What is an SUV?

Their numbers are increasing more than any other type of car, but what is an SUV exactly?

BuyaCar team
Jan 31, 2017

The initials SUV stand for sport-utility vehicle but that doesn't really explain a great deal about the car.

The first examples were big, rugged machines that were sturdy and fitted with four-wheel drive, which meant that they could travel off-road. They also had a spacious interior and large boot. It made them as useful as a pick-up truck (hence utility), but more like a car to drive on the road (which is where sport comes from).

In theory, you could load one up with your surfboard, head across some sand dunes and find a deserted beach and isolated with the best waves on the coast. Since then, manufacturers have heavily advertised the idea that their cars can bring you an active lifestyle.

Nowadays, the term SUV is still applied to cars with a sense of adventure - such as the Land Rover Discovery or Toyota Land Cruiser. But you also find it used to describe smaller cars that shout school run - such as the Vauxhall Mokka or Honda HR-V. These are really crossovers: taller than a normal hatchback, but often without four-wheel drive. Many would get stuck if you took them anywhere rougher than a muddy field or dirt track.

Search for new and used SUV deals


What is an SUV?

If you were going to be a stickler for accuracy, you'd say that an SUV needed to have four-wheel drive, which helps prevent it getting stuck on slippery surfaces. However, bear in mind that some SUVs don't, in order to reduce weight and improve fuel economy.

An SUV is also tall. The original purpose wasn't to give the driver a better view of the road ahead, but to enable to vehicle to pass over jagged rocks, and through ruts, without scraping the bottom.

It's got lots of interior space too. Whether you're an extreme sports enthusiast or a farmer that needs to transport bales of hay, a traditional SUV should have enough room.

Those three ingredients: a high driving position, better performance in icy weather and plenty of space make SUVs particularly attractive to families.

Finally, an SUV is generally built with mechanical parts that are specifically designed for rugged use - although there are exceptions. It can make the cars heavy and increase the amount of fuel that they use. This is the big difference between SUVs and crossovers, which use the mechanical parts from family cars, which are designed mainly for tarmac roads.  


Is a crossover an SUV?

After saying that there is technically a difference between crossovers and SUVs, here's the contradiction: both terms are used by car manufacturers to describe taller cars with a higher driving position and chunky, off-road looks.

Audi, for example, describes the Q2 (below) as a small SUV, but underneath the metal are the same parts that you'll find in an Audi A3 hatchback, which makes it a crossover. If you're unsure about a particular car, check our buying guides for clarity.


Reasons to buy an SUV

✔ Space: these cars are often big enough to have seven seats
✔ High driving position gives occupants great visibility
✔ Less likely to get stuck in slippery conditions or minor floods


What's wrong with SUVs

✘ Generally use more fuel than other types of car
✘ Size can make them tricky to manoeuvre
✘ Expensive


Seven-seater SUVs

Thanks to their size, many SUVs are available with seven seats, making them a good - if expensive - alternative to people carriers. When all seats are in use, there's usually a minimal amount of boot space, but they can normally be folded flat to enlarge the boot.

Some models, including the Kia Sorento, Volvo XC90 and Audi Q7 come with seven seats as standard but others, including the Nissan X-Trail, Land Rover Discovery Sport and Hyundai Santa Fe offer them either as optional extras or on certain models only.

Search for all new and used seven-seater car deals


Do all SUVs have four wheel drive?

No. While the earliest so-called Chelsea Tractors may have been agricultural, with four-wheel drive, special off-road gears and even towing equipment, manufacturers quickly dropped these for models that were aimed at families.

It helped save weight and improve fuel economy. Now, even some Land Rovers only have two-wheel drive, as few ever leave tarmac.


SUVs for snow and flooding

The height of SUVs naturally makes them better at fording floodwater, but they aren't powerboats: a river that's burst its banks may well be too deep even for an SUV. If that's combined with a strong current, then you can find yourself in the serious situation of your SUV being carried down the river.

An enormous SUV, such as the Toyota Land Cruiser (above) can drive through water that's up to 700mm deep - considerably less than a metre. A Range Rover can wade through water that's 900mm deep. Land Rover also offers a sonar system, using sensors to detect the depth of the water that the car is driving through and sounding an alert if it gets too deep.

The extra height of an SUV will also be useful in heavy snow - the type that's common in Scotland during winter. It's less likely to be needed in the rest of the country when snowfall is typically light. Winter tyres and four-wheel drive are the two systems that will help the most in this type of situation. Both of these are available on standard cars.


Can I take an SUV off road?

The first SUVs may have been go-anywhere cars, but some modern SUVs are as suited to mud as a white cashmere scarf.

If your SUV has four-wheel drive, then it shouldn't get stuck in a muddy field that's fairly flat, and you've got a better chance of keeping it moving on snow and icy roads.

However, if you need to drive up a slippery slope, or cross rough terrain that's covered in jagged rocks, ruts and steep angles, then you're more likely to require an SUV that's been designed with some off-roading in mind

Plenty of ground clearance is key here. Not just a large gap between the road and the bottom of the car, but also a minimal amount of metal ahead of the front wheels and behind the rear ones. The longer these overhangs are, the more likely that the car will get scraped or caught at the bottom of a steep hill.

The large overhangs on the Audi Q7 (below) help to boost interior and boot space, making it a better family car, but would reduce its effectiveness on a mountain expedition - it's your decision whether that makes it an unsuitable car for you.

Off-road settings are also useful. These often include special gearbox modes, which maximise the force with which the wheels turn to help pull the car up steep slopes, or out of large ruts. They can set the car up to deal with different conditions - such as sand, rocks or snow.



Read more about:

Latest jargon busters

  1. What is PCP?

  2. What is AEB?

  3. What is a Category S car?

What our customers say