What Does SUV Stand For?

Dustin Hawley | Feb 12, 2021

The abbreviation “SUV” stands for Sport Utility Vehicle; a classification made to distinguish vehicles with passenger car characteristics that are capable of handling rugged, off-road terrain. By looking at the history of the SUV and its many variations, we will form a clear picture of what makes these vehicles distinguishable from the rest.

what is an SUV

Sport Utility Vehicle: An Overview - Find the best car deals!

The distinctive design features of a typical SUV include high ground clearance, larger diameter tires, and a tall passenger cabin. At one point in time, 2-door SUV options were trendy, but in recent years they have been phased out in favor of 4-door versions. 

The build of the body and chassis used to be the defining factor for SUV classification. A shared characteristic among many of the original SUVs was their body-on-frame construction, typically based on the chassis of a pickup truck. 

Unibody construction merges both the chassis and the body into a single unit, significantly decreasing the vehicle’s weight without inherently affecting its off-road capabilities. However, SUV-shaped vehicles with front-wheel drive and no off-road capabilities dramatically increased in popularity, giving way to another segment of Sport Utility Vehicles; the CUV.

Crossover Utility Vehicles, known as a “Crossover SUV” or “CUV” for short, are exclusively built on a unibody platform focusing on ride comfort, fuel economy, and on-road handling. The off-road features of CUVs are inferior to those of SUVs, even non-existent in some cases. 

History of Sport Utility Vehicles - Find the best car deals!

Prior to the 1930s, terrain vehicles primarily employed the use of tracks to propel forward, with the exception of the farming tractor. The earliest SUVs were created shortly before and also during World War II:

  • The Kurogane Type 95 was a Japanese SUV manufactured for the army from 1936 to 1944. Its nickname “Yonki” translates into “all-wheel-drive,” and it was used as a terrain reconnaissance vehicle.
  • The 1934 Opel Geländesportwagen can be considered the first CUV. It was reworked in 1936 to make it more suitable for off-road driving as a proper SUV.
  • The Volkswagen Type 87, also called Kommandeurwagen, was a four-wheel-drive version of the Volkswagen Beetle. Classified by the German army as a light off-road passenger car, it was an all-wheel-drive vehicle that could seat four passengers. By definition, the Type 87 is the prototype of the modern SUV.
  • The Willys MB was produced from 1940 to 1945, so while it was not the first SUV created, it’s considered the true predecessor and outline for future Sport Utility Vehicles. Its formal name was “U.S Army Truck, ¼ ton, 4x4, Command Reconnaissance”, and it served as a highly capable off-road utility vehicle.

Post-War Commercial SUVs

Prior to World War II, installing a 4x4 powertrain would easily double the cost of a passenger vehicle, which was the primary reason why these vehicles’ production was limited. Nevertheless, demand for these components rose dramatically during the war, with Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge increasing production 100 times to that of previous years.

By the time the war was over, manufacturing costs were substantially reduced, allowing manufacturers to continue their commercial market production. The Willys Jeep Station Wagon was equipped with optional four-wheel drive as early as 1949, followed by the Chevrolet Suburban in 1955 and International Harvester Travelall in 1956. 

The rise of competition in the 1960s led to significant technological improvements in SUV design. The 1963 Jeep Wagoneer (SJ) was the first SUV to use station wagon body design, bridging the gap between SUVs and passenger cars. Toyota’s comfort-oriented Land Cruiser FJ55 was released in 1967, while the most notable European SUV was the 1970 Range Rover Classic.

Sport Utility Vehicle Classes - Find the best car deals!

Much like passenger cars, SUVs have their own classifications based mostly on the dimensions of the vehicle. The four primary types are:

  • Mini SUV: The smallest vehicles of all the classes, mini SUVs are very popular in Japan due to heavy taxation on large vehicles. Major manufacturers include Suzuki, Toyota, Nissan, and Jeep, with most other companies focusing more heavily on crossover vehicles.
  • Compact SUV: With an average size relative to compact or C-segment passenger cars, compact SUVs are manufactured by automakers like Jeep, Land Rover, Lada, and Nissan, who make the most popular off-road ready models in this class.
  • Mid-size SUVThis class shares a platform with passenger cars or compact to mid-sized pickup trucks. The practical size of a mid-size SUV, combined with the ability to cross most terrains, makes this class of vehicles highly desirable. As a result, nearly every automaker has its own unique model. 
  • Full-size SUV: The largest of the conventional SUVs, most full-size models are built on the full-size chassis of a pickup truck, though some have their own dedicated platforms. Manufacturers like Toyota and Chevrolet market the off-road capabilities of their fleet, whereas Lincoln and Cadillac tend to favor luxury and comfort. 

Summary - Find the best car deals!

As both the market and interest in SUVs has grown, so has the range of available options. A proper Sport Utility Vehicle has to be built from the ground up to tackle rough terrains, which often includes being equipped with a specially designed suspension, axle articulation, and electronic locking differentials. This arguably puts the “utility” in SUV, an acronym that is now familiar to all.

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