The Shape of Things to Come. Again.

By Kevin Miller

10.07.2009

1991 Saab 9000 Aero T16More than two decades ago, Saab launched their long-serving 9000 series, and the luxury five-door was born. Combining a spacious and well-appointed cabin, large cargo area, rare safety features such as ABS and a driver’s airbag, and good driving dynamics, the 9000 wasn’t the only large five-door sedan available in the late 1980s. Other European offerings for sale in the US included the Merkur Scorpio and the Sterling 827, while Japanese automakers sold five-door versions of the Toyota Camry, and Mazda 626; and briefly, GM gave us the awkward five-door Chevrolet Corsica. While both the Merkur and Sterling were in the same class as the 9000, both were sales flops and were pulled from the US market in 1990, while the large Saab remained the sole luxury five-door available in the US, offering outstanding utility in the large luxury car segment until its overdue demise in 1998.

The 5-door bodystyle makes a car very useful, with a large hatch opening that allows larger sized luggage to fit into the boot than a sedan with a smaller opening to a similarly-sized luggage area. Suddenly, now, the luxury five-door sedan is back, though the genre is being referred to as a Coupe. Conceived by designers around the world as a sporty alternative to more upright, staid crossovers, wagons, or SUVs, they are the must-have bodystyle for 2010. Unfortunately, most of these five-door “sedans” hitting the market have been hit a few times with the “ugly stick” on their way out of the design studio. Let’s take a look.

2010 Acura ZDXHonda’s Acura division is showing its new ZDX. Burdened with the corporate “chrome plinth” schnoz, the new vehicle is not good looking. Calling the car a “provocative four-door Sports Coupe”, the ZDX has an attractive side profile, though shapes get a bit complex and convoluted at the angular front lamps, oddly-rounded front lower openings (the only soft curves on the whole exterior other than the wheels), and with the dark shape of the glass on the rear hatch. The ZDX actually sits tall like a crossover rather than being low-slung like an actual sports coupe, which will serve to raise the center of gravity with the consequential effect on handling.

2010 Porsche PanameraPorsche’s long-awaited Panamera is also a five-door sport sedan. With styling meant to be vaguely reminiscent of the firm’s evergreen 911, just bigger, the Panamera looks great from some angles, though around the back it unfortunately looks like it’s pregnant with a Boxster. Here’s a hint to the designers at Porsche- when you’re creating a five-door, you’ve got to be careful with the proportions to keep it looking sleek rather than bulbous out back. Could you  share this secret with the people over at Honda who’ve penned the upcoming Crosstour? Thanks. Fortunately, the Panamera is said to drive better than it looks. Hopefully I’ll have some seat time in the Panamera soon, to confirm whether the ugly is only skin-deep.

2010 BMW X6 MThe BMW X6 Sports Activity Coupe was BMW’s first entry in the sporty five-door segment. Based on BMW’s X5 Sports Activity Vehicle, the X6 shares powertrains and major interior bits with its more upright sibling. The X6 is available with a 300 HP inline turbocharged 6, a 400 HP V8,  or a  555 HP turbocharged V8 in the  X6 M (not to be confused with MX-6, which was a shapely Mazda two-door coupe from the late 1980s until the mid 1990s). Referring to a five-door chop-topped sport ute as a Coupe is a bit of a stretch- while the X6 has an interesting shape when viewed from afar (and by itself), the vehicle’s tall ride height and subsequent center of gravity become apparent when the X6 is near almost any other vehicle.

2010 BMW 5 Series Gran TurismoNext up from BMW is their  5-Series Grand Turismo. Based on the upcoming 5-series sedan, the 5GT should perform in a way that the X6 cannot. While the 5-Series GT shares its architecture and technology with sedan and wagon variants of the next 5-Series, it features an interestingly-complex two-piece tailgate/decklid for added cargo utility. Unfortunately, BMW felt it necessary to offer a taller ride height in the GT than in normal 5-Series vehicles. Evidently, the engineers over in Munich wanted to be sure the GT was able to offer ride height comparable to a Toyota Venza, which is a pity as the Gran Turismo otherwise looks to offer an excellent blend performance, luxury, and utility.

A5090056Audi is getting into the five-door game as well, with the  A5 Sportback. Pay special attention to the name, as A5 in Audi’s naming convention denotes a coupe bodystyle for this five-door sedan; the A5 Sportback is yet another five-door sedan masquerading as a coupe. The Sportback looks to offer the best blend of performance and utility, since it shares its sensible ride height with the A4 Sedan and Avant. Unfortunately, Audi does not intend to offer the A5 Sportback in the US, so the best five-door of the bunch remains out of our reach.

Aside from  having five doors, the one thing that all of these upscale five-doors have in common is that their manufacturers are marketing them as the first-of-their-kind. An entirely new segment. The re-invention of utility. You get the idea. While the shapes (and, in many cases, the elevated ride height) are new, the idea of a premium five-door vehicle is not. While American buyers have not typically appreciated this bodystyle, automakers are giving it another try in an effort to lure buyers to their showrooms. Time will tell whether the new-for-2010 five-door coupes mark the beginning of a new era as the 9000 did for Saab, or simply fade away as an afterthought, like the Sterling 827 and Merkur Scorpio. But in either case, it is time to break out the Milli Vanilli and Richard Marx CDs, because the shape of the late 1980s is back.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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14 Comments

  1. I love a big 5-door, so I’m all for the new trend, although I wish they were more affordable. And better-looking.

  2. In contrast, some cars are hideous as a sedan but great with a fastback hatch:

    Ford Mondeo (sedan looks way off, hatch just right)
    Mazda 6 (hideous sedan, great hatch)
    Ford Focus
    Opel Insignia (although the Vectra really had a ugly sedan, but good hatch)

  3. I always liked the way that 9000 looked, at least the liftback version. Never liked the notchback version very much.

  4. Since most car makers are going for the 5-door CUV fad, the best 5-doors now are wagons (true wagons, not CUVs). More utility without the handling and styling consequences of a crossover.

    In the same vain as Mirko, although not a 5-door, I always preferred the look of the fastback Mustang to the notchback, especially the ’79-’93 models.

  5. I liked the look of the 827. Of course it was the successor (a front wheel drive copy on a Legend chassis) to the Rover SD1 which was sold in the US in the 1980 model year only. All of about 387 of them of which I have one.

  6. Speaking of demises, lets talk about Saab’s future har har.

  7. “Speaking of demises, lets talk about Saab’s future har har.”

    Seems relatively bright and sunny compared to GM.

  8. The 5-door sedan is a great concept. I had a 1989 Sterling 827 5-door I drove for six years. Roomy, comfortable and highly convenient. Although a bit challenging to get parts for, it was still a wonderful family car. Its design was perhaps the most user-friendly of any car I’ve owned spanning over 40 years. Finally sold it to the treasurer of the local British Car Club–to complement his other three Sterlings, a Jaguar, and an MG. But I ramble. Nevertheless, the 5-door is a terrific idea.

  9. @Dan

    I was referring to GM’s other “completed” sale. Think Konnisieg can do it?

  10. Loved that Saab 9000, and I loved the Fiat Chroma, Lancia Thema and Alfa 164 that were on the same platform.

  11. The current 5-doors are not attractive, but maybe it’s because the bodystyle is so new to the current crop of designers.

  12. i like the trend, just not necessarily the execution on all of them. you’re right, most of these cars seem to lean more towards the crossover end of the spectrum. maybe it’s just the ride height.

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