You’ve likely heard vehicles referred to as SUVs, crossovers, and crossover SUVs. While crossovers and SUVs are technically not the same, the terms are often used interchangeably. This can lead to confusion and begs some important questions.

For example, what makes a vehicle a crossover, and are all crossovers also SUVs? And perhaps the most important question for prospective new car buyers: what’s the difference between a crossover and an SUV? 

To learn more about what makes a crossover a crossover - and why it isn't an SUV, despite the similar styling - read on.

History of the Crossover 

SUVs as we know them date as far back as the 1930s, but they were notoriously unrefined and not particularly consumer or family-friendly. This is because the chassis and bodystyle were designed for off-road adventures rather than civilized commuting; the ' sport utility vehicle ' moniker derives from this original intention. These vehicles were known for their poor gas mileage, spartan interiors, and harsh, heavy-duty suspensions that were effective on the trail, but bad on pavement or highway travel. Like the old body-on-frame pickup trucks on which they were based, these were rugged and focused vehicles.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that buyers began to gravitate towards SUVs. People liked the big, boxy size and the go-anywhere image. And, despite their continued use of a truck-based, body-on-frame chassis, the SUVs of the 1980s had much-improved refinement and ride quality compared to their earlier ancestors. Vehicles like the original Jeep Cherokee fueled the fire for versatile SUVs that could be at home on the road and the trail.

During the 1990s this infatuation reached a peak. Around this time automakers realized people might like the look of an SUV, but favor the characteristics of a sedan. In 1997, Japan introduced the world to the first crossovers: the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. What made the CR-V and RAV4 crossovers instead of traditional SUVs? They both used a “unibody” platform, which means the body and frame are one piece, providing a much more refined, car-like ride and confident handling. 

Since then the vehicle class has exploded. The crossover SUV, as they were first dubbed, simply became the crossover. Also referred to as a crossover utility vehicle, or CUV, these vehicles have become commonplace, displacing both the long-familiar sedan and the traditional body-on-frame SUV as the most popular mass-market vehicle. From humble, unproven roots, they have become massively successful.

So What Is a Crossover, Anyway?

Crossovers are built by taking a car platform and modifying, usually with a raised ride height. From there, a two-box SUV-style body with four doors and a large cargo area is draped over it. Engines, like the chassis, are also derived from a traditional car - think small displacement four-cylinders and six-cylinders in most cases. The end goal is the fuel efficiency and refinement characteristics of a car with the style and elevated ride height of an SUV or off-road-oriented station wagon

There are important differences between the car-like crossover compared to a traditional SUV. With a few exceptions, true SUVs ride atop frames that are separate from the body. This manufacturing technique, known as body-on-frame construction, is famously stout, and is also found under pickup trucks and other heavy duty vehicles. It requires building the body as a separate unit and bolting it onto the frame during assembly.

Crossovers, as previously mentioned, use what's called unibody construction. As the name suggests, unibody means the body and frame as a single, joined unit. There is no separate structure for the body and the frame; there's simply one skeleton that connects the car from floor to roof. During assembly the body panels are bolted to this skeleton. Unibody construction is lighter than body-on-frame construction and offers a larger crumple zone in the event of an accident. Because crossovers tend to be lighter and have smaller engines, they also tend to be more fuel-efficient

This construction is probably the biggest difference between crossovers and SUVs. The unibody gives better ride and on-road comfort compared to something with a full-frame truck chassis. Body-on-frame SUVs are best for towing, hauling, aggressive off-roading, and other strenuous or abusive tasks.

SUV vs. Crossover: Performance and Economy

Because crossovers are based on a car’s platform , they can use engines normally not appropriate for SUVs. This means small-displacement turbo four-cylinder engines. The Honda CR-V compact SUV is case in point: its 1.5-liter turbo is the same engine found in the Accord. It's the same for Toyota , Nissan , Chevrolet , and all the other major automakers . The result is fuel economy that’s nearly identical to a crossover 's sedan counterpart.

SUVs, on the other hand, can't really get away with using these small, efficient powertrains. The two big reasons for this is their high curb weight as well as the towing capacity and hauling expectations people demand from SUVs. Having the capability to pull a boat or a trailer of more than one or two tons often necessitates a big V8 under the hood - hence the V8-powered Toyota Sequoia, Chevrolet Tahoe, and GMC Yukon The Ford Expedition is the outlier among the full-size SUV class, having made the move to a twin-turbo V6.

Not all SUVs need V8s, though. The Jeep Wrangler, for instance, is focused on off-roading rather than payload or towing. For that reason it uses four- and six-cylinder engines. Other small off-roaders similarly use more modest engines.

Along with their weight and squared-off looks, the big, truckish engines found in the typical SUV make them inefficient, especially compared to crossovers. Fuel economy rarely gets above the low 20s on the highway and mid-high teens around town. If you're towing those numbers will quickly drop even further.

