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SUV vs. Crossover: What’s the Difference?


Get to know the difference between an SUV vs. crossover. Find out why the terms get used and learn examples of each, so you can select an SUV or crossover that’s right for you.

If you are on the hunt for a family car, somewhere along the line, you have probably heard the terms “SUV” and “crossover.” Why do we call some models crossovers while we refer to others as SUVs?

Although there is somewhat of a gray area in how we apply these terms, there are a few fundamental differences between the two. Below, we outline those core differences, laying out everything you need to know about the two.

What is an SUV?

The term “SUV” stands for sport utility vehicle. SUVs have been with us longer than crossovers. The Chevy Suburban has been around since the 1930s, and the Willys Jeep Station Wagon arrived on the scene in the mid-1940s. It was the 1969 Chevy Blazer, however, that ignited the SUV boom continuing today.

According to Cox Automotive data, SUVs captured nearly 53% of the market in 2021, compared with 24% for cars and 19% for trucks. Vans made up the difference with an almost 5% market share. Cox Automotive is the parent company of Autotrader.

To truly know SUVs is to understand their body-on-frame architecture. Early on, virtually all vehicles were constructed this way with a rigid frame or chassis as the foundation.

To the frame, the suspension and wheels are attached. On the frame rests the engine and the remaining drivetrain. An entirely separate unit, the steel bodywork is then mounted to the frame.

These days, body-on-frame construction is primarily used for pickup trucks and some rugged SUVs. Trucks like the Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado, and Ram 1500 use body-on-frame construction, as do SUVs like the Jeep WranglerToyota 4Runner, and Nissan Armada.

Body-on-frame construction makes for a more rigid platform, which increases hauling, towing, and off-road capabilities. These vehicles also often offer higher ground clearance. At the root of most SUVs lurks a pickup truck. Chevy bases the Chevy Tahoe and Chevy Suburban on the Chevy Silverado. Ford models its Ford Expedition on the Ford F-150.

In short, an SUV is a multi-passenger sport utility vehicle with body-on-frame construction with a body mounted to a ladder frame.

Furthering the SUV definition, these utility vehicles are always rear-wheel drive (RWD). When equipped with a system to put power to all four wheels, they use 4-wheel drive (4WD or 4X4) rather than all-wheel drive (AWD) like the Ford Explorer or Kia Telluride.

RELATED STORY: 2WD, 4WD, or AWD: Which Is Best for You?

What is a Crossover SUV?

You will hear people, even people who know better, referring to a crossover as an SUV. We have done so here to shorten a headline or two. In this regard, all lions are cats, but all cats aren’t lions. There are many similarities, but they are different.

Our muddying of the SUV vs. crossover water aside, at their foundation, SUVs and crossovers are also different animals. On the fringes, however, they are mostly the same.

While SUVs use body-on-frame construction, attaching a separate body to a ladder frame, crossovers use a unibody architecture. “Unibody” is shorthand for unit-body or unitized-body construction. As manufacturing evolved, particularly in the age of computer technology, automakers began building the body and frame as a single structure. It is more cost-efficient to make a vehicle this way. Unibody construction is lighter and offers more opportunities for built-in safety benefits like crumple zones.

Vehicles like the Kia Sorento and the Hyundai Santa Fe are perfect examples of the crossover with their unibody body construction.

We get the term crossover from, well, we’re not sure. But it is a bridge between cars and SUVs. No one, though, seems to know exactly where it originated.

A crossover SUV (CUV) is a multi-passenger vehicle with car-like unibody construction. Crossovers tend to provide a more comfortable ride, better fuel economy, and a safer passenger environment.

The Gray Area Between SUV and Crossover

There is really no gray area between SUVs vs. crossovers other than people either not knowing the difference or not caring. As with the terms 4WD and AWD, some people simply misapply the terms SUVs and crossovers.

It’s like using the word “who” where it should be “whom.” Who chose whom for the team? Not who chose who for the team? The second sentence may be grammatically incorrect, but we still get the gist. So it is with SUV and crossover.

When is it an SUV?

An SUV is an SUV, not a crossover when its basic construction is like a truck: body-on-frame.

Related Crossover and SUV Articles:

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for accuracy since it was originally published. 

FAQ

What does SUV stand for?

SUV stands for sport utility vehicle.

What is the difference between a compact SUV and a compact crossover?

There should be a difference between a compact SUV vs. crossover, but generally, there isn’t one. If you search a list of either the best compact SUVs or the best compact crossovers, you will find many of the same vehicles on both lists. Virtually all of the vehicles listed on the SUV list will technically be crossovers.

What are the different types of SUVs?

SUVs fall into two basic categories: small (Jeep Wrangler and Ford Bronco, for example), midsize (Toyota 4Runner), and large (Ford Expedition, Chevy Tahoe).

Do crossovers come with AWD?

Yes and no. Most crossovers have standard front-wheel drive. Many, however, like the Toyota RAV4Honda CR-V and Chevy Equinox offer AWD as an option. There are exceptions, like the Subaru Forester, which only come with AWD.

Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps is an author specializing in automotive, financial and travel news. For nearly 35 years he has covered the automotive industry for newspapers, magazines and internet websites. His resume includes The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald, The Washington Times and numerous other daily newspapers through syndication. He edited Auto World magazine, and helped create and edit NOPI Street... Read More about Russ Heaps

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21 COMMENTS

  1. The article says “Not only is it more cost efficient to build a car this way, unibody construction is lighter…” while the FAQ says “Because of their unibody construction, crossovers simply cost more than body-on-frame SUVs to build.” Which is correct? Is unibody construction cheaper or more expensive?

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