2015 Land Rover LR4 - right side view


SUV stands for sport-utility vehicle. It’s an automobile classification with features of a station wagon, off-road vehicle, and estate car. Many of them come with four-wheel drive, a raised ground clearance, and additional rugged features. Some people refer to SUVs as a Land Rover or a Jeep as a generic description.

Modern SUVs have more amenities and features that make them more than just a utility vehicle. They’ve become a popular class among American families and make up a large market share of the automotive industry. That’s why many companies invest money into creating new and innovative 4x4s for consumers.

What Does SUV Stand For?

SUV stands for sport utility vehicle. It is meant to denote a vehicle that is more capable than a traditional sedan off-road or is useful in a wide range of situations. The versatility comes from a higher ride height, larger cabin room, more available seating, and extra cargo space. The sport utility vehicle has been around since the Chevrolet Suburban was introduced in the 1930’s, but the concept wasn’t really adopted as a mainstay until the 1980’s. That’s when there was a shift away from station wagons towards minivans, then ultimately SUVs.

Sport utility vehicles are rarely actually sporty in the sense that they are quick or offer agile handling. Instead, they are sporty in the sense that they can be taken on adventurous activities out of the city, or can haul trailers thanks to capable towing capacities. Utility seems to be the larger target for most SUVs on the market, as they are capable in a wide array of situations whereas cars can be more limited to city activities.

History of the SUV

Pre-SUV Vehicles

While the term SUV wasn’t used regularly until the 1980s, there are plenty of vehicles that fit the criteria. Most of them were marketed as station wagons, monikers, or 4-wheel drives. Varying sources list the first SUV as something different. Some people feel it was the 1948 Crosley convertible. Others say it was the 1966 Ford Bronco. No one can deny, however, that Jeep used the term “sport utility vehicle” in their brochure for the Cherokee when it was released in 1974.

Perhaps the SUV goes back further than what most people assume. Looking at the time period before World War II shows lots of utility vehicles with off-road capability. Japan created the Kurogane Type 95 in 1936, Russian developed the GAZ-61 in 1938, and let’s not forget the VW Type 97 from 1941.

Beyond that, we also have the Humber Heavy Utility from 1940 as a great SUV example. The reason there weren’t many SUV-type vehicles on the roads in these days was because of the cost. To add four-wheel-drive to a passenger car would’ve double the price. When compared to a rear-wheel-drive, the 4WD counterpart needed many extra components. It added a second differential, transfer case, and CV joint to the front axle. These were all quite expensive at the time. Prior to the war, only a few companies made these parts, but during the war, even Chevrolet, Dodge, and Ford began fabrication.

The first SUV vehicles were built to be light military or commercial transportation. The Jeep was a large part of the war as well as the Dodge WC series trucks.

After the War

Once the war ended, automakers began to produce four-wheel-drive vehicles for civilians. Two of the most well-known included the 1945 Willys Jeep plus the 1948 Land Rover. In 1960, the Harvester Scout 80 arrived on the scene, but it didn’t have a back seat until 1965. Later, the 1966 Ford Bronco debuted which was shorter than some of the other options.

Some larger options existed including the 1954 Dodge Town Wagon and 1935 International Harvester Travelall. The Land Rover line also expanded to a 107-inch long wheelbase for additional room. The Land Rovers were the only at the time that had a modern four-door design.

During the 1960s, some more updated vehicles came into play. They included the 1963 Jeep Wagoneer, 1968 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ-55, the 1969 GMC Jimmy/Chevrolet Blazer, the 1970 Land Rover Range Rover, and the 1971 International Harvester Scout II.

Increase in Sales

SUVs started to grow in popularity during the 1990s and early 2000s. Their largest markets included the United States, India, Australia, and Canada. U.S. automakers also enjoyed selling them because they could easily pocket $10,000 on the sale of one SUV or lose money selling compact cars. At the time, a Ford Excursion earned a profit of $18,000 but the Ford Focus barely broke even unless the buyer added on options. That’s why the Big Three started focusing more on the SUV market.

