What to Look For When Buying an SUV

The 2015 RDX. Image courtesy of Acura.

Since the early days of automobiles, there have been longer-wheel base, high clearance vehicles that might now be called SUVs. The carryalls of the 1930s are a perfect example and are the direct ancestors of the modern Suburban. With WWII came the Jeep, which, with its short wheel base, high clearance and low gearing, paved the way for the Scout, Jimmy, Bronco and Blazer of the 1970s.

The Jeep Cherokee, perhaps the first SUV using today's understanding of the term, was on the market by the early 1980s. A combination of cultural and economic factors converged in the 1990s, causing SUV popularity to surge. Still wildly popular today, the SUV can be a great automobile choice. However, like any car buying decisions, the choice to buy an SUV should be carefully considered.

SUVs provide several benefits that explain their popularity. These benefits include increased safety on the road, towing capacity, four-wheel drive utility, high obstacle clearance and combined load and passenger carrying capacity. Each of these benefits can be evaluated for any particular SUV.


The early reputation of SUVs to be rollover-prone cannot be overlooked. A taller vehicle with a short wheel base will be more prone to rollover accidents than a vehicle with a very low center of mass.

However, much of the early reputation is undeserved and had more to do with tire selection than it did with vehicle design. Modern SUVs are designed with electronic stability control and are equipped with state of the art tires. Likewise, drivers are more aware of the need to drive their SUV differently than their sports car. Keep in mind that in the SUV, stopping distances will increase, cornering speeds will be a little slower and emergency maneuvering needs to be as smooth as possible. With these minor driving adjustments, the benefits of a more massive vehicle will shine.

When evaluating the safety of a new vehicle, look for an SUV that complies with current safety requirements as established for passenger cars. Earlier SUVs were considered, for safety standards purposes, to be pickup trucks. Modern SUVs, complying with passenger standards, should have the complete array of both active and passive safety equipment including anti-lock brakes, electronic anti-skid, traction, and stabilization control, independent rear suspension, seat belt pre-tensioning and force limiting, and front and side airbags.

These devices and systems both help prevent accidents and protect the passengers from unintended bumps. Combined with the increased weight and higher seating position, these standards make the SUV one of the safest types of vehicles on the road.

Intended Purpose

The 2015 MDX with ample cargo space. Image courtesy of Acura.

Aside from safety features, what else is the SUV shopper evaluating? The intended purpose of the SUV will drive some of the decision making during the buying process. If the vehicle is intended to be used as a city driving vehicle, a slightly smaller, compact SUV might be a good choice. The compact SUV combines the benefits of the SUV with the ease of parking and maneuverability of a traditional passenger car. This can be a great choice for small streets and tight parking lots.

A full size SUV might be a better choice if more than 4 total vehicle occupants are likely or if towing capacity is a requirement. Full size SUVs can offer the same towing capability as a full size truck and often times include a third row seat. The ability to carry 6 people and pull a trailer or boat is part of what has made the SUV such a popular vehicle.

An SUV that is equipped to tow will include a stronger transmission, brakes and suspension and an enhanced cooling system. Driver controls and indications may be included to help the driver evaluate transmission temperatures and to select towing specific transmission and fuel metering modes. If towing is in your future, look for these features. Keep in mind that a vehicle with all of the equipment to pull a heavy trailer will get different gas mileage (typically not as good) as a lighter-duty SUV.

Bottom line

SUVs can offer carrying capacity, crash worthiness, towing capacity and higher clearance capabilities, combined with passenger carrying capacity similar to a passenger sedan. When considering an SUV, ask yourself these questions:

  • How many passengers do I want to carry?
  • How much "trunk space" do I need?
  • Will I pull a trailer?
  • Do I need aggressive 4-wheel drive for rugged roads?
  • What minimum gas mileage do I expect from my vehicle?
  • Will I have to regularly drive on narrow streets and park in tiny parking garages?

With the answers to these questions, there will be many good options to choose from and your dealer will be able to point you toward the vehicles that will meet your needs and match your style. Test drive a few options and you will soon see what has made the SUV such a popular vehicle.

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