Language matters, as you'll hear from everyone from scholars to activists. And the way we describe cars matters too--but that's where it can get complicated.
We conventionally call our 2014 Subaru Forester 2.0XT six-month test car a "crossover," short for crossover utility vehicle. But others call it a wagon, and some even have dubbed it an SUV--albeit a "little SUV."
So what's the difference among the three terms? Here's our best effort at sorting out the history, and explaining what we see as the current usage.
In the beginning, there was the station wagon. Specialty bodies added to conventional cars in the 1920s and 1930s let them carry up to eight people to their destinations from train stations--hence the term "station wagon."
Some were woody wagons, much prized today by collectors, while others were built on truck chassis. All were utilitarian vehicles, but prized for their ability to haul people, goods, or any combination thereof.
After World War II, sprawling suburban America adopted wagons as the epitome of family life--with up to nine seats, simulated wood-grain on the sides, and the ability to carry an entire family across the country on the brand-new Interstate Highway System.
SPORT UTILTY VEHICLES / SUVs
While Jeep had offered a variety of wagon-like vehicles since the 1950s, and Chevy's Suburban even dated back to before the War, it wasn't until the 1980s that the combination of four-wheel drive and a wagon-like body found mass-market success, in the ground-breaking 1984 Jeep Cherokee.
Followed by the equally popular 1990 Ford Explorer, these durable, truck-like vehicles not only offered the carrying capacity of wagons, but the go-anywhere image of four-wheel drive and a far more rugged, individualistic image.
Their higher driving position, capable of seeing over and past the traffic ahead, was also popular with drivers--including women--and the truck-like driving characteristics and tall stance made them "feel" safe even if accident data said the opposite.
SUVs rocketed in popularity during the 1990s, swiftly replacing the full-size and mid-size wagons offered by U.S. makers.
2014 Subaru Forester XT Six-Month Road Test, upstate New YorkEnlarge Photo
But the truck-based underpinnings of SUVs gave them harsher rides, mediocre handling, and worse fuel efficiency than the wagons they had replaced. So carmakers--led by the Japanese--began to create vehicles that looked like SUVs but were built on car platforms underneath, with all-wheel drive added, usually as an option.
The first such vehicles were the original Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester, and Toyota RAV4 of the mid-1990s. Ten years later, the truck-based SUV with its separate frame was well on its way out for family vehicles, and whether or not buyers called them that, crossovers had largely replaced SUVs in small and mid-size categories.
So, which is which?
We'd define each category as follows:
A wagon is usually one body style of a car with the same front end as a sedan, but a load bay rather than a trunk. These days, they're restricted to European makes. Example: Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen.
A sport-utility vehicle, or SUV, is a large, tall utility vehicle with a separate body and frame, usually based on a rear-wheel-drive truck platform. These are largely confined to a few mid-size and most full-size utilities. Example: Chevrolet Tahoe.
A crossover is a utility vehicle with a tall, wagon-like body, with unibody construction and based on front-wheel-drive passenger-car components. They are now found in sizes ranging from subcompact (e.g. MINI Cooper Countryman) to full-size seven-passenger (e.g. Buick Enclave).
And where does our 2014 Subaru Forester fall in all of this?
It's clearly a crossover. It was a crossover when it was introduced in 1998, and it remains that way 16 years later.
But if you want to call it an SUV or a wagon, we're fine with that.