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Since When Does "Sport" Mean "Small"?

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author photo by Eric Brandt March 2018

There is a new automotive trend accompanying the rapidly growing crossover craze, and I'm having a hard time understanding this one: "sport" means "small." Although this trend originally started in the early 1990s with the Ford Explorer Sport and Jeep Cherokee Sport, both of which were 2-door versions of larger SUVs, it has recently started to catch on far beyond those early examples.

I think Land Rover really resurrected it when the Range Rover Sport debuted back in 2006 as a more affordable midsize alternative to the flagship Range Rover -- but now it's everywhere. Think about how common the word "Sport" is in model names on new crossovers and SUVs. Range Rover Sport, Discovery Sport, Rogue Sport, Outlander Sport and Santa Fe Sport. What do all of these have in common? They're all SUVs that are smaller than their counterparts that do not have "Sport" in the name. That's right: "Sport" now officially means "small."

Are other brands like Nissan and Mitsubishi simply copying Land Rover in an effort to gain some of the brand's panache?

Maybe, but I think there's more to it than that. The really mysterious thing about the proliferation of "Sport" SUVs (sport sport utility vehicles?) is the fact that it seems to only be an American thing. Multiple SUVs I mentioned above have different names in markets outside of the U.S.. For example, in most of the rest of the world the Nissan Rogue Sport is called the Nissan Qashqai -- and the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport is called the Mitsubishi RVR. Speaking of which, we got the first-generation Mitsubishi RVR in the US in the form of the Eagle Summit Wagon and the Dodge/Plymouth Colt Vista Wagon, ancestors of the modern crossover. Why don't they just call the new one the Outlander Vista Wagon?

Qashqai is a ridiculous name and I'm glad Nissan didn't bring it here. Incidentally, I asked a Canadian friend of mine who works in the car business how to pronounce that Nissan crossover's name and he said he has no idea. Apparently, it's called the Rogue Sport in the States simply to piggyback on the success and name recognition of the Rogue.

But why "Sport"? And why do so many other crossovers do this? Does an SUV being smaller make it more sporty? Heck, even Ford's smallest crossover is called the EcoSport. The Kia Sportage has "Sport" built right into its made up name. When I think of a vehicle being sporty, I think of performance, or at least styling that portrays the idea of performance. When I think of a sporty SUV, I have flashbacks of the old 2-door Ford Explorer Sport -- which was only sporty in the sense that it had fewer doors. Coincidentally, the only SUV to really adopt my version of the word "Sport" is the Ford Explorer, whose "Sport" version is actually sporty, with more power than the standard model, rather than just a smaller size.

I guess, in the car world, "sport" now means less space, a lower price and better fuel economy -- and it has no connection to performance. Putting an enclosed body on a truck frame and calling it a "sport-utility vehicle" is one of the greatest marketing tactics ever conceived. I suppose putting "sport" in the name of the model is just an extension of that.

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Since When Does "Sport" Mean "Small"? - Autotrader