These days it seems that many people don’t know the difference between a traditional sport utility vehicle (SUV) and a crossover. It’s not just average consumers that we are referring to; even salespeople and automakers have a tendency to blur the two terms. Part of the reason for this is that the acronym “SUV” is now being used to describe just about any vehicle that offers all-wheel-drive and decent ground clearance.
During a time when the economy was restless and fuel prices mounted, consumers became more concerned with fuel efficiency. Large, cumbersome, and inefficient vehicles were negatively affected. Automakers shifted emphasis to vehicles that combined the usefulness of a truck and the economy of a car.
When an automaker is marketing a vehicle, it chooses one category or the other based on what the market needs and what vehicles it intends to compete with. Automakers and dealerships may even bank on the fact that many consumers are not informed, so the vehicle style can become almost interchangeable depending on the situation. However, SUVs and crossovers, by definition, have marked differences.
Traditional SUVs and crossovers are based on different platforms. Simply put, if a vehicle is based on a truck’s platform it’s an SUV, and if it is based on a car’s platform, it’s a crossover. The official distinction is based on the vehicle’s construction. An SUV utilizes body-on-frame construction. A crossover is a unibody vehicle.
Body-on-frame construction was the first method of vehicle building. It is defined as a body mounted to a separate frame. The Ford Model T was built this way, based on the influence of horse-drawn carriages. For years, automakers cut costs by simply mounting different body designs over the same frame. Today, very few vehicles (aside from heavy-duty commercial vehicles, trucks, off-road vehicles, and some large SUVs) still use body-on-frame construction. This method allows for greater torsional flexing, preferred in off-road vehicles, and it can be more easily repaired, which is helpful for fleets. Traditional SUVs with body-on-frame construction are also excellent for towing.
Unibody construction is short for “unitized” body or “unitary” body construction. In this method, the vehicle’s body and frame are built together as a single structure. Automakers began using the method more regularly in the 1960s. With the advent of computer-aided design and innovations in manufacturing technology, it became the preferred method. This method produces lighter vehicles and creates more passenger and cargo space. Unibody vehicles tend to be safer, due to built-in crumple zones. However, damage to the vehicles are more substantial, and expensive repairs must be done by a trained technician with specialized equipment.
Let’s look at some of the most popular and highly-rated SUVs and crossovers in today’s market to see which is the best fit for you.
Traditional body-on-frame SUV sales comprised about 10 percent of total passenger utility vehicle sales in 2015. For 2016, there are only 18 body-on-frame SUV models on the market, with the top three sellers being the Jeep Wrangler, the Toyota 4Runner, and the Chevrolet Tahoe. Of all available body-on-frame SUVs, these three models achieve the best EPA fuel efficiency. Wrangler sales more than double those of any other body-on-frame SUV, capturing nearly a third of total sales in the segment.
The Jeep Wrangler, No. 15 in compact SUVs, and the Toyota 4Runner, No. 17 in midsize SUVs, are the only smaller, more fuel-efficient body-on-frame passenger vehicles within our rankings. Nearly all of the other traditional SUVs in our rankings are categorized as large SUVs or luxury large SUVs.
The Chevrolet Tahoe tops our list of large SUVs, with the GMC Yukon ranked No. 2 and the Ford Expedition and Toyota Sequoia tied at No. 3. The Chevrolet Suburban is also on the list in the fifth spot. All five vehicles share very similar scores and price tags, with the Sequoia being notably less fuel-efficient than the other vehicles.
Our list of crossover SUVs is comprised of the top 39 unibody passenger utility vehicles, regardless of size. The Nissan Murano and the Toyota Highlander are tied for No. 1 in crossover SUVs. Both also rank No. 1 in midsize SUVs. The Murano has two rows of seats and the Highlander has three rows. Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid also ranks at the top of our crossover rankings, along with two offerings from Honda. The midsize Honda Pilot and the compact Honda CR-V, round out the top five. Aside from the Highlander Hybrid, all of these vehicles start at or below $30,000.
The luxury crossover SUVs list ranks 35 models that are generally above $55,000. The Tesla Model X ranks No. 1 in luxury crossover SUVs. Other top choices are the No. 2 Audi Q7, and the Jaguar F-Pace, Porsche Cayenne Hybrid, and Porsche Macan, all of which are tied for No. 3.
If you are looking for a very large vehicle, or priorities include towing or off-roading, a traditional SUV may be a good fit. Also, if you are a consumer that prefers trucks over cars, refer to the above list of traditional SUVs. Otherwise, there is a myriad of options available in the crossover segment that will fit almost every need while providing better safety and fuel-efficiency. Use our rankings and reviews to help find the best SUV for you.