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SUV/Crossover segments explained

SUV/Crossover segments explained

Crossovers. SUVs. SAVs. CUVs. SACs. 4x4s. Off-roaders. One-tonne pick-ups. Jeeps. When picking something large that’s also capable of doing a bit of driving away from the tarmac (or, at least, which looks like it could do a bit of driving away from the tarmac), a wealth of different terms are often appended to such vehicles and it becomes very confusing trying to differentiate between them all. So here’s our guide to try and help you through…


This one is plain wrong, unless you’re referring to the actual American manufacturer Jeep, now owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. This company makes vehicles like the Renegade, the Cherokee, the Grand Cherokee, the Compass and the Wrangler, and the clue as to whether you can call a vehicle a Jeep or not is whether it actually says ‘JEEP’ anywhere on it. The reason, however, that people tend to colloquially call anything vaguely SUV/4x4/crossover-shaped a ‘jeep’ is a historic one – the Willys Jeep that was built for service with the US Army in World War Two is widely accepted to be the first example of a mass-produced four-wheel-drive vehicle. Hence, people often refer to all types of off-roaders as jeeps to this day, when they’re not actually referring to the American brand itself.


This is another kind of catch-all term that covers 4x4s, pick-up trucks, SUVs and even some crossovers, which is confusing because anything can theoretically be driven off-road, even front-wheel-drive city hatchbacks. The difference is how diverse a terrain a ‘proper’ off-roader can cover, because a hatchback is only going to be able to drive on fairly tame landscape and gravel tracks before it gets stuck; proper off-roaders can wade through muddy bogs, climb rubbly inclines and descend vertiginous slopes. It’s not a great term and is rather generic, but the reason off-roaders can do all the above kind of things is normally because they have four-wheel drive, and that brings us onto…


Again, technically speaking this is a term that specifically relates to whether a vehicle has four-wheel drive or not. And again, that could apply to any number of regular road cars – any BMW saloon with xDrive, for instance, or maybe Audis with quattro traction, or even a high-performance hatchback like the outgoing Ford Focus RS. However, in light of the crossover/SUV boom, the term 4x4 has been modified in recent years and has now semi-officially come to relate to a particular breed of vehicle – the ‘true’ off-roader. These typically have a body-on-frame construction, often referred to as a ‘ladder-frame chassis’. A ladder frame is simpler to build than a monocoque chassis, relatively tough and capable of taking heavy cargo and hauling bulky loads, and because the body of the vehicle and the chassis are separate items, 4x4s are very, very, very good at driving in the wilderness.

The pay-off is that they tend not to be as comfortable as SUVs and their ilk on the road, with a rougher ride and less mechanical refinement. Today, examples of what would be termed ‘4x4s’ and not ‘SUVs’ are the Suzuki Jimny, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class and the Jeep Wrangler (which are all boxy-looking, rugged machines), and then the Toyota Land Cruiser, the Mitsubishi Shogun and the SsangYong Rexton (all of which look more cultured and urbane, like an SUV, but none of which have the monocoque chassis construction, instead all employing ladder frames). There’s a sub-division of 4x4s, too, which is…

Mercedes G-Class

One-tonne pick-up trucks

Even this vehicle group’s name is confusing in itself, because it insinuates that these off-roaders weigh one tonne (1,000kg)… when, in fact, they tend to weigh a good 2.2 tonnes (2,200kg) or thereabouts. The ‘one-tonne’ bit refers to the payload they can take in their flat, exposed load bay at the rear of the pick-up – commercial vehicles gain certain tax breaks if they can carry 1,000kg in the back and so these trucks are designed to do precisely that. To that end, they all have four-wheel drive and a ladder-frame chassis construction, and they are primarily designed for the aforementioned commercial use, but there has been an upswing in private buyers purchasing these vehicles and using them as family transport, ever since Mitsubishi launched the third-generation L200 in 1996.

The Japanese company realised that people liked the profile shape of a pick-up truck and made various ‘luxury’ versions of its workhorse machine, given trim names like the ‘Barbarian’ and ‘Warrior’. Other manufacturers soon cottoned on to this and started offering high-specification versions of their trucks, and buyers lapped them up – to the point that, today, there’s a huge number of offerings in this class.

