A sport utility vehicle (SUV) is a generic marketing term for a vehicle similar to a station wagon, but built on a light-truck chassis. Usually equipped with four-wheel drive for on- or off-road ability, and with some pretension or ability to be used as an off-road vehicle, some SUVs include the towing capacity of a pickup truck with the passenger-carrying space of a minivan or large sedan. Since SUVs are considered light trucks and often share the same platforms of pick-ups, they are regulated less strictly than passenger cars under the two laws in the United States, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act for fuel economy, and the Clean Air Act for emissions.
The term is not used in all countries, and out-with North America the terms "off-road vehicle", "four-wheel drive" or "four-by-four" (abbreviated to "4WD" or "4x4") or simply use of the brand name to describe the vehicle like "Jeep" or "Land Rover" are more common. However, not all SUVs have four-wheel drive capabilities. Conversely, not all four-wheel-drive passenger vehicles are SUVs. Off-road vehicle is a broad class of vehicles, built primarily for off-road use. However, this distinction is often not made by the general public and the media. Although some SUVs have off-road capabilities, they often play only a secondary role, and SUVs often do not have the ability to switch among two-wheel and four-wheel-drive high gearing and four-wheel-drive low gearing. While auto makers tout an SUV's off-road prowess with advertising and naming, the daily use of SUVs is largely on paved roads and in urban areas. Such use causes the term SUV to be a denigrating term by owners of "real" off-road vehicles.
Extremely popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the SUV's popularity has since declined. Due to high oil prices and a declining economy since the mid-2000s, manufacturers have responded to buyers' complaints. The traditional truck-based SUV is gradually being supplanted by a new vehicle type, the crossover SUV, which uses an automobile platform for lighter weight and better fuel efficiency, as a response to much of the criticism of sport utility vehicles.
Most SUVs are designed with an engine compartment, a combined passenger and cargo compartment, and no dedicated trunk such as in a station wagon body. Most mid-size and full-size SUVs have three rows of seats with a cargo area directly behind the last row of seats.
SUVs are known for high ground clearance, upright, boxy body, and high H-point. This can make them more likely to roll over due to their high center of gravity. Bodies of SUVs have recently become more aerodynamic, but the sheer size and weight keeps their fuel economy poor.
Early SUVs were descendants from commercial and military vehicles such as the World War II Jeep and Land Rover. SUVs have been popular for many years with rural buyers due to their off-road capabilities.
The earliest examples of longer-wheelbase wagon-type SUVs were the GAZ-61 (1938), Willys Jeep Wagon (1948), Pobeda M-72 (GAZ-M20/1955), which Russian references credit as possibly being the first modern SUV, Land Rover Series II 109 (1958), and the International Harvester Scout 80 (1961). These were followed by the more 'modern' Jeep Wagoneer (1963), International Harvester Scout II (1971), Ford Bronco (1966), Toyota Land Cruiser FJ-55 (1968), the Chevrolet Blazer / GMC Jimmy (1969), and the Land Rover Range Rover (1970).
According to the transportation curator at the Henry Ford Museum, Robert Casey, the Jeep Cherokee (XJ) was the first true sport utility vehicle in the modern understanding of the term. Marketed to urban families as a substitute for a traditional car, the Chrerokee had four-wheel drive in a more manageable size (compared to the full-size Wagoneer), as well as a plush interior resembling a station wagon. With the introduction of more luxurious models and a much more powerful 4-liter engine, sales of the Cherokee increased even higher as the price of gasoline fell, and the term "sport utility vehicle" began to be used in the national press for the first time.
The corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard was ratified in the 1970s to regulate the fuel economy of passenger vehicles. Car manufacturers evaded the regulation by selling SUVs as work vehicles. The popularity of SUV increased among urban drivers in the last 25 years, and particularly in the last decade. Consequently, modern SUVs are available with luxury vehicle features, and some crossover models adopt lower ride heights to accommodate on-road driving.
