What is an SUV and what was the first SUV in history

There is no one to stop SUVs. Since they appeared on the market a few decades ago, they have climbed positions without stopping, overcoming all obstacles. They have exploded with everything established in the automobile industry, breaking down the door.

There are so many variants that SUV sales have been skyrocketing in recent years. In Spain they accounted for just 10% of sales in 2010. Five years later they reached 18%. 2020 was the year in which the registrations of the rest of the bodies exceeded. In 2023, practically six out of every ten sales were an SUV.

2023 567,644 381,715 949,359 59.8% 40.2%
2020 440,348 410,863 851,211 51.7% 48.3%
2015 195,139 839,093 1,034,232 18.9% 81.1%
2010 106,938 875,077 982,015 10.9% 89.1%

And we've come this far, right? I'm sorry to tell you that… No. And for this you only have to take a look at sales in the United States, the country where the SUV madness began. A place where fuel is cheap, there are not too many problems with space to park or store the car and driving habits are very different from European ones.

In 2008 the crisis seemed to put an end to the SUV fashion but nothing could be further from the truth, since they re-emerged and in 2010 they surpassed the sales of the rest of the bodies. Since then they have not stopped growing and in 2023 there were already eight of each sales, if we include the pick-ups.

2023 12,300,000 3,249,907 15,549,907 79.1% 20.9%
2020 11,209,998 3,367,373 14,577,371 76.9% 23.1%
2015 10,342,500 7,157,500 17,500,000 59.1% 40.9%
2010 6,113,200 5,486,800 11,600,000 52.7% 47.3%

SUV dominance arrived in Spain a decade after the United States, but, just as we did with diesel cars, we embraced automotive fashions with enthusiasm and speed. And, in Europe, it was not until 2023 that SUV sales surpassed those of other bodies.

Not only that. For the first time in history, an SUV was the best-selling model on the old continent. Also, electric, the Tesla Model Y. It is a vehicle that has very little to do with a Grand Cherokee. Neither of them looks like a Seat Arona… and even less a Ferrari Purosangue. And they all call them SUVs. That leads us to analyze, first of all, what an SUV is.

What is an SUV

Let's go with an easy-to-understand definition: An SUV is a mix between a passenger car and an all-terrain vehicle. It is an acronym from English, an acronym that means Sport Utility Vehicle. Translated into Spanish, Sports Utility Vehicle. Do not confuse sporty with being effective at high speeds and cornering, but rather the relationship with sport and adventure.

monocoque chassis

The United States Department of Transportation defines it as a light vehicle, “traditionally” built on the chassis of a truck (trucks). Therein lies the difference that we make at autos.com between off-road vehicles and SUVs: their architecture.

  • An SUV sits on a ladder chassis, also called stringers and crossbars. On that basis sits the cabin and body, which is an independent structure. They are robust and easy to repair, but heavy.
  • A tourism is carried out on a monocoque chassis, where the frame and body are an indivisible whole. They are lighter, easier to manufacture and make it easier to have more interior space, but not as resistant to extreme use.

The first SUVs in history

Taking the base of a car and placing an off-road-shaped body on top of it was not Jeep's idea, but they were the ones who managed to popularize it. Who doesn't want a mixed vehicle, with a robust image reminiscent of Wrangler, and at the same time practical like a conventional passenger car?

1974 Jeep Cherokee S

We talk about Jeep Cherokee, built on a monocoque chassis and rough aesthetics. With all-wheel drive and good ground clearance, you had a car that was perfectly suitable for driving on the roads of deep America. It was 1974, a year after the oil crisis. People were beginning to look at fuel consumption, even in the United States.

Available with three and five doors, it swept sales. And then other brands copied the idea. Models like the RAV4 (see history of the RAV4), and here in Europe, the Nissan Qashqaiwhich has already openly renounced country-like qualities, combined an SUV and a passenger car, what many call crossover. Now, there are hundreds of options, in all formats.

