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Crossover vs. SUV: What's the Difference?

By Autolist Staff | November 26, 2018

Crossover vs. SUV: The Main Difference

To remember the real difference, think: 'Crossover' means car platform while 'SUV' means truck platform.

CUVs are built on a car platform; in many ways, they are similar to a car underneath their larger and more burly exterior shape. These vehicles are built with the frame and the body integrated into a single piece; this setup is called 'unibody' construction. Most crossovers today -- even ones which some people still call SUVs -- are technically crossovers in that they use this unibody construction method.

SUVs are closer to trucks with regards to their platform. Like trucks, they start with a sturdy metal frame, onto which pieces like the axles, suspension, engine and transmission are attached. The body on SUVs is a separate component from the frame -- this approach is called 'body-on-frame.' As mentioned, SUVs with this setup are rarer in the industry. Those that remain are usually large SUVs based on that manufacturer's trucks.

History of the SUV Platform

In the early car manufacturing days from the Ford Model T forward, manufacturers depended on body-on-frame construction. Ford’s concept came from the design engineering of horse-drawn carriages.

This construction method gave carmakers an inexpensive way to create different-looking vehicle models. Manufacturers merely placed a variety of body styles on the same frame.

Benefits of an SUV

Despite advances in vehicle engineering, body-on-frame construction still offers benefits today.

The frame is more resistant to twisting and flexing, an advantage for SUVs that are driven in demanding off-road conditions or when they're hauling heavy loads in the cargo area or truck bed.

This construction method is also cheaper to build and to repair, so utilitarian SUVs and trucks can be assembled and maintained more cheaply than a fleet of CUVs.

What’s a True SUV?

True SUVs typically have rear-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive and low-range 4X4 gearing for traction drivers need in snowy, wet, muddy and off-road conditions.

Manufacturers use the body-on-frame method for larger SUVs, making them great for towing things like boats, and navigating rough terrain. And if you’re a truck purist who values rough-and-tumble durability, choosing a classic body-on-frame SUV can be a smart move.

As of 2018, key examples included the American-made Ford Expedition, Chevrolet’s Tahoe and Suburban, Jeep Wrangler, and GMC Yukon. On the import side, Toyota’s Sequoia and 4Runner, and the Nissan Armada are among the true body-on-frame SUVs.

Luxury models include the Mercedes G-Wagon, Land Rover Range Rover, Lincoln Navigator, Cadillac's Escalade, Lexus GX and Infiniti QX80.

Power can come from a variety of engines, from four-cylinder gas engines to diesels to V6, turbocharged V6s, V8 engines and turbo V8s.

Because of the weight and construction style of SUVs, especially full-size models, most models lack the fuel economy and smooth handling of their CUV counterparts.

This is perhaps why in 2015, traditional body-on-frame SUVs accounted for only 10 percent of total passenger SUVs sold.

The Move to Crossover Platforms

Vehicle design and manufacturing improvements spurred manufacturers in the 1960s to increasingly use unibody construction.

Carmakers could give buyers more passenger and cargo room, and a lighter vehicle, helping drivers get more miles per gallon. Features including built-in crumple zones make the vehicles safer (however, unibody vehicles can suffer more significant damage in accidents, and can require costly repairs by technical specialists trained in using specific equipment).

Toyota's RAV4 was among the first unibody CUVs to establish a foothold in the market in the 1990s.

Consumers quickly gravitated towards CUVs as they offered many of the size and practicality benefits of true SUVs, but in a more efficient, nimble package. Today, they're the most popular form of vehicle on the market.

What’s a True Crossover?

So what are some true crossover vehicles? There are dozens of makes and models with unibody construction on the market and they come in various sizes and price ranges. Every automaker on the market offers numerous CUV models to choose from.

Compared to heavier and more powerful SUVs, CUVs often favor smaller engines (and many CUVs themselves are smaller vehicles than the often larger SUVs).

Four-cylinder engines -- sometimes turbocharged -- are generally found in compact and midsize crossovers, though six- and sometimes eight-cylinder engines are also offered. Many come standard with front-wheel-drive and offer all-wheel-drive as an option. They can tow trailers, though many CUVs can't tow large RVs or boats like their SUV counterparts can.

Because they’re lighter than SUVs and built on a car platform, crossovers offer better maneuverability, be it in freeway driving or when parallel parking on busy streets.

Tradeoffs of Purchasing a Crossover vs. SUV

If towing, hauling and off-roading are important to you, remember that true SUVs can often tow and haul more than a car-based crossover. Also, their low-range 4X4 gearing gives SUVs the off-road advantage.

When is a true crossover probably your better choice? If your top priorities are riding higher in the saddle than the sedan and sports car crowd, maneuverability, having more room for carpoolers, transporting kids and dogs, or saving money on fuel and repairs.

If you’re in doubt, remember to confirm through the manufacturer’s specifications whether the vehicle has unibody construction, making it an authentic crossover, or body-on-frame construction, making it a true SUV.

When you’re deciding which vehicle is right for you, it helps to make a list of your priorities, needs, wants and budget. After researching, asking questions, talking to vehicle sales personnel and owners, reading reviews, and test-driving vehicles, you should be ready to make a wise decision to purchase a crossover or SUV you’ll enjoy for years.

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