What Does SUV Stand For?

img125158028 1486654371446 jpg 2018 Ford Expedition | photo by Angela Conners

CARS.COM — SUV stands for sport utility vehicle, an immensely popular vehicle category that shows no signs of peaking. Combining the characteristics and capabilities of a family sedan, minivan, wagon and pickup truck, SUVs offer the best of all worlds for a wide variety of buyers.

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The origins of the SUV can arguably be traced to the first Chevrolet Suburban of the 1930s, or similar truck-inspired designs going back even earlier. But it wasn’t until the introduction of smaller, more civilized SUVs like the Jeep Cherokee and Ford Explorer in the 1980s and 1990s that buyers really began to embrace the concept. Now, the choices are more plentiful than ever, with SUVs available from subcompact to full-size, and powertrain choices including gasoline, diesel, hybrid and electric.

Different models put varying emphasis on the “sport” and “utility” parts of the driver’s equation, with some offering a more stylish appearance and responsive handling, while others are better suited for big loads or towing. Generally speaking, full-size body-on-frame designs like the ubiquitous Suburban and Ford Expedition Max provide the most room for people and gear, with three rows of seating for up to eight passengers, and trucklike payload and towing capacities.

For shoppers who can do without the towing and payload, unibody SUVs may offer more interior space for their exterior bulk. For example, the Chevrolet Traverse has comparable passenger seating dimensions and slightly more cargo room than a Tahoe (the shorter version of the Suburban) despite being close in exterior size and weighing about 1,000 pounds less. These vehicles tend to have a high ground clearance compared to their smaller, car-inspired crossover SUV cousins. While too large for a lot of serious off-road driving, the high ground clearance and four-wheel-drive options mean that are have improved off-road capability compared to car-based SUVs.

Small SUVs like the Hyundai Tucson and Nissan Rogue are more nimble and easy for drivers to park, while others like the Mazda CX-5 really put the “sport” into the drive game on a twisty road with surprisingly responsive steering and handling. Others smaller SUVs, like many Jeep designs, are optimized more for off-road handling, but still offer amenities for urban versatility.

In between, mid-size standbys like the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander are the most popular choice for families, offering a quiet and comfortable interior with all the features of a family sedan, carlike ride and handling, added storage room when you need it and the added security of all-wheel drive.

Many of today’s SUV models are marketed as “crossovers,” including everything from the smallest models to the Traverse mentioned above. There was a time when crossover stood for an SUV based on a unibody car platform, but there’s no longer a single litmus test for what’s a crossover versus an SUV because some of the same models that can tow, haul and cross unpaved land like the Tahoe now have a reinforced version of the unibody construction that cars employ.’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

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