SUVs (and any other three-letter initialisms)

Ah. This is one of the two big ones. The term ‘SUV’, which stands for ‘Sports Utility Vehicle’, is the most commonly used when referring to this class of vehicle, and it was (very roughly) coined sometime in the late 1990s. It is often held that the first SUV was the Mercedes ML of 1997, although Jeep (note the capital ‘J’ here, we’re talking about the actual American company) would argue that its second-generation Cherokee of 1984 was the progenitor of the breed – as it downscaled its behemoth, ladder-framed predecessor of the 1970s into a smaller, neater, unibody (monocoque) construction, seemingly without compromising its off-road abilities. However, SUV as a term only really took off once BMW responded to Mercedes’ ML with its original X5 of 1999.

BMW, in truth, calls its SUVs ‘SAVs’ in its own literature, which stands for ‘Sports Activity Vehicle’, and the derivation of that is the ‘Sports Activity Coupe’ for things like the X2, X4 and X6, although ‘SAC’ is an unfortunate abbreviation in English. Other manufacturers have used initialisms like ‘CUV’ (Coupe Utility Vehicle, although – maddeningly – this term has also been used for ‘Crossover Utility Vehicle’, see below) but, in reality, everyone knows these as SUVs. And one of their key characteristics is that they have a monocoque construction for the chassis, featuring front and rear subframes and the vehicle’s shell as part of the structure of the whole car, rather than the ladder-frame set-up we’ve already discussed. This makes SUVs much more refined and comfortable on-road than 4x4s and pick-up trucks, and they’re far better for handling in the corners, as well.

What then differentiates these SUVs from the final class of crossovers (which we’ll come onto in a moment) these days is that they tend to be bigger, more luxurious, more expensive vehicles that almost exclusively have four-wheel drive. This is not a 100 per cent hard and fast rule, as BMW (for instance) did briefly do rear-wheel-drive versions of its third-generation X5 in 2014, badged ‘sDrive25d’ and ‘sDrive35i’, but in general it is accepted that to be called an SUV, it must have four-wheel drive. This will typically not be as robust a system as the AWD on a 4x4, which will have mechanical differential locks and low-ratio transfer boxes; SUVs normally rely on simpler 4WD involving centre-plate clutches, which can decouple drive to one of the axles when not needed on certain vehicles in order to save fuel.

Their credentials for traversing the countryside sit somewhere between standard road cars and the 4x4s/pick-up trucks, because many SUVs are performance models with wide, low-profile sports tyres that are not suited to off-road driving. So perhaps a clearer definition of an SUV would be ‘a 4x4 that prioritises on-road driving manners and interior luxury’ before all else. There’s a huge array of SUVs out there. So, now we can move onto the final category…


And this is the one that muddied the waters, because it came after SUV and blurred the lines of what’s what in the automotive world. Like the debate on ‘which was the first SUV?’, the argument over which vehicle created the ‘crossover’ trend is even more heated and many people will give you various different answers – including the 1977 Matra Rancho, the 1979 AMC Eagle, the 1994 Toyota RAV4 or the 1995 Honda CR-V… and there are even earlier cars than the Rancho that might fit the bill. However, for the sake of simplicity and to prevent this discussion rumbling on all day, for the purposes of this article we’ll use the machine that triggered the current, ongoing sales explosion in these things as the progenitor: the 2006 Nissan Qashqai.

The Qashqai sold in its droves, buyers loving the fact that they sat higher in the vehicle than they would in a Golf or similar, but yet they got the same running costs. Without exception, crossovers are monocoque machines. This makes them light, so they’re much easier on fuel than SUVs and 4x4s. To that end, crossovers are typically small and based on A-, B- and C-segment car platforms, although there’s a grey area in the D-segment, where machines like the current Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Volkswagen Tiguan and Peugeot 3008 could all just as easily be called ‘compact SUVs’ as they could ‘big crossovers’.

A very rough rule of thumb here is that, in the main (but not exclusively), crossovers are only two-wheel drive, and it’s normally the front wheels doing the driving at that. Because they’re hatchbacks underneath their tall bodies and adventurous styling details, they’re not designed to actually do any serious off-roading. The complication here is that higher-spec models of the C-segment machines do tend to get all-wheel drive, the Qashqai itself being an example, and then there are companies like Subaru, which fits its Symmetrical AWD system into everything it makes – so the Subaru XV is most definitely a 4WD crossover.

There are so, so many crossovers, even more so than SUVs, so we can’t list them all here – but in the A-segment (tiny and/or budget), there are vehicles like the Suzuki Ignis and Dacia Duster; the B-segment is any rival to the Nissan Juke; and the C-segment is the Qashqai’s domain.

Carzone - 18-Feb-2020