From hardcore utility to soft-core family roaming.
These days it seems that all a car needs is some plastic around the wheel arches to call itself an SUV. Gone are the days, mostly, when a Sport Utility Vehicle meant something big, tough, and with a respectable amount of off-road ability. Various things have led us to this point where so many names from the SUVs heydays of the 1990s and early 2000s have gone soft. Legislation has eaten into the body-on-frame vehicle due to the toll its weight takes on fuel consumption, and the minivan backlash fueled by the soccer mom stigma has led parents to move to SUVs. That means SUVs have had to become less work-like and more family-friendly both inside and on the road, and building in that off-road ability adds to price and rarely gets used, if at all, by the average family.
It’s hard to blame the automakers for responding to the market, and the world always changes whether for better or worse. The saving grace is that, here in America anyway, the truck has stayed strong and modern trucks have the interior comfort of an SUV as well as much of the off-road ability if spec'd right. A truck isn’t an SUV though, and maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t have been so hard on minivans over the years.
If there’s a company that isn’t Toyota and knows how to build a long lasting SUV, it’s Nissan. The Pathfinder came into this world as a two-door body-on-frame vehicle in 1986 as a response to both the American and Japanese SUVs. Although it was comfortable on the inside, it was hardcore on the outside and took part in the Paris to Dakar and other rally races. Nissan experimented with unibody construction for the Pathfinder for its second generation but went back to body-on-frame for the third. As of 2013 though, it has gone back to unibody construction and currently rides on the Nissan D platform along with the Altima, Maxima, and Murano.
In 1990, Ford replaced the Bronco II with the Explorer. Although it was one of the pioneers of the family SUV market, the Explorer was a body-on-frame vehicle based on the Ranger chassis with exceptional off-road ability. Unibody construction arrived in 2011 though due to cost savings during the economic crisis. With a bit of luck, the new Bronco will come back as fully-fledged SUV, but only the most optimistic seem to believe it will.
If there’s one vehicle on this list that causes much wailing and gnashing of teeth over its demise as a true SUV, it’s the Jeep Cherokee. In fact, it’s hard not to get a little angry writing about this. The Cherokee had real off-road ability from its roots as the Jeep Wagoneer, which was the first SUV to be marketed using the words Sport Utility Vehicle. Now it’s devolved from a full SUV to a become one of the first compact SUVs and it’s built now on the Fiat Compact/Compact US Wide platform. You can probably see where this is going. That’s the same platform the Chrysler Pacifica minivan rolls on. Maybe it's for the best that Jeep has pushed back the Grand Wagoneer revival.
Unlike some luxury SUVs, the Range Rover wasn't originally designed as a luxury vehicle. Its origin was as a comfy vehicle that farmers could throw a couple of bales of hay in the back of and traverse their land in whatever the weather. Then, it became something rich landowners would drive around in because it was both comfortable and had that hard to beat off-road ability. The rich landowners would come into the city at the weekend and the Range Rover started to become a statement of wealth. Before long, it was seen so much in the affluent areas of London, particularly Chelsea and Knightsbridge, that it gained the nickname in the UK as the Chelsea Tractor. Land Rover embraced the fact people would pay for a luxury 4x4 and now we have what you see all over the world today.
Although the Range Rover is now a unibody vehicle, it hasn't lost its off-road ability. It makes this list simply because it’s so luxurious and expensive that it has completely separated from its utilitarian roots.
While we’re talking about resurrecting old names, the truck-based K5 Blazer hit the roads and trails in 1969 as competition for Ford’s Bronco. It was a 3-door hardcore off-roader available with soft tops or removable hardtops that was replaced in 1995 by the Tahoe. The Blazer name is back for 2019, and now it’s a mid-sized crossover taking its place between the compact Equinox and the 3-row family shifting Traverse, which will come up again in a moment.
The S-10 Blazer SUV was based on the S10 pickup truck. It picked up where the K5 left off and was as rugged as you would expect. In 1999, the Trailblazer trim arrived to take things upscale, and the Trailblazer name was then spun off to become its own thing. The Trailblazer was body-on-frame, but a shadow of what proceeded it. The two vehicles ran concurrently until the Blazer disappeared in 2005 then the Trailblazer ended its run in 2009. Its replacement was the Traverse, an 8-seater front-wheel-drive unibody crossover. An all-wheel-drive drivetrain is available but, well, all we need to know is that it’s used for the Minnie Van Service at Disney World in Florida.
The original Passport was a product of badge engineering. in 1993 it came on the market as an Isuzu Rodeo with a Honda badge. The Rodeo was a very competent rear-wheel drive truck-based SUV, but in 2002 Honda phased the Passport out for the larger Pilot that shared its platform with the Odyssey. The Passport has only just returned, but in name only to fill the gap between the compact CR-V and the three-row Pilot. Mechanically, it is basically a shorter Pilot. Not a bad thing for a family get-around vehicle, but we'll have to see if it actually has real off-road chops or Honda has just given it a lift and called it a day.
Thanks to Honda’s relationship with Isuzu, the SLX was a rebadged Isuzu Trooper. The Trooper was a true off-road bruiser with plenty of cargo space, people or otherwise, and a decent ride on the road. The SLX was only around from 1996-99, but Acura came back in 2001 with the MDX, and it was just as strong and… Nope. That would be a lie. The MDX arrived on the same chassis as Honda's minivan.
Surprisingly, the first generation of Sorento rolled off the line in 2002 with a truck-based body-on-frame design. Kia read the writing on the wall though and the second generation Sorento went to unibody construction in 2010, slotting into its lineup nicely with the new design language that’s helped Kia become a real competitive name worldwide.