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What Does SUV Stand For?

By Autolist Staff | May 10, 2019

"SUV" stands for "sport-utility vehicle," a marketing term that covers a broad range of rugged-looking, four-wheel-drive vehicles with off-road capabilities and a light-truck feel. Also called "sport-utes," among other terms, sports utility vehicles are some of the most popular family vehicles in the U.S. Their large interior spaces, powerful towing capacities and three rows of seating combine the storage and hauling benefits of pickup trucks with the sleekness and comfort of station wagons.

What Does SUV Stand For, and What Are SUVs?

"SUV" is a loose term, as it can include vehicles ranging from car-like crossover SUVs with minimal offroading capabilities to more Jeep-like SUVs designed for rough terrain. Both full-size and small SUVs typically share high ground clearance and all-wheel-drive. Initially, sport utility vehicles were built on truck chassis, but most modern SUVs feature unibody frames in which the floors, bodies and chassis all form a single structure.

In terms of both look and feel, an SUV resembles a truck, minivan and average American family car smashed together. The U.S., along with several other countries, classifies SUVs as light trucks rather than cars, giving them more relaxed fuel efficiency standards as a result. The term "sport utility" isn't a technical term. It just means the vehicle has both a relaxed, outdoorsy quality and is good at getting things done.

Although built for driving on rough surfaces, such as dirt roads or even hills, SUVs are more often driven on city roads, much like any old estate car. Historical offroaders had two doors, but most modern SUVs have four or five doors to accommodate families.

SUVs are nearly two-fifths of the world's passenger car market, as of 2019, having bounced back from a down period during the Great Recession. The global supply of SUVs is projected to double between 2015 to 2025, and they've primarily supplanted other types of large family vehicles in the automotive market, including station wagons.

While SUVs don't have the most exceptional fuel economy, they have robust engines that don't tax easily. SUVs also have high seating positions and centers of gravity, and they tend to divide into models built for hauling heavy loads and excellent offroad capability and models made for sleek looks and secure handling.

How Broad Is the Word "SUV"?

People confuse many types of big family vehicles, such as multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs), with SUVs, so it's worth comparing the differences between them. Also called "minivans," MPVs are similar to SUVs in that they can carry five to seven people and have ample room for luggage, but they tend to be shorter in length than SUVs and have shorter hoods, and they're not intended as offroad vehicles.

Similarly, sedans are spacious like SUVs, but they also lack offroad capabilities, and they don't fit more than five people. Hatchbacks are similar to other road cars in these respects, but lack extended trunks, instead favoring shared space for passengers and cargo.

In addition, SUVs can be broken down into mini or subcompact SUVs, such as the Hyundai Santa Fe, which have minimal offroading capabilities; compact SUVs, such as the Honda CRV; mid-size SUVs, such as the Toyota Highlander or Ford Explorer, which are some of the most popular family SUVs; and large SUVs, such as the Chevy Tahoe.

Crossover SUVs, or crossover utility vehicles (CUVs), are yet another category, combining the heavy-duty SUV feel with the technology and underlying platforms of passenger cars. The Mazda CX-5 or Nissan Rogue are both crossover SUVs. In the U.S., crossovers are sometimes grouped with cars, but other countries strictly consider them SUVs. In short, "SUV" is a broad category.

Where Did the Word "SUV" Originate, and How Has It Evolved?

The term "sport-utility vehicle" spread in the 1980s, when American Motors Corporation lobbied the U.S. Congress to make a separate category for vehicles that were neither trucks nor passenger cars but had elements of both. Originally, the term had a slash, as in "sport/utility vehicle," to emphasize the dual nature of the SUV. Sometimes the term had a hyphen instead, as in "sport-utility vehicle."

Before SUVs showed up, people sometimes used the term "utility wagon" for tough, roomy station wagons such as the 1930s Chevrolet Suburban, which is the ancestor of modern SUVs. Today, the word "SUV" has some baggage. Many people associate sport utility vehicles with materialism and pollution, as they're not very fuel-efficient, and their large designs suggest a desire for status. For this reason, "crossover" and "CUV" have become popular stand-ins for "SUV," even when the SUV in question isn't a crossover.

In the automotive world, popular classifications don't always map onto official ones. People in various countries used to refer to all light, four-wheel-drive vehicles as "Jeeps" or "Land Rovers," even though both terms refer to specific brands. That's because Jeeps and Land Rovers were common in World War II, where they demonstrated exceptional ruggedness and offroad capability, and because the Jeep Cherokee introduced in 1984 is widely seen as the first true SUV.

Recently, however, "SUV" has become a catchall term around the world for such vehicles. There are also many slang variations on "SUV," most of them derogatory. For example, "FUV" plays on the F-word to suggest contempt for the working class, while "land destroyer" and "urban assault vehicle" invoke the somewhat aggressive look of the SUV. Other pejorative terms for SUVs include "portable living room," "yuppiemobile," "lardwagon," "truck beast," "soccer mom" and "Lincoln aggravator" (derived from "Lincoln Navigator").

Regional terms for SUVs also abound. For example, in Melbourne, Australia, such vehicles are commonly called "Toorak Tractors," after the affluent Melbourne suburb of Toorak. Norwegians call SUVs "Stock Exchange Tractors" for a similar effect, and Londoners call them "Chelsea Tractors" after the wealthy suburb in West London.

Although "SUV" just stands for "sport utility vehicle," the term describes a loose category with many vehicle types, from mini SUVs and subcompacts to crossovers and large SUVs. Sport-utility vehicles are some of the most popular passenger vehicles in the world, and their broad range of nicknames shows their diversity of styles and functions.

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