So, I finally went looking for the answer to this one; what is an SUV?Specifically, what constitutes an SUV and where did the term come from. I’d like to write a longer article on this but here is the cliff notes version.

The Sport Utility Vehicle as we know it started out in life as the purest form of automotive excellence, a wagon. Since early in automotive history all vehicles were built using body on frame chassis technology it wasn’t long before the idea to build a wagon on an industrial or utility chassis for increased dry cargo utility was happened upon. This resulted in some uber capable wagons, that could...wouldn’t you know...also carry people! The Suburban Carryall comes to mind as do wagon variants of the Toyota Land Cruiser or like vehicles.

The term comes from the idea of marrying sport (i.e. hunting, fishing, activities, etc...not sports car) and utility for dual purpose classifications of Sport/Utility Vehicle (note the slash). in 1988 the term caught on when AMC introduced the 4.0 in the XJ Cherokee and successfully lobbied congress to create a bridge category between passenger vehicles and trucks, getting the vehicle instead classified as a “light truck”. Think of it as the PG-13 of vehicles.

This allowed them to have much looser fuel economy and emissions standards compared to passenger vehicles which made them attractive for cost/utility reasons and it was the start of the SUV boom. The slash was dropped from most classifications for simplicity but the idea that a Sport Utility Vehicle (sometimes written Sport-Utility Vehicle) was a utility vehicle that could be used as a vehicle to pursue your sportsman like intentions remained.

Advertisement

In the late 90's early 2000's the term evolved somewhat with the popularity of vehicles that were wagon like and lifted with all wheel drive but with car based construction to be lumped into with the more utilitarian vehicles the class was created for.

The “utility” was less and less a factor and, to a degree, the “sport” was as well since the SUV boom had created a market for people who didn’t care to use their vehicle as a rugged means to explore their sport but as a taller, more secure feeling means to transport people.

Advertisement

Its understandable then, with the loss of the true meanings of “sport” and “utility” in the nomenclature that other meanings would be ascribed to the term. Utility came to mean cargo space (if not weight carrying capacity) and sport was misunderstood to mean “sporty” in the same was as “sport” in “sports car” which isn’t the case at all.

The terms CUV (Crossover Utility Vehicle) and others are starting to slowly take the place of SUV for several reasons:

1. The excessive consumption and waste of the SUV boom of the 90's gave the term a lot of baggage.

Advertisement

2. The evolution of the concept has far surpassed the original intent of the type and thus a new term was needed.

Its funny then that the SUV is actually a crossover (a sport/utility vehicle) but its obvious that this

Advertisement

and this

are not only miles apart in terms of construction but also intended use.

To sum up, a history:

1. Utility wagons

2. Sport/Utility vehicles

3. Sport Utility Vehicle

4. Crossover Utility Vehicles

So what is a Sport Utility Vehicle?

I’m not going to strictly define it other than to say that a TRUE Sport Utility vehicle is designed with utility as a primary job function, in towing, cargo or rough terrain accessibility...or all three.

Advertisement

A crossover is a passenger vehicle with the cargo space of a wagon, but with passenger car technology and features an elevated ride height with soft road capability.

What isn’t a Sport Utility Vehicle

A Sport Utility CAN have sporting pretension, but they are not...by and large...SPORTY vehicles.