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Sport utility vehicle

Sport utility vehicle

Sport utility vehicle (SUV) is a category of motor vehicles that combine elements of road-going passenger cars with features from off-road vehicles, such as raised ground clearance and four-wheel drive.

There is no commonly agreed definition of an SUV, and usage varies between countries. Some definitions claim that an SUV must be built on a light truck chassis; however, broader definitions consider any vehicle with off-road design features to be an SUV. A crossover SUV is defined as an SUV built with a unibody construction (as per passenger cars), however in many cases crossovers are simply referred to as SUVs. In some countries—such as the United States—SUVs have been classified as "light trucks", resulting in more lenient regulations compared to passenger cars.

The predecessors to SUVs date back to military and low-volume models from the late 1930s, and the four-wheel drive station wagons and carryalls that began to be introduced in 1949. The 1984 Jeep Cherokee (XJ) is considered to be the first SUV in the modern style. Most SUVs produced today use unibody construction (as per passenger cars); however, in the past many SUVs used body-on-frame construction.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the popularity of SUVs greatly increased, often at the expense of the popularity of large sedans and station wagons. More recently, smaller SUVs, mid-size and crossovers have become increasingly popular. SUVs are currently the world's largest automotive segment and accounted for 36.8% of the world's passenger car market in 2017.


There is no universally accepted definition of the sport utility vehicle.[1] Dictionaries, automotive experts, and journalists use varying wordings and defining characteristics, in addition to which there are regional variations of the use by both the media and the general public. The auto industry has not settled on one definition of the SUV either.[1]

The actual term "Sport Utility Vehicle" did not come into wide popular usage until the late 1980s — prior to then, such vehicles were marketed during their era as four-wheel drives, station wagons, or other monikers.

American English

Automotive websites descriptions of SUVs range from specifically "combining car-like appointments and wagon practicality with steadfast off-road capability" with "chair-height seats and picture-window visibility"[2] to the more general "nearly anything with available all-wheel drive and raised ground clearance".[3] It is also suggested that the term SUV has replaced "jeep" as a general term for off-road vehicle.[4]

American dictionary definitions for SUVs include:

  • "rugged automotive vehicle similar to a station wagon but built on a light-truck chassis"[5]

  • "automobile similar to a station wagon but built on a light truck frame"[6]

  • "large vehicle that is designed to be used on rough surfaces but that is often used on city roads or highways"[7]

  • "passenger vehicle similar to a station wagon but with the chassis of a small truck and, usually, four-wheel drive"[8]

British English

In British English, the terms "four-by-four" (often abbreviated to "4x4") or "off-road vehicle" are generally used instead of sport utility vehicle.[9][10]

The Collins English Dictionary defines sport(s) utility vehicle as a "powerful vehicle with four-wheel drive that can be driven over rough ground"[11] or "a high-powered car with four-wheel drive, originally designed for off-road use",[12][13] but the citations quoted by Collins are few. The Chambers Dictionary has no entry for sport utility vehicle.[14]

Other countries

In Europe, the term SUV is generally used for road-oriented vehicles, "four-by-four" or the brand name of the vehicle are typically used for off-road oriented vehicles. Similarly, in Australia and New Zealand, vehicles designed for off-road use are typically referred to as "four-wheel drives" instead of SUVs.

Government regulations

In the United States, many government regulations simply have categories for "off-highway vehicles" which are loosely defined and often result in SUVs (along with pick-up trucks and minivans) being classified as light trucks.[1][15] For example, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations previously included "permit greater cargo-carrying capacity than passenger carrying volume" in the definition for trucks, resulting in SUVs being classified as light trucks.[16]

This classification as trucks allowed SUVs to be regulated less strictly than passenger cars under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act for fuel economy, and the Clean Air Act for emissions.[17] However, from 2004 onwards, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to hold sport utility vehicles to the same tailpipe emissions standards as cars.[18] In 2011 the CAFE regulations were changed to classify small, two-wheel drive SUVs as passenger cars.[19]

