From the Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe to the Toyota Tundra – pickups and SUVs reign supreme. They went from dominating North America to the rest of the world due to their cargo area, impressive tech, and road-tested features. But is an SUV a truck, or are these classifications interchangeable?
To the untrained eye, there may be little to no difference between an SUV and a pickup truck. However, these vehicle types are not one and the same. While both have high-performing engines, long beds, and spacious interiors, trucks typically have an open cargo area while SUVs are fully enclosed.
These distinctions are slowly getting blurred with continued automobile design and construction developments. Nowadays, some SUVs mimic the capabilities of pickup trucks. Likewise, some pickups showcase refined styling and advanced tech previously found only in sport utility vehicles.
What Makes a Vehicle an SUV?
It’s understandable to confuse an SUV with a truck (let’s stick to pickup trucks). After all, an SUV – short for Sport/Suburban Utility Vehicle – is a hybrid vehicle by design. The idea behind the making of SUVs was to combine the strengths of a pickup truck, passenger car, and minivan under one seat. That is, to create an automobile that provides ride comfort, ample cabin space, impressive off-roading capabilities, and towing capacity.
It wouldn’t be surprising if an SUV would possess some of the characteristics of a pickup truck (and vice-versa). Nonetheless, here’s a non-exhaustive list of attributes that can help differentiate an SUV from the rest of the vehicle segments:
- High-spec engine
- AWD (All-Wheel Drive) system
- Reduced emissions and better fuel mileage
- High ground clearance
- Longer wheelbase
- Axle articulation
- Off-road-oriented suspension
- Large-diameter tires
- Tall passenger cabin and seating position
- Locking differentials
- Body-on-frame or unibody construction
- Modern design/styling
Out of all these items, the unibody construction is the most distinct quality of SUVs. It has a two-box design – consisting of compartments that house the power mill at the front and the cabin and cargo at the back. Superficially, it looks like a station wagon. It is designed to avoid adverse impacts on the car’s off-roading capabilities while decreasing its weight.
A sport utility vehicle may have two or four doors, depending on the make and model. In the past, SUVs were only available in 2-door configurations. But by 2010, the segment had adapted the 4-door design more commonly used by other vehicle types.
Learn more in this article on the difference between an SUV and a Jeep.
Primary Types of SUVs
The different classifications of SUVs are based not so much on styling nor configuration but on their overall dimensions and are as follows:
These minute vehicles are smaller than the Mini Countryman and very popular in countries with heavy taxation on large vehicles. Top dogs in this sub-segment include Jeep, Nissan, Volkswagen, Toyota, and Suzuki.
Easy to maneuver and park, these SUVs have average dimensions relative to C-segment passenger cars in Europe. Due to their ample cabin size, they are great daily commuters and family cars. Manufacturers like Hyundai, Mazda, Honda, Ford, and Subaru (among others) lead the pack with their high-quality 2021/2022 releases.
Trivia: The Kurogane Type 95, a Japanese SUV used as a terrain reconnaissance vehicle and produced for the army from 1936 to 1944, has a nickname that translates into “All-Wheel Drive.”
These SUVs’ functional size and serious diverse-terrain capabilities make them very enticing for adventurers and commuters alike. To add, they fit right in the middle of the price spectrum. While some older offerings still share the same DNA with a pickup truck, most recent models are feature-rich and look as sophisticated as luxury SUVs. The Jeep Grand Cherokee, Hyundai Palisade, and Kia Telluride fall under this category.
As the name suggests, these vehicles were initially built based on the full-size chassis of pickup trucks. However, today, some already have their own dedicated platforms. Their extended length has remained unchanged for this SUV class, making for a roomier cabin and cargo area.
Extended Length SUVs
The main difference between this sub-segment and a full-size SUV is that its overall length measures at least 17.1 feet (205 inches). These long-bodied versions of sport utility vehicles primarily sell in North America due to their expansive passenger and cargo space. The 2022 Jeep Wagoneer and Ford Expedition are perfect examples of extended-length SUVs.
Because they use a passenger-car platform, CUVs are sometimes considered the odd one out of all the SUV types. They comprise over 50% of the overall SUV market in the U.S. Compared to other SUVs. CUVs offer much better interior styling and ride comfort but are inferior in hauling and off-road capabilities.
Trivia: The 1934 Opel Geländesportwagen reworked two years later to be better suited for off-road applications is the first CUV.
Is an SUV Considered a Truck?
Some full-size SUVs come very close to the size of an average pickup truck. A 2021 Jeep Gladiator, for instance, has overall dimensions of 18.17 x 6.15 x 6.25 feet (218 x 73.8 x 75 inches – L x W x H). Even their cargo beds are pretty spacious, making these vehicles great for carrying a load.
|Measurement||Sport Utility Vehicle||Pickup Truck|
|Length||14.8–16.1 feet (178–194 inches)||19.8 feet (235 inches)|
|Width||5.75–6.6 feet (69–79 inches)||6.7 feet (80 inches)|
|Height||5.4–5.8 feet (65–70 inches)||6.3 feet (75 inches)|
|Cargo Bed (Storage)||12.8–100 cu. ft.||67.5–100 cu. ft.|
Based on dimensions alone, you would think that the line separating the two is severely blurred (if not non-existent), right? Unfortunately, that would be incorrect. Apart from length, width, and height, the other thing that defines a pickup truck is that its cabin is always enclosed, while its cargo area is open with low sides and a tailgate.
