What is a crossover and how is it different from an SUV?
As if sifting through the hundreds of sport utility vehicles (SUVs) available to find one that suits your lifestyle wasn’t confusing enough, automakers are further muddying the waters, designating subcategories and sub-subcategories that have many buyers scratching their heads. Example: sub-compact utility vehicles such as the 2022 Chevy Trax vs. 2022 Kia Soul.
Isn’t a crossover the same as an SUV? you ask. Well no. Not exactly. But also, it depends. The terms are often used interchangeably in the smaller size categories, such as the subcompact and compact segments. It can quickly get confusing because the main difference between an SUV and a crossover is that an SUV is built on a body-on-frame truck platform and a crossover is built on a unibody platform. Smaller utility body styles do not use body-on-frame construction, but are still referred to as SUVs.
Instead, choosing and differentiating comes down to size, handling, off-road capability, and even towing and hauling capability. Crossovers tend to favor on-road driving, offering more car-like driving characteristics. Conversely, SUVs are bulkier and promote a more robust driving experience. If you’re looking for a subcompact ute, here’s how to figure out which is which.
Body-on-frame vs. unibody construction
One of the hallmarks of SUVs and crossovers is a higher ride height. Beyond that, they couldn’t be more different. In fact, crossovers have more in common with sedans and other passenger cars. To understand why, it’s important to distinguish the basic architecture of an SUV from that of a crossover. Bones are important because they affect everything from ride quality to fuel efficiency, and even how well they protect occupants in a crash.
Conventional SUVs incorporate body-on-frame construction. Also known as a ladder frame, frame-on-frame simply means that the body of the vehicle is mounted on a rigid chassis or frame. The frame supports most vehicle components, such as the engine, transmission, and axles. This is how some mid-size pickups and most full-size rigs are designed, and many larger SUVs today still incorporate body-on-frame. You won’t find a modern-day subcompact “SUV” with a body-on-frame.
Unibody construction is almost the complete opposite of body-on-frame, as the body and frame are one. The industry term for unibody construction is unibody, and automakers have moved to the unibody style for several reasons. First, the unibody construction is lighter, which facilitates improved performance and better fuel economy. That’s especially true now, as manufacturers are replacing traditional steel body panels with lighter versions made with materials like aluminum and carbon fiber.
SUVs with body-on-frame construction tend to have rear-wheel drive, while unibody crossovers are almost exclusively front-wheel-drive. Similarly, SUVs use four-wheel drive, not all-wheel drive, to send power to all four wheels. All crossovers with this capability use an all-wheel-drive system, which promotes better handling and is generally active all the time compared to a 4×4 shift-on-the-fly system. As an example, the Chevy Trax unibody subcompact is known for its car-like handling, and it comes in front- or all-wheel drive, not four-wheel drive.
SUV/Crossover functionality overlap
Over the past decade, automakers have embraced unibody construction on a widespread level, but some have not replaced the term SUV with the more technically accurate term, crossover. This means that vehicles called SUVs are probably built with a unibody architecture. This creates some confusion in a side-by-side comparison, as that was the only point of difference. So, as long as the terms crossover and SUV continue to be used interchangeably, size is best considered a more relevant distinguishing factor.
Other than the Jeep Wrangler, a handful of full-size luxury vehicles, and other specialty vehicles, all of the remaining body-on-frame SUVs fall into the large category (aka land yachts). Still, automakers seem determined to designate unibody utility vehicles as SUVs. Even Chevy calls the Trax a “small SUV” on its website.
Since automakers disagree on common naming conventions, buyers should do their research. A good start? Find out how it is built.
The 2022 Chevy Trax offers similar capabilities to a traditional SUV, so it makes sense that Chevy would still call it one. Its 48.4 cu.ft. of cargo space, available all-wheel drive, and 4×4-derived components, like skid plates and higher ground clearance, all give it an SUV vibe. This may explain why so many buyers are attracted to it. Still, the Trax is built with unibody construction, so it’ll ride more like a car and get better fuel economy ratings.
In short, if you follow conventional definitions, unibody crossovers and body-on-frame SUVs don’t have much in common beyond their boxy body styles and higher ride heights. SUV equals rugged, durable and off-road ready. Unibody is synonymous with fuel efficiency and a smoother ride.
Is it still an either/or either proposition? No, because there will always be capacity overlaps. And, since many buyers of budget subcompact crossovers want the best of both worlds – a car-like ride and the rugged looks and dimensions of an SUV – automakers will likely continue to use the terms interchangeably.
SAV, CUV and SAT, Oh My
It’s pretty annoying when someone uses the term crossover SUV (or crossover SUV) to describe a particular utility vehicle, but overzealous marketing teams and advertising agencies keep coming up with new names, like Sports Activity Vehicle or Crossover Utility Vehicle, to help a participant stand out. While this might be considered clever product marketing, it only adds to the confusion for shoppers. To simplify, start with two broad categories: SUV and crossover.
From there, the classification moves on to the subcategories. Within a subcategory are sub-subcategories. What is a sports activity vehicle (SAV)? It’s unknown, but in the taxonomy of subcategories and sub-subcategories, a SAV falls under the cross-subcategory. SAVs apparently combine SUV capability with sports car performance.
Even more confusing in the category is the multitude of new electric models flooding the market. An example of this is Chevy’s Bolt EUV. EUV stands for electric utility vehicle.
To avoid confusion, stick to conventional definitions and assume the vehicle is a crossover unless it has body-on-frame construction. This way you choose with your eyes wide open. It’s possible that U.S. drivers will eventually reach crossover fatigue, but the sales numbers don’t allow that to happen any time soon. This is why car manufacturers mostly abandon body-on-frame construction. It’s all about demand.
Because there is no universally accepted definition for the term SUV, be aware that automakers will likely incorporate it into their crossover product descriptions. Growing consumer confusion could eventually force the issue, prompting the industry to be more clear, but for now, research is your best friend. Instead, focus on the capabilities, dimensions and features of the vehicle.
The right fit
Ultimately, there is a driver for each vehicle with each category (and subcategory, etc.). Consider the subcompact crossover category, in which there are about 20 different options. Vehicles in this category, such as the Chevy Trax, are priced for first-time buyers. Most offer optional all-wheel drive, so your choice may come down to styling or even something more specific, like infotainment technology.
Unless you have big plans for disappearing into the wilderness for long weekends of climbing and fording, you probably don’t need an SUV. That said, people choose SUVs for different reasons. If you’re towing a big boat or RV, or you need three rows of seats and don’t want to lock your kids into tight spaces, big SUVs like the Suburban make sense.
For the rest of us, a crossover will do. Although they drive more like a passenger car, crossovers offer many advantages over their more rugged SUV descendants. From progressively collapsing “crumple zones” that keep occupants safe to impressive fuel economy ratings, unibody construction just makes sense. Plus, since crossovers come in a variety of shapes, sizes and price points, you’ll have no trouble finding exactly what you want from the wide array of options.