However the licensing and traffic enforcement regulations in the United States vary from state to state, and an SUV may be classified as a car in some states but as a truck in others.[20] For industry production statistics, SUVs are counted in the light truck product segment.[21]

In India, all SUVs are classified in the "Utility Vehicle" category per the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) definitions and carry a 27% excise tax.[22] Those that are 4 metres (157 inches) long, have a 1,500 cc (92 cu in) engine or larger, along with 170 mm (6.7 in) of ground clearance, are subject to a 30% excise duty.[23]

In Australia, SUV sales were helped by having lower import duties than passenger cars. Up until January 2010, SUVs were subject to a 5% import tarif, compared with 10% for passenger cars.[24][25]



Many years after most passenger cars had transitioned to a unibody construction, most SUVs continued to use a separate body-on-frame method, due to being based on the chassis from a light truck, commercial vehicle, pickup truck or off-road vehicle.

The first mass-produced unibody four-wheel drive passenger car was the 1955 GAZ-M20 Pobeda M-72.[26][27] The 1977 Lada Niva was the first off-road vehicle to use both a unibody construction and a coil-sprung independent front suspension. The relatively compact Niva is considered a predecessor to the crossover SUV and combines a hatchback-like passenger car body with full-time four-wheel drive, low-range gearing and lockable center differential.

Nonetheless, unibody SUVs remained rare until the 1984 Jeep Cherokee (XJ) was introduced and became a sales success. The introduction of the 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee resulted in all Jeep SUV models using unibody construction,[28] with many other brands following suit since the mid-1990s. Today, most SUVs in production use a unibody construction and relatively few models continue to use a body-on-frame construction.

Body style

SUVs are typically of a two-box design similar to a station wagon. The engine compartment is up front, followed by a combined passenger/cargo area (unlike a sedan, which has a separate trunk/boot compartment).

Up until approximately 2010, many SUV models were available in 2-door body styles. Since then, manufacturers began to discontinue the 2-door models as 4-door models became more popular.[29][30][31] Only a few 2-door SUVs remain today, such as the body-on-frame Suzuki Jimny and Jeep Wrangler, and the Range Rover Evoque crossover SUV.[32]


SUVs typically have high ground clearance and a tall body. This results in a high centre of mass, which makes SUVs more prone to roll-over accidents.[33] In 2003, SUVs were quoted as 2.5 times more likely to roll over in a crash than regular cars and that SUV roofs are more likely to cave in on passengers than in other cars, resulting in increased harm to passengers.[33][34]

Between 1991 and 2001, the United States saw a 150% increase in sport-utility vehicle rollover deaths. In 2001, though roll-overs constituted just 3% of vehicle crashes overall, they caused over 30% of occupant fatalities in crashes;[33] and in crashes where the vehicle does roll over, SUV occupants in the early 2000s were nearly three times as likely to be killed as other car passengers.[35]

The increasing popularity of SUVs in the 1990s and early 2000s was partly due to buyers perceiving that SUVs provide greater safety for occupants, due to their larger size and raised ride height.[33][36][37][38] Regarding the safety to other road users, SUVs are exempted from the regulation that a passenger car bumper must protect the area between 16 to 20 inches (41 to 51 cm) above the ground. This often increases the damage to the other car in a collision with an SUV, because the impact occurs at a higher location on the other car.[39][40] In 2000-2001, 60% of fatal side-impact collisions were where the other vehicle was an SUV, an increase from 30% in 1980-1981.[41]

The high danger for cyclists and pedestrians of being seriously injured or even killed by SUV drivers who by age, fatigue or drugs aren't carefully observing the street situation has caused some public protests against SUVs in urban areas.[42]