Even if SUVs did match the latter’s dimensions and payload capacity, they could never be categorically called pickup trucks.
Pickup Trucks Explained
Dating back to 1902, the first pickup trucks were sold as a chassis only, with 3rd party manufacturers adding bodies on top separately. The design eventually evolved to 3/4 ton and one-ton capacity carrying trucks with an included cab and a wooden body.
Further down the road, the cabin was enclosed with a windshield and windows, and the drivetrain was also improved. But amid all these changes, the pickup truck was mainly for farming or work.
It wasn’t until General Motors produced pickup variants aimed at private ownership in the early ’30s that consumers had a paradigm shift in their use of these light-duty trucks. This change in outlook became apparent in the ’50s when end-users started purchasing these trucks for lifestyle/recreational reasons rather than as a workhorse.
The late ’50s saw the rise of “crew cabs” – perhaps one of the first 4-door pickup configurations to be ever mass-produced. Since then, the overall concept and design of pickup trucks have matured exponentially, resulting in the purpose-built behemoths we see in the market today.
Different Types of Pickup Trucks
Pickup trucks are distinguished by their open cargo area and enclosed cabin (in addition to lighter vehicle weight and better gas mileage). But with recent-year SUV models made in the same fashion, telling the two vehicles apart has gotten more confusing, if not difficult.
Familiarity with the different types of pickup trucks will tremendously help. Here’s a list that will get you oriented. I’ll be using the acronym ‘PT’ to mean pickup trucks in this section:
Depending on the vehicle make and market, this truck classification could mean a pickup with a small load bay or one that looks like a slightly bumped-up sedan. Or it could pertain to an extremely light pickup truck with limited ground clearance and restricted to urban-driving applications.
Typically, compact pickups have small gasoline-fed engines and 2WD driveline modes.
Feature-wise, they are comparable to mid-range SUVs. But in terms of drivability, they are built more for on-road than dirt-road applications, partly due to their predominant 2WD system.
Their towing capabilities cover trailers, small-to-medium boats, and kayaks. However, their factory suspension wouldn’t be able to accommodate heavy loads characteristic of larger-sized trucks.
The equivalent of compact SUVs, these vehicles offer easy maneuverability and ample space for cargo and small families. They can be conveniently parked inside regular garages and taken out of town. These trucks are efficient all-rounders perfect as daily commuters or recreational buddies. The Toyota Tacoma is a good example of this sub-type.
Apart from a sizeable dump bed and cabin, large-displacement power mills are a characteristic of these trucks. Factory suspension is also impressive, enabling the vehicle to carry far heavier loads than other versions in its class.
Unlike the smaller trucks, heavy-duty pickups are geared for the off-road, with locking differentials, computer-controlled driveline modes, and 4WD as standard to boot.
This pickup truck category is not defined by its dimensions but by its fit and finish. They can be as small as a light-duty truck or as massive as an extended version. While pickups are generally rugged and boxy, these four-wheelers have close-to-extravagant interiors, a slew of tech and creature comforts, and a sleek, sophisticated exterior. Naturally, they also have heftier price tags compared to the others.
True to its name, a full-size pickup provides more cabin space and primarily uses a V8 powerplant. To complement its off-road prowess, it usually comes with AWD or 4WD modes and features a higher ground clearance compared to most pickup-truck types.
Due to its off-roading capabilities and other factors, it is the most expensive among all truck versions (along with luxury pickups).
Regular Cab PTs
This pickup type is similar to the original design of pickups in the early ’50s and ’60s. Since these vehicles were originally intended for work and load transportation, they had limited space to accommodate passengers. A regular cab pickup can only seat two people (three people at most if the cabin has a bench seat). You can say that it somewhat resembles the horse-drawn carriage because of this limitation.
Crew Cab PTs
Crew cabs are perhaps the earliest 4-door configurations for pickup trucks. The name comes from having enough room to bring along a “crew” or a small group of people needed to do a job.
The passenger seating is pretty similar to modern-day taxis or cabs, with one passenger in front (beside the driver) and a maximum of three passengers at the back.
Extended Cab PTs
Slightly smaller than a crew cab, these pickups were designed for occasional passenger transportation. These vehicles mostly had only two doors. Some makes and models had courtesy rear-hinged doors providing entry to the rear seats.
For those that did not have these courtesy rear doors, accessing the seat at the back was done by leaning the front seat forward (usually the passenger side) to allow ingress and egress of the rear.
