What’s the difference between an SUV and a crossover?

Crossover versus SUV - CX-3

SUVs and a crossovers are very similar, but there are some key differences. Let us take you through what makes a vehicle an SUV and what makes it a crossover.

Here at SUV Authority, we field questions all the time, and one of the most common is “What is the difference between an SUV and a crossover?”

As a website dedicated to both types of vehicles, we thought we’d take the time to settle the dispute, once and for all.

Does anyone really care?

Apparently so. And there are a lot of people who have a very strong opinion of what makes a car an SUV and what makes it a crossover.

The worst part is that people who should know – those who work in this industry – tend to confuse the two, or blur the lines.

And then there are the manufacturers who are increasingly making products that look more like an SUV but are actually a crossover.

There are also people who call an SUV a crossover. Confused? So is most of the buying public.

It helps to have a bit of history behind the names, so let’s dive in and find out where these titles come from.

2018 Nissan Patrol front three quarter

The origin of the term “SUV”

SUV is an acronym; it stands for Sport Utility Vehicle. And the term “CUV”? Well, that stands for Crossover Utility Vehicle. But forget CUV – everyone now calls them a “crossover”.

Who invented the term? According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary, the first known use of “SUV” was in 1969. But car manufacturer Crosley first used “sport-utility” in 1948 (see picture below).

Crosley Sport Utility

But then, in 1966, Ford Motor Co used that same term for its Bronco off-road machine, in “ute” form.

So this, three years before the first moon-landing, was the first application of “sport utility” to a vehicle that we would today class as an SUV.

Ford Bronco SUV 1966
Image: https://www.fourwheeler.com/

Then, in a brochure for its 1974 Cherokee, Jeep used the three-word moniker exactly as we know it today.

And ever since then, SUV stuck. And it stuck so well that people don’t even use the term “four-wheel-drive” or “4×4” anymore.

Location makes a difference

It may come as a surprise, but where you live has a huge bearing on the definition of what you’ll call an SUV and what you’ll call a crossover.

For example, if you live in America, the definition is based on the car’s construction. A ladder-framed car – that is, a vehicle whose chassis is two main rails with metal connecting it at various points along the chassis – is an SUV.

A crossover, however, is constructed as a unibody vehicle, which is where the platform is more of a solid floor with the body attached to that. It’s also called a monocoque build – a French term meaning single shell. The term is used in aircraft and boats, where the chassis is built as part of the body.

Other parts of the world look at things differently. Live in Australia, for example, and anything that’s lifted slightly is an SUV, whether it’s front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive. There’s no such thing as a crossover in the land of kangaroos.

This is why there’s a lot of confusion; your geographical location is going to influence your definition.

Of course, this article is written for a worldwide audience, so we’ll try to define things based on their traditional definitions.

What is an SUV?

Broadly, SUV covers everything from hardcore off-road machines through to wagon-bodied vehicles that have an on-demand all-wheel-drive system.

When it comes to SUVs, there are two schools of thought. One is that anything that is raised and has all-wheel-drive is an SUV. The other is that it has to be a proper four-wheel-drive, with a low range transfer case.

But the truth is it includes both categories but the key factor is all wheel drive. As you can see, the term covers a huge variety of machines.

Land Rover Discovery

So, what’s a crossover?

Crossovers are cars that cross over from being regular hatchbacks or wagons to something that could conceivably drive onto soft sand without getting bogged – in theory, that is.

Crossovers usually have all-wheel-drive systems, as opposed to a dedicated low-range transfer case, and are usually lower in overall height than a comparably sized SUV, but have more ground clearance than standard hatchbacks or wagons.

The Mazda CX-3 is a good example of a crossover, as is the Audi A4 Allroad and A6 Allroad, as well as the Mercedes-Benz E-Class All-Terrain. Then there’s the Suzuki S-Cross and Ignis, or the Subaru XV.

Generally, crossovers are smaller, and don’t have the same level of off-road ability as an SUV.

But there are crossovers that also miss out on all wheel drive. You’ll have noticed that there are front-wheel-drive versions of the Mazda CX-5, Jeep Cherokee and Ford Escape, for example. These have the same body and interior as their all wheel drive siblings, but only send power to the front wheels.

These are nothing more than a jacked up wagon if you think about it. But because they take their basis from their all wheel drive donor vehicles, they’re still included in the crossover category.

So, what’s the difference between an SUV and a crossover?

In the strictest sense, it comes down to its off road ability. If it can head off road and not bury itself, and has a two-box design, then it’s an SUV. If it can’t, and it’s only destined for the road, then it’s a crossover.

Of course, the lines are more blurred than ever before. What category does the Mazda CX-9 fall into? It’s big, but it’s a crossover. Same goes for the Peugeot 3008.

And remember the all electric Mercedes-Maybach concept that looks like a sedan that has been lifted? Well, that’s also a crossover.

Both categories are as good as each other

It doesn’t matter whether you prefer SUVs, or you have an affinity toward crossovers, they both have pros and cons.

SUVs can get you through the bush and to the beach, but they can be a handful in daily traffic. Crossovers drive much more like passenger cars, and some handle like sports cars, but they may not be useful when the road runs out.

Regardless of which one you prefer, they will suit different people. Wants versus needs, and all that.

About Karl Peskett 431 Articles
A passionate writer, editor and driver, Karl is the go-to man when it comes to four wheels. With stints in television, radio, print and online, Karl has been writing about cars for more than a decade. He drives around 100 vehicles every year and has tested everything from Bugattis to Suzukis. Sometimes on track, sometimes off-road, his focus is on producing objective journalism without fear or favour.

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