Sedans and hatchbacks are similar, but hatchbacks have the clear advantage for active lifestyles.
If you’re looking for a small, fuel-efficient car for your family, that usually means one of two options: a hatchback, or a sedan. Both have their pros and cons, but because a hatchback offers a larger cargo area, it can be the better option if you often find yourself toting around people and their things.
Learn about the differences between these passenger cars, and how to know which one might be right for you.
What’s the Difference Between Sedans and Hatchbacks?
Sedans are small cars that feature a “three-box” construction: the front compartment is for the engine, the middle compartment is for passengers, and the small third space is the trunk. Sedans are very popular, and they’re what most people think of when you say the word “car.”
Hatchbacks, by contrast, are a bit newer but have changed a lot in style over the years. When you think of a hatchback you probably think of an unattractive, boxy little car, and that is indeed what they started out as (think: Ford Pinto).
But a hatchback is really just a two-box construction: a front compartment for the engine, and a second compartment for combined passengers and cargo space. The rear compartment opens with a hatch hinged at the roofline (hence the word, “hatchback”), rather than halfway down the car like the trunk of a sedan.
These days, the line between hatchbacks and sedans is starting to blend. In fact, many automakers are even designing hatchbacks that look like sedans in appearance with a rear hatch. Many popular car models, like the Honda Civic, the Toyota Corolla, and the Ford Focus are even offered in both hatchback and sedan versions.
Modern hatchbacks are more styled and sleek, and that’s great news if you’re intrigued by the benefits of a hatchback but you don’t like their boxy design. You wouldn’t even really know at first glance that cars like the Audi A5 Sportback or the Kia Stinger are actually hatchbacks.
Best for Transporting Cargo: Hatchbacks
The biggest difference you’ll notice in sedans vs. hatchbacks is a hatchback has much more cargo space. This is what makes hatchbacks a favorite of soccer moms, outdoor aficionados, and other miscellaneous gear-toters everywhere who are looking for practicality with a smaller carbon footprint.
The entire rear end of a hatchback is essentially one big cargo space, similar to station wagons but without the extra bulk. You can fold the seats down to create even more room. In fact, a small hatchback can even offer you more space than some midsize sedans.
You can fold down the rear seats of a sedan with some models to get more storage space, but even then you’re still limited on what you can fit in there. Your cargo can’t be taller than the trunk space in a sedan, which isn’t very high. The more boxy style of a hatchback allows you much more flexibility with the size of the cargo you can carry.
Best for Keeping Valuables Secure and Private: Sedans
Although hatchbacks win in terms of cargo space, all that extra room does have one big downside: privacy. It’s far easier for people to see into your car, including the cargo you’re carrying.
Often, hatchbacks will have a privacy screen that you can secure over the back end, sort of like a horizontal window blind. However, if you’re carrying a lot of cargo, or if it’s an unusual or large shape, you may not be able to conceal it as easily. Plus, if you have the privacy screen down, passers-by are able to see that you’re trying to hide something. Both of those leave you more vulnerable to vehicle break-ins.
Sedans, while they don’t offer you as much space, at least allow you to conceal what you are carrying much better. You can lock your cargo in a sealed compartment (or semi-sealed, if your back seats can fold down). Since people can’t tell whether you’re carrying anything back there or not, you run less of a risk of theft.
Best for Maneuverability In Cities: Hatchbacks
Most sedans have a much smaller footprint these days than the boat-like cars of the 50s. Nevertheless, they generally are still larger than hatchbacks, which save space by combining two of the three compartments that sedans have.
This smaller size gives hatchbacks a slight advantage if you’re driving in tight spaces around cities. You’ll be able to zip around the tight curves in parking garages, scoot down narrow streets with ease, plus take advantage of all of those nice compact car parking spaces. These differences become really apparent when you test drive a sedan and a hatchback.
Best for Good Visibility While Driving: Hatchbacks
You’re able to see out of both sedans and hatchbacks with ease, of course. But if you’re worried about visibility, such as if you live in an area where it’s often rainy or with otherwise difficult visibility conditions, you might prefer a hatchback.
Since the body style on a hatchback is box-shaped, the windows are often more vertically-oriented than the sloping rear windows of a sedan. This makes it easier to see out the windows without distortions and without parts of the vehicle encroaching on your field of vision.
Best for a More Comfortable Ride: Sedans
If you’re looking for a smoother ride for long road trips, a sedan might be a more appropriate choice for you. They typically have more legroom in the front seat, which can come in handy if you’ll be driving a lot and need space to stretch out.
Sedans also tend to be quieter than hatchbacks. One of the benefits of the third cargo compartment being walled-off is that it isolates some of the road noise from the rear wheels. In a hatchback, by contrast, you’ll hear all of the road noise from the rear of the vehicle since you’re seated in the same compartment.
It’s not a huge difference, but it is something to consider if you prefer whisper-quiet rides with more legroom.
Best for Tall Passengers: Hatchbacks
In contrast, while sedans might be better for tall drivers because of their increased leg space, hatchbacks are better for tall backseat passengers. That’s because the sloping design of sedans tend to make the roofline a bit shorter over the passenger seating. The headroom in a hatchback is generally level across the entire passenger area — front and back.
Again, it’s not a huge difference. But if you plan on toting around Shaquille O’Neal and his NBA buddies, maybe choose the sedan (or, better yet, skip the small cars and SUVs entirely).
Best for Fuel Economy: It’s a Tie
Many car buyers are concerned about fuel efficiency when it comes to visiting the dealership, and for good reason. However, there’s no clear winner in this category.
Since hatchbacks are smaller, you might think that they’d be better with gas mileage. However, that’s not always the case. While hatchbacks are boxier, and therefore less aerodynamic, than the smoothly-styled sedans.
There isn’t really any data that says definitively whether hatchbacks or sedans are better in terms of gas mileage. But both styles do offer excellent gas mileage compared to larger vehicles.
Let Your Priorities Decide the Right Vehicle for You
If you’re shopping for a new car, the biggest question that’ll help you decide between a hatchback and a sedan is this: Is having more cargo space important to you? If cargo space is your priority, the hatchback is the clear winner.
If cargo space isn’t as important to you, then take a look at some of the other deciding factors, such as ride quality, maneuverability, and privacy. These won’t vary that much between types of cars and sedan counterparts like coupes and station wagons, but they can help tip the balance one way or the other for you.
About The Author
Lindsay VanSomeren is a personal finance expert who has written for many websites such as Credit Karma, LendingTree, The Balance, and Experian. She currently lives in Kirkland, Washington with her husband, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time she enjoys homebrewing, reading, and outdoor adventures.