The sport utility vehicle or off-roader (commonly known in the United States by the abbreviation SUV) is a type of vehicle that combines the load-hauling and passenger-carrying capacity of a large station wagon or minivan with features designed for off-road driving.
SUVs have the general shape of a station wagon, but have a taller setup due to the more upright seating stance and a suspension designed for giving ground clearance for off-road driving. Typically, all four wheels can be driven, unlike most conventional cars in which only the front or rear wheels receive drive. The design also allows for a large engine compartment, and many SUVs have large V-6 or V-8 engines. In countries where fuel is more expensive, buyers often opt for diesel engines, which are more fuel efficient (and diesel fuel itself is often much cheaper).
Outside of the United States, these vehicles are known simply as four-wheel-drives, often abbreviated to "4WD" or "4x4". In Australia, "Utility", or "Ute", refers an automobile with a flatbed rear, typically seating two passengers and is often used by tradesmen, though is typically not a 4WD vehicle.
Descended from commercial and military vehicles such as the Jeep and Land Rover, they have been popular for many years with rural buyers due to their off-road abilities. However, in the last 25 years, and even more in the last decade, they have become popular with urban buyers. Consequently, more modern SUVs often come laden with luxury features and some, such as the BMW X5, the Acura MDX, and the Toyota RAV-4, have adopted lower ride heights and more car-like suspension settings to better reflect their typical use (overwhelmingly, for normal on-road driving).
Some private SUV owners do indeed take their vehicles off the road to explore places otherwise unreachable by vehicle or for the sheer enjoyment of the driving. In Australia, Europe and the U.S. at least, many 4WD clubs have been formed for this purpose. There are also clubs specialising in classic 4WD vehicles. An examples of these would be the Haflinger and Pinzgauer all-wheel-drive vehicles originally made by Steyr-Puch in Graz, Austria.
Modified SUVs are also raced, most famously in the Paris-Dakar Rally, and the Australian Safari.
SUVs have become popular in US for a variety of reasons. Owners point to their large, comfortable cabins (which have nearly the passenger and equipment-carrying capabilities of minivans), perceived safety, and the recreational possibilities of the vehicles. Additionally, most large SUVs have far greater towing capacities than conventional cars, and in the case of trailerable boats have superior abilities to launch and retrieve those boats from slippery boat ramps (and, indeed, from many places where no made ramp exists).
Undoubtedly, though, some of their success is due to their rugged, powerful image, a substantial factor for many people who might more logically choose a more economical and cheaper minivan or station wagon. Vehicle manufacturers have been able to sell the image of SUVs effectively, with per-vehicle profits substantially higher than other automobiles. The simple design and often outdated technology (by passenger car standards) often makes the vehicles much cheaper to make than comparably-priced passenger vehicles.
The explosive growth in SUV ownership has attracted a large number of critics, mainly against the effect the vehicles have on other drivers and the environment, but also on the basis that the perceived benefits to the vehicle owner are illusory or exaggerated.
Safety is one common point of criticism. Conventional automobiles are constructed by a method called unit-body construction, whereby a steel skeleton absorbs the impacts of collisions in "crumple zones." Most SUVs, on the other hand, are constructed much more simply; many are mostly just rectangular steel frames which provide a comparatively low level of safety. According to G. C. Rapaille, a psychological consultant to automakers (as cited in Gladwell, 2004), many consumers feel safer in SUVs simply because their ride height makes "[their passengers] higher and dominate and look down [sic]. That you can look down is psychologically a very powerful notion." This may lead to consumers' false perception of safety (Gladwell, 2004). However, some SUVs have designs based on conventional automobiles; the Lexus RX 330 (Motor Trend), RX 400h, and Acura MDX are three examples. As a result, these SUVs may circumvent the aforementioned safety issue.
The high center of gravity of SUVs makes them more prone to rollover accidents than shorter vehicles, and their size, stiffness, and high bumpers make them more likely to damage other cars and drivers in a collision. Consumer Reports has found a few SUVs unacceptable in recent years due to their rollover risk. The considerable weight of the larger SUVs (such as the Chevrolet Suburban and the Ford Excursion) makes collisions with cars much less dangerous for the SUV and much more dangerous for the car.
The recent popularity of SUVs is one reason the U.S. population consumes more gasoline than in previous years. SUVs are as a class much less fuel efficient than comparable passenger vehicles. The main reason is that SUVs are classified by the U.S. government as light trucks, and thus are not subject to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards of passenger vehicles. As there is little incentive to change the design, SUVs have numerous fuel-inefficient features. The high profile of SUVs increases wind resistance. The heavy suspension and large engines make the vehicles heavy. SUVs also often come with tires designed for off-road traction rather than low rolling resistance. The more car-like SUVs tend to have a somewhat lower profile and performance tires, but often still have large, fuel-inefficient engines.
For the above reasons, particularly the additional environmental impact and risk to other vehicles that they pose, SUVs are the subject of much criticism.
(Complete information on the Motor Trend reference is unavailable. However, the article was Motor Trend's announcement of the Lexus RX 300 as the 1999 SUV of the Year.)