What is a Crossover SUV?

Christian Wardlaw | Sep 15, 2021

A crossover SUV is a sport-utility vehicle made primarily for use on maintained roads, whether paved, gravel, or dirt. They often come with a standard front-wheel-drive powertrain but almost always offer an automatic all-wheel-drive (AWD) system as an option. Some crossovers include AWD as standard equipment.

2022 Subaru Outback Limited Red Front Quarter View

Crossover SUV vs. SUV

Significant differences frequently exist between crossover SUVs and traditional SUVs. Deciding between the two depends on how you plan to use the vehicle and what you value most in a new SUV.

Crossover SUVs employ unibody construction, meaning the underlying body architecture and frame are a single unit, similar to a passenger car. In fact, some crossover SUVs are based on car models. Unibody design is lighter than the more rugged body-on-frame construction used in traditional SUVs. Benefits include more interior passenger and cargo space, greater fuel economy, and superior ride and handling qualities on the paved roads where most people drive most of the time.

However, compared to a traditional body-on-frame SUV, a crossover SUV almost always offers reduced towing capacity, provides less ground clearance, and has more restrictive approach, breakover, and departure angles. Furthermore, crossover SUVs do not have 2-speed transfer cases, which add low-range gearing to a 4-wheel-drive (4WD) system for difficult driving conditions. These characteristics make crossover SUVs less capable in challenging driving situations.

The first modern crossover SUVs

In 1995, Toyota and Subaru introduced models that would change the automotive landscape and consumer preferences for decades to come. But it was the 1980 AMC Eagle that first tried SUV styling on a raised passenger-car platform combined with AWD.

Eagle permanently landed after the 1988 model year, but within a decade, Subaru had applied the exact same recipe to its Legacy station wagon to create the first Outback. By the 1996 model year, Americans had fallen in love with the Ford Explorer, and SUVs were increasingly used as replacements for family cars. The original Legacy Outback provided much of the same utility and capability in a more affordable and efficient package.

Meanwhile, Toyota debuted the first Recreational Activity Vehicle with 4WD (RAV4) for the 1996 model year. It was an oddity at the time, quite small and strange-looking. But the low price, high fuel economy, and promise of Toyota reliability blended with utility and AWD made it appealing.

Thus, a trend was born. Soon, Honda began selling the CR-V, Subaru introduced the Forester, and Ford debuted the Escape. The rest, as they say, is history. Now, a majority of vehicles sold in America are crossover SUVs.

The blurring of crossover lines

Seemingly by definition, a crossover can be anything. For example, Kia markets the boxy little Soul as a crossover, but technically it’s a multi-purpose vehicle. The Soul doesn’t offer AWD, which, combined with increased ground clearance compared to a typical car, ought to be a qualifying requirement to meet minimum crossover SUV classification standards.

Meanwhile, the 2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness offers a whopping 9.2 inches of ground clearance, standard all-terrain tires, and sophisticated drivetrain technology that allows it to scramble up and down steep grades littered with loose material. It pushes the boundary separating crossovers from traditional SUVs, lacking only a transfer case with low-range gearing to qualify as the latter.

And then there is the Jeep Grand Cherokee, one of the most popular SUVs in America. Like a crossover SUV, the Jeep uses unibody construction. Like traditional SUVs, it offers an available 4WD system with a transfer case and low-range gearing. Buy one in Trailhawk trim, and the Grand Cherokee is even “Trail Rated,” meaning it has successfully navigated the brutally challenging Rubicon Trail.

But then, so have Jeep’s smaller RenegadeCompass, and Cherokee models when equipped with Trailhawk specification. All three are “Trail Rated” crossovers. At the same time, most people consider the Grand Cherokee to be an SUV, even in the standard rear-wheel-drive specification or with its optional Quadra Trac I system that offers only high-range 4WD.

Is it time to retire the “crossover” designation?

It might be time to stop distinguishing between crossover SUVs and traditional SUVs.

Subaru’s new Wilderness series of more capable off-roaders and the examples of the Grand Cherokee and Jeep’s Trailhawk lineup of crossovers suggest that body-on-frame construction and the availability of a low-range transfer case to provide superior off-roading capability no longer represent clear ways to define their differences.

Also, the Jeep Grand Cherokee can tow up to 7,200 pounds, just 200 pounds less than the least capable Chevrolet Suburban, which is a traditional full-size SUV with body-on-frame construction and a V8 or turbodiesel engine. Given its size and standard all-season tires, Suburban owners aren’t going to drive deep into the woods anytime soon, either. Not without the Z71 trim level and the optional air suspension, anyway.

Plus, with marketers labeling such wildly different models as the front-drive Hyundai Venue and iconic Jeep Wrangler as SUVs, arguing otherwise is an uphill battle. In the minds and opinions of consumers, both the Venue and the Wrangler are SUVs, just as a Mazda MX-5 Miata and a Porsche 911 GT3 are both sports cars.

Finally, the advent of electrification blurs the lines further. General Motors uses the same basic Ultium Drive platform and electric drive components to create the Cadillac Lyriq crossover and GMC Hummer EV SUV. Still, only one of these models is going to be suitable for going off-road.


For decades, crossover SUVs were easy to classify and differentiate from traditional SUVs. Those days are coming to a close.

Between high-tech AWD systems that mimic the capabilities of traditional 4WD systems, improvements in towing capacity for SUVs with unibody construction, electric vehicles built on skateboard-style platforms shared with a variety of body styles, and the power of marketing to influence consumer perceptions and opinions, increasingly there is no difference between a crossover SUV and an SUV.

Instead, there are SUVs with widely differing levels of capability and utility, just as there are sports cars with widely differing levels of power and performance.

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