Sport utility vehicles, originally purchased mainly by contractors and outdoor enthusiasts went mainstream in the late 1980s when four-door truck-based models like the Ford Explorer and Jeep Cherokee gave American families more-rugged alternatives to station wagons and minivans.
Car-based crossover SUVs began to generate at the turn of the 21st—century for their more easygoing road manners, improved fuel economy, and traction-enhancing all-wheel-drive systems.
Sales have skyrocketed the last couple of years and SUVs have quickly supplanted passenger cars as the rides of choice among virtually all vehicle-buying demographics.
Today an expanding assortment of SUVs and crossovers are available in all size brackets, from subcompact to full-size, with two or three rows of seats, for on- and off-road use from almost all mainstream and luxury brands.
That includes exotic car builders like Bentley and Lamborghini, with Aston Martin joining them for 2020 and Ferrari soon to get in the game. One report suggests that there will be an astounding 180 SUV and crossover models for sale in the US by the year 2023.
The initials SUV stand for a sport utility vehicle, but that doesn’t explain a great deal about the car. The first examples were big, rugged machines that were sturdy and fitted with four-wheel drive, which meant that they could travel off-road. They also had a spacious interior, a large boot and were built for a tough life.
You could sling your surfboard in the back and reach deserted beaches; take your skis to isolated slopes, or transport your sheepdog across steep fields to recover a lost herd.
But as their practicality and the high driving position became more popular, the number of buyers who never took SUVs off tarmac increased and manufacturers increasingly made them more stylish, and more car-like to drive – often at the expense of their off-road ability.
And in 2018, the term SUV can still be applied to big and rugged cars capable of scaling different terrains, such as the Toyota Land Cruiser or Range Rover.
But the name can also apply to smaller and far less capable vehicles (often without four-wheel drive), such as the Vauxhall Mokka X and Honda HR-V. However, these are crossovers. Think of them as more like a tall hatchback than an SUV.
But why are they so popular, and why do their detractors dislike them so much?
To address the latter first it perhaps has something to do with our misinterpretation of the kind of vehicles car enthusiasts have a problem with.
The issue can’t be the four-wheel-drive system or enthusiasts around the world would decry the Audi A3 Quattro, the Subaru Impreza or even the sublimely designed Lamborghini Huracan as an abomination of the roadways.
Is it then the part-time four-wheel-drive SUVs? The, to coin a phrase, Chelsea Tractors. Cars that look like they can go off-road but (rightly or wrongly) are considered as likely to get stuck crossing a ford as a low slung sports car.
Essentially speaking, if it can’t climb every mountain and ford every river, then it isn’t a proper four-by-four. To quote a nameless automotive journalist, ‘it’s an affront to engineering and the ingenuity of man’.
This is probably closer to the truth as so many (not all) of these cars end up being a Jack of all trades and a master of none. The problem is, if you’re off-road in a car that’s terrible at going off-road, you’re in for a very unpleasant time.
What Is An Suv?
If you were going to be a stickler for accuracy, you’d say that an SUV needed to have four-wheel drive, which helps prevent it from getting stuck on slippery surfaces. However, bear in mind that some SUVs don’t, in order to reduce weight and improve fuel economy.
An SUV is also tall. The original purpose wasn’t to give the driver a better view of the road ahead, but to enable to the vehicle to pass over jagged rocks, and through ruts, without scraping the bottom.
It’s got lots of interior space too. Whether you’re an extreme sports enthusiast or a farmer that needs to transport bales of hay, a traditional SUV should have enough room.
Those three ingredients: a high driving position, better performance in icy weather and plenty of space make SUVs particularly attractive to families.
Finally, an SUV is generally built with mechanical parts that are specifically designed for rugged use – although there are exceptions. It can make the cars heavy and increase the amount of fuel that they use.
This is the big difference between SUVs and crossovers, which use the mechanical parts from family cars, which are designed mainly for tarmac roads.
Are A Crossover And Suv?
After saying that there is technically a difference between crossovers and SUVs, here’s the contradiction: both terms are used by car manufacturers to describe taller cars with a higher driving position and chunky, off-road looks.
Audi, for example, describes the Q2 (below) as a small SUV, but underneath the metal are the same parts that you’ll find in an Audi A3 hatchback, which makes it a crossover. If you’re unsure about a particular car, check our buying guides for clarity.
Features To Look For In The Ideal Suv
One advantage of an SUV is its tall driving position. This allows drivers of all statures, particularly females, to have a good view of traffic.
Although not all SUVs will allow you to peer over the roof of sedans and hatchbacks, most should allow for an airier feel and a better view of traffic than you would have from a passenger car. Look for a driver’s seat that can adjust for height to help find the perfect position.
Best example: The Toyota Fortuner has one of the tallest driving positions, keeping you eye-to-eye with truck drivers and looking above passenger cars’ roofs.