Types of SUV

Crossover SUV

The 'crossover SUV' segment (also known as 'CUV' or simply 'crossover') has become increasingly popular since around 2010. Crossovers are often based on a platform shared with a passenger car, as a result they typically have better comfort and fuel economy, but less off-road capability (many crossovers are sold without all-wheel drive) than pickup truck-based SUVs.[43][44][45]

The difference between crossovers and other SUVs is sometimes defined as a crossover being built using a unibody platform (the type used by most passenger cars), while an SUV is built using a body-on-frame platform (the type used by off-road vehicles and light trucks).[46][47][48] However, these definitions are often blurred in practice, since unibody vehicles are also often referred to as SUVs.[49][50] Also, crossover is a relatively recent term and early unibody SUVs (such as the 1984 Jeep Cherokee) are rarely called crossovers. Due to these inconsistencies, the term SUV is often used as a catch-all for both crossovers and SUVs.[51]

Outside of the United States, the term crossover tends to be used for C-segment (compact) or smaller vehicles, with large unibody vehicles— such as the Audi Q7, BMW X7 and Volkswagen Touareg— are usually called SUVs rather than crossovers. In the United Kingdom, a crossover is sometimes defined as a hatchback model with raised ride height and SUV-like styling features.[52][53]

  • Subcompact crossover: Mazda CX-3 (2016—present)

  • Compact crossover: Nissan X-Trail (2013—present)

  • Mid-size crossover: Toyota Highlander (2013—2019)

  • Full-size crossover: Chevrolet Traverse (2009-2017)

Mini SUV

The smallest size class of SUV is the 'mini SUV'. In Japan, SUVs under 3,400 mm (133.9 in)— such as the Mitsubishi Pajero Mini— are included in the kei car category and therefore attract lower taxes.

Many recent vehicles labelled as mini SUVs are technically subcompact crossovers and are built on the platform of a subcompact (also called supermini or B-segment) passenger car.

  • Daihatsu Rocky (1989–1992)

  • Suzuki Jimny (2019—present)

  • Renault Captur (crossover) (2013—present)

Compact SUV

Compact SUV is the next bigger size class after mini SUVs.

Many recent vehicles labelled as compact SUVs are technically compact crossovers and are built on the platform of a compact (C-segment) passenger car.

  • Renault Kadjar (2016–present)

  • Jeep Compass (2016-present)

  • Honda CR-V (2017-present)

Mid-size SUV

The next larger size is 'mid-size SUV'. Outside of North America, this term is not commonly used, with mid-size SUVs being grouped together with full-size SUVs. Some mid-size SUVs are based on platforms shared with passenger cars and are therefore crossovers. Other mid-size SUVs are based on compact or mid-size pickups.

  • Toyota Fortuner (2015–present)

  • GMC Acadia (2017-present)

  • Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class (2019-present)

Full-size SUV

Full-size SUVs are the largest size of commonly produced SUVs. Some are marketed for their off-road capabilities, while others are marketed as luxury vehicles. Many full-size SUVs are built on dedicated platforms; others share their platforms with full-sized pickups.

  • Chevrolet Tahoe (2015-present)

  • Toyota Land Cruiser (2007-present)

  • Range Rover (2012-present)

Extended-length SUV

Some North American SUVs are available as a long-wheelbase version of a full-size SUV, which is called an 'extended-length SUV'. The additional length is used to provide extra space for rear passengers or cargo. As per the full-size SUVs they are based on, most extended-length SUVs are built on dedicated platforms, full-sized pickups or super-duty pickups.

Extended-length SUVs are mostly sold in North America and the Middle East.

