A sport utility vehicle ( SUV ) is a vehicle classified as a light truck, but operated as a family vehicle. [75] [76] SUVs are similar to a large station wagon or estate car, though typically featuring tall interior packaging, high H-point seating, high center of gravity, high ground-clearance and especially four- or all-wheel-drive capability for on- or off-road ability. Some SUVs include the towing capacity of a pickup truck with the passenger-carrying space of a minivan or large sedan .

Popular in the late-1990s and early–mid-2000s, SUVs sales temporarily declined due to high oil prices and a declining economy. The traditional truck-based SUV is gradually being supplanted by the crossover SUV , which uses an automobile platform for lighter weight and better fuel efficiency . By 2010, SUV sales around the world were growing, in spite of high gasoline prices.


According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a "sport utility vehicle" is "a rugged automotive vehicle similar to a station wagon but built on a light-truck chassis". [2] The "SUV" term is defined as "a large vehicle that is designed to be used on rough surfaces but that is often used on city roads or highways." [3] The "SUV" acronym "is still used to describe nearly anything with available all-wheel drive and raised ground clearance." [4]

North America

There is no universally accepted definition for an SUV. Most government regulations simply have categories for "off-highway vehicles," which in turn are lumped in with pickup trucks and minivans as "light trucks." The auto industry has not settled on one definition.

Nevertheless, four-wheel-drive SUVs are considered light trucks in North America (and two-wheel-drive SUVs up to the 2011 model year [8] ) where they were regulated less strictly than passenger cars under two laws in the United States, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act for fuel economy, and the Clean Air Act for emissions. [10] Starting in 2004, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to hold sport utility vehicles to the same tailpipe emissions standards as cars. [77]

Many people question "how can an SUV be called a truck?" [12] Although the original definition of the "light truck" classification included pickups and delivery vans, usually SUVs and minivans are included in this category because these vehicles are designed to "permit greater cargo-carying capacity than passenger carrying volume." [12] Manufacturing, emissions, and safety regulations in the U.S. classify "an SUV is a truck"; however, for local licensing and traffic enforcement, "an SUV may be a truck or a car" because the classification of these vehicles varies from state to state. [75] For industry production statistics, SUVs are counted in the light truck product segment. [14]

Other markets

The term is not used in all countries, and outside North America the terms "off-road vehicle", "four-wheel drive" or "four-by-four" (abbreviated to "4WD" or "4×4") or simply use of the brand name to describe the vehicle like " Jeep " or " Land Rover " are more common.

In Europe, the term SUV has a similar meaning, but being newer than in the U.S. it only applies to the newer street oriented one, where-as " Jeep ", " Land Rover " or 4x4 are used for the off-roader oriented ones. Not all SUVs have four-wheel drive capabilities, and not all four-wheel-drive passenger vehicles are SUVs. Although some SUVs have off-road capabilities, they often play only a secondary role, and SUVs often do not have the ability to switch among two-wheel and four-wheel-drive high gearing and four-wheel-drive low gearing. While automakers tout an SUV's off-road prowess with advertising and naming, the daily use of SUVs is largely on paved roads.

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. [75] 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. [75]



Early SUVs were descendants from commercial and military vehicles such as the World War II Jeep [75] and Land Rover . [75]

The earliest examples of longer-wheelbase wagon-type cars were the Chevrolet Carryall Suburban (1935, RWD only), GAZ-61 (1938, 4×4), Willys Jeep Station Wagon (1948), Pobeda M-72 ( GAZ-M20 /1955), which Russian references credit as possibly being the first modern SUV (with unitary body rather than body-on-frame), International Harvester Travelall (1953), Land Rover Series II 109 (1958), and the International Harvester Scout 80 (1961). These were followed by the more 'modern' Jeep Wagoneer (1963), International Harvester Scout II (1971), Ford Bronco (1966), Toyota Land Cruiser FJ-55 (1968), the Chevrolet Blazer / GMC Jimmy (1969), and the Land Rover Range Rover (1970). The actual term "sport utility vehicle" did not come into wide popular usage until the late 1980s; many of these vehicles were marketed during their era as station wagons .

