Few SUVs see a dirt road, let alone extreme terrain.

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So, you’re about to buy an SUV. Or is it a crossover? There’s a difference, and depending on your needs it might matter to you.

Talk to your neighbor who just brought home a new Chevy Equinox, Honda CR-V or Kia Sorento, and they’ll probably say they love their new SUV. If you told them it’s really a crossover you’d be correct. (But be warned: no one likes a Mr. or Ms. Smarty-pants.)

Most people call anything with a squared-off profile, all-wheel drive, rugged cladding and raised ride height a sport utility vehicle. Experts are more specific. Technically, a true SUV uses a “body-on-frame” platform (the kind pickups ride on). Crossovers are built on “unit-body” architectures that are often described as a car chassis.

That said, take those hard-and-fast rules with a truck-sized grain of salt. Before I poke holes in those definitions, let’s understand the platform types.

Body-on-frame platform

Body-on-frame means exactly that. The frame is similar to a ladder and the passenger compartment is effectively bolted onto it. This kind of construction has advantages. The separate frame allows manufacturers to easily build variants (think of the blizzard of cab and bed combinations available when ordering a pickup). Generally, these vehicles can tow heavier loads, tackle tougher terrain and are easier to repair. The disadvantages? They tend to be heavy, which affects fuel economy and handling. Their cabins are not as space-efficient, either.

Unit-body platform

Think of a unit-body (or unibody) vehicle as an egg. Instead of a separate frame, the floor pan, cross members and passenger compartment are welded and bonded into a single three-dimensional shell. You might consider eggs fragile but engineers understand that unified structures like this are incredibly strong. They can give the vehicle a vaultlike feeling when giant potholes are hit. In a crash, unibody construction does a superior job of dissipating and transferring energy through the vehicle to protect passengers. If you believe a truck-based SUV is a far safer choice for your family, well, that’s not necessarily true.

The unified structure method reduces weight, which increases performance, handling ability and fuel efficiency. It also allows for a roomier cabin and a smoother more refined ride with more stable on-center steering. In general, these vehicles don’t tow heavy loads as well as truck-based rigs. Also, because they disperse impact through the entire structure, insurance companies are more likely to total them after a mishap.

The reality check

Now, let’s get back to those definitions. Your truck nerd friend (we all seem to have one) might encourage you to buy a true SUV so you can crawl over boulders for fun on the way home from the office. But off-road champs Jeep Grand Cherokee and Land Rover Range Rover and Discovery have unibody structures and few people consider them “crossovers.” And let’s dwell in reality for a moment. According to data from the manufacturers, few of these vehicles ever see a dirt road let alone extreme action. And crossovers might be nicknamed “soft roaders” but many are more capable than their owners imagine. I’ve comfortably driven a Subaru Forester, Kia Sportage and Volvo V90 Cross Country (among others) on terrain and inclines that most owners wouldn’t dare traverse.

If you’re often towing something in the neighborhood of 8,000-9,000 pounds then yes, you’ll need a body-on-frame SUV. Just know that a Range Rover can tug up to 7,700 pounds. Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot can pull up to 5,000 pounds, and that may be far more capability than needed, especially if a bike rack is the only thing the trailer hitch will see. The manufacturers’ websites all specify how much these vehicles can tow.

It comes down to this: Most crossovers can be referred to as SUVs, but calling a true body-on-frame vehicle a crossover will get you laughed out of the four-wheel-drive club. Don’t be that person.

And really, it can be argued that both SUVs and crossovers are simply tall station wagons, so if you don’t need the Ranger Rick vibe or extra ground clearance to see past the hulking vehicle ahead of you, a wagon has the same talent to swallow up kids and cargo.

A bonus: Wagons corner better because of their lower center of gravity. Think of them as sport utility vehicles with the emphasis on sport (driving characteristics that is).

I feel it’s my civic duty to inform you that nothing beats a minivan for making family life easier. Hey, it’s true. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Most of these vehicles are unibody these days. Consider that Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder switched from truck to unibody structures years ago.

In the end it shouldn’t matter to you if it’s called an SUV or crossover. The important thing is to buy the vehicle that fits your needs. Happy trails!