What is a Coupe?

The coupe is a popular body style that conforms to a handful of defining characteristics. Coupes have fully enclosed passenger compartments, separate interior compartments for the engine, passengers, and trunk, and include seating that’s broken up into two rows. Most coupes provide seating for five, although the rear bench seat is typically only large enough for two adults. Coupes have also historically had only two doors, although “four door coupes” are also marketed as well.

1932 Ford Deuce Coupe

The 1932 Ford “Deuce Coupe” has long been a favorite in the hot rod scene.

History of the Coupe

Unlike the sedan, there is a very clear history and origin of the term coupe. The word “coupé” is French for “cut” and originally referred to fully-enclosed horse-drawn carriages that had only a single, front-facing bench seat. These carriages were derived from larger carriages that also had rear-facing seats. This forward section of the carriage was “cut off” to create the coupé. The term “coupe de ville” can also be traced back to these horse-drawn carriages, when it referred to a coupe that lacked any enclosure or roof for the driver.

When the automobile was introduced, the word “coupe” was appropriated to refer to enclosed vehicles that seated two or three people. During the 1920s, the term was defined as an enclosed automobile that was operated from inside the vehicle and provided seating for two or three people. This definition, which was created by the Society of Automobile Engineers, also allowed for an additional, backwards-facing seat. At the same time, the SAE also defined the term “convertible coupe” to refer to a coupe with a removable roof.

Due to relatively light weights, early coupes were very popular in hot rod culture. The 1932 Ford “Deuce Coop” was even immortalized in the Beach Boys song “Little Deuce Coupe.”

The term “drop-head coupe” was also used to refer to automobiles with convertible roofs through the 1950s, although that terminology had fallen out of use by the 1960s.

Modern Coupes

Today, coupes are fully-enclosed automobiles that provide seating for at least four adults in two rows. They also include three distinct interior volumes, including an engine compartment, passenger compartment, and trunk. These are all characteristics that the body style shares with the sedan, although coupes are also defined as having less than 33 cubic feet of rear interior volume.

Historically, coupes were also defined as having only two doors. In fact, many coupes throughout history were simply shortened family sedans that had two doors instead of four. However, that trend has changed to the point where the word “coupe” is almost more of a marketing term (meaning, “smaller than a sedan”) than a real body style.

Coupes are typically separate lines from sedans today, and there are often “four door coupe” variants of a traditional two door model in any given manufacturers lineup. In a turnaround from prior trends, some of the smallest “sedans” on the market are actually coupes that have been modified to have four doors instead of just two.

Chevrolet Cobalt Coupe

The Chevrolet Cobalt, and its predecessor the Cavalier, are examples of coupes that also have four door variants.

Coupes typically fall into the subcompact, and compact size ranges. Some compact coupes currently on the market include:

  • Chevrolet Cobalt
  • Ford Focus
  • Toyota Corolla

Some of the subcompact coupes currently on the market include:

  • Chevrolet Aveo
  • Ford Fiesta
  • Mazda 2
  • Nissan Versa


JD Laukkonen

JD Laukkonen turned wrenches in the north end of Seattle for a decade, so he's no stranger to the inner workings of modern automobiles. He has worked as a freelance writer since closing his shop in 2007, and he currently covers automotive technology for Lifewire.com.

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