According to Robert Casey, the transportation curator at the Henry Ford Museum , the Jeep Cherokee (XJ) was the first true sport utility vehicle in the modern understanding of the term. Developed under the leadership of AMC's François Castaing and marketed to urban families as a substitute for a traditional car (and especially station wagons, which were still fairly popular at the time), the Cherokee had four-wheel drive in a more manageable size (compared to the full-size Wagoneer), as well as a plush interior resembling a station wagon. With the introduction of more luxurious models and a much more powerful 4-liter engine, sales of the Cherokee increased even higher as the price of gasoline fell, and the term "sport utility vehicle" began to be used in the national press for the first time. "The advent and immediate success of AMC/Jeep's compact four-door Cherokee turned the truck industry upside down." [75]

A vehicle often considered the first true SUV was the 1940's Willys Jeep Station Wagon designed by Brooks Stevens. It was first sold in 1946 and offered 4 wheel drive in 1949. It was produced until 1981. [75] [76]

The corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard was ratified in the 1970s to regulate the fuel economy of passenger vehicles. Car manufacturers evaded the regulation by selling SUVs as work vehicles. [76] The popularity of SUV increased among urban drivers in the last 25 years, and particularly in the last decade. Consequently, modern SUVs are available with luxury vehicle features, and some crossover models adopt lower ride heights to accommodate on-road driving.

Keith Bradsher explained the rise of the SUV with American Motors ' (AMC) lobbying the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a waiver of the United States Clean Air Act . The EPA subsequently designated AMC's compact Cherokee as a "light truck", and the company marketed the vehicle to everyday drivers. [76] AMC's effort to affect rulemaking changing the official definition of their new model then led to the SUV boom when other auto makers marketed their own models in response to the Cherokee taking sales from their regular cars. [76]

1953 International Harvester Travelall , an early SUV-type vehicle


SUVs became popular in the United States, Canada, India, and Australia in the 1990s and early-2000s. U.S. automakers could enjoy profit margins of $10,000 per SUV, while losing a few hundred dollars on a compact car. [76] For example, the Ford Excursion could net the company $18,000, while they could not break even with the Ford Focus unless the buyer chose options, [76] [76] leading Detroit's big three automakers to focus on SUVs over small cars.

The higher cost of union labor in the U.S. and Canada compared to the lower wages of non-union workers at non-U.S. companies like Toyota , made it unprofitable for American auto makers to build small cars in the U.S. For example, the General Motors factory in Arlington, Texas where rear-wheel-drive cars were built, such as the Chevrolet Caprice , Buick Roadmaster , and Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham was converted to truck and SUV production, putting an end to full-size family station wagon and overall terminating production of rear-wheel drive full-size cars. Due to the shift in the Big Three's strategy, many long-running cars like the Ford Taurus , Buick Century and Pontiac Grand Prix fell behind their Japanese competitors in features and image (relying more on fleet sales instead of retail and/or heavy incentive discounts); some were discontinued. [76] [76] [2]

Buyers were drawn to SUVs' large cabins, higher ride height , and perceived safety . Full-size SUVs often offered features such as three-row seating, to effectively replace full-size station wagons and minivans . Wagons were seen as old-fashioned. Additionally, full-size SUVs have greater towing capabilities than conventional cars, and can haul trailers , travel trailers (caravans) and boats. Increased ground clearance is useful in climates with heavy snowfall. The very low oil prices of the 1990s helped keep down running costs. The SUV was one of the most popular choices of vehicle for female drivers in the U.S. [2] [2]

Social scientists have drawn on popular folklore such as urban legends to illustrate how marketers have been able to capitalize on the feelings of strength and security offered by SUVs. [2] Popular tales include narratives where mothers save the family from armed robbery and other incidents by taking the automobile off road, for example.

In Australia, SUV sales were helped by the fact that SUVs had much lower import duty than passenger cars did, so that they cost less than similarly equipped imported sedans. However, this gap was gradually narrowed, and in January 2010 the import duty on cars was lowered to match the 5 percent duty on SUVs. [2] [2]

Sales of SUVs and other light trucks fell in the mid-2000s because of high oil prices and declining economy. In 2008, General Motors announced plans to close four truck and SUV plants, including the Oshawa Truck Assembly . The company cited decreased sales of large vehicles in the wake of rising fuel prices. [2] The business model of focusing on SUVs and light trucks, at the expense of more fuel-efficient compact and midsized cars, is blamed for declining sales and profits among Detroit's Big Three automakers since the mid–late-2000s. The Big Three were slower to adapt than their Japanese rivals in producing small cars to meet growing demand due to inflexible manufacturing facilities, which made it unprofitable to build small cars. [2] However, starting in 2010, SUV and light truck sales have started an upward trend due to lower gasoline prices and a revival of the North American economy. [2] In 2013, General Motors saw its sales for its large SUVs increased by 74%, making them the largest producer of SUVs in the United States. [2] However, the "small and compact SUVs, when compared with other vehicles in the light truck segment, has made this vehicle segment the third highest selling vehicle segment in the automotive market in 2013." [14] With the redesigned GM and Ford large SUVs being introduced in 2014 (for the 2015 model year), it has seen a slight resurgence among consumers due to better fuel economy and new engines, along with updated and newer features. [3]

Starting in 2015, sales of SUVs started dominating the industry. 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. [3] Manufacturers like Hyundai have started reducing their production of traditional cars in favor of SUVs citing reduction in sales and difficulty competing with other manufacturers. [3]


Although designs vary, SUVs have historically been mid-size passenger vehicles with a body-on-frame chassis similar to that found on light trucks . Early SUVs were mostly two-door models, and were available with removable tops. However, consumer demand pushed the SUV market towards four-doors. [3] [3] For example, 1999 was the final production of the truck-based full-size two-door SUV was the Chevrolet Tahoe . Many two-door SUV versions were carry-over models, and their sales were not viable enough to warrant a redesign at the end of their design cycle.

