A sport utility vehicle (SUV) is a type of vehicle. It is built to be a rugged vehicle that combines cargo and passenger carrying capacity. Originally SUVs were not designed to be fuel efficient but modern designs are getting much better fuel mileage. In 2014 US sales of SUVs were over five million vehicles.
The typical SUV is a two-box design. Unlike a pickup truck that has an open cargo box the SUV has an enclosed cargo/passenger compartment. It has upright seating for five to seven passengers. It has an open interior with no trunk. It is often built on a pickup truck chassis for towing capacity, and usually has four wheel drive. Only about 15% of SUV owners ever go off road. According to Jeep Wrangler brand manager Kevin Metz, 60% of Jeep Wrangler owners go off road while around 80% of Rubicon owners do.
A similar class of vehicle is the crossover (CUV), but it is built on a car chassis. Often it uses a Unibody chassis instead of the heavier body-on-frame design of SUVs. Crossover vehicles often have all-wheel-drive instead of four-wheel drive. Crossovers are usually lighter than SUVs and get better fuel mileage. In general, when referring to an SUV, many include crossovers. However it is incorrect to refer to an SUV on a truck frame as a crossover.
SUVs come from designs that were originally military. SUVs are descended from the World War II 1/4 ton reconnaissance vehicle, better known as the Jeep. The first Jeep was built by the American Bantam Car Company. Because Bantam was too small to manufacture all the vehicles needed for the army, Willys-Overland and Ford were given the army contracts. The Willys vehicle was designated Willys MB while the Ford vehicles were called Ford GPW. There was very little difference between the two and both were made from 1941 to 1945. They were the most widely produced military vehicle during World War II. American soldiers loved their Jeeps and many wanted to buy one when they returned home. Willys began producing a civilian model called the Jeep CJ immediately after the war. These were built from 1946 to 1986.
In 1948 British Rover Car Company (Land Rover) built its first vehicle for rural terrain based on a war surplus Jeep frame. It had an all-aluminum body and could be repaired in the field. British police forces, the military and other services found them ideal for off-road and as estate vehicles. In 1970 the Range Rover line was launched and became the luxury SUV vehicles they are today.
In the 1960s Ford introduced the Ford Bronco. International Harvester Company introduced the International Harvester Scout and Chevrolet brought out the K5 Blazer. Pickup trucks and SUVs combined only sold about 20% of all vehicles in the US in 1965. The rising gas prices and dependence on foreign oil triggered Congress to pass the first Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in 1975. The law required car manufacturers to double fuel economy in the next ten years. But light trucks (including SUVs) were given lower standards by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The 1980s saw smaller lighter SUVs such as the Chevrolet S-10 Blazer, the Jeep Cherokee (XJ) and the Ford Bronco II. They were compact SUVs powered by smaller, more fuel efficient engines. The SUVs of the 1980s attracted a different kind of buyer. They wanted to be seen as a rugged, masculine, outdoors-type. But less than 10 percent of users during this period actually drove off road. By the mid-1980s concerns were rising over SUV safety. The CBS News program 60 Minutes showed footage of a Jeep CJ rolling over. Other tests showed the Ford Bronco II could tip onto two wheels in turns as slow as 20 miles per hour (32 km/h).
Safety concerns continued through the 1990s. In May 2000, the (NHTSA) contacted Ford and Firestone. There was a high incidence of tire failure on Ford Explorers, Mercury Mountaineers, and Mazda Navajos fitted with Firestone tires. There were Accidents involving Firestone-equipped Explorers resulting in at least 174 deaths and more than 700 injuries. Ford blamed Firestone and Firestone blamed Ford. In the end, Firestone's reputation suffered more than Ford's.
But by 2005 gas prices had risen to $3 per gallon. It was gas prices and not safety that caused the manufacturers to make significant changes. The first CUV or crossover vehicle, the Toyota RAV4 had been sold in the US since 1996. But with higher gas prices CUVs became more popular. They were smaller, lighter and could share engines and chassis designs with existing models. The Lexus RX and the BMW X5 followed along with other models. In 2006 Ford changed to a unibody CUV chassis for its Ford Explorer vehicle. By then CUV sales made up half of the overall SUV market. By 2012 CUV sales were higher than SUV sales. While CUVs are not designed for off road use like an SUV, they are still very popular. Where the stereotypical Soccer mom started out driving a minivan she was now associated with the CUV.
There are many forms of off-roading which are centered around SUVs.
- Rockcrawling is a popular off-road sport. Vehicles used for rock crawling are usually modified with different tires, suspension and gear ratios. Rock crawling takes time to learn and can be very expensive. Most rock crawlers have full-time jobs and many get sponsors to help with the costs. The object is to get the vehicle across difficult to near-impossible rocks and terrain without completely destroying the vehicle.
- The Camel Trophy competition (1981–2000) was an annual 4x4 competition. The first Camel trophy was held on the Trans-Amazonian Highway, a 4,000 kilometres (2,500 mi) road across Brazil. Over the next eight years, the expeditions crossed Sumatra, Papua New Guinea, Zaire, Brazil, Borneo, Australia, Madagascar and Sulawesi before returning to the Amazon. After the first year the endurance event came to be dominated by specially equipped Land Rover vehicles. The Camel Trophy Owners Club is a group of people who collect ex-Camel Trophy vehicles.
- Jeep Jamborees have been held since 1953. Jeep Jamborees are off-road excursions that travel historic and scenic trails across the US. In 2013 alone there were 32 events in various locations. All models of Jeep enter the events and drivers range from first time off-roaders to seasoned veterans.
- Easter Jeep Safari is an annual event held at Moab, Utah. It has been held every year since 1967. It runs for nine days ending on Easter Sunday and can have up to 1,000 vehicles of all kinds; not just Jeeps. It uses up to 40 trails in the Moab area. Trails are rated from easy to difficult.
- King of the Hammers is an a one-day 200+ mile endurance off-road race. It combines desert racing and rock crawling. This race is held in February on Means Dry Lake at Johnson Valley, California USA. 2015 will be the 9th annual King of the Hammers event. The vehicles are extremely modified and for off-road use only.
There are many reasons why SUVs have become popular. One reason is the comfort of their large cabins. Many models can carry almost as much as a minivan. Another reason is the driver still sits higher than other cars and SUVs with truck frames can be among the heavier vehicles on the highway. Their size gives them an image of safety. Men aren't the only targets of SUV and CUV ads. For example, some ads for the Subaru Forester are deliberately aimed at women buyers. Roughly 35 to 40 percent of SUV buyers are women. Ads commonly show SUVs driving across boulders or perched on a mountain peak. Advertisers know that one important reason many people buy SUVs is image.
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