The Hyundai Ioniq 5. I’ve never driven one, but just about everyone I talk to who has says it’s a great vehicle. The fine folks at MotorTrend agree, having just bestowed their coveted SUV of the Year award on the Hyundai EV. It seems deserved — so long as you believe the Ioniq 5 is actually an SUV. But is it?
I promise you, I’m not going to declare whether the Ioniq 5 is an SUV or not based simply on vibes. (Vibes are, of course, very important, but Car Twitter’s got that battle covered.) No — we’re going to unpack the arguments over the Ioniq 5’s SUV-ness based on the exciting world of legal vehicle definitions published by the U.S. federal government.
Let’s start with the Ioniq 5’s page on the EPA website. As you can see, the agency classifies the vehicle, clear as day, as a “Large Car.”
For a car to be large in the authoritative eye of the EPA, it must have a combined passenger and cargo volume of at least 120 cubic feet. But if we scan down the criteria, we’ll notice that the metric that determines whether a vehicle is considered a truck, van or SUV is gross vehicle weight rating, not interior volume. What gives?
As it happens, there isn’t a precise legal definition for what constitutes an SUV, which is the key nuisance here. If there was such a clear-cut definition, this article would’ve been way shorter, and there’d be a lot fewer tabs open in my browser right now. As it happens, though, there is a federal definition for what is and is not a “light-duty truck,” which reads as follows:
Any motor vehicle rated at 8,500 pounds GVWR or less which has a vehicle curb weight of 6,000 pounds or less and which has a basic vehicle frontal area of 45 square feet or less, which is: (1) Designed primarily for purposes of transportation of property or is a derivation of such a vehicle, or (2) Designed primarily for transportation of persons and has a capacity of more than 12 persons, or (3) Available with special features enabling off-street or off-highway operation and use.
It’s category three that we want to pay close attention to here — specifically, the “special features” that suit a vehicle for “off-highway operation.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration outlined those features in this 2004 letter to Porsche North America’s then-manager of regulatory affairs. Reformatted for clarity, it reads:
An automobile capable of off-highway operation is an automobile (1) that has 4-wheel drive or is rated at more than 6,000 pounds gross vehicle weight; and (2) that has at least four of the following characteristics:
• Approach angle of not less than 28 degrees.
• Breakover angle of not less than 14 degrees.
• Departure angle of not less than 20 degrees.
• Running clearance of not less than 20 centimeters (7.87 inches).
• Front and rear axle clearances of not less than 18 centimeters each (7.08 inches).
This criteria was drafted as part of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard first enacted in 1975, which long predates automaker marketing terms like “SUV,” “minivan” and “crossover.” CAFE’s qualifications are very important to automakers, in part because a “light-duty truck” is subject to less stringent fuel economy, emissions, and safety regulations. And a lot of SUVs are specifically designed to fit in the “light-duty truck” category.
Jason Cammisa laid this out really well in a Road & Track explainer published a few years ago. It’s a must-read if you want to understand these regulations (and their consequences), or if you’ve simply wondered why the old Lexus NX had such a pointy snout. (Spoiler: it had nothing to do with being a super-smeller and everything to do with approach angle.) Long story short: You and I may think of today’s SUVs as practical family haulers, but in the eyes of NHTSA, they’re work vehicles first and foremost. Cammisa writes:
But why would a manufacturer destroy a car’s front-end looks just to be classified as an off-road capable vehicle? Simple. Remember, off-road vehicles are a subset of non- passenger automobiles, all of which are a subset of a group called “light-duty vehicles.” Since, as defined, these vehicles aren’t meant to carry humans, they’re subject to less stringent safety regulations that help ensure they can perform their farm and hauling duties. They’re also permitted to pollute more. And importantly, they’re allowed to burn more fuel.
Since 2011, each vehicle’s fuel-economy target is based on its footprint (a multiple of track width and wheelbase length). Subaru could do nothing other than put a lift kit on an Impreza wagon so that it meets four of the five off-road requirements, and voila! The resulting Crosstrek is now a non-passenger-vehicle and given extra credit on the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, test.
As if Crosstrek haters needed one more arrow in their quiver, right?
So let’s return to the Ioniq 5. Is it an SUV? The EPA says no; Hyundai and MotorTrend say yes. The Ioniq 5 also seemingly fails the criteria that define “automobile capable of off-highway operation.”
Hyundai doesn’t publish approach, breakover or departure angles for the EV — most marques only publicize these specs on burly off-road vehicles like the Ford Bronco Raptor or Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Xtreme Recon. I also don’t have an Ioniq 5 on hand to take a tape measure to. But I’ll go out on a limb here and say that, with a ride height of 6.1 inches, the boxy hatch falls short of CAFE’s 7.87-inch and 7.08-inch requirements for running clearance and axle clearance, respectively. Then again, that’s all kind of irrelevant anyway, because SUVs and light-duty trucks are not one and the same. The EPA itself says that “many SUVs and minivans are considered light duty trucks.” Many — but certainly not all.
