Sport Utility Vehicles: The Name Says It All

When you hear the term “SUV”, what comes to mind? Do you think of a rugged vehicle climbing up a rocky hillside, or splashing through a flooded trail? Perhaps the image of a large, shiny black behemoth transporting a head of state, or dropping off a mega star at an awards gala comes to mind?

Like many things in life, you might know something when you see it, but will draw a blank when asked to formally define it. Fortunately, the automobile industry uses the following general definition for SUVs: a rugged four-wheel-drive motor vehicle designed for off-road use.

Despite this rather simple definition, the automotive industry then splits Sport Utility Vehicles into no less than eight types of SUVs:

  • Subcompact – these vehicles offer more space and better driving capabilities than subcompact cars but remain extremely fuel efficient. As might be expected, room is limited for adults, especially in the back. Many vehicles in this category are considered crossover SUVs, defined as SUVs which are based on an existing passenger car frame and powertrain, which tends to limit off-road utility.

  • Compact - known for providing the best combination of room, on-road handling characteristics and fuel efficiency. Several crossover SUVS are in this category as well. Vehicles in the Subcompact and Compact categories are often referred to as "cute utes".

  • Midsized - This category of SUV provides the passenger capacity of minivans, with seating for up to seven adults in three rows. These vehicles are really the first category associated with true, rugged off-road capability, and are based on a stronger truck-type body frame to provide adequate ground clearance. Many vehicles considered top SUVs come from this category.

  • Luxury Entry Level - Crossover SUVs based on existing luxury cars. These vehicles are generally larger than subcompact SUVs.

The final three categories, Luxury Compact, Luxury Midsized and Luxury Large, correspond to the same types of vehicles in the basic categories, but are produced by a recognized luxury brand or are an upscale offering from a basic brand. Often vehicles from luxury European brands are among these type of SUVs, and thus many vehicles considered top SUVs are also found in these categories.

Across these general categories, there are both hybrid and all-electric SUVs in various sizes as well. All-electric SUVs tend to be subcompact and compact sized vehicles, and some of the largest SUVs are available as hybrids.

Look for These Three Things

Regardless of the size, type and luxury status of any particular SUV, purchasers of SUVs are usually looking for these three characteristics. First of all is safety. It stands to reason that a vehicle rugged enough for off-road use might fare better in a crash than a typical passenger car.

Second is capability and dependability in conditions where weather and terrain are a factor, such as snow, rain and ground clearance away from paved roads. Finally, is relative roominess and size compared to other types of vehicles.

SUVs provide additional safety and practical capabilities at only slightly higher prices, features any driver will want to have when actually needed.