SUV OR CUV? Here's how you can tell the difference

SUV or CUV? If you're not sure, you're not alone: not only are there a lot from which to choose, but with automakers often using the terms interchangeably, it can be tough even to know what's what.

  • Detail of an automatic gear shifter in a new, modern car. Modern car interior with close-up of automatic transmission and cockpit background

SUV or CUV? If you’re not sure, you’re not alone: not only are there a lot from which to choose, but with automakers often using the terms interchangeably, it can be tough even to know what’s what.

In their earliest days, sport-utility vehicles – SUV for short – were basically closed-in trucks: noisy, boxy shells with metal door panels and vinyl seats, meant primarily for work. In contrast, automakers today offer some of their most luxurious vehicles in this segment.

Originally, almost all SUVs were based on pickup trucks, with body-on-frame configuration and rear-wheel or four-wheel drive. Some still are, such as Ford Explorer and Nissan Armada: this strong construction helps give them maximum towing capacity.

Some also use that inherent strength, combined with trail-specific suspension, for superior off-road capability: think Jeep Wrangler, Toyota 4Runner or Hummer H3, for example.

Most mid-size and compact SUVs are built more like cars, with a “unibody” that combines frame and body components, and they’re usually front- or all-wheel-drive. This makes them lighter, smoother and generally more fuel-efficient.

Minivans are built similarly, but with sliding doors. They originally became popular because they could carry as many people as truck-based vans, but it was easier to get in with their lower height, and they handled like cars. The newest segment is CUV, for crossover utility vehicle.

It can be confusing, because manufacturers use terms as it suits them, but it generally refers to a vehicle that isn’t as tall as an SUV – more of a car on steroids. You’ll also sometimes hear new terms, such as BMW’s “sports activity vehicle,” or SAV – no difference but in the name.

No matter what they’re called, SUVs and CUVs share a similar configuration: the cargo area is part of the cabin, rather than a separate trunk as on a car. It’s accessed by a top-hinged liftgate, or a side-hinged version that swings open like a door.

These vehicles gained popularity for a number of reasons: their interior space, three rows of seats in some of them, and perceived safety advantages, including a taller vantage point to see over cars.

Maximizing interior space while not bulking up the exterior is an ongoing challenge for designers, and the vehicle’s construction plays as important a role as its interior components.

A key trick is “skinning” the interior as thinly as possible – keeping door pads and handles within the door, and moving the instrument panel as far away from the driver as possible, according to Phillip Zak, chief designer for Hyundai North America.

“We use most of the same design tricks as in a car,” Zak says. “You engineer the seats to see how thin you can make them, but still keep them safe and comfortable.”

The biggest difference from a car, Zak says, is in the seating position: SUVs and CUVs have a higher “hip point,” which determines how high you sit in the vehicle. “People like the hip point higher, for more visibility. This means the occupants sit more vertically, with their legs closer to them. They don’t need as much space because they’re not sprawling out, like they will in a car when they’re sitting lower.”

With the legs in close, knee room is important in the second row, and so designers hollow out the backs of the front seats. Having adequate space under the front seats also lets second-row riders slip their feet under for extra room.

Three-row vehicles present special challenges, and Zak admits they will always be a compromise.

“You do the best you can,” he says, citing access to them as the major problem. “We try to find the best way to fold the (second-row) seats to get to them. They’re limited use, because they’re over the wheel housings, but we try for the most efficient use of space, such as bumping up the headliner.”

To do this, designers try to position the second- and third-row seats between the structural beams in the roof, so the headliner can be tucked up between them for more headroom.

Engineering plays a vital role in interior space utility. The rear suspension design is a major factor in ride comfort and handling, but some intrude into the cabin and affect cargo capacity.

Power sunroof motors must fit in the roof, but if possible, they’re moved to the rear where they steal less headroom. If necessary, the glass slides back on top of the roof, rather than inside it.

Above all, comfort is the primary objective. “Some companies make the seat cushions shorter, which makes the interior look bigger,” Zak says. “That may get you into the vehicle, but it’s not comfortable. You won’t be back to buy vehicle number two.”

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