A sedan is a car with a fixed roof that can seat at least four people, featuring a “three-box” design — one “box” or compartment up front for the engine, one for occupants, and another compartment in back known as the trunk. The Speedwell Motor Co. of Dayton, Ohio, is said to have been the first to use the term sedan to describe a car, its 1911 model (see that old-timey car below). Early sedans might have had two or four doors, but the modern sense of the word is associated with four doors.
Merriam-Webster dates the origin of the word "sedan" to 1636. (“Corvette” also first appeared that year.) Sedan was derived from the Latin “sedere,” meaning “to sit,” and originally referred to a sedan chair, in which an aristocrat was hoisted over the hoi polloi by manservants. Sedan bearers were called “chairmen,” which has also taken on a different meaning.
A sedan in England is called a saloon, yet another word with an alternate meaning. Let's not get into the fact that saloons have bonnets and boots instead of hoods and trunks.
“Sedan” was basically synonymous with “car” for decades. Sedans ruled the American highway. When GM jingle writers urged us to "see the USA in your Chevrolet," they were talking about an Impala. Sports cars existed, pickup trucks were always a thing for farm and fleet, and likewise there were SUV-type vehicles — the Chevy Suburban nameplate has been in use since 1935. But the general public drove Detroit sedans. Later, Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys were the top-selling vehicles in America for years. The Toyota Corolla, a model that encompasses other body styles but is primarily a sedan, is the best-selling vehicle of all time, at 50 million copies and counting.
Sedans are not dead yet
Given the realities of the automotive marketplace, the headline on this article is practically an existential question. As our reviewer Lawrence Ulrich said in his recent review of the Mercedes C-Class: “Sedans have become the Jan Brady of automobiles. They’re overlooked and underappreciated.” Overlooked, yes, but the passenger car is far from dead yet.
Sure, sedans are currently neglected by the car-buying public. SUV/crossovers and pickup trucks together now exceed 80 percent of new light-vehicle sales. That doesn’t leave much market share for the humble sedan.
Detroit has all but turned its back on cars for the American market, with just a few vestiges remaining, such as the Chevy Malibu (though the Impala’s gone), or the Chrysler 300. Maybe it's a case of, “If you don’t build it, they won’t come.” Or maybe it’s, “They didn’t come, so we quit building it.” Automakers say they’re focusing on the vehicles people actually want — trucks and SUVs — while developing future electric vehicles (a lot of which will probably also be trucks and SUVs). However, trucks and SUVs tend to sell at higher prices and yield higher profits than sedans, so automakers have an ulterior motive for neglecting sedans.
But not all automakers have forsaken what historically has been the great American family car. Honda still sees a market for the Accord and Civic. Toyota offers Camry and Corolla. Nissan has Sentra, Altima and Maxima. Hyundai the Accent, Elantra, Sonata. And so forth. The Japanese, Korean and German car companies have stood by sedans despite slumping sales.
Benefits of a sedan
Sedans may no longer dominate today's market, but they are better than ever, and worthy of your serious consideration. Generally speaking, here's why:
Sedans ride and handle better than SUVs and trucks. A key reason for this is that they are closer to the ground. This also means they are more stable than top-heavy SUVs and less prone to rollovers. And because they are lighter, they are generally quicker off the line and have shorter braking distances. A heavy SUV might fare better in a crash, but a lighter sedan might have avoided the crash in the first place.
Sedans are more fuel efficient. Sedans usually weigh hundreds of pounds less than SUVs. And they are far more aerodynamic — a critical advantage for fuel economy. Sedans can typically beat a comparable SUV by several miles per gallon. A midsize non-hybrid Honda Accord gets up to 30 mpg city and 38 highway, while a compact Honda CR-V is rated at 28 city, 34 highway. (The two models have identical passenger volume.) The CR-V is one of the best SUVs on the market, and its mileage is very good. But the Accord is better yet.
Sedans cost less. The price difference between a sedan and SUV can be thousands of dollars, plus don't forget the additional interest costs over the life of a car loan. In 2020, before it was discontinued in the U.S., the Ford Fusion’s starting price was $23,170. A compact Ford Escape, which has similar passenger volume, cost $1,700 more that year, at $24,885. The Escape in 2022 now costs $26,760. The average transaction price for a new vehicle today is over $45,000 — that's due in part to high demand and scarce supply, but also because expensive SUVs and trucks have come to dominate sales.
Sedans have trunks, where you can safely store your belongings, declutter your passenger cabin and hide valuables from the bad guys.
Sedans have quieter cabins. The three-box design means road noise from the rear wheels is isolated in the trunk, as opposed to the open cargo area of an SUV.
Sedans are better-looking. Have you noticed how SUVs look a lot alike? It’s harder for designers to make their two-box body style distinctive, which may be why we’re seeing a flurry of “coupe” sloped-roof SUVs hitting the market, or the “floating roof” trend. The sedan format has been the basis of distinctive and varied automotive designs for 100 years.
A sedan isn’t perfect. It can’t always haul large cargo items like an SUV (or station wagon) can. Buyers often say they want a truck or SUV for its ride height and “commanding view” of traffic, and a sedan can’t offer that. Though when many, if not most, of the vehicles that surround you are also elevated, that perceived advantage is canceled out. Buyers also say they want an SUV for all-wheel drive, which for many people in many parts of the country is buying for an extreme use case. Few SUVs ever actually go off-road, and FWD cars perform admirably in snow. But if AWD is truly needed, many sedans offer it.
Future of the sedan
The public might yet come back around. For one thing, the conversion to electric powertrains makes intriguing new designs possible. EV powertrains take up less room, so they free up greater interior passenger volume. Also, high gas prices and the scarcity of more popular vehicles might cause buyers to take a second look at sedans.
And, as the current car-buying generation ages out, market research hints at why so many automakers are bucking market trends and keeping sedans in their lineup. SUV buyers tend to skew a bit older, and a 2019 study by Nissan showed that millennials are overwhelmingly interested in sedans. It seems like nobody wants to drive what their parents drove. But they might just wind up driving the kind of cars their grandparents once enjoyed.