A sport utility vehicle (SUV) is a generic marketing description for a rugged automotive vehicle similar to a station wagon but built on a light-truck chassis. Usually equipped with four-wheel drive for on or off road ability, some SUVs include the towing capacity of a pickup truck with the passenger-carrying space of a minivan. SUVs are considered light trucks and often share the same platforms of pickups and thus are regulated less stringently than passenger cars under two major laws in the U.S.—the Energy Policy and Conservation Act for fuel economy standards, and the Clean Air Act for emissions standards
It is known in some countries as an "off-road vehicle" or "four-wheel drive", often abbreviated to "4WD" or "4x4", pronounced "four-by-four". However, not all SUVs have four-wheel drive capabilities. Conversely, not all 4WD passenger vehicles are SUVs. Off-road vehicles are a very different class of vehicles, being vehicles primarily built for off-road use. Although some SUVs have off-road capabilities, this is often a secondary role and they often do not have the ability to switch between 2WD, 4WD high gearing and 4WD low gearing. While automakers frequently tout a particular SUV's off-road prowess with advertising and naming, the daily use of SUVs is largely paved roads and urban areas.
Initially extremely popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the SUV's popularity has since declined, due to criticism regarding excessive gasoline consumption, pollution, cost, and poor safety. Due to high oil prices and a declining economy since the mid-2000s, manufacturers have responded to buyers' complaints. The traditional truck-based SUV is gradually being supplanted by a new vehicle type, the crossover SUV, which uses an car platform for lighter weight and better fuel efficiency, but is no longer designed or recommended by the manufacturer for off-road usage or towing.
Most SUVs are designed with a square cross-section, an engine compartment, a combined passenger and cargo compartment, and no dedicated trunk (i.e. a station wagon body). Most mid-size and full-size SUVs have three rows of seats with a cargo area directly behind the last row of seats. Compact SUVs and mini SUVs may have five or fewer seats, especially if they are based on a car platform instead of a light truck.
A few of the most known design characteristics of SUVs are their high ground clearance, upright, boxy body, and high H-point. Lately, SUV bodies have become more aerodynamic to reduce wind resistance and improve fuel economy.
The earliest examples of longer-wheelbase wagon-type SUVs were the Willys Jeep Wagon (1948), Land Rover Series II 109 (1958), and the International Harvester Scout 80 (1961). These were followed by the more 'modern' Jeep Wagoneer (1963), International Harvester Scout II (1971), Ford Bronco (1966), Toyota Land Cruiser FJ-55 (1968), the Chevrolet Blazer / GMC Jimmy (1969), and the Land Rover Range Rover (1970).
The transportation curator at the Henry Ford Museum, Robert Casey, contends persuasively that the Cherokee was the first true sport utility vehicle in the modern understanding of the term. Marketed to urban families as a substitute for a traditional car, the Chrerokee had four wheel drive in a more manageable size (compared to the full-size Wagoneer), as well as a plush interior resembling a station wagon. With the introduction of more luxurious models and a much more powerful 4-liter engine, sales of the Cherokee zoomed even higher as the price of gasoline fell, and the term "sport utility vehicle" began to be used in the national press for the first time.
The increase in SUV sales was assisted by a legislative loophole. Created in the 1970s, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were established as minimums for passenger vehicles. Exceptions were granted business and farm vehicles. Car manufacturers utilized this loophole by selling SUVs as work vehicles. In the last 25 years, and even more in the last decade, the popularity of SUVs has increased among urban drivers. Consequently, more modern SUVs often come with luxury features and some crossover SUVs have adopted lower ride heights and use unibody construction to better accommodate on-road driving.
Author Keith Bradsher, has linked the rise of the SUV directly to American Motors' (AMC) lobbying the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a waiver to the Clean Air Act: as a result, the EPA designated AMC's compact Cherokee a "light truck", which enabled the company to market it to everyday drivers. This in turn led to the SUV boom when other automakers marketed their own imitators in response to the Cherokee taking sales from their regular cars.
US automakers could enjoy profit margins of $10,000 per SUV, while losing a few hundred dollars on a compact car. For instance, the Ford Excursion could net the company $18,000, while they could not break even with the Ford Focus unless the buyer chose options. This led to Detroit's big three automakers focusing resources and design on SUVs over small cars (small cars were sold mainly to attract young buyers with inexpensive options and to increase their fleet average fuel economies to meet federal standards). The high wages of unionized workers in the United States and Canada (members of the UAW and CAW, respectively), compared to non-union workers such as that of Toyota, meant that it was unprofitable to have them build small cars. The General Motors Arlington, Texas factory where rear-wheel drive cars were built, such as the Chevrolet Caprice, Buick Roadmaster, and Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham was converted to truck and SUV production, putting an end to full-size family station wagon and overall terminating production of rear-wheel drive full-size cars. As a result of the shift in the Big Three's strategy, many long-running cars like the Ford Taurus, Buick Century, and Pontiac Grand Prix eventually fell behind their Japanese competition in features and image (relying more upon fleet sales instead of retail and/or heavy incentive discounts), some being discontinued.
