What is an SUV? The answer is not as simple as you might think.
The so-called “SUV” has displaced the family sedan as the quintessential car, having risen to astronomical levels of popularity over the span of just 10 years. If you don’t already own one, chances are you’re looking to get one.
But as popular as these types of vehicles are, how much do you really know about them? Mainstream media once painted them as gas-guzzling, rollover-happy behemoths, but how much of this is actually true?
What is an SUV? What does SUV stand for? In this article, we answer these questions and several others to dispel any misconceptions you might have about these vehicles so that you become a more informed car buyer.
What Is An SUV?
In our article highlighting the 10 different types of cars, we described SUVs as vehicles that combine the design characteristics and performance capabilities of a family sedan, wagon, minivan, and pickup truck. They typically have a two-box design similar to hatchbacks and station wagons, with a cargo area that is opened to the passenger compartment.
SUVs also usually have a raised ground clearance and are offered with four-wheel or all-wheel drive.
Most SUVs have four doors, but there was once a time when many models were offered in 2-door body styles. A lack of demand has dwindled the number of 2-door SUVs to just a few models, namely the Suzuki Jimny, Land Rover Defender 90, and two-door versions of the Jeep Wrangler, Ford Bronco, and Range Rover Evoque.
So, what is an SUV? Think of it as a vehicle with a boxy body, a cargo area that is opened to the passenger compartment, a raised ground clearance, and the availability of all-wheel drive in most instances. If that’s too hard for you to conceptualize, try picturing a hatchback or station wagon (estate) with a raised roof and a higher ground clearance.
Better yet, just turn your gaze onto the vehicle nearest to you — chances are it’s an SUV. That’s because SUVs are now the most popular family vehicles in North America, Europe, China, and in many other parts of the world.
What Does SUV Stand For?
The abbreviation ‘SUV’ stands for ‘sport utility vehicle’, a term that is used loosely to describe a broad range of similar-looking vehicles characterized by a boxy body, a raised ground clearance, all-wheel drive. ‘Sport-ute’ and ‘four-by-four’ (abbreviated 4×4) are other common terms for SUV.
What does SUV mean? There is no clear-cut, universally accepted definition of what exactly an SUV is, as you will get a different answer depending on who you ask and the part of the world you live in.
Before the 2000s, SUVs were widely considered as big, rugged vehicles built on a light truck chassis and featuring a four-wheel drive system that allowed them to travel off-road. Today, the term is applied to any vehicle with a boxy shape and raised ground clearance.
Available all-wheel drive used to be part of the classification, but an increasing number of SUVs don’t offer one and, therefore, have minimal off-road capabilities.
In fact, the vast majority of SUVs on the road today are conventional cars that are designed to look rugged and lack the hardware needed to do any serious off-roading. These types of SUVs are called “crossovers’, and we discuss them in more detail in a later section.
Fun Fact. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the term “Sport Utility Vehicle” became widely used. Before then, such vehicles were marketed broadly as Jeeps, four-wheel drives, or even station wagons.
So, what does SUV stand for? It is an initialism for ‘sports utility vehicle’. While there is no single definition of what an SUV is, these types of vehicles are typically characterized by a boxy body, raised ground clearance, and available all-wheel drive.
Pros And Cons Of SUVs
SUVs are now the de facto family car, having displaced the sedan as the vehicle of choice for families and single individuals alike. But why are they so popular, and are they really better than other types of cars?
Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of SUVs and help you decide if owning one is worthwhile.
Here are seven reasons why car buyers are shifting from sedans and hatchbacks to SUVs…
- More passenger space — Except for minivans and pickup trucks, SUVs typically have higher roofs than other vehicles, providing passengers more headroom. They may or may not offer more leg and knee room than comparably-sized sedans, hatchbacks, and wagons.
- Large seating capacity — Like minivans, many large SUVs have the seating capacity to accommodate up to eight people (driver plus eight passengers), making them a great choice for carrying around large families.
- More cargo room — A tall roof combined with a cargo area that is opened to the passenger compartment gives SUVs very large cargo capacities with or without the rear seats folded. This allows them to load up and carry larger gear such as bikes, tents, kayaks, and surfboards, as well as haul more luggage, groceries, and other items.