  • Cadillac Escalade ESV (2015-present)

  • Lincoln Navigator L 2018-present)


1930s to 1948: Early models and military vehicles

Just before and during World War II, around the world, prototypes and low-volume production examples began to appear of cars with sedan or station-wagon type bodies on rugged, off-road capable four-wheel drive chassis, such as the 1936 Kurogane Type 95 from Japan, the 1938 GAZ-61 from Russia, the 1941 Volkswagen Kommandeurswagen and the 1936 Opel Geländesportwagen[54] from Germany. An early predecessor to the design of modern SUVs, was the 1940 Humber Heavy Utility, a four-wheel drive off-road vehicle built on the chassis of the Humber Super Snipe passenger car.[55]

One of the most prohibitive initial factors to the potential civilian market popularity of an SUV-like car lay in its costs, and availability of certain critical parts. Before the war, adding four-wheel drive to a car almost doubled its cost,[56] Compared to a common, rear-wheel drive vehicle, any 4WD needed a number of essential extra components, like a transfer case, and a second differential and constant-velocity joints for the driven front axle — all expensive components, because of the precision involved in manufacturing gears and such. In America these were produced up to the war only by a few specialized firms with limited capacity, but due to the war's necessity, from spring 1942 Ford, Dodge and Chevrolet joined in fabricating these parts in mass quantity, boosting their production more than 100-fold.[57]

An early usage of the term was the 1947 Crosley CC Four Sport Utility model, which used a convertible wagon body style and is therefore unrelated to the design of later SUVs.[58][59][60]

1949 to 1970s: Carryalls, station wagons and luxury 4WDs

Many regard the International Harvester Scout, introduced in 1961, as the very first commercially marketed Sport Utility Vehicle. The Scout was marketed and sold as a outdoor sporting vehicle, where all other competitors in the market were first intended for military or utility use.

Several models of carryall wagons began to be offered with four-wheel drive, beginning in 1949 when the Willys Jeep Station Wagon introduced the option of four-wheel drive.[61][62] Four-wheel drive versions of the Chevrolet Suburban were introduced for 1955, followed by the International Harvester Travelall in 1956 (credited as being the first full-size SUV)[63] and the Power Wagon Town Wagon in 1957.[63][64]

The 1967 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ55 station wagon was the first comfort-oriented version of the Land Cruiser off-road vehicle. The two-door Chevrolet K5 Blazer (and related GMC K5 Jimmy) were introduced for 1969 and the two-door International Harvester Scout II was introduced in 1971. The first European luxury off-road vehicle was the 1970 Range Rover Classic, which was marketed as a luxury car for both on-road and off-road usage.[65][66]

The first relevant usage of the term SUV was advertising brochures for the 1974 Jeep Cherokee (SJ), which used the wording "sport(s) utility vehicle" as a description for the vehicle.[67][68] The 1966 Ford Bronco included a "sport utility" model, however in this case it was used for the two-door pickup truck version.[69]

The 1979 AMC Eagle is considered by some to be the first crossover.[70][71]

  • 1970 Jeep Wagoneer (SJ)

  • 1979 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ55

  • 1973 Range Rover Classic

1980s to 1990s: Birth of the modern SUV

The 1984 Jeep Cherokee (XJ) is often credited as the first SUV in the modern understanding of the term.[72] The use of unibody construction was unique at the time for a four-wheel drive, and reduced the weight of the Cherokee. It also appealed to urban families due to having a more compact size (compared to the full-size Wagoneer) as well as a plush interior resembling a station wagon.[72] As the Cherokee became a major sales success, the term "sport utility vehicle" began to be used in the national press for the first time.[72] "The advent and immediate success of AMC/Jeep's compact four-door Cherokee turned the truck industry upside down."[73]

The corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard that was introduced in 1975 with the aim of reducing fuel usage included relaxed regulations for "light trucks", to avoid business paying extra taxes for work vehicles. This created a loophole which manufacturers increasingly exploited since the 1980s, whereby SUVs were designed to be classified as light trucks (despite their primary use as passenger vehicles) to receive tax concessions and less stringent fuel economy requirements.[74] For example, the United States Environmental Protection Agency agreed to classify the Jeep Cherokee as a light truck following lobbying from its manufacturer; the Cherokee was then marketed by the company as a passenger vehicle.[75] This increased the SUV boom as other manufacturers introduced their own SUVs in response to the Cherokee taking sales from their regular cars.[76]

