than sedans, there are many sports sedans with excellent performance credentials, as well. People tend to buy coupes mainly because they prefer the look of two-door cars.
Coupes are not the most practical vehicles, but what they lack in practicality, they make up for with an incredible level of style, handling, and performance that few other vehicle types can match.
While these two-door vehicles sometimes come with a second row of seats, they are primarily designed for individuals who drive alone or with one other passenger.
People primarily buy coupes for their sleek, sporty design and the exhilarating driving experience they offer, so if you’re someone who wants to make a statement and feel more alive when behind the wheel, it may be the right vehicle type for you.
So, what is a coupe? Put succinctly, it’s style and fun on wheels — a vehicle for those who see cars as more than basic transportation.