- Better visibility — The higher ground clearance and raised seating position provided by SUVs gives drivers and passengers a commanding view of the road ahead.
- Better towing — SUVs are typically designed to have better towing capabilities than sedans, hatchbacks, and wagons. Some models have a strong, rugged chassis and powerful engines that let you tow massive equipment such as trailers, boats, and caravans.
- High ground clearance — The high ground clearance of SUVs combined with the all-wheel drive system that most models are available with makes driving over rugged terrain, as well as on wet, snowy, and muddy roads, easier.
- Better occupant protection — Studies have shown SUVs to be much safer in collisions with sedans and other small cars. That’s because their larger size and higher curb weight allow them to better absorb impacts and mitigate harm to occupants.
Why Buy An SUV
Compared to sedans and other low-riding cars, SUVs offer more passenger and cargo room, offer better visibility, are better able to drive on difficult roads and rough terrain, and provide better protection for occupants during collisions.
A bigger size, taller body, and higher ground clearance are the main reasons why people are shifting to SUVs; however, those same design features represent key weaknesses. Here are six reasons why you shouldn’t buy an SUV…
- More expensive — The bigger and more robust a car is, the higher its price tag. Expect to pay a premium for the bigger size differential and added capabilities SUVs have over standard passenger cars.
- Less maneuverable — The larger size and higher curb weight of SUVs can make them cumbersome and tricky to maneuverable, especially in tight urban areas. Parking can prove especially challenging.
- Less fuel-efficient — Being bigger and heavier means SUVs require more fuel to run. Although today’s models are far more fuel-efficient than their late predecessors, sedans and hatchbacks still deliver superior fuel-economy simply because they are smaller, lighter, and more aerodynamic.
- Less eco-friendly — The more fuel a vehicle uses, the more CO2 emissions it releases into the earth’s atmosphere. SUVs have long been criticized for their environmental impact.
- Higher maintenance cost — The added weight of SUVs in combination with the heavier loads they tend to carry puts more strain on their tires and brakes, causing them to deteriorate more quickly.
- Prone to rollovers — The raised ground clearance and tall body of SUVs results in a higher center of gravity that makes them more prone to rollover accidents than traditional passenger cars.
Why Not Buy An SUV
SUVs are typically more expensive than sedans and other cars of comparable size. Their larger size, higher curb weight, and raised ground clearance also make them more difficult to handle and maneuver, less fuel-efficient and eco-friendly, and more prone to rolling over.
Types Of SUVs
Now that you know what SUVs are, what the abbreviation stands for, and the pros and cons are of driving one, let’s look at the available different types.
The two main types of SUVs, those based on a car chassis and those based on a truck chassis. Car-based SUVs are commonly referred to as “crossovers” (CUV) and are largely responsible for the explosive growth experienced by the SUV segment in recent times, while truck-based SUVs represent the old guard and are what most SUVs once were.
What is an SUV? Simply put, if the vehicle is built on a car platform, it’s a crossover; if it’s based on a truck’s platform, it’s an SUV in the traditional sense. Let’s look at each type in more detail and see how they compare to each other in terms of capabilities.
The vast majority of the ‘SUVs’ you see on the road are in fact crossovers. Like sedans, hatchbacks, station wagons, and other passenger cars, this type of SUV has a unibody construction in which the body and frame of the vehicle are manufactured as one single piece.
Crossovers are the most popular type of vehicle, accounting for over 40 percent of all new vehicle sales in 2020 in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Examples include the compact-size Toyota Rav4, Honda CR-V, and Nissan Rogue (Qashqai); mid-size Jeep Grand Cherokee; and full-size, eight-passenger Chevrolet Traverse.
Unibody platforms tend to be lighter and more space-efficient than truck platforms, which gives crossovers car-like driving dynamics, more interior comfort, bigger cargo areas, and better fuel-efficiency than truck-based SUVs of comparable size, all the while offering the height and seat capacity car buyers look for in a sport utility vehicle.
That’s why automakers have been offering more crossovers and fewer truck-based SUVs.
On the flip side, unibody platforms are less rugged than truck platforms, making crossovers less suitable for hauling and towing heavy loads and driving off-road. Many models even lack all-wheel drive, further undermining their ability to drive on rough terrain and casting doubt on their classification as “sports utility vehicles.”
