What is an SUV? The meaning of SUV explained

If you’re in the market for a new car, it’s likely you will have encountered the term SUV. So, here we explain what it means and where the term comes from...

What is an SUV?

The process of Americanisation isn’t entirely new to the UK, and that’s noticeable by the sheer number of McDonald’s, Five Guys and Taco Bell restaurants you’ll find on UK high streets. 

However, it would appear our American cousins have been influencing the way we refer to our cars as well, because the term SUV – which stands for Sports Utility Vehicle and originates from the US  – is now commonly used to describe larger, four-wheel drive vehicles that we would have typically called a 4x4 (four-by-four) in the UK.

In the past, 4x4s – or SUVs – were more agricultural in nature. Cars, such as the original Range Rover, for example, were primarily designed for off-road use. However, they quickly became popular with families, driving their cars on the road and enjoying their spacious interiors and high-driving positions.

Range Rover Classic with Jeep Cherokee driving

As a result, the SUV market grew steadily throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s. They’ve also boomed more recently, spearheaded by the likes of the Nissan Qashqai and Ford Kuga; today they’re one of the most popular types of car. In 2023 alone, seven out of the 10 best-selling cars in the UK were SUVs, with the Ford Puma taking the number one spot.

Our exclusive research shows that factors such as interior space, the driving position and standard equipment are the main reasons why drivers now choose an SUV. It’s worth noting that running costs also play a big part, because SUVs aren’t as expensive to run as they once were, with many being powered by fuel-sipping petrol, diesel and hybrid engines. The Toyota Yaris Cross, for example, is the most efficient car we’ve ever put through our Real MPG fuel economy test, having achieved 60.1mpg on the combined cycle.  

What is the difference between an SUV and a hatchback?

The main difference between an SUV and a hatchback is the height and ride height of the car. In most cases, an SUV has a taller, larger body and more ground clearance than a hatchback, which ultimately gives them more space inside and a higher driving position. They almost always have a boxy stance and rugged looks (such as roof bars or plastic wheel arch cladding).

Blue VW Tiguan front left driving

Do all SUVs have four-wheel drive?

No. A lot of small SUVs and family SUVs – such as the Ford Puma and Nissan Qashqai – are front-wheel drive only. If you want four-wheel drive, it’s worth checking whether the car is available with this feature. 

Larger, more luxurious SUVs – such as the Audi Q7 – are commonly offered with four-wheel drive as standard. In most cases, these cars operate in two-wheel drive mode for normal driving to help boost fuel economy. When the car does detect a loss of traction, though, the four-wheel drive system will then automatically engage, and power is sent to the appropriate wheel. Some cars, such as the Subaru Outback, always operate in four-wheel drive mode, but such vehicles are relatively rare.

Types of SUV

There are many different types of SUV to cater for different needs. Some are small, affordable and focused towards urban environments, while others are large, luxurious and designed for munching up the motorway miles. 

Best small SUVsBlue Nissan Qashqai front cornering

The Nissan Qashqai was the car that helped coin the term ‘crossover SUV’. It was one of the first cars to combine a high-driving position with a small body and car-like driving dynamics, which ultimately differentiated it from larger, more rugged SUVs. Other factors, including its cheaper running costs and competitive price, helped boost its popularity, and cars such as the Ford Kuga quickly followed suit.

Advantages of an SUV


Most SUVs are more practical than their hatchback counterparts, offering more spacious interiors and bigger boots. The raised ride height can also make it easier for getting in and out of, as well as easier for loading items in and out.


Typically, modern SUVs have very good Euro NCAP safety ratings, and the high driving position can also give a feeling of security behind the wheel. However, it’s worth noting that not all SUVs have good safety ratings, and many smaller family cars offer equally good levels of safety. As with any car, it's worth checking the safety rating before you buy.

Audi Q5 Euro NCAP crash test

Off-road ability

Some SUVs offer impressive off-road ability, particularly those with four-wheel drive and good ground clearance. Some cars, such as the Land Rover Defender, have electronic systems to help the car adapt to various surfaces, while others, such as the Jeep Wrangler, have more traditional mechanical systems for tackling equally challenging conditions. Some SUVs, on the other hand, are no more capable than family hatchbacks, with many being designed for road use.


SUVs can be great for towing, especially cars with strong engines, four-wheel drive and dedicated towing aids. Large door mirrors and good all-round visibility can also help with this. However, it’s worth noting not all SUVs are good for lugging around heavy trailers or caravans, so it’s worth checking the maximum towing weights of a vehicle before you buy.

Tow Car Awards 2023 - Land Rover Defender towing rear

Disadvantages of an SUV


SUVs are often more expensive to buy than smaller cars, such as family cars or estate cars. For example, a Volkswagen Tiguan eTSI Life is 20% more expensive than a Volkswagen Golf with the same engine and trim.

Running costs

SUVs can be bigger, heavier and less aerodynamic than smaller, lower hatchbacks or estate cars. For example, a Ford Kuga 1.5-litre petrol has a net weight of 1579 kg, while a Ford Focus 1.0-litre petrol has a net weight of 1330 kg. As a result of this, SUVs can be slightly less economical – but the differences can be very small, so search our Real MPG independent economy tests to see what you can expect in the real world. 

Grey Cupra Formentor driving past a Shell petrol station

Other consumables, such as tyres, brakes and suspension components, are also used up more frequently on heavier cars such as SUVs.


Large SUVs, especially those with big petrol engines, can be inefficient and thirsty, which means they emit more CO2 emissions than smaller SUVs. On the contrary, some small SUVs are very efficient, and are not much different to small car equivalents when it comes to CO2 emissions. Many new SUVs are available with hybrid engines, too, which helps reduce emissions and fuel consumption even further. 

Driving dynamics

SUVs have a higher centre of gravity than smaller cars because of their taller shapes and higher ground clearance, so some are not as dynamically capable in the corners as lower equivalents. However, there are many sports SUVs which contradict this theory; the Ford Puma ST stays very planted in the corners and is brilliant fun to drive down a twisty road.

What’s the best SUV you can buy?

Red Kia Sportage front cornering

At the time of writing, the best SUV you can buy is the Kia Sportage. We named it our 2024 Family SUV of the Year on account of its smart interior, spacious back seats, big boot and tidy driving dynamics. There are also several engines to choose from, including petrol, mild hybrid, hybrid or plug-in hybrid options. To find out more about the Sportage, you can read our in-depth Kia Sportage review.

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