Volkswagen Tiguan

Automotive Industry

Long Wheelbase is a Challenge for Car Design

Extending the car between the axles has become quite a versatile visual resource. However, there are not many ways to do it right

Audi A8 L Horch

It is quite common for designers to work on the front end of a car. At times, changing one of its components is enough to form new connections with one another and give the whole region a fresh look. When it comes to the rear, it is enough to say that its shape concentrates the difference among several of the most popular body styles.

Lately, automakers have been using the central section as yet another variable with which to play. The idea of extending the wheelbase used to be limited to few applications because it was difficult to make it aesthetically pleasant, but automakers have made sure to find ways to circumvent that issue. Let’s take a look at this style trick, shall we?

Traditional limousines, like the Cadillac Fleetwood, are made by cutting the car in half and reconstructing the central part, only longer

What is long wheelbase?

First of all, wheelbase is the distance between the car’s axles. Considering that most of the cabin sits precisely between them, that measurement has become an indicator of how spacious it is. The longitudinal distances from each axle to the respective end are named front and rear overhangs; the sum of all three is the total length of the car.

Long wheelbase has been historically applied to limousines and cargo vans for the same basic purpose of increasing the internal room. This is different from designing a larger vehicle: it might be desirable to keep the base one to reduce the conversion cost or simply to preserve any characteristic, such as attractive design or comfortable ride.

Vans like the Dodge Caravan need room for people and cargo, so they usually have their rear overhang extended as well

Why is it difficult to design?

Just like the human personality, car design can have either flexibility or strong character. Extending the necessary parts while keeping all the rest untouched is simple and easy but usually yields horrible results. Reinterpreting the entire car makes the adaptation unnoticeable but implies an extra investment which takes a toll on the selling price.

“Horrible” results are those where you can easily spot what was adapted. Rear doors are a typical case: the Caravan’s shown above follow the wheel’s arches on the short version; since the long one moves the rear axle away from them, a misshapen gap was created. On limousines, the region of the body between the doors is simply empty.

The Toyota Hilux shows how flexible pickups can be. However, automakers do not offer all combinations to limit the wheelbase’s variation

What cars have a long wheelbase?

Traditionally, sedans would use it to become limousines and vans would use it to serve multiple business purposes. Pickup trucks are another good historical example for having offered different lengths for cabin and bed, both of which directly affect the wheelbase. In the 1990s, minivans adopted it to move from five to seven occupants.

That was the scenario around the world until the 2000s. After that, you might have seen that more long-wheelbase models are appearing year after year and not only of those body styles; nowadays, even some SUVs and coupés began to use it. The explanation for that turns out to be quite simple: the emergence of China in the global market.

Automakers now use complex plans to create LWB versions: the Mercedes-Benz E-Class L has exclusive rear doors and third windows

Why do the Chinese like long wheelbase?

Before the industrial and financial boom that made China the powerhouse as we know it, even national cars were inaccessible to most of the population — the situation was even worse for imported ones because they could only come with hefty taxes. In a few words, that situation ended up making them strong status symbols in the country.

That cultural interpretation favored long-wheelbase cars in particular for yet another reason: they resemble limousines and evoke the idea of being able to hire a chauffeur. Then again, since the body adaptation has spread to cars of many market segments lately, many Chinese people are buying them mostly for the extra internal room.

Porsche’s solution for the Panamera was to place the rear door handle further from the upper crease to minimize the visual disruption

What solutions are used now?

We can observe that, the more expensive the car is, the more effort the maker puts into its adaptation. Business vans are the only ones still merely stretched to the desired lengths. Mid-range sedans such as the BMW 3 Series extend the rear doors and dissimulate the size difference by toying with the relative sizes of windows and sheetmetal.

Solutions become more creative among luxury models: the Mercedes-Benz E-Class received a third window to make the rear door more practical, the Rolls-Royce Ghost was styled to look better with long wheelbase, since it is the most requested option, and the Audi A8 Horch uses what must be the longest rear doors seen in the past few years.

Opel Zafira Life in short (left), medium (center) and large wheelbases (source: WheelsAge)

Long wheelbases have been freed from the stigma of weird appearance, so the automoive industry is now using them to extend each car model’s market scope. What do you think of them? Share your thoughts and opinions on the matter as well as any other interesting examples, whether past or recent, by using the comment button below!

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Danillo Almeida

Danillo Almeida

Content writer and engineer-to-be who aspires to work in car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.