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Why 3-Box Designs Rock

This post was originally a series of tweets on 5/126/2014. I’m repackaging and expanding on them for posterity.

One of the reasons I find the North American automobile market frustrating has to do with 3-box and 2-box designs. What does that mean, Aaron? Thanks for asking, I’ll tell you. A 3-box design is your typical sedan design, where one ‘box’ is the hood, the second ‘box’ is the passenger compartment, and the third ‘box’ is the trunk. If you look at the vehicle from the side, you see these three boxes.

From https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/6/65/Three-box_%26_rear_engine.jpg

In comparison, a 2-box design eliminates the trunk in favor of a longer passenger compartment. This design is seen in station wagons, SUVs, etc. Compared to the 3-box design, a 2-box has more interior space and a larger cargo opening, which are important practicality features.

The 3-box style is fine from an aesthetic standpoint, and I’m not suggesting that they shouldn’t exist. Choosing style over function is ok. However, where the North American auto market gets screwy is that the 3-box style is too often the default. Most cars come primarily as a sedan, the most frequently seen variation is a coupe, and then occasionally there is a wagon. Usually, variations from the default cost additional money to produce and purchase. For example, the Honda Accord sedan is the flagship, a coupe is offered for people who prefer to trade functionality for more style (at a ~$1,500 premium), and, in most generations, a station wagon is never offered (when it is, expect a $2,000 premium).

In my opinion, the wagon should be the default. Maximize the functionality being offered. Then, produce sedans or coupes as variations to fulfill the needs of people who want to make those tradeoff. I think the explosion of crossovers in the past couple decades has, in large part, been a consumer reaction along these lines. Why buy a Honda Accord when you can get a CR-V with the same platform, drivetrain, and amenities, plus the ability to haul a chest freezer if needed?

The big rectangle shape has unmatched functionality. Unfortunately, it is hard to find that 2-box design outside of SUVs, and that problem is compounded in specialized segments. Try to find a larger 2-box that gets more than 35mpg and you’ll find that there are very few matches. Shouldn’t “economical practical vehicle” be a hotly contested marketplace?


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