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What Is a Coupe?

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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2014
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While the term coupe is widely used by automobile manufacturers, its exact meaning tends to vary, making it somewhat difficult to define. Some use the term to refer to any two-door, hardtop car, while others apply it only to cars which do not exceed certain spatial measurements. Even the proper pronunciation of the term coupe is a subject for debate, with North Americans favoring one pronunciation and Europeans preferring another.

The name coupe, or coupé, as it is also commonly spelled, is derived from the French word “couper,” which means “to cut.” This cutting imagery refers to the fact that coupes typically feature a back seat which is situated closer to the front seats than is normal in many other types of cars, such as sedans. In other words, part of the rear seating space has been “cut,” leaving only a small amount of room for rear passengers.

Those searching for a precise definition of a coupe will likely end up frustrated, for the exact meaning of the word tends to vary. For instance, a number of people understand the term to mean simply a car which has two doors and a hardtop. Yet this definition does not take into account the shortened rear seating space implied by the term.

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Others define the coupe in terms of spatial measurements. For instance, the Society of American Engineers stipulates that for a car to be considered a coupe, its rear seating space must not exceed 33 cubic feet (0.93 cubic meters). Still another attempt to define this type of car states that it must be close-coupled, meaning that the distance between the front seat and the rear axle must not exceed a certain span. According to such spatially based definitions, many two-door, hardtop cars which have been deemed coupes by their manufacturers should in fact be considered sedans. Further, spatial definitions do not stipulate that coupes must have only two doors, meaning that certain small four-door cars may technically qualify as coupes.

Since the mid-20th century, even the proper spelling and pronunciation of the term coupe has been a subject for debate. Europeans tend to write the word with an accent on the final e — coupé — and to pronounce it in the French fashion, which can be transcribed as “koo-pay.” Conversely, North Americans tend to spell the word without an accent on the final e — coupe — and accordingly to pronounce it as the single-syllable “koop.”

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