Ingress And Egress
Remember that SUVs’ tall ride height entails some effort in getting in and out. Children and elderly folks may find it more difficult to scale the front or rear seat of an SUV, particularly if there’s no step board to assist in the climb.
Best example: The Subaru XV has the perfect “hip point,” allowing one to slip onto the driver’s seat easily.
Traditional SUVs ride on pickup truck chassis. That’s good for their ability to go on rough roads or offroad, but bad for the ride comfort.
Take a test-drive to experience whether an SUV’s ride is sufficiently comfortable. The worst ride is usually in the second or third row of seats, so be sure to sit there during the test-drive, too.
Best example: The Honda CR-V, riding on a passenger car platform, exhibits a soft, comfortable ride.
With families expecting the bigger SUVs to carry three rows of passengers, they should be close to minivans in quantity and quality of space. That’s not always a given, as, despite their big exteriors, not all is translated in interior space.
Best example: Hyundai Santa Fe has a generous third-row knee room and adequate shoulder room.
Sometimes the cargo is given short shrift in favour of passengers. What’s the use of carrying eight passengers to the airport if you can’t haul their luggage? Make sure the vehicle has space for bags even with alls eats up.
Best example: Ford Expedition has more than 500 litres of cargo space behind the third row.
Convenience features. Aside from the usual power features, look for something that makes your life easier.
Best example: Ford Escape opens and closes its tailgate with a wave of your foot under the bumper, and that comes in handy when your hands are full.
SUVs have this image of being sturdy and indestructible, but not all fare well in a crash, or even in avoiding crashes. Check US websites such as the iihs.org to see how your favoured SUV fares.
Best example: Subaru Outback has the active safety features of a low centre of gravity drivetrain and full-time all-wheel drive, as well as a full suite of electronic stability aids and airbags.
Utility Vehicles For 2020
Aston Martin Dbx
James Bond’s favourite automaker will debut its first-ever sport utility vehicle for 2020, the DBX. It’s also the company’s first all-wheel-drive model. It won’t be revealed until later this year, and details remain sketchy.
Still, the company has released camouflaged images of prototypes being tested, and it looks engineered to be an off-road warrior. We suspect it will hold its own on a twisty road as well. Styling cues from other Aston Martin models include the company’s prominent grille up front and flush-fitting door handles.
Sources suggest it will come powered by the twin-turbo V8 engine found in the automaker’s sports cars, with plug-in hybrid and full-electric variants said to be in the works for future model years.
Buick Encore Gx
Buick adds to its SUV lineup with the new Encore GX. A bit larger than the subcompact Buick Encore, the GX will reach dealerships in early 2020. It looks more proportionately styled than the egg-shaped Encore, with assorted curves and creases running front-to-rear.
Final specifications will be announced closer to its on-sale date. Still, we do know it will come powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder engine and offer more interior space than the Encore, with a cargo hold that’s about five cubic feet bigger.
Standard driver-assist features include forward auto-braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist, and lane-departure warning.
It also offers a rear view video camera mirror and a high-definition surround-view backup camera. The GX is rumoured to provide the basis for the upcoming 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer.
Cadillac gets a three-row crossover SUV for 2020 with the new XT6. It’s cleanly styled on the outside and is sufficiently plush on the inside. It packs a 3.6-litre V6 engine that’s estimated to generate 310 horsepower and enables four-cylinder operation at cruising speeds to save fuel.
It’s mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission, and the vehicle comes with selectable driving modes.
All-wheel-drive is optional. A Sport version features more aggressive handling abilities and specific styling touches.
A wealth of available features includes a rearview video camera mirror, a Wi-Fi hotspot, wireless mobile phone charging, and a hands-free tailgate. A long list of standard and available safety systems includes a night-vision display and automatic reverse braking.
The popular Ford Escape is completely revamped for 2020, and the line now includes two hybrid-powered models.
Its styling is more rounded, and it’s lighter and more aerodynamic than before, with a sloping roofline and a front grille that’s inspired by the Mustang.
The standard engine is a new turbocharged 1.5-litre four-cylinder with 180 horsepower, with a turbo 2.0-litre with 250 horsepower available on the top Titanium model.
There are also hybrid and plug-in hybrid variants with a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine assisted by an electric motor to produce a combined 198 horsepower.
The plug-in version can run for 30 miles solely on electric power. Gas-powered models feature a sliding second-row seat that can maximise either legroom or cargo space.
Available driver-assist technology includes a fully automatic self-parking function and an evasive-steering-assist system.
The 2020 Ford Explorer is redesigned for 2020 and returns to its roots as a rear-drive SUV. It features more athletic-looking styling, with a roomy and cleanly cast interior that has three rows of seats.
A turbocharged 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine is standard with 300 horsepower, while the top Platinum model includes a turbocharged 3.0-litre 365-horsepower V6. The ST is the sportiest Explorer with a 400-horsepower turbo V6.