This also led GM to convert their Arlington, TX plant to SUV and truck production from a rear-wheel-drive factory. Previously, they built the Buick Roadmaster, Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, and Chevrolet Caprice there. This is also the time when cars such as the Pontiac Grand Prix, Buick Century, and Ford Taurus ceased production.

Buyers like the larger cabins, perceived safety, and higher ride height of the SUV. Inside a full-size SUV, it was easy to have three-row seating which made them a nice replacement to a minivan or wagon. They also had higher towing capacity than cars, so families could tow their boats and trailers. For climates with snowfall, the four-wheel-drive was also a major selling feature.

Sales fell slightly during the mid-2000s because of the higher prices of oil and a declining economy. Even GM announced the closure of four SUV and truck plants during 2008 because of the lower sales. America’s Big Three didn’t adapt to the change as well as some Japanese companies did and they couldn’t quickly manufacture smaller cars to meet the demand.

Then, in 2010, the sales started to look up again. By 2013, GM recorded that the SUV market increased by 74% in the company and they became the largest producer of SUVs in America.

Dominating the Market

The compact SUVs is what made this segment skyrocket in sales during the time. Then, Ford and GM reintroduced their larger SUVs in 2015 with better engines, fuel economy, and modern features. That’s the same year they became the largest automotive segment with almost 23% of all light vehicle sales.

By the end of 2016, the sales of light-duty trucks and SUVs surpassed all traditional car sales by more than three million units. That’s when most automakers began to reduce their car production and focus on SUVs instead.

SUV Design

Designs have varied, but most SUVs are passenger vehicles that feature a separate body which sits on a light truck chassis. They mainly have a two-box design where the engine sits in the front with a passenger/cargo area behind it. In addition, they don’t feature a separate trunk but instead use a reconfigurable space for hauling people and goods.

They also feature bigger tires, higher ground clearance, a taller body, and upright seating. This makes them more likely to roll during a crash. The bodies have become aerodynamic, but the weight and size continue to affect their fuel economy.

There are only a handful of two-door SUVs on the market today, but one of the most popular has been the Jeep Wrangler. Another popular favorite is the Range Rover Evoque. Both of these feature a unitary body construction, more like a crossover.

Segment Classifications

Mini SUV

A subcompact SUV or mini SUV normally applies to crossovers. This is a separate class for the smallest line of utility vehicles.

Compact SUV

This class of small SUVs is designed to hold less cargo and passengers than a typical model. The smaller engine helps it to achieve better gas mileage and these are often referred to as crossovers as well.

Mid-size SUV

These fall between the compact SUV and full-size models. Most countries outside the United States consider these to be the same as a full-size SUV and therefore don’t often use this terminology.

Full-size SUV

These have large amounts of passenger and cargo room plus higher safety ratings than the smaller options.

Extended-length SUV

The long-wheelbase SUV looks like a full-size model, but they feature additional cargo space. Some models easily hold eight or nine passengers as well. They’re typically only sold in the United States because other countries don’t have the roads to handle the lengths. The only manufacturers that currently produce these are Ford from their plant in Kentucky and GM from their Texas location.

Off-Road Usage

One of the purposes of an SUV is for their off-road ability. Remote locations rely on the power and ruggedness of these vehicles. Many times, you’ll find them in the Australian Outback, Middle East, Iceland, Alaska, South America, and other parts of the world that lack paved roads.

In Mexico, drivers use SUVs to handle the high water, rough roads, potholes, and detours. On top of that, there are plenty of associations that have begun off-road racing events which utilize 4x4s.

Most American drivers never used the off-road action an SUV provides so some manufacturers changed the design. Now, certain models feature lower ground clearance and a more adaptive suspension geared for a paved road instead.

Luxury SUVs

Luxury SUVs are now being produced for consumers that prefer higher levels of performance, technology, and comfort. There’s no way to determine exactly what makes a luxury SUV as the term is subjective.

That doesn’t stop automakers from applying the label to their vehicles. Probably the first luxury SUV was the 1966 Jeep Super Wagoneer. It was the first one to feature a V8 engine, luxury trim, automatic transmission, bucket seats, sunroof, and air conditioning. Land Rover was close behind with their 1970 Range Rover.