Keith Bradsher explained the rise of the SUV with American Motors' (AMC) lobbying the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a waiver of the United States Clean Air Act. The EPA subsequently designated AMC's compact Cherokee as a "light truck", and the company marketed the vehicle to everyday drivers. AMC's effort to affect rulemaking changing the official definition of their new model then led to the SUV boom when other auto makers marketed their own models in response to the Cherokee taking sales from their regular cars.
SUVs became popular in the United States, Canada, and Australia in the 1990s and early 2000s for a variety of reasons, such as the low cost of gasoline and because the larger frame made them appear safer. U.S. automakers could enjoy profit margins of $10,000 per SUV, while losing a few hundred dollars on a compact car. For example, the Ford Excursion could net the company $18,000, while they could not break even with the Ford Focus unless the buyer chose options, leading Detroit's big three automakers to focus on SUVs over small cars.
Small cars were sold mainly to attract young buyers with inexpensive options and to increase their fleet average fuel economies to meet federal standards. The relatively high wages of unionized auto workers in the U.S. and Canada (members of the UAW and CAW, respectively), compared to the low wages of non-union workers at non-U.S. companies like Toyota, made it unprofitable for the U.S. auto makers to build small cars. For example, the General Motors factory in Arlington, Texas where rear-wheel drive cars were built, such as the Chevrolet Caprice, Buick Roadmaster, and Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham was converted to truck and SUV production, putting an end to full-size family station wagon and overall terminating production of rear-wheel drive full-size cars. Due to the shift in the Big Three's strategy, many long-running cars like the Ford Taurus, Buick Century and Pontiac Grand Prix fell behind their Japanese competitors in features and image (relying more on fleet sales instead of retail and/or heavy incentive discounts); some were discontinued.   
Buyers were drawn to SUVs' large cabins, higher ride height, and perceived safety. Full-size SUVs often offered features such as three-row seating, to effectively replace full-size station wagons and minivans. Wagons were seen as old-fashioned. Additionally, full-size SUVs have greater towing capabilities than conventional cars, and can haul trailers, travel trailers (caravans) and boats. Increased ground clearance is useful in climates with heavy snowfall. The very low oil prices of the 1990s helped to keep down running costs. The SUV's image of utility may partly explain its popularity, not least among some women, who constitute more than half of all SUV drivers. SUV was one of the most popular choices of vehicle for female drivers in the U.S.
Social scientists have drawn on popular folklore such as urban legends to illustrate how marketers have been able to capitalize on the feelings of strength and security offered by SUVs. Popular tales include narratives where mothers save the family from armed robbery and other incidents by taking the automobile off road, for example.
In Australia, SUV sales were helped by the fact that SUVs had much lower import duty than passengers cars did, so that they cost less than similarly equipped imported sedans. However, this gap has been narrowed, as the import duty on cars has now been lowered to 10%, compared to 5% for SUVs.
Sales of SUVs and other light trucks fell in the mid-2000s because of high oil prices and declining economy. In June 2008, General Motors announced plans to close four truck and SUV plants, including the Oshawa Truck Assembly. The company cited decreased sales of large vehicles in the wake of rising fuel prices. The business model of focusing on SUVs and light trucks, at the expense of more fuel-efficient compact and midsized cars, is blamed for declining sales and profits among Detroit's Big Three automakers since the mid-late 2000s. The Big Three were slower to adapt than their Japanese rivals in producing small cars to meet growing demand, due to inflexible manufacturing facilities, and the higher wages of unionized workers in the U.S. and Canada (members of the UAW and CAW, respectively), which made it unprofitable to build small cars.
SUVs are often driven in places such as the Australian Outback, Africa, the Middle East, Alaska, northern Canada, western United States, Iceland, South America, and parts of Asia which have limited paved roads and require a vehicle to have all-terrain handling, increased range, and storage capacity. The scarcity of spare parts and the need to carry out repairs quickly resulted in the popularity of vehicles with the bare minimum of electric and hydraulic systems, such as the basic versions of the Land Rover, Jeep Wrangler, and Toyota Land Cruiser. SUVs for urban driving have traditionally been developed from their more rugged all-terrain counterparts. For example, the Hummer H1 was developed from the HMMWV, originally developed for the military of the United States.