- Easier to handle, maneuver, and drive than traditional SUVs
- Smoother, more comfortable ride
- Larger passenger and cargo area
- Better fuel-efficiency, more eco-friendly
- Less rugged than traditional, truck-based SUVs
- Less off-road capable
- Less towing and hauling capabilities
Crossovers are basically standard passenger cars that have been designed to look like a traditional SUV. As such, they have similar driving and performance characteristics to sedans, hatchbacks, and other car-based vehicles while providing the ride height, visibility, and seating capacity consumers look for in an SUV.
However, their unibody, car-based platforms limit their towing capabilities and ability to drive over difficult roads and terrain. These types of SUVs are ideal for sedan and hatchback drivers who want more utility, as well as SUV and pickup truck drivers seeking a more affordable, comfortable, and efficient ride.
Traditional SUVs, or real SUVs, as we like to call them, have a body-on-frame platform similar to pickup trucks, which is to say their body and frame are built separately and then bolted together later on in the manufacturing process.
Examples include the iconic Jeep Wrangler, the reborn Ford Bronco, Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban, Cadillac Escalade, Ford Expedition, Mercedes-Benz G-Class, Toyota 4Runner, and Nissan Armada, most of which share a platform with a pickup truck.
Body-on-frame platforms (truck platforms) are less complicated, much stronger, and more rugged than the unibody platforms that underpin crossover SUVs, allowing them to endure harsher, more demanding driving conditions. They are also typically designed to accommodate powerful engines and a four-wheel drive system.
Basically, with the exception of pickup trucks, SUVs can tow and carry heavier loads and drive on difficult terrain better than any other class of vehicle. They are tougher and far more off-road-capable than crossovers.
A significant drawback of body-on-frame platforms is that they are heavier, less flexible, and less space-efficient than unibody platforms. This makes SUVs more difficult to drive, less comfortable to ride in, less roomy, and less fuel-efficient than comparably-sized and – powered crossovers.
To most car buyers, the drawbacks of traditional SUVs outweigh their advantages, explaining their gravitation towards crossovers. SUVs accounted for approximately 11 percent of all new vehicle sales in the United States in 2020, a market share that shrinks by the year. They have an even smaller presence in other parts of the world.
- Stronger, more rugged than crossover SUVs
- Superior off-road capabilities
- Better towing capabilities
- More durable, better able to withstand wear and tear in severe driving conditions
- Heavier and less maneuverable than crossover SUVs
- Less spacious interior and cargo area
- Rougher, less comfortable driving characteristics
- Poorer fuel-efficiency
With their stronger and tougher structure, truck-based SUVs can tow and haul heavier loads, tackle more challenging off-road driving, and withstand wear and tear under frequent use better than crossovers. However, they tend to be less roomy, comfortable, maneuverable, and fuel-efficient.
Truck-based SUVs are ideal for those who do a lot of towing or off-roading.
Both crossover and truck-based SUVs come in many sizes, shapes, and capabilities. In this section, we highlight the different size classes and the capabilities they offer.
At AutoTribute, we call small SUVs ‘x-small’, though there are commonly referred to as subcompact SUVs in the marketplace. This size class is almost exclusively composed of small crossover SUVs, and most are nothing more than high-riding hatchbacks.
Subcompact SUVs are the most car-like class of SUVs, as they generally don’t offer all-wheel drive and have very limited towing capabilities. Even so, they can typically seat adult passengers in relative comfort, though the rear seating area can be cramped if the front passengers are on the larger side.
They are better suited for single individuals or small families that don’t move around multiple kids and a lot of cargo frequently. Examples include the Chevrolet Trax, Ford EcoSport, Nissan Kicks, Jeep Renegade, Honda HR-V, and Toyota CH-R.
The only remaining truck-based SUV in this class is the diminutive Suzuki Jimny, which is not available in North America.
This is the most popular size class. Small SUVs, or ‘compact SUVs’, as they are technically known, have displaced compact and midsize sedans as the vehicle of choice for single individuals and small families.
