Sport utility vehicles (SUVs) are large passenger vehicles that are typically built on a compact truck chassis. In essence, SUVs are larger versions of station wagons. The added size of the body style allows for increased storage and towing capacity. Popular SUVs currently available in the North American market include the Jeep Liberty, Nissan Xterra and Toyota RAV4.

Characteristics of the SUV Body Style

  • The following characteristics are representative of the majority of SUVs:
  • Full-height roof that extends to the rear of the vehicle (2-box design)
  • Boxy cross-section
  • Ample seating area for between 5 and 8 people
  • Body-on-frame chassis High ground clearance

SUV Light Truck Categorization

Sport utility vehicles are technically categorized as 'light trucks' in the United States. This is a result of AMC lobbying the EPA in the early 1980s to find a workaround to the Clean Air Act. Under the Clean Air Act, vehicles defined as a 'light truck' are not subject to as stringent pollution and emissions regulations. The categorization of the Jeep Cherokee as a light truck in 1984 set a precedent for other automakers to do the same. In most other parts of the world, SUVs are classified as cars. The SUV term is also traditionally avoided in favor of terms such as '4x4,' 'Jeep' and 'four-wheel drives.'

Types of SUVs

The sport utility vehicle body style was originally conceived for commercial and military purposes. Since the introduction of the modern SUV to the consumer market (often attributed to the 1984 Jeep Cherokee), several different types of SUVs have been made available. These include:

  • Full-sized SUV: larger SUVs that typically include 3 rows of seating and a larger engine
  • Mid-sized SUV: smaller than the full-sized SUV, but typically retain the 3-row seating configuration
  • Compact SUV: SUVs approximately 15 or 16 feet in length that feature 2 rows of seating
  • Mini SUV: SUVs with a length of less than 13.75 feet
  • Crossover SUV: a lightweight SUV design that incorporates car and SUV designs and may be built on a car chassis
  • Luxury SUV: vehicles such as the Range Rover that are marketed as having superior comfort, technology and performance

Popularity of the SUV Body Style

Since the early 1990s, the popularity of SUVs has remained relatively high. The combination of truck, minivan and station wagon characteristics makes the body style appealing to a variety of consumers. Rural and commercial drivers tend to benefit from the additional towing capacity and 4-wheel drive capabilities available on many SUVs. Families are often drawn to SUVs for their considerable passenger space. Brand imaging of the SUV as a utilitarian vehicle has also helped to make it popular among consumers.

However, recent increases in gas prices have begun to diminish the popularity of SUVs. The heavy weight and low fuel economy of the vehicle class has been cited as the main contributors to the American consumer's switch to more compact body styles. The recent interest in "green" products has also resulted in a negative brand image of the SUV in some consumers' eyes. Automakers have attempted to meet these new demands by creating smaller, more fuel efficient SUVs and hybrid SUVs such as the Ford Escape.