Sporty, nimble performance isn't common for most crossovers or SUVs, but SUVs in particular feel ponderous; their big bulk and workhorse engines don't offer any sense of athleticism. Crossovers can be a bit better but also aren't usually noteworthy performers (exceptions being performance-oriented models like the Alfa Romeo Stevio, Jaguar F-Pace and Porsche Macan). A high center of gravity is a trait shared by both crossovers and SUVs, which inhibits handling and can make these vehicles feel tipsy when a corner is taken too fast.

SUV and Crossover Categories

SUVs fall into three basic categories: small ( Jeep Wrangler ), midsize ( Dodge Durango and Toyota 4Runner ) and full-size ( GMC Yukon and Mercedes-Benz G-Class .) Crossovers , on the other hand, have more size options. These sizes include: subcompact ( Nissan Kicks and Hyundai Kona) , compact ( Toyota RAV4 , Mazda CX-5 ), midsize ( Honda Passport , Hyundai Santa Fe ), and large ( Toyota Highlander , Volkswagen Atlas) . Note that large crossovers are generally smaller than full-size SUVs, though both can offer three full rows of seating.

Driven Wheels

Because they are based on cars, crossovers are usually front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive ( AWD ). The front- and all-wheel drive system is part of the reason crossovers feel like sedans. It gives a better ride and makes packaging more efficient. It also means flatter floors without an intruding drivetrain hump and can allow for a lower vehicle height.

What you don't get with the crossover is SUV-like capability. It's the necessary sacrifice for better gas mileage and space efficiency - don't expect to tow anything much bigger than a utility trailer or ever haul home a full load of bricks, and definitely don't expect to tackle demanding trails like the Rubicon. That's not in the cards for any front- or all-wheel drive car, and is too much to expect of a even crossover like the Subaru Forester.

SUVs, however, deliver in this regard. They are normally rear-wheel drive, with optional four-wheel drive and additional features like locking differentials. This drivetrain design allows them to tow some serious tonnage and haul big payloads. With true four-wheel drive and lots of ground clearance, they can also conquer terrain that wouldn't be passable in even an all-wheel drive crossover. It was this off-road capability that earned them the sport-utility name in the first place.

This gives a general overview of how the driven wheels affect crossovers and SUVs. If you want to learn more about each type of drivetrain, read up on the differences between front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive and all-wheel and four-wheel drive.

Safety

Back when crossovers were yet to hit the streets, there were a lot of buyers interested in SUVs but concerned about how safe they might be. They weren't so much concerned with surviving an impact - in fact, the big and tall SUVs were comforting to drivers in that regard. What they were worried about was a rollover incident.

This was a serious issue for SUVs in the 90s. Ford was especially impacted; both their Bronco II and Ford Explorer had numerous customer complaints and high-profile incidents, with the Explorer becoming particularly notorious. The fear of a rollover kept some buyers away from these otherwise popular products.

Since then, safety has come a long way. Electronic stability control has become a mandated piece of safety technology that helps a vehicle remain stable even in extreme maneuvering, thereby lowering the risk of rolling over. Nowadays there's even more technology to help mitigate potentially dangerous incidents, such as evasive steering assist, lane-keep assist, and lane-departure warning.

These technologies have helped close the gap between cars, crossovers, and SUVs in regards to rollover potential; these days, the risk of a rollover with either an SUV or crossover has become greatly reduced. It's partly why the popularity of these types of vehicles is higher than ever.

The Bottom Line

If you want the best of both worlds, get the crossover . These lifted hatchbacks - because that's really what they are, at the end of the day - are a jack of all trades and a master at most of them. The average driver gets everything they might want from a car: fuel efficiency , comfort, space, and practicality, while enjoying the SUV-like benefits of an elevated ride height, additional cargo capacity and increased confidence in bad weather,

What don't you get with a crossover? Towing, payload, and off-road capacities equal to traditional SUVs. That remains the realm of those body-on-frame behemoths, and it likely will for a long time yet. There's nothing that can beat the capability of a big-chassis, big-engined SUV in those extreme instances. In fact, the romance of an SUV's abilities to go anywhere and pull anything is what inspired the original SUV boom of the 1980s and 1990s, and it has largely fueled the rise of the crossover despite their lesser capabilities.

To recap: if you want additional cargo space and a comfort ride, get the car-based crossover. But if you need serious capability, the SUV is the only way to go. And if maximum cargo space and off-road travel isn't paramount to your needs, the traditional four-door sedan or station wagon remains a compelling, competitive, and more fuel-efficient option as well.

Check out iSeeCars Best Cars rankings to see the best vehicles in both the SUV and crossover categories.

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