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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 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 likely about the difference between SUVs and crossovers. Just why is it that 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 know about the two to buy the ideal car.

What Is an SUV?

SUVs have been with us longer than crossovers. The Chevy Suburban has been around since the 1930s and the Willy’s Jeep Station Wagon arrived on the scene the mid 1940s. It was the 1969 Chevy Blazer, however, that ignited the SUV boom continuing today.

The term “SUV” stands for sport-utility vehicle. To truly understand what SUVs are requires understanding 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 rest of the drivetrain. An entirely separate unit, the steel bodywork is then mounted to the frame. Body-on-frame.

Body-on-frame construction isn’t used much anymore beyond commercial applications. Trucks like the Ram 1500 and Ford F-150 are still body-on-frame construction. As are some SUVs like the Toyota 4Runner and Nissan Armada.

It makes for a more rigid platform, which increases hauling and towing capabilities. These vehicles also often have 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 bases 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 in an effort 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. Not only is it more cost efficient to build a car this way, unibody construction is lighter and offers more opportunity for built-in safety benefits like crumple zones.

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 comfy 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.


What Does SUV Stand For?

Sport-utility vehicle.

What is the Difference Between a Compact SUV and a 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), midsize (Toyota 4Runner) and large (Toyota Land Cruiser, Lincoln Navigator, GMC Yukon and Mercedes-Benz G-Class.

Why are Crossovers Pricier than SUVs?

Because of their unibody construction, crossovers simply cost more than body-on-frame SUVs to build.

Do Crossovers Come with AWD?

Yes and no. Most crossovers have standard front-wheel drive. Many, however, like the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Chevy Equinox offer AWD as an option. There are exceptions, like the Subaru Forester, which only come with AWD.

Related Crossover and SUV Articles:

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for accuracy since it was originally published. Doug Demuro contributed to this report.

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  1. What is the implication of unibody vs body on frame..why would a purchaser care about that?

    I was hoping to find some practical differences that I can use to decide which one I should buy.

    for example: (I don’t know if any of these are true)
    – SUVs seats 7, Crossover seats 6
    – SUVs have larger clearance than a crossover for off-road
    – SUVs have worse gas mileage but higher torque
    – SUVs can toe heavier loads
    – SUVs have more storage 

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