Cars and their stories

Behind the back seat: Hatchback or Wagon?

1955 Chevy NomadThis is article 2 in a series on car body styles, their pre-horseless carriage counterparts, and just exactly what category some cars should fall in.

I want to address the issue of misnomers and vague nomenclature among car styles and how they’re classified. Names from carriages and wagons carried over to the horseless carriages of today. In fact, the design of the automobile hasn’t really created a new transport configuration since we settled on four wheels.

So our question today is: “Is a hatchback really just a wagon?” This stems from car makers classifying nearly identical vehicle styles differently just to improve sales figures. Most of the fuss begins behind the back seat. Notice the variations in a single model of the Ford Focus in the image below.


C and D Pillars

We should be familiar with the pillars of the cabin of a car. That’s at least one convention that’s stuck over the years. The real distinction comes in the shape of the vehicle behind the back seat, or the shape of the car from the C-pillar on back. There are certain features that come with each variation.

The traditional notch back sedan obviously has a trunk lid and a separate rear window. The fastback sedan has a slopping rear window that blends the roofline with the rear deck, meaning  the height of where a trunk lid would be on the notchback sedan. This is usually for aesthetic and aerodynamic purposes.

A hatchback incorporates the sloping rear window with the opening for the cargo area normally designated for  a trunk. This invention was a byproduct of finding the right kind of access for the cargo area in a minivan or even (gasp!) the station wagon.



The notorious station wagon killer,

A station wagon is clearly defined by the roofline extending parallel to the ground all the way to the end of the vehicle.  This is where the 5 door hatchback gets confused with a station wagon. Does a sloping roof line (for aerodynamics and fuel economy) that doesn’t drop all the way to the beltline or rear deck mean it’s a wagon? The beltline is the imaginary line or trim line that wraps around the cabin which accentuates the parts above the hood or trunk.

I believe the answer lies in my reference to the minivan. The minivan played a role in the decline and growing disdain of the station wagon. The top hinged rear door found on both directly migrated to the utility of a hatchback on a sedan or coupe. Automobile marketing has made it a bit of a faux pas to call a sedan with a windowed, rear access and a parallel roofline like a minivan, a station wagon. So now automakers often call it a 5 door hatchback.

Keep in mind, a true hatchback would have an obtuse angle between the roof and rear window and usually appears in its true form in the 3 door variation. Another key distinction is that the opening on a hatchback doesn’t usually extend below the beltline to the cargo area floor or bumper. You usually have a lip like our Pinto below.

pinto hatchback

The Ford Pinto hatchback

The recent introduction of crossover SUVs (the minivan killer) doesn’t help either with their standardized use of a top-hinged door for rear access. You might even say the station wagon is still quite alive just in a different form, but the trunk lid is an endangered species available only on traditional notchback sedans and coupes. Then again, some suspect that the station wagon is making a comeback due to regulations in the European auto market making the station wagon a more financially sound choice than a comparable-sized crossover SUV.

In case you’re still wondering, a compact, 3 door hatchback cannot be a two door station wagon, despite having solidified its staying power as a popular car style. A station wagon must have room for multiple people and ample cargo space. This requires a minimum wheelbase not seen in compact hatchbacks. However, there is an interesting variant of the two door station wagon: the shooting break. That’ll be the topic of an upcoming article.