SUV Fuel Economy Facts and Fiction

Although the days of fuel economy such as 15 miles per gallon are not that far behind us, car manufacturers have finally realized that we don't all want to drive gas-guzzling tanks. SUVs have gained the worst reputation for being uneconomical and are often crossed off people's shopping lists for this reason. But does the modern SUV live up to its predecessor's bad name for destroying the environment and gaining record frequent-flyer points at the gas pump, or are they copping a bad rap all for nothing?


The sports utility vehicle has always been about versatility. It's built to carry. What other vehicle can you carry your tools around in, lug the kids off to school in, hook up to the trailer for hauling big loads, and head to the mountains in for a weekend of camping? The bigger the SUV, the better its ability to perform these tasks, right? Well, in a way, yes — but over time, technology, along with our needs, wants, and attitudes, have all changed.

Fuel Economy Fact #1: SUVs on a Diet

The trade-off for all that room and load-carrying ability is weight. The traditional SUV is big and heavy. To haul all that weight around you need a big, thirsty motor that inefficiently economizes fuel. However, advances in technology have allowed the SUV to shed the pounds and big fuel consumption that go along with them. Many steel body panels and fenders are now replaced by lightweight composite items to slim the overweight SUV down.

The traditional body-over-ladder chassis construction is being replaced by the lighter monocoque design. This setup incorporates the rigidity usually provided by steel-beam chassis rails into the body of the vehicle by strengthening the floor and pillars, as well as using bracing along the body.

All this weight-shedding allows the modern SUV to run a smaller motor, which in turn sheds more pounds towards winning the battle for fuel efficiency. While some of the bigger SUVs are still running big-capacity V8 motors, it's not uncommon to see smaller six-cylinder and even four-cylinder motors in a modern SUV. There are even a few on the market these days running hybrid technology using a combination of gasoline and electric motors.

Fuel Economy Fact #2: Hi-tech Internals

Fuel economy is not just about shedding weight though. Plenty of technological developments have gone into the drivelines and body shape of SUVs to produce more aerodynamic bodies and more efficient motors and transmissions. Smaller engines are now being refined to the point that they can often produce almost as much power and a better power-to-weight ratio than larger motors. The use of forced induction such as turbocharging is becoming more common, and variable valve timing and advanced high-pressure fuel injection systems are making the modern small motor an absolute powerhouse without the hefty fuel bills that come from a large-capacity V8 motor.

Electronic transmissions are also being refined for fuel economy. Not only are they getting smaller and lighter, but gear ratios are becoming better suited to a variety of driving conditions. The old three-speed auto has now long been replaced by six-, seven-, and even eight-speed automatic transmissions. Simply, the more gears the transmission has, the better it can choose the right engine speed to suit performance or economy over any given driving condition.

Fuel Economy Fact #3: What We Want from an SUV

More substantially than anything else, what we want as the consumer is to change the shape of the modern SUV. Our lifestyles are changing, city streets are becoming more congested, fuel prices are heading skywards, and we are relying on our cars more now than ever. We want the versatility of an SUV without the bulk, the weight, and the huge fuel bills.

The crossover utility vehicle (CUV) is fast becoming the most popular type of SUV. Using features from both passenger cars and conventional SUVs, they are designed to better suit the modern urban lifestyle. They offer a conventional SUV's benefits -- high interior space, high seating for good forward vision, extra ground clearance and, with some, all-wheel-drive suitability for light off-road driving. They also boast passenger-car-like handling and superior fuel economy (some as good as 33 MPG) due to their lightweight construction and fully independent suspension.

With hectic schedules, fuel prices the way they are, and two mortgages to pay off, gone are the days when you can afford to have a big SUV sitting in the driveway for the weekends while the family wagon does all the weekly chores. A CUV is the perfect solution for your needs. The big, heavy V8 SUV still does have its place. It is the most suited vehicle for the heaviest-duty towing jobs and extreme heavy-duty off-roading, but for anything else there is an SUV out there that will do everything you need it to and still retain good fuel economy. You can't argue with the figures. From 15 MPG to 33 MPG is a big step.