The body-on-frame Jeep Wrangler remained as a compact two-door body style, although it was also joined by a four-door variant starting with the 2007 model year, the Wrangler Unlimited. [3] Two-door SUV models include the 1995-1997 Suzuki X-90 , the 1997-2001 Isuzu VehiCROSS , the 2011-2014 Nissan Murano convertible, and the Range Rover Evoque that was introduced in 2011, although most of these vehicles are unibody . [3] [3] [3] [3]

Jeep Cherokee : SUV trendsetter as designed by AMC
A crash test by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows the damage to a compact Ford Focus struck by a Ford Explorer SUV
Honda Vezel (Mini SUV)

Most SUVs are designed with an engine compartment, a combined passenger and cargo compartment, and no dedicated trunk such as in a station wagon body. Most mid-size and full-size SUVs have three rows of seats with a cargo area directly behind the last row of seats. Cargo barriers are often fitted to the cargo area to protect the vehicles occupants from injury from unsecured cargo in the event of sudden deceleration or collision.

SUVs are known for high ground clearance, upright, boxy body, and high H-point . This can make them more likely to roll over due to their high center of gravity . Bodies of SUVs have recently become more aerodynamic, but the sheer size and weight keeps their fuel economy poor.

Mini SUV

A mini SUV (also called subcompact SUV or subcompact crossover) is a class of small sport utility vehicles. The term usually applies to crossovers based on a supermini (B-segment cars in Europe) platform.

Examples: Category:Mini sport utility vehicles ( 55 )
Compact SUV

A compact SUV is a class of smaller SUVs that are commonly built with less cargo and passenger space, and often with smaller engines resulting in better fuel economy, the term is often interchangeable with crossover SUV .

Examples: Category:Compact sport utility vehicles ( 122 )
Mid-size SUV

A mid-size SUV is a class of medium-size SUVs whose size typically falls between that of a full-size and a compact SUV. This term is not commonly used outside North America, where fullsize and midsize SUVs are considered similar.

Examples: Category:Mid-size sport utility vehicles ( 76 )
Full-size SUV

Full-size SUVs have greater cargo and passenger space than midsize SUVs. Full Size SUVs are usually given higher safety ratings than their smaller counterparts.

Examples: Category:Full-size sport utility vehicles ( 62 )
Audi Q3 (Compact SUV)
Extended-length SUV

An extended length SUV, also sometimes called a long-wheel based SUV, are vehicles that are similar to a full-size SUV, except that these vehicles have a larger cargo area of around 130 in (3.30 m) and passenger space that can seat up to 8 or 9 people (with the available third row seating that when folded or removed adds more cargo space). Although these extended length SUVs are mostly sold in North America because of their size and the roads are made and designed differently, they can also be found in other countries, exported to such places like The Philippines and The Middle East. The vehicles are 221 in (5.61 m) to 223 in (5.66 m) in length and can be distinguished by the rear wheel area not touching the rear doors.

Examples: Category:Expanded length sport utility vehicles ( 10 )

Use in remote areas

SUVs are sometimes driven off-road on farms and in remote areas of such places as the Australian Outback , Africa, the Middle East, Alaska, Canada, Iceland, South America, Russia and parts of Asia which have limited paved roads and require a vehicle to have all-terrain handling, increased range, and storage capacity. The scarcity of spare parts and the need to carry out repairs quickly resulted in the popularity of vehicles with the bare minimum of electric and hydraulic systems, such as the basic versions of the Land Rover , Jeep Wrangler , Nissan Patrol and Toyota Land Cruiser . SUVs for urban driving have traditionally been developed from their more rugged all-terrain counterparts. For example, the Hummer H1 was developed from the HMMWV , originally developed for the military of the United States . [94]

As many SUV owners never used the off-road capabilities of their vehicle, newer SUVs (including crossovers ) now have lower ground clearance and suspension designed primarily for paved roads. [4]

Some buyers choose SUVs because they have more interior space than sedans of similar sizes. In areas with gravel roads in summer and snow and ice in winter, four-wheel drives offer a safety advantage due to their traction advantages under these conditions.

