As you’re walking around a used car lot or driving on the highway, you might notice that all sedans seem to look the same. Sure, they have a different badge on the front and some minor styling differences, but it can be hard to tell them apart. In a world of customization and personalized items, why do all sedans seem to look the same?
In general, it comes down to the marketability, safety requirements, and aerodynamics of the sedans. Auto manufacturers aren’t trying to copy one another, but the constraints from these three factors really limit the design of the vehicle. In addition, the fact that a “sedan”, by definition, has some characteristics that have to be there — resulting in a fleet of cars that look very similar.
In this quick guide, I’ll answer that question. I came up with XX reasons why modern sedans look so similar to one another.
A Quick Definition of a Sedan
I recently put out an in-depth guide into cars versus sedans, but I’ll quickly define it here. A sedan is a style of car that features a separate engine compartment, enclosed trunk, 4 doors, and seating for 4 or 5 passengers.
The market for sedans is the everyday driver. It’s a low-cost vehicle that’s “good enough” in all the different metrics. They aren’t the fastest or best-looking, but they aren’t the worst either.
What I Mean By “Sedans Look the Same”
Some people might be confused right now. After all, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between a BMW 5-series and a Honda Civic. I’m not suggesting that sedans are indistinguishable from one another, just that they all look incredibly similar.
Often, the only differences between cars are how the grill area looks and how the rear of the trunk looks.
Almost every sedan on the market follows the same pattern: highly-stylized grill and front bumper, sloped hood, rounded windshield, curved roof, and a trunk section that goes straight down.
You can test this idea by looking at the side profile of a hundred different sedans on the market. If you cover the trunk and engine compartments in each photo, can you tell any of these vehicles apart?
Reasons Why Sedans Look So Similar
Now, let me talk about some major reasons why sedans look so similar. After reading some of these points, it should make more sense to you.
It’s an Aerodynamic Design
The aerodynamics of a car will determine things like fuel efficiency, acceleration, and the top speed of a vehicle. Aerodynamics is basically the study of how air interacts with your vehicle. The goal is to have incoming air glide over the car without slowing it down at all.
In aerodynamics, you’ll get the best results if you use a low-profile object that has a low front and higher rear. The other key feature is that the lines are very smooth and there aren’t blunt surfaces on the leading (front) edge of the vehicle.
With this idea in mind, it makes sense why sedans all have very similar body styles. The hood is low and slowly angles up to a curved windscreen and lofting roof of the car.
To deviate from this model would mean either sacrificing fuel efficiency and performance or spending a ton of money in research and development to reinvent the shape.
Instead, car manufacturers will use a style that’s already known to be aerodynamic: the typical sedan look we see today.
The General Public Likes the Style
It’s also important to remember that cars are designed to be sold. The bottom line for any car is how sellable it is, and how much money the manufacturer will make.
If you want a vehicle that makes a lot of money, you can either make it incredibly rare with a huge sticker price, or you can make a lower-cost option that the mass market likes.
With sedans, you’ll almost always see options that appeal to the general public. Since society says that the standard styling of a sedan is good enough, auto manufacturers will keep doing it that way. Pushing the envelope with a brand-new sedan style could backfire and cost the manufacturer a lot of money.
It’s Affordable and Easy to Make
Cars use a framework style called “unibody”. This means that the car’s body is also the framework, and the body structurally supports the car.
To change how the sedan looks, engineers would have to figure out how to redo the unibody. The more complicated the new design is, the more difficult it would be to design, test, and manufacture the new design.
If auto manufacturers stick with the traditional body style of a sedan, they cut out all of this extra money and time that would be otherwise needed. As a result, you’re left with a car that’s more affordable and easier to make.
This is one of the big reasons why DeLorean couldn’t get the DMC-12 off the ground. Making a new car is incredibly expensive and hard to do.
It’s Form Versus Function
A common comparison when it comes to manufacturing is the form of an object versus its function. The form details how aesthetically pleasing the object is, and the function is how well the object works.
When it comes to cars, ‘function’ is almost always the driving factor. People need a vehicle that will get them to work each day, survive a car crash, and is easy to drive.
That’s exactly why you see sedans that all look alike. The rough profile of a modern sedan maximizes its functionality of it while still providing some aesthetics.
Think about it this way: a car could look way cooler if there was no engine compartment or trunk, but it would functionally fail if your armrest is replaced with an engine block.
The Size Requirements
Another key reason why sedans look so similar is because of functional size requirements. As I mentioned earlier, a sedan is comprised of an engine compartment, passenger area, and separated cargo area. All three of these features have a certain size requirement.
The engine bay’s size is determined by the size of the engine, transmission, battery, and so on. The passenger space relies on the average dimension of a passenger multiplied by how many passengers need to fit in the car.
Finally, the cargo space is contingent on what a typical driver might carry around (luggage, groceries, golf clubs).
To shrink down any of these areas would mean sacrificing the usability of the car. This takes the idea of form versus function to the next level. It’s all about optimizing the function-form ratio.
There are Safety Requirements
There are a lot of safety considerations that go into a sedan. Beyond having airbags and seatbelts, a car needs to keep the driver safe in an accident and keep pedestrians okay if they accidentally get hit by a car.
In a world where there are no automotive accidents at all, the sedan styling could be completely different. Instead, we have a long engine compartment that will absorb a lot of energy during a head-on collision. There’s a sloped nose at the front of the vehicle so pedestrians have less impact during a collision.
A lot of these requirements come right from the federal government. If a car manufacturer doesn’t comply with the standards during their design, the car can’t be legally driven on the road.
Maybe we can make cars look cooler by getting rid of these safety features, but it’s not worth sacrificing the safety of a sedan for minor aesthetic improvements.
The Result of 100 Years of Trial andError
Think about the history of the automobile. The standard car in the early 1900s is almost unrecognizable compared to 2022 sedans.
Today’s cars are the result of a century of research, trial-and-error, and listening to consumers. What you see on the car lot is the optimized vehicle for the everyday driver.
If you want to get something faster, then you get a sportscar. For something more rally-worthy and moddable, then grab a hatchback. The fact is that the styling of a sedan works perfectly for what the vehicle is intended to do.
The Average Sedan Styling Changes Every Decade or So
Another confusing point that I should explain is that I’m not comparing modern sedans to the sedans of the 70s. Every decade or so, auto manufacturers settle on a “new standard” design.
This is often driven by advancements in technology, more research, a shift in what the typical customer wants, and a better understanding of the physics of vehicles.
In the comparison I just made, I’m looking specifically at vehicles within the same manufacturing year. For instance, comparing all of the 2022 sedans and how they look very similar.
There is some good news that comes with his evolution of cars, though. If you hate how the modern sedan looks, wait another 10 years and take a look at the new modern styling of sedans.
At this point, you should have a better idea of why sedans seem to look the same. They have to balance form and function as well as juggle different safety requirements and aerodynamic demands.