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Car Buying

SUV vs. Crossover: What’s the Difference?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro

If you're searching for a family car, it's likely you've considered SUVs or crossovers. And if you've considered them, it's likely you've wondered: What's the difference? Why are some models called crossovers while others are known as SUVs? We've outlined the differences for interested shoppers. 

It's All About Platform

For many car experts, the difference between the two is simple: A crossover is based on a car's platform, while an SUV uses the chassis of a truck. The result is that crossovers use "unibody" architecture, meaning the body and frame are one piece, while SUVs use a "body on frame" design. In that case, the body is built separately from the frame and placed together later. 

The Gray Area

While that definition is strictly true, it doesn't always work in practice. For example, many shoppers refer to car-based, unibody vehicles as SUVs even though they're crossovers by our definition. How often, for example, do you hear the Ford Explorer called an SUV? Or the Toyota Highlander? Or the Jeep Grand Cherokee? All use a car-based unibody design, despite their appearance and marketing. 

The result is that the term "SUV" is often applied to both crossovers and SUVs. In the past, that was even more common. Before, "SUV" brought up negative associations with large size and poor gas mileage. That's when many automakers started using the term "crossover" to describe a vehicle that was "crossing over" from the practicality of an SUV to the drivability and fuel efficiency of a car. 

When Is It an SUV?

If you're unsure whether your vehicle of choice uses a car-based unibody design or body-on-frame construction, the safest bet is to use the term "SUV." That acronym is still used to describe nearly anything with available all-wheel drive and raised ground clearance, so you'll probably be safe. 

That said, many popular family haulers -- such as the Explorer, Highlander and Grand Cherokee, as well as the Nissan Pathfinder, Lexus RX and Acura MDX -- are technically crossovers. Using that term is certainly correct, too.

The only way you'll go wrong is by using the term "crossover" to define a body-on-frame SUV. Examples of such vehicles include the Chevrolet Tahoe, Ford Expedition and Mercedes G-Class. Those are all still SUVs in the original sense of the term -- and in those cases, "crossover" doesn't apply.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
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SUV vs. Crossover: What’s the Difference?