For most buyers, the de facto personal or family vehicle is now an SUV. Automakers are only so happy to perpetuate this trend as these vehicles are generally larger (or appear so) and allows them to charge a healthy premium over ‘normal’ cars such as your four-door saloons or 5-door hatchbacks.
In certain countries - Russia, Canada, China and the United States - SUVs (and their endless permutations) collectively accounted for over 40% of the new vehicles sold in 2018 according to data specialists Jato Dynamics. However, that uptick does seem to be tapering off, so perhaps the world is slowly experiencing SUV fatigue and regaining lucid thought after the stupor.
This path we’ve ended down, one of the ‘Modern SUV’, was pioneered by the likes of the first Mitsubishi Pajero and Toyota LandCruiser, vehicles that were owned both as passenger cars and commercial workhorses, also popularised by the Jeep Cherokee and classic Range Rover.
In those early days, certain people wanted a do-everything automobile, and that population grew large enough to catalyse the birth of an all-new class of vehicle: one that could carry many passengers, lug bulky cargo, tow the odd something, would (hopefully) run like clockwork, and be able to do so on all manner of terrain. Trouble is, in 2020, we ask far less of our cars, so why is an SUV still seen as the default solution to everyday motoring; if it isn’t better at solving a problem, why choose it?
Before we dive into that, though, we have to address this worsening identity crisis. The definition of an SUV has gotten murkier with each passing year. What began as a body-on-frame design that prioritised utility, versatility, and, at times, true all-terrain ability at a level unmatchable by other vehicles, has now become a term much too loose and vague.
There are the Mini SUV ‘soft-roaders’ like your CR-Vs and RAV4s which follow the basic visual template of its ancestors but carries over none of the hardiness or brutal simplicity. But now there are even smaller Compact SUVs or ‘Crossovers’ which, by definition, are standard road cars made to seem more like SUVs yet often robbed of any of the interior space advantage of their larger cousins and, with a couple of exceptions, void of any ability to tackle anything but smoothy paved roads.
Now we come to the increasingly popular 'Sport SUVs' and their mutant half-brothers, the Coupe SUV. Both annoy me to a certain degree but I have a grudging understanding for why the Sport SUV exists. Maybe it’s the nonchalant rudeness of it but, in the case of a Range Rover Sport SVR, who wouldn’t want a 5.0 supercharged V8 to scare the neighbours.
Coupe SUVs, by contrast, are aberrations that should be culled from the gene pool. A mutated mess of contradictory priorities. It’s not a ‘coupe’ just because its roofline has been chopped off for compromised rear headroom, neither is it an SUV because you’ve just amputated out most of the ‘utility’ portion of that acronym. This is why BMW markets both the X6 and X4 as an SAC (Sport Activity Coupe) - clever.
Further, because it looks arbitrarily sportier, these Coupe SUVs tend to be more hunkered down and saddled with a stiffer suspension. Kinda sounds like a jacked up hot hatch, just heavier, more expensive, and does everything worse.
By now you might have gotten the impression that I’m not overly fond of these types of vehicles given the superiority of their alternatives, nor am I a proponent of calling anything that has a slightly elevated ride height and some gratuitous grey cladding around the lower perimeter an SUV (or crossover).
Fact of the matter is, SUVs have struck a chord with buyers. However, advancing the idea that they are objectively superior to other vehicle types in specific areas is to be arguing on shaky ground.
But let’s try and deconstruct what Modern SUVs are actually good at as they pertain to the everyday driver and clear up some false notions along the way.
So, What Are SUVs Actually Good At?
Are SUVs more practical?
There’s no reason why an SUV would be any more spacious for passengers or cargo than an MPV or wagon of a similar footprint. That extra ride height just means you’ll have a tougher time hoisting things (or yourself) up to the load height. When it comes to longer items and large items of luggage, again, a similarly sized MPV fares better.
Are SUVs safer?
Safety features are universally compatible across all cars, so we’ll leave them out of this argument. SUVs are further off the ground, giving them an inherently higher centre of gravity no matter what trickery an automaker might summon to mask this fact. This makes SUVs far more prone to rolling over in an accident or during evasive manoeuvres.
Also, despite their bulk, the structural integrity and deformation properties are also similar to cars given that they are both based on unibody construction methods, giving SUVs no advantage. Their size lends to the perception of being more solid, but this is a false sense of security.
Being higher up also compromises lower peripheral vision, which makes drivers potentially unaware of pedestrians or other vehicles in close proximity and makes reversing cameras (or, better yet, a 360-degree camera system) a flat-out necessity.
Are SUVs more fuel efficient?
No. Just no.
Again, as SUVs are often larger as a rule, you’ll often need an equally larger (or smaller but highly stressed) powertrain to extract decent performance or be stuck with something frustratingly slow.
Furthermore, their high profile only serves to disturb airflow and increase drag as air is sloppily channelled both over and under the vehicle. Consequently, they also generate higher levels of airborne pollutants compared to conventional passenger cars with similar or nearly identical engines due to the increased forces needed for normal driving.
As SUVs have risen in popularity, the additional global collective consumption of fossil fuels amounts to an astronomical amount, and directly attributable to the inherent shortcomings of the vehicle category.
Are SUVs more versatile?
“Compared to what?” is an important question to pose. Any vehicle larger than the other will naturally offer more space and so-called practicality, but when compared to their alternative vehicle categories, SUVs really don’t deliver the most versatility, as we’ve covered earlier.
The main appeal of an SUV (as they were traditionally defined, i.e not 'modern SUVs') was having the ability to tackle harsher, often off-road terrain - a domain that the majoirty of today's versions are too timid and ill-equipped to attempt. Except for Subarus, all of which have permanent all-wheel drive, so there’s that.