Some SUVs are also used by families with children, as SUVs have more space than sedans do, and by families living in areas where gravel roads in summer and snow and ice in winter require four-wheel drive.
SUVs are also used to explore places otherwise unreachable by other vehicles. In Australia, China, Europe, South Africa, South America and the United States at least, 4WD clubs have been formed for this purpose. Modified SUVs also take part in races, including the Paris-Dakar Rally and the Australian Outback.
Numerous luxury vehicles in the form of SUVs and pickup trucks are being produced. Luxury SUV is principally a marketing term to sell fancier vehicles which may have higher performance, comfort, technology, or brand image. The term lacks both measurability and verifiability, and it is applied to a broad range of SUV sizes and types.
Nevertheless, the marketing category was created in 1966 with Kaiser Jeep's luxurious Super Wagoneer. It was the first SUV to offer a V8 engine, automatic transmission, and luxury car trim and equipment in a serious off-road model. It came with bucket seating, air conditioning, sun roof, and even a vinyl roof. Land Rover followed suit in 1970 by releasing the Range Rover and the more popular Freelander in Britain. The trend continued with other competitors adding comfort features to their rudimentary and truck-based models.
The production of luxury models increased in the late 1990s as they generated higher profit margins than ordinary automobiles did. For some auto makers, luxury SUVs were the first SUV models they produced. Some of these models are not traditional SUVs based on light truck as they are classified as crossovers.
Luxury SUVs are proving to be popular in India where the road infrastructure is often poor even in big cities. The expensive luxury cars have low ground clearance which results in the scraping of the car in broken sections of roads and speed breakers. Models like the Audi Q7 and BMW X5 often sell more than the sibling models. Another example is the Volvo XC90, which has sold almost twice their other model offered in India, the S80.
In countries such as the United Kingdom, the classification in the U.S. between cars and "light trucks" is not used, so SUVs are classified as cars, like almost all consumer motor vehicles. Popular terms include "Land Rover" and "Jeep" to describe the vehicle class, and not just a single manufacturer's product. This practice was actively discouraged by owners of the Jeep trademark, but this terminology is still in wide use, even in Germany for example, due to the pioneering and defining influence of these first products. Prior to the 1990s, SUVs were simply just referred to as "trucks" but omitted the "pickup" prefix to differentiate them from their pickup truck counterparts.
The term "Chelsea Tractor" became prominent in the United Kingdom around 2004 to describe vehicles such as Jeeps and Range Rovers used in urban areas such as Chelsea, London, where their four-wheel-drive capabilities are not required and the car is believed to be a status symbol rather than a necessity The term "4X4" (four-by-four) is also common even for vehicles not used in urban areas, and "AWD" is not common in the UK.
In Australia and New Zealand, the term 'SUV' is not widely used, except by motoring organisations the press, and industry bodies. Passenger class vehicles designed for off-road use are known as 'four wheel drives', '4WDs', or '4X4s'. Some manufacturers do refer to their products as SUVs, but others invented names such as XUV, or action utility vehicles (AUVs). The term 'AWD', or all wheel drive, is used for any vehicle which drives on all four wheels, but may not be designed for off-road use. 'Crossover' is a marketing term for a vehicle which is both four-wheel-drive and primarily a road car.
The pejorative term "Toorak Tractor" is used in Australia equivalently to "Chelsea Tractor" in the United Kingdom to describe vehicles such as Jeeps and Range Rovers used in wealthy urban areas with fine roads, fine dining and exclusive designer shopping such as around Toorak, Melbourne with nearby Chapel Street not needing four-wheel-drive capabilities. In one episode of Top Gear Australia, aired on SBS TV, the presenters drove a $200,000 tractor through Toorak Road.