This study explores the suitability of a single hillslope as a parsimonious representation of a catchment in a physically based model. We test this hypothesis by picturing two distinctly different catchments in perceptual models and translating these pictures into parametric setups of 2-D physically based hillslope models. The model parametrizations are based on a comprehensive field data set, expert knowledge and process-based reasoning. Evaluation against streamflow data highlights that both models predicted the annual pattern of streamflow generation as well as the hydrographs acceptably. However, a look beyond performance measures revealed deficiencies in streamflow simulations during the summer season and during individual rainfall–runoff events as well as a mismatch between observed and simulated soil water dynamics. Some of these shortcomings can be related to our perception of the systems and to the chosen hydrological model, while others point to limitations of the representative hillslope concept itself. Nevertheless, our results confirm that representative hillslope models are a suitable tool to assess the importance of different data sources as well as to challenge our perception of the dominant hydrological processes we want to represent therein. Consequently, these models are a promising step forward in the search for the optimal representation of catchments in physically based models.