There’s also a gas/electric hybrid that teams a 3.3-litre V6 with an electric motor to produce a combined 318 horsepower. A 10-speed automatic transmission is standard, with all-wheel-drive available with the base engine and standard with the V6s.
Several accident avoidance safety systems are included, and the Platinum can be equipped with a large tablet-computer-like display.
New-for-2020, the Palisade is Hyundai’s flagship three-row crossover SUV. It rides on a newly engineered chassis and comes wrapped in formal-looking styling that’s capped by a big and bold front grille.
A 3.8-litre V6 engine puts 291 horsepower to the road via an eight-speed automatic transmission. The available all-wheel-drive system includes a selectable mode for added traction in snow.
All of the requisite family-minded features and advanced safety systems are represented here. The centre-row seats fold out of the way in one-touch operation, and a power-folding and reclining rear bench are available.
An in-car intercom system lets the driver communicate with second- and third-row riders without having to shout.
At the other end of the size and price spectrum from the above Palisade is the new subcompact Hyundai Venue. Bearing a familial resemblance to its larger sibling, the Venue can be jazzed up with two-tone extroverted colour options for the roof, mirrors, and exterior trim.
It comes powered by a 1.6-litre 121-horsepower four-cylinder engine with either a six-speed manual transmission or a CVT (continuously variable transmission) automatic. Unlike all of the other crossover SUVs mentioned here, the Venue is strictly a front-drive model.
It comes with a full range of connectivity features, and a remote-start function works with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant-enabled devices.
Available accident-avoidance systems include forward auto-braking, lane-keeping assist, and blind-spot warning with a rear cross-traffic alert.
The new-for-2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB is a compact luxury crossover SUV that’s sized, as the automaker’s nomenclature would suggest, between the GLA and GLC models. It’s smartly styled with short overhangs at the front and rear and a prominent grille upfront.
The GLB can seat up to seven via an optional third-row seat, and the second row can be adjusted longitudinally as needed.
A 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine produces 221 horsepower and comes with an eight-speed automatic transmission. Many driver assist systems are available, and the vehicle can perform semi-autonomous highway driving under certain circumstances when properly equipped.
The available all-wheel-drive system includes a Sport mode that sends added power to the rear wheels.
Can I Take An Suv Off-road?
The first SUVs may have been go-anywhere cars, but some modern SUVs are as suited to mud as a white cashmere scarf. If your SUV has four-wheel drive, then it shouldn’t get stuck in a muddy field that’s fairly flat, and you’ve got a better chance of keeping it moving on snow and icy roads.
However, if you need to drive up a slippery slope, or cross rough terrain that’s covered in jagged rocks, ruts and steep angles, then you’re more likely to require an SUV that’s been designed with some off-roading in mind.
Plenty of ground clearance is key here. Not just a large gap between the road and the bottom of the car, but also a minimal amount of metal ahead of the front wheels and behind the rear ones. The longer these overhangs are, the more likely that the car will get scraped or caught at the bottom of a steep hill.
The large overhangs on the Audi Q7 (below) help to boost interior and boot space, making it a better family car, but would reduce its effectiveness on a mountain expedition – it’s your decision whether that makes it an unsuitable car for you.
Off-road settings are also useful. These often include special gearbox modes, which maximise the force with which the wheels turn to help pull the car up steep slopes, or out of large ruts. They can set the car up to deal with different conditions – such as sand, rocks or snow.
Four-by-fours, or SUVs as they should more accurately be called, offer owners an elevated driver position, and heaps of space for buggies, changing bags and the 0-3 section of Toys R Us which certainly takes care of the practical side of the requirements.
However, safety is something of a contentious topic. Being in a big car is no guarantee that the car will do a better job of keeping you safe. Whilst safety ratings on SUVs are good, and they use the same scale as every other car on the road, so it’s misguided to expect a magic bubble of protection if you drive into something.
The elevated driving position has drawbacks too. While you can see hazards emerging, you won’t be as well placed to deal with them as the height comes at the cost of agility making a collision more likely in those split-second errors in judgement.
For all that, however, the SUV isn’t going anywhere. Motorists continually demand faster, sportier SUVs in flagrant disregard of the laws of physics and companies like BMW, Porsche and Land Rover are scrambling to accommodate them.
The rise of the four-by-four is predicated on several misconceptions. Mainly that they are, in some way, better, safer cars than the average family saloon. The big one is that we think we’re far more adventurous than we are.
The perceived dangers on the road – despite a steady decline in accidents – has convinced motorists that they need a safer more robust car and SUVs scream rugged durability and dependability in the face of an avalanche, rock slides or leaves on the driveway.
What makes the perfect family car? It’s got to be large, it’s got to have plenty of storage space, it’s got to be comfortable and able to drive on any road, and above all, it’s got to be safe.
These reasons are exactly why an SUV is the perfect family car. It has everything you need in a practical car, but it’s also stylish and fun.