What, Exactly, Is an SUV?

You probably think you know...but do you really?

gmc at4

For years, they’ve been crowding our streets and filling our driveways. Your neighbors likely have one; someone within your family probably does as well. Heck, there’s even a high chance that you might own one yourself. I’m talking about the “sport-utility vehicle,” of course. Also known as the SUV, they’ve basically been the hottest thing since sliced bread for year, coming in nearly every size and shape and for budgets of all kinds.

But what exactly is an SUV — and how do you define one?

The definitions may vary colloquially, depending on who you talk to. If you break the term down to its simplest definitions: “sport,” or relating or pertaining to sporting activities; “utility,” being capable of practical use; and "vehicle," well, seems self-explanatory. But there’s obviously more to it than that.

Most would describe an SUV is as a vehicle higher than other cars, hauls a lot of people and their things, and is versatile enough to travel where most other paved-surface-going vehicles would run for their garages. While that's generally true, there are other types of vehicles that fit that description and there are even different types of SUVs as well. So what precisely distinguishes a SUV from other types of vehicles?

In the world of automotive taxonomy and within the kingdom of passenger vehicles, cars are classified by the configuration of their body. For instance, SUVs are “two-box” designs, wherein there are two compartmentalized sections: one for the powertrain and one for the passenger cell. Wagons and hatchbacks are also considered two-box designs.

3 box 2 box cars
As pictured above, sedans are three-box designs; hatchbacks and wagons (and therefore SUVs) are two-box designs.

Alternatively, sedans, coupes, convertibles, and even pickup trucks are “three-box” designs, where the vehicle is sectioned for the powertrain, the passenger cell, and the trunk. Vans are considered “one-box.”

SUVs also combine the two-box design with the features of an off-road vehicle, which means increased ride height for more ground clearance and typically some sort of four-wheel-drive powertrain, allowing it to traverse surfaces that aren’t paved.

Where did SUVs come from?

The origin of the SUV isn’t pinpointed to one event in time and place. As the “horseless carriage” became more accessible to the public and automakers all over the globe continued innovating throughout the first half of the 20th century, the SUV in the contemporary sense came to fruition as a culmination of multiple shared ideas. But the first use of the term, “SUV” or “sport utility vehicle” is often a topic of constant debate, as is its genesis.

The invention of four-wheel drive is from the late 1800s. But the idea of a passenger vehicle with four-wheel drive didn’t come together until the 1930s when automakers around the world began toying with their own experiments under the influence of military projects. Such includes cars like the German 1936 Opel Geländesportswagen; the 1941 Volkswagen Kommandeurswagen, which was essentially a four-wheel-drive Beetle prototype; the Russian 1938 GAZ-6; and the Japanese Kurogane Type 95 from 1936.

It wasn’t until the post-war era that the modern sports-utility vehicle came to fruition with examples like the Willys Jeep Station Wagon, which received optional four-wheel drive in 1949. Chevrolet followed with the Suburban in 1955, and then the International Harvester Travelall in 1956, the world’s supposed first “full-size SUV.”

The birth of the SUV in its most popular form as it is today as you find it in showrooms in all types of flavors is often credited to the likes of the “XJJeep Cherokee in 1984 and arguably the AMG Eagle before it in 1979, the first modern “crossover SUV.”

red jeep

Jeep supposedly first used such wording when advertising its full-size “SJ” Jeep Cherokee in 1974. But furthermore, the actual concept of an all-terrain multi-purpose passenger vehicle dates back to the 1930s with panel wagons and “carryalls.”

1935 chevrolet suburban carryall
1935 Chevrolet Suburban “Carryall”

There are types of SUVs?

Yes indeed. In the beginning, SUVs were truck-based, featuring similar two-part constructions consisting of a main ladder frame with a body mounted on top and solid axles suspended by leaf springs. But because of this very simplistic design, early truck-based SUVs developed a reputation for being harsh and difficult to drive, inefficient, and uncomfortable—similarly to how on the opposite side of the spectrum, a sports car isn’t always the best daily driver.

While some full-size SUVs today still feature these two-part body-on-frame constructions, they have since evolved to incorporate more car-like features, refining their driving experience, and making them far easier to live with on an everyday basis. Many include the use of a single unibody or hybrid frame, fully-independent suspension, and all-wheel drive in lieu of old-school four-wheel-drive.

And through this evolution, SUVs have not only become popular over the years, but it also eventually paved the way for the unrelenting proliferation of the crossover SUV. While the definition of a crossover is even more subjective than that of a traditional sport-utility vehicle, generally speaking, they're designed using unibody chassis (often ones based on those used by sedans) and offer simpler AWD systems — or even front-wheel-drive in 2WD versions, versus the rear-wheel-drive of 2WD old-school SUVs. This results in a vehicle that looks and drives more like a car than traditional truck-based SUVs, making it friendlier and more approachable.

Indeed, because they're so approachable, crossovers far outnumber the number of traditional body-on-frame SUVs, let alone sedans, on the road. As of late, automakers have perfected the recipe for the crossover, combining the versatile practicality of a traditional SUV, with the easy-to-live-with everyday benefits of a sedan.

Whether SUVs or even crossovers are for your or not is entire subjective. But spend time in one and it’s easy to see and realize why they’ve become so popular. What’s not to like about being able to comfortably haul yourself, friends/family, their things, in a safe and efficient manner?

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