Vehicle buyers were drawn to their large cabins, higher ride height, and perceived safety. Full-sized SUVs often offered features such as 3-row seating, so they effectively replaced full-size station wagons and minivans; wagons were seen as old-fashioned, while minivans generally had poor road handling. Additionally, full-size SUVs have greater towing capabilities than conventional cars, and can haul trailers, travel trailers (caravans) and boats. Increased ground clearance is useful in climates with heavy snow. The very low oil prices of the 1990s helped to keep down running costs. The SUV's utilitarian image may partially explain its popularity, not least among some women, who constitute more than half of all SUV drivers. For women in the United States, an SUV is one of the most popular vehicle choices.
In Australia, SUV sales were helped by the fact that SUVs attracted much lower import duty than cars, so that they cost less than similarly-equipped imported sedan. However this gap has been narrowed, as the import duty on cars has now been lowered to 10%, compared with 5% for SUVs.
Due to high oil prices and a declining economy since the mid-2000s, sales of SUVs and other light trucks have fallen. In June 2008, General Motors announced plans to close four plants manufacturing trucks and SUVs, including the Oshawa Truck Assembly. The company cited decreased sales of large vehicles in the wake of rising fuel prices. The business model of focusing on SUVs and light trucks, at the expense of more fuel-efficient compact and midsized cards, is blamed for declining sales and profits among Detroit's Big Three automakers since the mid-late 2000s. The Big Three were unable to adapt as quickly as their Japanese rivals to produce small cars to meet growing demand. This was due to inflexible manufacturing facilities, and the high wages of unionized workers in the United States and Canada (members of the UAW and CAW, respectively) which make it unprofitable to build small cars.
As many SUV owners never actually exploit the off-road capabilities of their vehicle, newer SUVs (including crossovers) now have lower ground clearance and suspension designed primarily for paved roads.
Numerous luxury vehicles in the form of SUVs and pickup trucks are being produced. This is principally a marketing term to sell vehicles that may have higher performance, comfort, technology, or brand image.
The category was created in 1966 with Kaiser Jeep's luxurious Super Wagoneer. It was the first to offer a V8 engine, automatic transmission, and luxury car trim and equipment in a serious off-road model. It came with bucket seating, air conditioning, sun roof, and even a vinyl roof. Land Rover followed suit in 1970 by releasing the Range Rover in Britain. The trend continued with other competitors adding comfort appointments to their mostly rudimentary and truck-based models.
The luxury SUV market segment rapidly expanded in the late 1990s, with offerings such as the Lexus RX, BMW X5, Mercedes M-Class, Lincoln Navigator, Acura MDX, and Porsche Cayenne. Notably, for some automakers, these were the first SUVs they produced. It must be noted, however, that some of these are not traditional light-truck based SUVs, they are classified as crossovers instead.
In Australia and New Zealand the term 'SUV' is not widely used and carries a negative connotation of very large, American vehicles which are not sold in Australia. Passenger class vehicles designed for offroad use are known as 'four wheel drives', or '4WDs', or '4X4s'. Some manufacturers do refer to their products as SUVs, but others invent names such as XUV , crossovers or even Action Utility Vehicles (AUVs) . The crossover name is meant to indicate the vehicle is both 4WD and roadcar, but in reality, these crossovers are far more roadcar than offroader. The motoring press refers to vehicles of the crossover class as softroaders, but manufacturers do not use this term. The term 'AWD', or All Wheel Drive is used for any vehicle that drives all four wheels but is not designed for any offroad use. The most notable exponent of all wheel drive is Subaru , who have made it a mainstay of their advertising for many years.
The Australian "utility" or "ute" (an abbreviation of "coupe utility", a vehicle type created in Australia in 1934) traditionally refers to a car-based commercial vehicle with an open load area at the rear. Utes can be 2WD or 4WD, and many are available in both formats, for example the Toyota , Nissan and Mitsubishi . The term is also widely used in New Zealand. These vehicles are known in South Africa as bakkies, and elsewhere as pickups.