SUVs increased in popularity throughout the 1990s and by 1999 the U.S. sales of SUVs and light trucks for the first time exceeded sales of regular passenger cars.[33]

The 1996 Toyota RAV4 is considered by some to be the first crossover.[77]

2000s: Market dominance

By 2003 there were 76 million SUVs and light trucks on U.S. roads, representing approximately 35% of the vehicles on the road.[33]

Car manufacturers were keen to promote SUV sales over other types of cars due, to higher profits in the segment. An SUV could be sold with a profit margin of US$10,000 or more (US$18,000 per SUV in the case of the Ford Excursion), while compact cars were often sold at a loss of a few hundred dollars per car.[78][79][80] As a result, several manufacturing plants were converted from car production to SUV production (such as the General Motors Arlington, Texas plant in 1996) and many long-running U.S. sedan models were discontinued.[81][82][83]

From the mid-2000s until 2010, U.S. sales of SUVs and other light trucks experienced a dip, due increasing fuel prices and a declining economy. From 2008 to 2010, General Motors closed four assembly plants that were producing SUVs and trucks.[84] Sales of SUVs and light trucks sales began to recover in 2010, as fuel prices decreased and the North American economy improved.[85]

2010s: Increasing popularity of smaller SUVs, mid-size and crossovers

By 2013, small and compact SUVs had increased to become the third largest market segment.[21] Since the early 2000s, new styles of SUV have been introduced to appeal to a wider audience, such as crossovers and other small SUVs.[86] Larger SUVs also remained popular, with sales of General Motors' large SUV models increasing significantly in 2013.[87]

In 2015, global sales of SUVs overtook the "lower medium car" segment, to become the largest market segment, accounting for 22.9% of "light vehicle" sales in 2015.[86] The following year, worldwide SUV sales experienced further growth of 22%. The world's fastest growing SUV markets in 2014-2015 were: China (+ 47.9%), Italy (+ 48.6%), Spain (+ 42%), Portugal (+ 54.8 %) and Thailand (+ 56.4%).[86] The SUV segment further grew to 26% of the global passenger car market in 2016, then to 36.8% of the market in Q1–Q3 of 2017.[88][89][86]

In the US, at the end of 2016, sales of SUVs and light duty trucks had surpassed traditional car sales for the year by over 3 million units.[90] Manufacturers continued to phase out production of sedan models, replacing them with new models of SUVs.[91]

Luxury brands have increasingly introduced SUV or crossover models in the 2010s, such as the seven models of SUVs (X1 through X7) sold by BMW,[92] the Rolls-Royce Cullinan, Bentley Bentayga and Lamborghini Urus. Ferrari have announced that they will release an SUV model in 2022.[93]


SUVs have competed in various off-road racing competitions, such as the Dakar Rally, Baja 1000, FIA Cross-Country Rally World Cup, King of the Hammers and Australasian Safari. SUVs have also competed in the Trophee Andros ice-racing series.


Several derogatory/pejorative terms for SUVs are based on the combination of an affluent suburb name and "tractor", particularly for expensive vehicles from luxury brands. Examples include "Toorak Tractor" (Melbourne, Australia),[94][95] "Chelsea Tractor" (London, England)[96] and "Remuera Tractor" (Auckland, New Zealand). These terms relate to the theory that four-wheel drive capabilities are not required by affluent SUV owners and that the SUV is purchased as a status symbol rather than for practical reasons.

In Norway, the term "Børstraktor" (Stock Exchange Tractor) serves a similar purpose.[97] In the Netherlands, SUVs are sometimes called "P.C. Hooft-tractors" after the exclusive P.C. Hooftstraat Amsterdam shopping street.[98]

See also

  • Criticism of sport utility vehicles

  • Esuvee

  • Four-wheel drive

  • List of sport utility vehicles

  • Recreational vehicle


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