If you’re interested in buying a new SUV or crossover, you have two options to choose from: an older-design, body-on-frame model, where the vehicle’s body and frame are two separate entities, or a common car-based, unibody design, which offers additional maneuverability and ride comfort. Which is better? We’re listing the benefits and drawbacks of body-on-frame and car-based SUVs and crossovers. Find an SUV or crossover for sale near you
Body on Frame
These days, it’s harder to find body-on-frame SUVs, where the body and frame are two separate pieces. This design is more common in pickup trucks than SUVs or cars, as many automakers have switched to unibody designs in recent years. With that said, a few popular SUVs still use the design, such as the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban, the GMC Yukon, the Cadillac Escalade, the Jeep Wrangler, the Toyota 4Runner, the Ford Expedition, the Infiniti QX80 and the Lexus GX.
What are the benefits to body-on-frame construction? The primary one is that body-on-frame vehicles are better at off-roading and hauling, because their design makes them highly resistant to twisting forces, the kind you’ll experience when you’re crawling over rocks, for example, or when you’ve loaded heavy items into your vehicle’s cargo area. Body-on-frame vehicles also tend to be cheaper to build and cheaper to repair, if you get into an accident.
Not surprisingly, there are also a few drawbacks to body-on-frame construction, which is why many automakers stopped using it. The primary disadvantage is that body-on-frame construction adds weight, which diminishes fuel economy, while the nature of the design also harms handling and cornering capabilities. Given the potential on-road drawbacks, you shouldn’t bother with body-on-frame construction unless you plan on hauling heavy loads or going off-road.
The other SUV design type is unibody construction, which is often used with the word crossover, or if the model is based on a car, you’ll see it referred to as car-based.
Unibody construction differs from body-on-frame construction in one major way. Rather than using a body placed around a separate frame, the frame and body in unibody vehicles are one single piece. This method of design is used by popular models, like the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer and Hyundai Santa Fe.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of a unibody design? Generally speaking, unibody vehicles don’t quite offer the same off-roading capabilities as body-on-frame models, as they usually aren’t as resistant to twisting forces. They can also be more expensive to design and build and pricier to repair after an accident.
The benefits are obvious to anyone who drives a unibody vehicle back-to-back with a body-on-frame model. Unibody SUVs offer a smoother ride, more carlike handling and weight savings, resulting in better fuel economy and improved cornering capabilities compared to body-on-frame rivals. With that in mind, it’s no surprise some models, such as the Nissan Pathfinder and Ford Explorer, have ditched a body-on-frame design for unibody construction in the last few years.
The answer to the age-old body-on-frame versus unibody question is an easy one. If you’re looking to tow, haul or go off-road, you’ll probably want a body-on-frame SUV. If you’re looking for a vehicle to drive you and your family around town, a unibody design is a better choice. If you want to do both, you’ll have to decide whether putting up with the fuel economy and handling drawbacks of a body-on-frame SUV is worth its off-road and hauling benefits.
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Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for accuracy since it was originally published.