For the record, I contacted Hyundai to 1) congratulate them on their achievement and 2) ask what makes the Ioniq 5 an SUV. Hats off to their public relations team for responding with an answer more substantial than “because we said so.” Senior Manager of Product Planning Trevor Lai offered a few bullet points, highlighting the Ioniq 5’s features and capabilities that led Hyundai to describe it as an SUV:
• AWD capability
• IONIQ 5’s passenger volume is better than the competitors (Tesla Model Y and VW ID4)
• IONIQ 5’s towing capacity of 2,300 pounds is on par with or better than most competitors
• High seating posting
• V2L [Vehicle to Load] feature provides a lot of utility
That’s fair enough, though the last point (that you could plug electric appliances or even your house into an Ioniq 5 for electrical power) isn’t strictly limited to trucks and SUVs.
To their credit, MotorTrend addressed this question head-on, right at the top of their article announcing the Ioniq 5 as winner of ‘SUV of the Year’:
We can’t begin to tell you how much time we’ve wasted arguing over the definition of what makes an SUV an SUV. Days’ worth of meetings, countless supposedly social hours, a painful amount of minutes—none of which we’ll ever get back. One recent vehicle whose SUV-ness inspired heated debate was the 2022 Hyundai Ioniq 5. Of course, as regards our SUV of the Year competition, we stopped arguing and just let the automakers tell us what it is they’re selling. If they say it’s an SUV, fine. We’ll test it like one. Turns out that whatever you call it, the Ioniq 5 is just plain great.
So, MotorTrend’s policy is to take the automakers at their word. Since there’s no regulatory definition for “SUV,” the automaker is kind of the only real authority determining whether a particular model should be viewed as a car or a utility vehicle. MotorTrend’s strategy certainly provides an easy answer when readers inevitably write frenzied letters asking why vehicle X was included in SUV of the Year testing and vehicle Y was not, but we wanted to know more. So we reached out to Eric Tingwall, MotorTrend’s testing director, who answered our query with a lot of detail and care:
MotorTrend has been picking an SUV of the Year since 1999 and over the years we’ve toyed with using ground clearance or all-wheel-drive and four-wheel drive as strict criteria. When you set hard and fast rules, though, there’s always at least one or two vehicles that end up on the wrong side of the line. Around 10 years ago, we stopped arguing amongst ourselves and started listening to the manufacturers. If they say a vehicle is an SUV, we’ll judge it in our SUV of the Year competition. We separate the pretenders from the true SUVs through our rigorous testing and evaluation that examines practicality and capability, among other things. Every contender faces the same scrutiny whether it’s body-on-frame or unibody, front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, gas or electric. Notably, part of that scrutiny includes a challenging, sandy off-road course, which by the way, swallowed a Mustang Mach-E last year. The way the Hyundai Ioniq 5 powered through the off-road evaluations at this year’s competition gave our judges more reasons to vote for it as MotorTrend SUV of the Year, not fewer. Combine that with its spaciousness, versatility, performance, and how it drives, and there wasn’t any debate on our side about whether or not the Ioniq 5 should qualify for our SUV of the Year award.
Here’s an even shorter way of saying all that: If a vehicle survives our SUV of the Year testing, nails our six key criteria, and comes out with the most votes, it has the capability, performance, and utility of an SUV.
Tingwall also pointed out that the Ioniq 5 actually rides higher than the Mustang Mach-E by four-tenths of an inch, and many people consider the Mach-E an SUV.
“If the automaker says it’s an SUV, we’ll test it like one” feels like the most sensible solution to this question, especially given how competitive the SUV segment is right now. The Ioniq 5 was one of 45 vehicles (33 models, with a few appearing twice with different equipment) competing in this year’s SUV of the Year shootout. Compare that to the publication’s Car of the Year contest, which last year featured just 16 competitors. And remember, when it comes to SUV of the Year, MT is putting all of these vehicles — whatever you call them — through the same gauntlet of off-road tests that crowned the Nissan Xterra as winner, twice. (It does make me wonder, though, why the Suzuki SX4 was seemingly never in the running during the seven years it was in production. It had all-wheel drive and, depending on trim, up to 6.9 inches of ground clearance!)
All that said, I don’t know if there’s a real answer to this question — which was probably obvious from the headline. “SUV” is a marketing term, plain and simple; trying to rigorously define it 20-plus-years after it became a mainstream phrase is impossible. In the end, it’s up to you.
If you want to know where I stand, if the Ioniq 5 had satisfied all the conditions that define a light-duty truck per NHTSA, I’d give it to Hyundai. But it doesn’t, and as far as the government is concerned, it’s just a big car. A very good big car, mind you, but a big car nonetheless.
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