Time to Define: What is a Sportback, Shooting Brake and 4-Door Coupe?

Sami Haj-Assaad
by Sami Haj-Assaad

Automakers have taken a lot of liberties and have become very creative with how they classify cars.

It used to be simple: sedan, wagon, truck, SUV, hatchback or coupe, but now there are all kinds of strange terms for vehicle segments.

A few terms are rising in popularity: sportback, four-door coupe and shooting brake. Buick recently called its upcoming Regal a sportback, while Mercedes calls the CLS and CLA “coupes” even though they have four doors. What does it all mean?

What is a Sportback?

The new Buick Regal is called a sportback, as is the Audi A7 and Porsche Panamera. What do these cars have in common? They all have a gorgeous profile thanks to a sloping roofline and truncated rear end. However, that can’t be all that it takes to describe a sportback, since that’s what also makes a fastback (which is a coupe, to confuse matters even more). So what else could it be? Sportbacks also have roof-mounted trunks, like a hatchback would.

See Also: What is a Crossover?

While wagons and hatchbacks also typically feature the roof-mounted trunk or liftgate, the term has become a bit tarnished over the years, at least in the eyes of premium automakers who need vehicles to stand out. The word “wagon” brings up memories of wood-panelled stations wagons, while the mention of “hatchback” brings up the idea of a pedestrian compact car, like a Toyota Matrix. Sportback sounds edgy and cool, and it makes sense that brands like Audi, Porsche and Buick would use the term. The word sportback is mostly just marketing jargon, but it’s essentially a sedan with a sloping rear end and a roof-hinged cargo hold.

What is a 4-Door Coupe?

But many cars that have a sloping roofline are also called “four-door coupes,” which is confusing in so many ways. A coupe is supposed to have two doors, but the Mercedes CLA and CLS are called coupes despite having four doors. The difference here is how the trunk is opened, which in four-door coupes is a more like a traditional trunk, meaning the rear glass does not open with it.

See Also: 5 Tips For Buying a Used Sports Car

Additionally, four-door coupes tend to have other elements in common with regular two-door coupes, including their window frames. Most coupes actually don’t have window frames. This gives them a sleeker look.

What is a Shooting Brake?

Finally, there’s this term, which isn’t as common in North America but still used by some automakers to impress buyers with otherworldly terminology. A phrase that’s commonly found when describing European wagons, it comes with a short history lesson. Apparently, back in the day, English hunting parties used to carry their gear in a practically sized vehicle, and that has transferred to the modern automobile as a shooting brake.

See Also: New Jaguar XF Wagon Coming to the US

Without a doubt, these cars are always wagons, although the number of doors sometimes varies. Ferrari calls the FF a shooting brake and it has two doors, while the folks at Jaguar describe the wagon variant of the XF a shooting brake as well. Mercedes doesn’t help things by calling the CLS wagon variant (which isn’t sold in North America) a shooting brake, but then calls the non-wagon variant of the vehicle a coupe, despite having four doors anyway.

This is all quite confusing, and it’s only going to get worse. Most of these odd naming conventions are attempts by automakers to create new niches of cars in hopes that it will translate into more sales somehow. Do you think this is clever marketing or making things unnecessarily complicated? Let us know in the comments below.

Sami Haj-Assaad
Sami Haj-Assaad

Sami has an unquenchable thirst for car knowledge and has been at AutoGuide for the past six years. He has a degree in journalism and media studies from the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto and has won multiple journalism awards from the Automotive Journalist Association of Canada. Sami is also on the jury for the World Car Awards.

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Join the conversation
  • Earl Earl on May 12, 2017

    A Sportback just seems like another name for a hatchback, though perhaps seems more upscale. I prefer the term Fastback Sedan for the coupe like 4 doors. And for people who loathe the term Wagon, the European term Estate has a cool ring to it. I had a Mitsubsihi Sportback that was really a small wagon, and the insurance company changed the category from wagon to hatchback midterm...go figure.

    • Billy Cypher Billy Cypher on May 13, 2017

      Seems like, too, that the majority of crossovers are actually wagons. Sometimes with AWD. Of course, tell that to someone who owns a crossover and they act like you just kicked a puppy... Personally, I wouldn't be ashamed to drive a wagon.

  • Michael Rice Michael Rice on May 13, 2017

    What's fascinating is the evolution of the car configuration that defines our current trend towards better space utilization. It doesn't take much more than some squinting to see how most manufacturers are moving to a fractionally lesser iteration of the three-box design. Hopefully this means we'll continue to see cleverly packaged and gorgeous new blends of shooting brakes, sportbacks, and CUVs.