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The Evolution and Rise of the SUV - Reference Mark

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 8/22/2018 Motor Trend Staff

© Ford

It used to be that sport-utility vehicles were for workmanlike pursuits—a nicer version of a pickup, something to carry your horse tack or fishing tackle, something for the rancher to drive when helping out the hired hands on the Ponderosa. The emphasis was on enclosed utility. But it was still essentially a truck.

And although utility still remains a key SUV selling point, today these vehicles have more to do with hauling children, hockey pads, and bags of mulch. SUVs have become the mainstream people hauler, replacing the family sedan and even the minivan (although, to be fair, the modern minivan still has far better cargo carrying capacity than a similar-sized SUV).

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The SUV is a lifestyle choice for the glamping survivalist. It's also a mode of convenience for aging, aching baby boomers who find it far easier to lean back into the high hip-point of a crossover vehicle than to flop into the bucket seat of a traditional sedan.

a car parked in front of a truck© Motor Trend Staff

How much has the market swung away from cars toward SUVs? Check out the chart. It's almost a one-for-one volume switch, when citing three key years over the past decade—2007 being the last boom year before the Great Recession, 2014 the first big year for auto sales after it, and 2017's record sales pace. In the past three years alone, passenger car sales have dropped by 1.9 million units while SUV sales have surged by 2.3 million units. (Intriguingly, sales of pickups have remained fairly consistent over that time.) Some automakers (Ford, FCA) are so alarmed that they're trading out car assembly lines to build more SUVs.

a screenshot of a cell phone© Motor Trend Staff

But let's look at some of what is being built and described as an SUV. Toyota markets the C-HR as an SUV, as Nissan does the Kicks, but neither comes with the staple of all-wheel drive. In fact, the C-HR has a lower ground clearance than the Corolla sedan. Both are built on car-based unibody platforms (Toyota on the TNGA shared with the Prius, Nissan on the Versa econobox). Essentially, these are tall hatchbacks, not off-roaders.

The concept scales from there: Ford took some stick when it moved the Explorer from a truck platform to a unibody one (and endured snickers when it said it was just as capable off-road), but folks are still buying the Explorer in droves because it carries those three magic letters. The same will likely happen for the reborn Chevrolet Blazer, once a truck-based off-road beast, now running on beefed-up underpinnings shared with the dowdy Malibu sedan.

We get lots of letters when we select a car-based crossover as SUV of the Year (as we did last year with the capable, smartly packaged, Civic-based Honda CR-V). Purists howl that unless the vehicle is body-on-frame, has a 4x4 transfer case, and is suspended by solid axles and leaf springs with sufficient ground clearance to surmount Moab, it has no right to be called an SUV. These readers might have a point, except that even the old-timey "real" SUV manufacturers (we're talking to you, Land Rover) have changed with the times by moving to monocoque platforms, independent front and rear suspensions, and variations on the all-wheel-drive theme.

a red car driving on a mountain road© Motor Trend Staff

Now we are seeing the next stage of the evolution of the SUV—the Supercar Utility Vehicle. In our high-performance SUV comparison, we lined up the five most powerful crossovers on the planet and had them blast down the California and Arizona desert roads at felony speeds (and engage in some light off-roading to prove worthy of their classification). These weren't just any ordinary SUVs. These are five vehicles that redefine "family hauler." Carpool-to-60 in 3.2 seconds. When the lowest horsepower in the pack is 440 (in the Porsche, of all things), you know things are getting ridiculous.

We didn't do this test just for kicks—although that was a side benefit. We are tracking the psychographics of the auto market, which will be reflected in our journalism and testing. In next month's Best Driver's Car issue, the winner of this super-SUV comparison test will be included in the field—the first time a sport-utility vehicle has competed alongside world-class supercars and sport sedans. That's a big change. 

In the meantime, sit back and enjoy perusing the seemingly endless supply of SUVs in our 2019 SUV Buyer's Guide. We're sure you can find one that works for you.

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