Towards the end of the 1990s, manufacturers increased in new designs including the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator. Luxury SUVs can come with five- or seven-passenger seats, but they all seem to offer more cargo room than a sedan. They also tend to come equipped with the highest level of safety features and driver aids.

Alternative Names

The term SUV isn’t always used in other parts of the world. In fact, New Zealand and Australia only use the word when talking to the press or motoring organization. There, they are referred to as 4x4s or 4WDs. In the United Kingdom, they also rely on the term 4×4, even when it doesn’t actually have four-wheel-drive.

Finland uses the name “katumaasturi” which means street-off-roader. That’s not to be confused with “maasturi” which simply means any vehicle that has off-road ability. Sweden refers to them as Stadsjeep or city jeep.

Four-wheel Drive

Part of what makes an SUV unique is that most of them offer some form of four-wheel-drive. This means that the two-axle drivetrain provides torque to all of the wheels at the same time. Some automobiles do this on demand while others do it full-time.

There are some different terms to describe which each vehicle offers.


This refers to the class of vehicle itself. The first number indicates the total number of wheels a car has while the second points to how many are powered. That’s why you’ll see 4×2 when discussing a four-wheeled vehicle that propels two of the wheels.


This means that there are two axles which send torque to all four wheels. These are best for off-road conditions or bad weather. Often 4WD refers to a vehicle equipped with a transfer case responsible for switching between the 2WD and 4WD modes, either automatically or manually.


All-wheel-drive used to mean the same thing as four-wheel-drive. Today, these systems in a heavy-duty vehicle include a differential located between the front and rear drive shafts. When used with anti-slip technology, the differentials spin at varying speeds based on what’s needed for traction. That’s what makes them capable on any surface, but they typically aren’t good for off-road situations. For passenger vehicles, AWD means that there’s a system which applies the torque to all four of the wheels either on demand or permanently. This provides better traction or performance.

Fun Facts about SUVs

1 – Many modern SUVs come with Electronic Stability Control. This is important because that bundle of steel goes faster than you might be able to control. This system monitors the steering wheel angle and tire speeds and then applies control with a gentle braking maneuver to slow the engine speed when necessary. This prevents roll-over and keeps the larger vehicle on the road where it belongs.

2 – It’s important when traveling in a seven-passenger SUV that you have some sort of rear climate control system. No one in the third row wants to wait for small glimpses of the air to trickle back into their seats. That’s why the majority of modern SUVs offer this option.

3 – There are two types of SUVs: the truck-based and passenger-car based. Most people looking for a smooth, comfortable ride gravitate toward a passenger-based design. If towing and utility or off-roading is the main concern, then the heavier, more industrial truck-based SUV is a better option.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are SUVs safer than cars? In the event of a head-on crash, it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll want to be in a larger, heavier vehicle with a higher center of gravity. Occupants of SUVs are much less likely to be injured or killed in a head-on collision. With that said, SUVs are also more prone to rollovers, which is an often fatal event. It’s important to note that most of those killed in rollover events were not wearing seatbelts. That means that many rollover fatalities are actually quite preventable, regardless of the vehicle type.

Ultimately, it seems that vehicle type matters much less in the event of a collision than how modern the vehicle is. That’s because modern safety features are actually being proven to make huge differences in traffic fatality statistics. Even features as simple as anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control are saving countless lives every year. On top of that, advanced safety suites are getting more accessible and inclusive with each passing year.

What SUVs have third-row seating? Current models with third-row seating are the Toyota Highlander, Ford Expedition MAX/Lincoln Navigator, and Buick Enclave. Other options include the Chevrolet’s Tahoe and Suburban, the Dodge Durango, Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Armada, and Hyundai Santa Fe, among others.

Are SUVs cheaper to insure? The average cost of an SUV surpasses a comparable sedan. Despite that, the majority of SUVs will feature a lower insurance premium. While this depends on several other factors other than the cost of the vehicle, you’ll find that many SUVs are relatively inexpensive to insure. Part of that might be due to the additional safety features that come in many newer models.