Compact SUVs are where people start to feel like they’re driving an SUV instead of a lifted hatchback or station wagon. They are usually of a comfortable size, offering ample room for both front and rear passengers of all sizes, as well as generous cargo room for hauling around things.
Most compact SUVs are crossovers that are offered with all-wheel drive and have better towing capabilities than the sedans with which they share a platform. Popular examples include the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and Chevrolet Equinox in North America, and the Volkswagen Tiguan and Nissan Qashqai in Europe.
You will find a few truck-based SUVs in this size class, namely the Jeep Wrangler and new Ford Bronco, both of which come with four-wheel drive systems and offer superior towing and off-roading capabilities than their compact crossover SUV counterparts.
Mid-size SUVs are for the most part compact SUVs with more passenger room and cargo space and better performance. They are almost universally offered with all-wheel drive.
The Ford Edge, Chevrolet Blazer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Murano, and Jeep Grand Cherokee are very popular mainstream choices, while the Lexus RX, BMW X5, and Porsche Cayenne are good examples on the luxury end.
There are several midsize SUVs with an optional or permanent third row of seats; however, this third row is usually cramped and not suitable for adults. Dedicated three-row SUVs are better suited for carrying around many people in comfort.
Large SUVs are largely responsible for the demise of the minivan segment. That’s because they seat at least seven passengers, provide ample cargo room for whatever they might bring along for the ride, and boast the SUV look that most people seem to prefer.
The Chevrolet Traverse, Volkswagen Atlas, Ford Explorer, Kia Telluride, and Toyota Highlander are prime examples of mainstream large SUVs, while the Mercedes-GLS, BMW X7, and Buick Enclave are great luxury examples.
A tradeoff of their large size is higher fuel consumption and poorer maneuverability. Parking in small spaces can be especially challenging.
Some automotive outlets and analysts group all three-row SUVs into the same class, but the truck-based models are so wildly different in their contraction and can be so massive that it makes sense to separate them.
We’re talking about the likes of the Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban, Ford Expedition, Nissan Armada, and Toyota Sequoia on the mainstream end, and the Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln Navigator, and Infiniti QX80 on the premium side.
These are the types of vehicles to get if both a seven to eight-passenger seating capacity and a pickup truck’s towing capacity are a must. Otherwise, the hefty price premium and fuel-efficiency penalty may not be worth it.
The Chevrolet Suburban of the 1930s is widely considered the first SUV. However, whether or not it deserves that title is debatable since, despite featuring a tall body and raised ground clearance, it didn’t have four-wheel drive.
Many historians instead trace the origins of the SUV back to World War 2-era military vehicles such as the 1936 Kurogane Type 95, 1938 GAZ-61, and the Volkswagen Kommandeurswagen, a four-wheel drive version of the original Type 1 Beetle, as well as to the four-wheel drive station wagons, carryalls, and other passenger cars that started showing up in 1949, including later versions of the Suburban.
These were all four-wheel drive vehicles built on a body-on-frame platform, not unlike the few truck-based SUVs remaining today. In fact, nearly all vehicles back in those days — SUV or otherwise — had a body-on-frame architecture; however, very few had four-wheel drive.
As for the first crossover (that is, an SUV built on a unibody platform), the 1936 Opel Geländesportwagen, a two-seat, off-road race car, is believed to have been the first, while the 1955 Gaz-M20 was the first four-wheel drive passenger car to be mass-produced.
The Lada Niva stands apart as the first mass-produced off-road vehicle to combine a unibody architecture with a coil-sprung independent front suspension. It may very well be the most direct predecessor to modern crossover SUVs in both design and engineering since nearly all models are still designed around this format.
SUVs were an afterthought for consumers before the mid-1980s and were seen as nothing more than hulking work vehicles. The arrival of the 1984 Jeep Cherokee (XJ) changed all of that.
Even though it was built on a unibody platform instead of a body-on-frame platform like most of its contemporaries at the time (it was a crossover in the technical sense), the original Cherokee had all the trappings normally associated with SUVs, namely a tall, boxy body, a raised ground clearance, and four-wheel drive. Its smaller, more civilized size and appearance was a hit with urban families and made buyers see SUVs in a new light.
This Jeep, together with other SUVs such as the Ford Explorer of the 1990s, ignited the spark that led to the SUV craze of the 2000s.
