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Coming to terms with SUVs

By Paul Lienert / Special to Autos Insider

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Fifty years ago, life was pretty easy for industry analysts. The auto companies built and sold cars in two basic sizes--big and small. They also made trucks. End of story.
When the imports arrive in force in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and Detroit countered with its first wave of "compacts," the size-class definitions started to evolve. A new term--"intermediate," also known as "mid-size"--was added in the Sixties. The fuel crunch in the early Seventies popularized yet another emerging classification: "subcompact." You could split hairs even further, with some analysts referring to the smallest vehicles, such as the Suzuki Swift, as "minicompacts."
I always thought the Europeans had a much simpler vehicle-classification system, with the smallest cars referred to as A-class (bearing no relationship to the Mercedes-Benz series of the same name), ranging up to the full-size (E) and luxury (F) categories.
So much for size. Now it's body type that's beginning to throw the researchers and analytical geeks. Until recently, there was no big problem classifying the basic vehicle types--coupes, sedans, convertibles, hatchbacks, wagons, vans and pickups. That is, until the advent of and subsequent upsurge in "sport-utility vehicles."
SUV. Once clear-cut, when most of these vehicles were simple derivatives of pickup trucks, it's become a nebulous term with no concise definition.
Two other related terms have surfaced to describe new hybrid (there's another ambiguous adjective) vehicle types, as the "SUV" segment has been subdivided into a bewildering variety of niches.
"Crossover" has come to denote any SUV-like product that has some characteristics of a station wagon, a hatchback or even a pickup, such as the Chevrolet Avalanche and the Subaru Baja (although the latter two vehicles also have been described as "sport-utility trucks," or SUTs).
To further muddy the analytical waters, trade publications such as Automotive News have been pushing another term--"sportwagons"--to denote car-based crossovers with tall roofs and some SUV styling cues. Yikes!
Here's an amusing, albeit somewhat troublesome footnote to the issue of imprecise terminology. The bottom line is, all this gobbledygook don't mean squat to the consumer. Throw any industry jargon you want at a buyer--crossover, hybrid, sportwagon, SUT, what have you--and you'll usually be rewarded with a blank stare.
Funny thing is, they look at a Pontiac Aztek--which, frankly, I'd have trouble pigeonholing into any of those aforementioned slots--and most consumers see and say "SUV!" I think folks out there in what we industry types half-jokingly refer to as the "real world" may be having a little more trouble with the new Pontiac Vibe, in terms of precisely classifying it. But they sure as heck know what it does and whether or not it fits their lifestyles and budgets.
But it would be really helpful to all the designers, product planners and marketing strategists--not to mention the advertising copywriters--if we as an industry could take the time to come up with some more precise and specific language to describe these wacky and wonderful new products that are being foisted on an unsuspecting public.
I've given this subject some thought (clearly, too much time spent on trans-Pacific flights), and would like to suggest that we divide the whole unwieldy SUV segment into three or four clearly defined subsegments. Here goes:
Sport Utility Vehicles (SUV): Basically derivatives of pickup trucks, the term SUV would refer mainly to more traditional body-on-frame models, such as the Ford Explorer and the Chevrolet Tahoe, as well as unitized models such as the Ford Escape that are designed to resemble conventional SUVs. Other vehicles I'd lump in this category: Suzuki Grand Vitara, Jeep Wrangler, Nissan Xterra, Toyota Land Cruiser.
Sport Utility Wagons (SUW): Vehicles with SUV-like styling cues that also display some characteristics of station wagons, including taller roofs and roomy cargo bays. Obvious choices include such wagon-based models as the Volvo Cross Country and the Audi Allroad, as well as the upcoming Ford CrossTrainer. But I would also classify as SUWs such products as the Subaru Forester, the Saturn Vue, the Toyota Highlander, the Honda Pilot, the BMW X5 and the Cadillac SRX.
Crossover Utility Vehicles (CUV): Vehicles with SUV-like styling cues that have more in common with hatchbacks than station wagons, but still defy easy categorization. Here I'd lump products such as the Aztek and the Vibe, the Honda Element, the Toyota RAV4 and the Hyundai Santa Fe (although one could make a good case for the Santa Fe as more of a conventional SUV). I'm a little conflicted about vehicles such as the Acura MDX and the Honda CRV, which could be considered as either SUWs or CUVs.
Multi-Activity Vehicles (MAV): Vehicles that have stronger ties to minivans than to SUVs, in terms of styling and packaging, but still fall outside of the traditional boundaries. I'm thinking in terms of the Buick Rendezvous, the Chrysler Pacifica and even the Renault Megane Scenic--all vehicles based on front-wheel-drive car platforms that also come with a four-wheel-drive option and clearly are intended as alternatives to conventional wagons and vans.
Confusing? You bet. Easier to figure out than the current jumbled-up system? Probably not. But let's at least get some dialogue started, and see if we can't pin this SUV monster down to earth.
Once we get it thoroughly sorted, we then might even be able to explain it all to the consumer.

Paul Lienert is editor and publisher of and Global Auto Insider

2,474 Posts
Interesting that he did not classify t the Honda Pilot and the MDX in the same group. These two are so similar that the MDX is just a luxury version of the Pilot.
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