In the past 15 years, SUVs have become the go-to vehicle for American drivers. But even though more and more people are driving SUVs, it’s easy to be confused by just what an SUV is. As SUVs became popular with shoppers, carmakers started offering more variances on the old SUV model. The result is that today, SUVs run the gamut from vehicles that are essentially tall station wagons to truck-based, hard-core work vehicles. If you’re shopping for SUVs, it’s important to know just what you’re getting into.
Many of the first SUVs were simply pickup trucks with an enclosed cargo hold instead of an open bed. Built on truck frames, these SUVs excelled at the same tasks as pickups: towing heavy loads and traversing rough terrain. But SUVs also held more passenger space and could keep cargo safe from the elements.
A number of SUVs on the market still follow this formula, though they’re significantly more comfortable and upscale than their forebearers were. The Chevrolet Tahoe, for example, rides on the same platform as the Chevrolet Silverado Pickup truck. Like the Silverado, the Tahoe has available four-wheel drive that makes it capable off-road and in foul weather. Plus, because of its rugged construction and powerful engines, the Tahoe and other truck-based SUVs can tow loads that cars and car-based SUVs just can’t handle.
Off-road capability was one of the key reasons carmakers developed the SUV. You only have to look back at the original Jeep, rolling across battlefields in World War II to see that. While off-road SUVs may or may not share a platform with a pickup truck, all have the same body-on-frame construction that trucks do. Body-on-frame construction is stronger than unibody construction, which is what most cars use. The stronger construction lets off-road SUVs tackle harsh conditions that would literally break vehicles with unibody construction. Today’s off-road SUVs combine a strong platform with high-tech off-road systems that can be customized to handle almost any terrain. And while there are plenty of rough-and-tumble SUVs out there, such as the Jeep Wrangler, Nissan XTerra and Toyota 4Runner, many luxury SUVs, such as the Land Rover Range Rover, Mercedes Benz G and Lexus LX, can also handle the rockiest trails.
While traditional and off-road SUVs are great for buyers who like to keep going when the pavement ends, they have their drawbacks. While body-on-frame construction and beefy suspensions are great for off-roading, on pavement, they compromise handling. Plus, that kind of rugged construction makes the SUV heavy, so you need a powerful engine to keep things moving. Big engines like that use a lot of gas.
Those downsides kept a lot of buyers away from SUVs. To bring them in, carmakers developed crossover SUVs. A crossover SUV is a vehicle with an SUV body that rides on a car-based, or unibody, platform. The result is a vehicle that has the passenger and cargo utility of an SUV, but drives like a car.
Crossovers are one of the hottest segments of the SUV market, and if you’re looking at an SUV, odds are it’s a crossover SUV. Crossovers tend to be smaller than most traditional SUVs. All but a few compact SUVs are crossovers. Popular models like the Honda CR-V, Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tucson and GMC Terrain are all crossovers.
Crossovers can also be found among midsize SUVs. The Ford Explorer is the nameplate credited with taking the SUV mainstream, but while it used to be a truck-based SUV, the latest generation is a crossover. The changes let Ford keep its popular model while increasing its fuel economy by 25 percent and making it more comfortable for driving around town. Large crossovers, like the Chevrolet Traverse and Mazda CX-9, let you ferry seven or eight people around in comfort, and they aren’t all that much different from driving a car.
As SUVs have gotten more popular, they’ve also gotten flack for the amount of fuel they use. While the introduction of crossovers has helped remedy this somewhat, carmakers have also started applying the technology from their small hybrid cars to SUVs. The results are vehicles with lots of utility and improved fuel economy. Models like the Lexus RX Hybrid give buyers a lot of luxury in their hybrid SUV, while hybrid SUVs like the GMC Yukon Hybrid let traditional SUV buyers save on fuel without giving up capability. Even SUVs that aren’t hybrids have employed fuel-saving technologies like cylinder deactivation to improve their fuel economy.
SUVs and Safety
Many buyers are attracted to SUVs in part because there’s a perception that they fare better in crashes than cars do. Because of their size, some SUVs may do a better job of protecting their occupants. However, that’s not a hard and fast rule. Before buying any SUV, you should check out its crash-test ratings and available safety features.
However, the most important component of SUV safety is the driver. Because they are taller and heavier than most cars, SUVs require extra driver attention. Their higher centers of gravity make SUVs more prone to rollover accidents. While carmakers have added lots of roll-mitigation technology to their SUVs, the risk is still there. The extra weight in most SUVs, particularly traditional or off-road SUVS, means that they will take extra time to stop. Also, the height and shape of SUVs means that they can have more blind spots than cars, particularly to the rear. Add-ons like rearview cameras have helped make SUVs easier to drive, but they still require a different set of driving skills than cars do. In fact, because of the extra concerns that come with driving an SUV, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recommends that only experienced drivers operate them.