What is an SUV? Today’s SUVs come in a wide range of different sizes and designs, performance capabilities, and price levels. You can have one as small as the Hyundai Venue to as large as the massive, nine-passenger Chevrolet Suburban, and as car-like as the Hyundai Kona to as rugged, off-road-capable as the Jeep Wrangler.
SUVs can be as incredibly affordable as the Dacia Duster or as absurdly expensive as the Rolls-Royce Cullinan, which literally costs more than many houses.
What does SUV mean? In one word, utility. These vehicles came into prominence because of the incredible on- and off-road utility they have provided over the decades. Is it any wonder that the word ‘SUV’ means ‘sport utility vehicle’?
SUV FAQs And Answers
Whether related to the type of vehicles they are or the size and drivetrain option available, if you’re interested in buying an SUV, chances are you have some questions. This section provides succinct answers to some of the most common consumer queries.
What’s The Difference Between A Crossover And An SUV?
It’s all about platforms. A crossover is built on a unibody platform similar to sedans and hatchbacks, while a traditional SUV is based on body-on-frame chassis like most pickup trucks. There are advantages and disadvantages to each one, but generally speaking, crossovers drive more like cars, while traditional SUVs have a bit more of a rugged, truck-like feel to their ride and handling.
The distinction is far less important today than it was in the past, since most models, regardless of the platform, have converged into a design that has more in common with traditional cars than with pickup trucks.
Is An SUV A Truck?
Not necessarily. Even though SUVs are classified as light trucks in the United States and other countries to give them more lenient fuel-efficient standards compared to passenger cars, most models are actually cars underneath. There are, however, a few SUVs that are built on a truck platform.
The Jeep Wrangler, Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban, Ford Expedition, Cadillac Escalade, and Toyota 4Runner are examples of SUVs that have the bones of a truck.
What SUV Should I Buy?
SUVs come in many different sizes and shapes, and with varying performance capabilities. Finding the best SUV for your needs requires assessing your needs and expectations; setting a budget; doing cross-analysis of different models, including their cost of ownership; and going for test drives.
If you place a premium on comfort, maneuverability, and fuel economy, consider getting a crossover SUV, since it will drive and handle like a traditional car. If you plan to do frequent hauling and towing of heavy items, the truck-like toughness and performance of a traditional SUV may serve you better.
Do All SUVs Have Four Wheel Drive?
There used to be a time when having all-wheel or four-wheel drive was a requirement for a vehicle to be considered an SUV, but that’s no longer the case. Many SUVs, particularly those in the sub-compact size class, are strictly two-wheel drive and can’t be had with either drive option.
Even so, many crossover SUVs are available with all-wheel drive, while nearly all traditional SUVs come with four-wheel drive.
Can I Take An SUV Off-Road?
Most modern SUVs, especially those with all-wheel drive, can easily tackle a dirt road and possibly a muddy trail, but only a few are truly capable of serious off-roading.
While certain models such as the Jeep Wrangler and Ford Bronco come out of the factory ready to conquer the rugged outdoors, most off-road-ready SUVs are for the most part rugged, performance-enhanced variants of models that were primarily developed for urban driving.
What is the only type of vehicle that can seat up to eight passengers comfortably, carry a boatload of things, provide the utmost protection during collisions, and potentially drive off-road and tow heavy loads reliably? SUVs, of course.
Once little more than big, hulking trucks with extended cabins and barely a blip on automotive sales charts prior to 1990, SUVs have risen to prominence to rule our roads, displacing sedans as the most popular class of vehicle in most of the developed world, no less because of their unprecedented versatility and rugged-good looks.
They include virtually anything with an elevated ride height and a two-box design similar to hatchbacks and wagons. All-wheel drive or four-wheel drive used to be required for a vehicle to be considered an SUV, but that’s becoming less the case as an increasing number of models are introduced without either drive option.
So, what is an SUV? Put succinctly, it is a type of vehicle that cherry-picks the best features from sedans, wagons, minivans, and pickup trucks and combines them into one irresistible package. Now, what does SUV stand for? ‘Sports utility vehicle’, with an emphasis on utility. Few, if any, class of vehicles can match the level of versatility provided by an SUV.