The sport utility vehicles have also gained popularity in some areas of Mexico, especially in desert areas or in cities where drivers frequently encounter potholes , detours, high water and rough roads. Increasing use is also attributed to the high number of dirt roads outside major population centers, resulting in washboard and mud in the rainy seasons . [4]

Use in recreation and motorsport

Some highly modified SUVs, together with their more rugged off-road counterparts, are also used to explore places otherwise unreachable by other vehicles. In Australia, China, Europe, South Africa, South America and the United States at least, 4WD clubs have been formed for this purpose. Modified SUVs also take part in races, including the Paris-Dakar Rally , the Baja racing series, TREC events, King of the Hammers in California and the Australian Outback .

The Trophee Andros ice-racing series is another competition where SUVs participate as well.

Many 4×4 mud racing events and other activities take place throughout the US organized by clubs and associations.

Luxury SUV

Numerous luxury vehicles in the form of SUVs and pickup trucks are being produced. Luxury SUV is principally a marketing term to sell fancier vehicles that may have higher performance, comfort, technology, or brand image. The term lacks both measurability and verifiability, and it is applied to a broad range of SUV sizes and types.

Nevertheless, the marketing category was created in 1966 with Kaiser Jeep 's luxurious Super Wagoneer . [4] [4] It was the first SUV to offer a V8 engine , automatic transmission , and luxury car trim and equipment in a serious off-road model. It came with bucket seating , air conditioning , sun roof , and even a vinyl roof . Land Rover followed suit in 1970 by introducing the Range Rover . The trend continued with other competitors adding comfort features to their rudimentary and truck-based models.

The production of luxury models increased in the late-1990s with vehicles such as the Lincoln Navigator and Cadillac Escalade . These luxury SUVs generated higher profit margins than non-luxury SUVs did. [4] [4] For some auto makers, luxury SUVs were the first SUV models they produced. Some of these models are not traditional SUVs based on light truck as they are classified as crossovers .

The luxury SUV class encompasses both smaller 5-passenger SUVs and larger 7-passenger SUVs, with luxury features both inside of the cabin but also in the outside. Buyers looking for a luxury vehicle that offers more cargo capacity than a sedan may prefer a luxury SUV. This is also a vehicle aimed for those who prefer an SUV with a little more style. [57]

Luxury SUVs typically offer the most expected safety features including side airbags , ABS and traction control , and many of them also come with electronic stability control , crash resistant door pillars, dynamic head restraints and back-up sensing systems. [57]

The U.S. News & World Report Rankings and Reviews ranks premium midsize SUVs and crossovers based on an in-depth analysis by its editors of published auto ratings, reviews and test drives. [4] Ranking is based on the score on performance, exterior, interior, safety, and reliability obtained by the vehicles.

Other names

BMW X5 (Mid-Size SUV)

In Australia and New Zealand , the term SUV is not widely used, except by motoring organizations, [4] the press, [61] and industry bodies. [62] Passenger class vehicles designed for off-road use are known as " four-wheel drives ", "4WDs", or "4×4s". Some manufacturers do refer to their products as SUVs, but others invented names such as XUV, [63] ( HSV Avalanche XUV or GMC Envoy XUV ) or action utility vehicles (AUVs). [99] The term "AWD", or all-wheel drive, is used for any vehicle which drives on all four wheels, but may not be designed for off-road use. " Crossover " is a marketing term for a vehicle that is both four-wheel-drive and primarily a road car.

The pejorative terms "Toorak Tractor" and Mosman taxi are used in Australia to describe vehicles such as Range Rovers used in wealthy urban areas with fine roads, fine dining, and exclusive designer shopping precincts where off-road ability is not required. The terms alludes to the affluent Melbourne suburb of Toorak and the Sydney suburb of Mosman these terms have been in use at least as early as the late 1980s. The equivalent term "Chelsea Tractor" became prominent in the United Kingdom around 2004 to describe vehicles such luxury SUVs used in urban areas such as Chelsea, London , where their four-wheel-drive capabilities are not required and the car is believed to be a status symbol rather than a necessity. [100] The term "4×4" (four-by-four) is also common even for vehicles not used in urban areas. "AWD" is not commonly used in the UK. The less capable SUVs also pick up the name "soft-roader" because while they appear designed to go off road, in many cases they're not actually capable of it.

In Norway the term "Børstraktor" (Stock Exchange Tractor) serves a similar purpose. [66]

In Finland the term "katumaasturi" is commonly used to designate SUVs. [67] It roughly translates to street-off-roader, or street-4×4. This marks the difference with what is called "maasturi" which is a vehicle with off-road capability.

In Sweden they are often called "stadsjeep" (city jeep).

In the Netherlands they are known as "P.C. Hoofttractors" after the exclusive P.C. Hooftstraat shopping street.

In the United States, " mall rated" is an equivalent.

See also