What Is A Sedan?

Dustin Hawley | Feb 22, 2021

Have you ever heard of the term "three-box design"? If you don’t consider yourself an automotive aficionado, you likely haven’t. Yet this term precisely describes the architecture of a car with a physically separated front end (engine bay), middle section (passenger compartment), and rear end (trunk). Why is this relevant? Because this is the automotive design concept associated with the word "sedan." However, as a result of ever-changing circumstances, the word "sedan" and its association with vehicles has changed a bit over the years.

what is a sedan

Looking throughout history, the word “sedan” can be found as far back as the 17th century, used in reference to an enclosed chair carried on poles. This unique mode of transportation was exclusive to the privileged ones who had the opportunity to enjoy luxurious treatment in France. This chair, carried on poles by two operators, was called the “sedan-chair.” 

In an attempt to make an analogy with our three-box explanation, the carrier at the front would be the “first box.” We could consider the chair enclosed in a cabin (the “second box”), while the third box could be the carrier behind the contraption. 

While this is one of the first noted uses of the term “sedan,” the word did pop up a few times in the 19th century, as well. Some literature during this period described certain types of horse-drawn carriages as “sedans.” But the first mention of the word within the informal automotive vernacular took place back in 1899 during the introduction of the Renault Voiturette Type B. It was essentially an enclosed cabin with a chair and four-wheels instead of human carriers at the front and the back. Though metaphorically comparable, it still paled in comparison to what we associate with the characterization of the modern sedan.

Sedan: An Overview - Find the best car deals!

The first “modern” mention of the word sedan occurred in 1912 with the Studebaker Four and Studebaker Six’s introduction. The irony, however, is that these cars weren’t even sedans, per se. In fact, before January 11th, 1913, when Hudson Motor Company released its first sedan, we did not even know what the word “sedan” truly entailed. This was the first time we saw the sedan with a standard three-box design, and thus the association with the term began.

After introducing the Hudson sedan, and over the 20th century, this automotive concept became synonymous with the word “car.” After all, when you think of an automobile, it is likely that many people picture a sedan in their mind. With every passing decade, automakers continued experimenting with design, bringing us sedans of many different varieties, including cars with an engine in the back and not under the front bonnet. There were sedans with longitudinally, or transversely mounted engines, with front, rear, or all-wheel drive. But even with the multitude of changes and technological advancements that occurred with sedans, the most significant evolution of the word in modern terms dates back to the 1930s.

After manufacturers perfected the process of building unibody cars, nearly every small passenger vehicle (including sedans) migrated from the body-on-frame chassis to unibody construction. However, some sedans built on body-on-frame chassis did manage to survive, even through the 2010s. One of the last remaining models, the Lincoln Town Car, was finally discontinued in 2011.

Advantages Of A Sedan - Find the best car deals!

It is not by coincidence or sheer luck that sedans have survived and thrived for over a century. With the introduction of the unibody construction, manufacturers found it practical to build and distribute, while drivers loved it for its practicality and versatility. Sedans presented numerous advantages to consumers, including:

  • Sedans are safer compared to other car architectures.
  • Sedans are more stable and engaging to drive due to better weight distribution.
  • They offer more comprehensive engine options. For example, it was not uncommon for the sedan to offer numerous engine options, like the VW Passat B5.5 with a four-cylinder, five-cylinder, six-cylinder, and eight-cylinder engine option, not to mention diesel options, as well)
  • Due to their shape, sedans tend to be more aerodynamic than hatchbacks and SUVs, thus achieving better fuel efficiency.
  • Sedans are very versatile in their offerings. Many models are affordable on nearly any budget, and there are also extremely well-equipped luxury models to suit even the most refined tastes and price points.

Different Types Of Sedans - Find the best car deals!

We have identified several different sedan forms to consider when assessing your next car purchase. Whether you seek performance, luxury, practicality, or a little bit of each, knowing your options will provide you with insights that will help you make a choice that best suits you:

Transversely Mounted Engines

Taking the lessons learned from hatchbacks, sedans with transversely mounted engines can be smaller vehicles with more passenger room compared to sedans with longitudinally mounted engines. Nowadays, transversely mounted engines seem to be the most prevalent on the market. Sedans with transversely mounted engines are usually equipped with a front-wheel-drive and an optional all-wheel-drive (AWD) system.

Longitudinally Mounted Engines

This is the kind of sedan form that many car enthusiasts know and enjoy best. Due to its design, this form does compromise the passenger compartment a bit. Still, it provides unique advantages like better weight distribution, less vibration, and more space to integrate larger engines. Sedans with longitudinally mounted engines often have a larger capacity and come in a rear-wheel-drive (RWD) configuration. 

Two-Door Sedans

Before World War 2, two-door sedans were a thing. But these days, they are mostly a relic of the past. Two-door sedans offered seating for five, with two doors (obviously) and separated compartments for the engine and the trunk.

Four-Door Coupe Sedans

Truth be told, four-door coupes aren’t really sedans, but more hatchbacks. Despite their sometimes sportier looks (take a glance at the Kia Stinger or the Audi A7, for example), a four-door coupe is of the classic two-box design (with the notable exception of the Volkswagen CC, which has a wholly separated cargo compartment).

Summary - Find the best car deals!

Since they are arguably the most recognizable car form known today, sedans have evolved considerably throughout the twentieth century. With the introduction of the four-door coupes, small sedan-looking hatchbacks, and several other two-box automobiles that share commonalities with sedans, we can say that this vehicle type is far from extinction and more relevant than ever before. 

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