Many consumers mistakenly refer to CUVs as SUVs. That’s forgivable.

But more and more automakers loosely describe their CUVs as SUVs. No mortal sin there, even though they know better. It’s a case of customers always being right, even when they’re wrong.

Generally, an SUV (sport-utility vehicle) is truck-based. A CUV (cross-utility vehicle) looks like an SUV but sits on a car platform.

A CUV owner gets the look, high ride and interior roominess and functionality of a SUV, but with tamer ride and handling (although SUVs have come a long way in that department of late).

The trade-off is you don’t want to off-road up Mount Shasta in a CUV. On the other hand, the reality is that few SUV owners seriously off-road, despite their vehicles’ rugged ability to do so.

CUVs have been around for about 20 years. Some people say the Subaru Forester was the first. Others cite the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Still others go so far as to trace CUV ancestry to the ’79 AMC Eagle. A few wags call CUVs station wagons on stilts.

Whoever came up with the idea, it was a stroke of genius, considering how popular CUVs have become. Today’s offerings include small, medium and large; luxury and mainstream. Americans bought 5.6 million CUVs last year compared with 1.3 million SUVs, according to WardsAuto data.      

A lot of those CUV buyers think they bought SUVs. Automakers are fine with letting them believe that.

Genesis, Hyundai’s luxury brand, introduced its GV80 concept vehicle at the New York auto show in April, hailing it as a posh SUV. But it’s really a CUV. I asked chief designer Peter Schreyer about that apparent mislabeling.

“You can call it what you like,” he replied. “It’s a flowing definition. It’s an elegant SUV or CUV.”

Evidently, there’s no wrong answer.

I asked Manfred Fitzgerald, head of the Genesis brand, if the GV80 isn’t actually a CUV, despite its SUV billing. He said, “Well technically, you are correct. But we are splitting hairs. For the customer, this is an SUV.”

He’s right. If customers say an SUV is a CUV, what automaker or dealer will put a dunce cap on them? If an owner says it’s an SUV, it’s an SUV.     

The SUV descriptor is thrown around these days, acknowledges Orth Hedrick, Kia Motors America’s vice president-product planning. “Consumers use CUV and SUV interchangeably.”  

With engineer preciseness, he outlines the difference:

“An SUV has been historically based on a truck frame, with a 2-speed transfer case and rear-wheel drive. That was the classical recipe. You place the same form on a crossover car chassis, and for most people it looks like an SUV, so they call it that.”

I understand why consumers would call it that, but many industry people do, too. I ask Hedrick if that’s done to connect with consumers.

“That’s a lot of it,” he says. “When we in the industry refer to a CUV, people are like, ‘What’s a CUV?’ And when we tell them, they say, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah.’”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com