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Mailbag: What's the difference between car, crossover, and SUV anyway?

May 5, 2020

"Why isn't an SUV a station wagon or a crossover?" a perplexed reader wrote us. "Are there any cars around anymore?"

The reader's frustration for how automotive segments are defined, redefined, and ignored was understandable. There is no definitive automotive classification system, thanks in part to inconsistent federal measures, slippery automotive marketing, and automotive sites like ours that break down all the vehicle types in to 12 overlapping categories

We're trying to help, believe it or not. Cars evolve, like language. For example, 36 years ago, there wasn't a minivan; 20 years ago, there weren't crossovers; a decade ago a plug-in hybrid sounded like a kitchen appliance.

At the very least, segments help shoppers compare similar vehicles, which in turn helps automakers decide what types of vehicles to build. The feds use class size and segments to standardize safety and fuel ratings so there is one consistent standard of measure. Unfortunately, each agency has its own system, which really muddles understanding, much like the United States' refusal to adopt to the metric system for the rest of the world. 

For example, the EPA size classes are based on passenger and cargo volume for cars and station wagons, but gross vehicle weight for trucks and SUVs. The NHTSA classifies cars based on weight alone, while the Federal Highway Administration is all about axles. 

For simplicity, we'll break it down into the three broadest and most overlapping categories: Sport utility vehicles (SUVs), crossovers, and cars. 

2020 Chevrolet Suburban

2020 Chevrolet Suburban

What is an SUV?

In modern marketing speak, crossovers and SUVs have become interchangeable. Historically, an SUV was built like a truck, with a separate body and a separate frame. This design typically has a rougher ride but it is easier to maintain and more durable over the long haul. Now, there are only about a dozen SUVs, and nearly all of them except the Jeep Wrangler are full-size SUVs based on trucks: Chevy Suburban, Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon, Cadillac Escalade; the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator; Toyota offers the Sequoia, Land Cruiser, and 4Runner as well as the Lexus GX and LX; Nissan sells the Armada and Infiniti QX80. Then there's the Mercedes-Benz G-Class. Back in the day, everything from the Ford Explorer to Nissan XTerra were built like trucks, until about 25 years ago, when the Toyota RAV4 joined the Jeep Grand Cherokee in having unibody, or car-based construction. It would be hard to mistake the RAV4 for the Grand Cherokee, and that could be another distinguishing trait of a bona fide SUV: it typically has a two-speed transfer case as part of its four-wheel-drive system. 

2020 Jeep Wrangler

2020 Jeep Wrangler

What is a crossover, then?

Crossovers are a cross between cars and traditional SUVs. Along with the SUVs mentioned above, they account for nearly 50% of all vehicles sold, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. They have a liftgate like a hatchback instead of a trunk. They ride taller than hatchbacks and provide better outward vision for drivers, which is one reason why they've become so popular. Almost all of the small and midsize crossover SUVs built on car platforms are quieter, more efficient, and in many cases, more cost effective for automakers. There is a lot of overlap among crossovers. The Subaru Outback, for example, started life as a wagon back in the mid-90s, before crossovers were a thing. Now, since it has grown over time, the feds designate it as an SUV, as does Subaru. The Subaru Crosstrek, by comparison, is marketed as a small SUV but the NHTSA and EPA classify it as a small wagon. It could just as easily be called a car. But it's a crossover. 

2020 Subaru Crosstrek

2020 Subaru Crosstrek

What happened to cars?

There are still cars! And they still account for about 30% of annual sales. While full-size sedans are out of fashion for now, there are still sedans (Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Camry) and coupes (Honda Civic, the German luxury automakers). Count sports cars like the Porsche 911 and hatchbacks like the Volkswagen Golf here as well. No matter how the market changes, those are still the most fun to drive.

Ultimately, it might be easiest to just divide them into cars and trucks, but how would we advise you on how to cross-shop that luxury mid-size crossover SUV with three rows?

Got a car-related or shopping question? We'll do our best to answer it! Send questions to news(at)TheCarConnection.com.

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