Sports Utility Vehicles  |  Discussion forums Glossary of motoring terms


Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV), is a type of passenger vehicle which combines passenger-carrying and load-hauling abilities with the versatility of a pickup truck. Most SUVs are designed with a roughly square cross-section, an engine compartment and a combined passenger and cargo compartment. Most mid-size and full-size SUVs have 5 or more seats, and a cargo area directly behind the last row of seats. Mini SUVs, such as the Jeep Wrangler, may have fewer seats.

It is known in some countries as an off-roader or four wheel drive, often abbreviated to 4WD or 4x4, and pronounced "four-by-four". More recently, SUVs designed primarily for driving on roads have grown in popularity. A new category, the crossover SUV uses car components for lighter weight and better fuel economy.

Design characteristics

SUVs were traditionally derived from light truck platforms, but have developed to have the general shape of a station wagon. SUVs are typically taller, though, with a roughly square cross-section.

SUVs typically have higher seating than a station wagon and can be equipped with four wheel drive, providing an advantage in low traction environments. The design also allows for a large engine compartment, and many SUVs have large V-6 or V-8 engines. In countries where fuel is more expensive, buyers often opt for diesel engines, which have better fuel efficiency, and given that diesel fuel itself is often much cheaper than gasoline.


Sport utility vehicles were originally descended from commercial and military vehicles such as the Jeep and Land Rover. In fact, that many SUVs have a squarish design is partially due to the Jeep, which was manufactured that way. SUVs have been popular for many years with rural buyers due to their off-road capabilities. In the last 25 years, and even more in the last decade, they have become popular with urban buyers. Consequently, more modern SUVs often come with more luxury features and some crossover SUVs, such as the BMW X5, the Acura MDX, and the Toyota RAV4, have adopted lower ride heights and car chassis to better accommodate their use for on-road driving.


SUVs became popular in the United States, Canada, and Australia, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s, for a variety of reasons. Buyers became drawn to their large cabins, higher ride height, and perceived safety when in the market for a new vehicle. Additionally, most full-size SUVs have far greater towing capacities than conventional cars, allowing owners to tow RVs, trailers, and boats with relative ease, adding to the utilitarian image.

The most common reason for SUV popularity cited by owners was their safety advantage in a collision with regular cars. Some of their success is also due to their image, a substantial factor for many buyers. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, vehicle manufacturers sold the image of SUVs very effectively, with per-vehicle profits substantially higher than other automobiles. Historically, their simple designs and often outdated technology (by passenger car standards) often made the vehicles cheaper to make than comparably-priced cars. Still, SUVs are more expensive than sedans of similar quality and features.

In the mid 2000s, however, their popularity has waned, due to higher gasoline prices after a period of low prices when SUVs became popular. Current model SUVs take into account that 98% of SUV owners never off-road. As such, SUVs now have lower ground clearance and suspension designed primarily for paved road usage.

SUVs in remote areas

SUVs are often used in places such as the Australian Outback, Africa, the Middle East, and most of Asia, which have limited paved roads and require the vehicle to have all-terrain handling, increased range, and storage capacity. The low availability of spare parts and the need to carry out repairs quickly allow model vehicles with the bare minimum of electric and hydraulic systems to predominate. Typical examples are the Land Rover, the Toyota Land Cruiser and the Lada Niva.

SUVs targeted for use in civilization have traditionally originated from their more rugged all-terrain counterparts. For example the Hummer H1 is derived from the HMMWV developed for the US Armed Forces.

Suzuki Grand Vitara

Other names

Outside of North America and India, these vehicles are known simply as four-wheel-drives, often abbreviated to "4WD" or "4x4". They are classified as cars in countries such as the UK where the U.S. distinction between cars and 'light trucks' is not used. In Australia, the automotive industry and press have recently adopted the term SUV in place of four wheel drive in the description of vehicles and market segments. "Utility" or "ute" refers to an automobile with a flatbed rear or pick-up, typically seating two passengers and is often used by tradesmen, and is typically not a 4WD vehicle.

SUVs in recreation and motorsport

SUVs are also used to explore off-road places otherwise unreachable by vehicle or for the sheer enjoyment of the driving. In Australia, Europe, South Africa and the U.S. many 4WD clubs have been formed for this purpose. Modified SUVs also take part in races, most famously in the Paris-Dakar Rally, and the Australian Safari.


The explosive growth in SUV ownership has attracted a large amount of criticism, mainly of the risks to other road users and the environment, but also on the basis that the perceived benefits to the vehicle owner are illusory or exaggerated.

Safety is a common point of criticism. The majority of modern automobiles are constructed by a method called unibody or monocoque construction, whereby a steel body shell absorbs the impacts of collisions in crumple zones. Many SUVs, on the other hand, are constructed in the traditional manner of light trucks: body-on-frame, which can provide a comparatively lower level of safety. However, some SUVs have designs based on unibody construction: the Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute, Lexus RX 330 and RX 400h, Hyundai Santa Fe, and Acura MDX are some examples. In fact, the Jeep Cherokee/Liberty (1984 on) and Grand Cherokee (1993 on) have used unibody construction from the start.

Risk to other drivers

Because of SUVs' greater height and weight, and often usage of body-of-frame constructions, it is documented many SUVs hurt overall public road safety by slightly reducing risk for people inside the SUV, but substantially increasing risk for those outside the SUV. This is due to the SUVs' weight and height advantage in multi-vehicle accidents (resulting in much fewer deaths in the vehicle, but increasing risks for others) being counterbalanced by their raised center of gravity.

The considerable weight of full-size SUVs makes collisions with smaller cars less dangerous for the SUV and more dangerous for the car. The higher ride and other design characteristics of SUVs also lead to greater crash damage to smaller cars. These mass and design dangers are known as crash incompatibility issues in the crash testing industry, and are a topic of active research. The most notable statistic in crash incompatibility is an increase in fatalities when an SUV strikes the head of a passenger or driver in a side-impact collision. This is one of the motivations for the development of side-curtain airbags in standard autos.

The high center of gravity of SUVs makes them more prone to rollover accidents (especially if the vehicle leaves the road or in emergency maneuvers) than lower vehicles. In recent years, Consumer Reports has found a few SUVs unacceptable due to their rollover risk. This was also dramatically demonstrated in one Fifth Gear show using a Range Rover. Modern SUVs are usually designed to prevent rollovers on flat surfaces.

SUV safety concerns are compounded by a perception among owners that SUVs are safer than standard autos. According to G. C. Rapaille, a psychological consultant to automakers, many consumers feel safer in SUVs simply because their ride height makes "[their passengers] higher and dominate and look down."

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