Wagons and hatchbacks

Author: WagonFan
December 19, 2007

What’s the difference between a wagon and a hatchback?

Going strictly by the dictionary (in this case, dictionary.com), a station wagon has at least one more row of seats behind the driver and front passenger, and an area for cargo in back. One of the definitions also states that a station wagon must have a tailgate, but I would debate that requirement.

A hatchback is defined by having a hinged rear door that opens upward, which makes sense. Two of the three definitions there also mention a sloping rear, which fits with my own idea of what a hatchback is.

Given this information, where do some modern cars fit into these categories? Many (if not all) modern station wagons lack a lower tailgate in favor of a hatchback-style rear door. Going by the above definitions, I would say that it’s possible to be both a station wagon (with multiple rows of seating) and a hatchback (with a sloping, upward-opening rear door).

Vehicles that are commonly referred to as station wagons include the Audi Avant line, the BMW wagons, the Mercedes-Benz wagons, Volvo’s V50 and V70, Dodge’s Magnum, Subaru’s Forrester, and Volkswagon’s Passat wagon. Let’s use the Audi A4 Avant as a test case.

2008 Audi A4 Avant, front

It has that classic station wagon look: a two-box design with a car-like front end transitioning into a cigar box after the B-pillars. With four doors and two rows of seating, nobody would call this car anything but a wagon. However, after reading the hatchback definition, this car could also be classified as such, with its sloping, upward-opening rear door.

2008 Audi A4 Avant, rear

So which is it? Here’s my take.

The classification of a vehicle into station wagon or hatchback categories has less to do with the technical facts of seats, doors, and which way the rear hatch opens, and more to do with aesthetics. Vehicles with long, flat rooflines; four passenger doors; and a fairly obvious break in flow between the end of the roof and the rear door are station wagons (see A4 Avant, above).

Vehicles who are shorter, have two or four passenger doors, and have a very connected flow between the end of the roof and the start of the rear door are hatchbacks. Examples of this are the Ford Focus ZX-3 and ZX-5, the Audi A3, and the Mazda 3 hatch.

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