Cherokee, RAV4 and Qashqai were, in our opinion, the three models that pushed the industry to manufacture vehicles of this type. But before there were others, in what we could consider the prehistory of SUVs.

The precursors of the SUV

These three vehicles are based on a monocoque chassis, an invention by Lancia, presented in the Lambda and which it began manufacturing more than a century ago, in 1922. But no one then thought of making an off-road vehicle based on that. The path was the opposite, creating a passenger vehicle on the chassis of an off-road vehicle.

1935 Chevrolet Suburban Carryall

The one most noted as an original precursor was Chevrolet Suburban Carryall, from 1935. A car with the dimensions of a van, with capacity for eight passengers and a lot of luggage. A 60 HP six-cylinder engine drove the rear wheels and was ideal for traveling on roads. And there were hardly any roads in good condition before the Second World War.

The world war was the turning point in the world of off-road vehicles. The most famous is the Jeep Willys, the predecessor of the current Wrangler, but also on the other side of the Iron Curtain, but they are less known.

GAZ-61 1940

One of them, the GAZ-61 with all-wheel drive, manufactured by GAZ in 1940. It was capable of climbing 38-degree slopes and fording rivers up to 72 cm deep. Powered by a 3.5-liter engine, it transported the troops' commanders in its spectacular Phaeton-type body.

GAZ M-72 1955

We mention GAZ because it was the first SUV in history as we conceive it today. We talk about. Made on a monocoque chassis, its body was 15 cm higher than the GAZ M20 Pobeda sedan from which it was derived and had all-wheel drive adapted from the GAZ 69, the communist copy of the Jeep.

Launched in 1955, it was ideal for moving through the steppes of the former Soviet Union. There was no more comfortable 4×4 in the world then. Only 4,677 units were manufactured in three years, but many still circulate on the roads of former Soviet countries today.

Jeep Willys Station Wagon 1946

If communism had civilian versions of its military SUVs… How could capitalism not bring them? Just one year after the end of the war, in 1946, the Jeep Willys Station Wagon.

The idea, developed by Brooks Stevens, was to give the SUV a metal cabin so that it could go from jumping trenches to taking the family on trails or to the mall (well, maybe at that time they went to church more than to the mall). mall). Built on a ladder chassis, it was more comfortable and versatile than a Jeep but be careful, it did not have all-wheel drive, it was powered.

The first luxury SUVs

Part of these cons are solved with technology. Bigger brakes, shock absorbers, more power… that's what premium SUVs get, at the cost of increasing the price. These bodies began to attract the attention of luxury manufacturers because they saw a huge business opportunity. Many consider the Jeep Grand Cherokee to be the first, in 1992, but before that there were also other proposals.

1966 Jeep Super Wagoneer

Another Jeep, the Wagoner Launched in 1963, it is considered by many to be the first luxury 4×4, with all the comforts of any car. The Super Wagoneer version, presented in 1966, was powered by a V8 engine and had air conditioning, a sunroof, seats with electric adjustments… something that no SUV had at the time. Hence it cost twice as much as a basic Wagoneer.

In 1970 the original Range Rover would appear, which sought to combine the on-road comfort of a Rover saloon with the off-road capability of a Land Rover.

Range Rover 1970

Like the generalists, those first premium SUVs had a ladder chassis, more of an all-terrain type. In fact, the Range Rover did not use a monocoque chassis until its third generation, in 2001. Some of the models with which we are going to compare the Jeep Grand Cherokee today would arrive.

In 1997, the Mercedes ML, which is the current Mercedes GLE. In 1999 the BMW X5 arrived, which the brand classified as SAV (Sport Activity Vehicle). Another pioneering European model was the Range Rover Sport. Can the original premium SUV, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, handle those rivals? We pit it against aforementioned European rivals and the current Land Rover Defender, which has taken a step forward in luxury. All of them also have plug-in hybrid versions like the Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe that we tested.

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