Chassis Cab PTs
This pickup is one of the more versatile versions in the light. It is easy to spot a chassis cab as it comes with a cab and an exposed chassis. It would be the owner’s discretion to decide what kind of aftermarket fitment would be at the back of the pickup truck. The fitment could be anything from a flatbed to lifting cranes to towing equipment, depending on the intended application.
Previously associated with light-duty trucks, this sub-type pertains to any pickup truck with a maximum load limit of 1,000 lbs. or half-ton – hence, the name. The type of suspension installed in these trucks is responsible for limiting their carrying capacity.
They are very popular among suburban and city dwellers who only require carrying tools and other supplies to and from work.
Three-Quarter Ton PTs
Like half-tons, this type used to associate with medium-duty pickups capable of carrying passengers and loads weighing up to 1,500 lbs. They are also historically purchased for work applications, making knowing their maximum payload capacity essential. The category has stuck with the said pickup trucks, even if they now have more than the 1,500-lb limit that their moniker implies.
Fondly referred to as the Chevelle SS of pickup trucks, these heavy-duty PTs have beefed-up axles, suspensions, braking systems, and high-performance large-displacement engines. Some are even diesel-fed to help cope with these vehicles’ heavy loads.
Newcomer Rivian Automotive beat other firms to produce the first all-electric truck – the Rivian R1T – in 2021, three years after its prototype reveal in the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show. But the big-name manufacturers are not going to be left behind. Tesla, GMC, and Ford have made their releases shortly after. By 2023, the GMC Hummer EV Edition 1, Ford F-150 Lightning, Tesla Cybertruck, and Bollinger B2 will hit the road.
Not exclusive to pickup trucks, hybrid vehicles use both a conventional combustion engine and electric motor technology for more efficient engine and car functionality. Since not all automakers have yet entered the realm of fully-electric vehicles, hybrids are the next best thing. OEMs like Chevrolet, Ram, and Ford each have at least one hybrid pickup model in their arsenal.
Pickup truck or SUV – Which Should You Buy?
Now that you know the answer to, “is an SUV a truck?” the only thing left is deciding which one you should buy. Both vehicle types do have overlapping strengths, as well as some drawbacks. But there are functional attributes unique to each that’ll serve as the deciding factor for your next big decision. While that bit is all up to you, here are other facets to consider when comparing pickup trucks to SUVs:
Before any personal preference, your budget serves as the most important determinant in purchasing an SUV, pickup truck, or any vehicle. Compact Japanese SUVs cost an average of $21,000 to $30,000, while a light-duty pickup falls within the $28,000 to $75,000 range.
Due to their spacious cabins and off-roading/towing capabilities, these four-wheelers are not cheap. It would be nice to have a rugged vehicle with all the creature comforts. However, many consumers buy their 2nd option (or a pre-owned model) due to budget constraints.
If money isn’t an issue in purchasing your future adventure buddy, the next big thing to consider is your intended use for the vehicle.
Do you do a lot of rock-crawling and ripping in the dunes? Full-size pickup trucks are a perfect match for you.
Are your travels limited to city driving and trips to the beach with peers? Then, perhaps, a compact SUV or crew-cab pickup would prove a better option.
Are you into construction and need a transport with an ultra-long bed and high payload capacity? Either an extended-length SUV or pickup will work for you splendidly.
Interiors, valvetrain, tech, and accessories – all these elements play a part in making or breaking rider comfort while driving. Especially if you intend to use your four-wheeler more in the city than on backcountry roads, having a smoothly handling vehicle with the right gadgets, and isn’t a gas guzzler is of the essence. You also wouldn’t want to drive an SUV or truck too big for tight city roads. Nor would you want to be in an extended cab truck if you mainly travel with a group.
By this, I don’t only mean your skills as a driver but also your adeptness as a mechanic. You have to be a professional mechanical working in a large-scale auto shop. However, you cannot own something as complex as a pickup truck or long-bodied SUV and know nothing about troubleshooting. If you are a veteran/savant or a hobbyist mechanic, you’d be good to choose up to large-size trucks and SUVs.
However, new vehicle owners would be better off learning the ropes of diagnosis and repair on a compact truck or SUV. That is, if they don’t have any pressing need for a bigger vehicle. Being mechanically savvy also helps lower expenses, as you’d be able to handle minor repairs that people would typically bring to a professional to fix.
Conclusion – Is an SUV a Truck? What’s the Difference?
Whether you’re a nouveau or experienced driver, telling the difference between pickup trucks and SUVs can still prove challenging. Hopefully, the information here distinguishes one vehicle type from the other.
If purchasing your next vehicle, this guide should help you make the best decision possible. More importantly, carefully going these factors will ensure that you’ll be able to make full use of the capabilities of your soon-to-be wheeler.
Kris is an avid off-roader and outdoor enthusiast who loves to brave the elements and take on challenging terrain. He also enjoys sharing his passion and knowledge with others so that they, too, can appreciate the ride.