Wheel is turning against the SUV

Is the British public’s long – and only partially explicable – infatuation with the sports utility vehicle coming to an end?

No, say the car manufacturers who – in a year marked by generally lacklustre sales – triumphantly point to SUVs as a category bucking the downward trend.

Yes, says an increasingly vocal section of the public. Only last week, for instance, a YouGov survey commissioned by KPMG revealed that well over half of us would vote in favour of banning them from city centres if we could. It’s a message that is finding an eager reception among populist politicians. Most vociferous and dangerous among them (from the manufacturers’ point of view) is Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, who recently characterised the owners of urban four-wheel drive vehicles as ‘complete idiots’.

The imminent decline of the SUV has been predicted before, but the physical evidence continues to point the other way. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders figures, nearly 99,000 4x4s were sold in 1999 (most, but not quite all of the rugged, SUV type). After consistent growth, that figure is expected to top 190,000 by the end of this year. What’s more, the manufacturers’ appetite for producing new variants of the genre – from Porsche’s top-of-the-range Cayenne to Fiat’s more humble 4×4 Panda – clearly remains undiminished. Given the planning and production cycles of the industry, not to mention the huge financial investment involved, manufacturers’ forecasts must presumably rest on firmer foundations than blind confidence or bluff.

Yet they should be wary all the same. Almost nothing about these vehicles, apart from their surface attribute of muscular capability, is either robust or practical. As has often been pointed out, nearly 90 per cent of SUVs sold in the UK never come into contact with the off-road terrain for which they were actually designed.

In their preferred urban and motorway environments they suffer many ostensible disadvantages which engineers struggle to overcome (almost successfully in the case of BMW’s X5). These include: fuel inefficiency, mostly inferior performance, parking difficulties caused by physical bulk, the relative instability of high-sided vehicles in cross-winds and longish braking distances resulting from the typical SUV’s considerable weight. Nor do they make particularly practical passenger conveyances, often ceding to MPVs and traditional estate cars on this score.

What we are left with is a certain brutal physical charm and a not entirely irrational belief in the SUV’s cocoon-like ability to protect its passengers from danger. In short, the SUV is a fashion item, a triumph of marketing over practicality. There’s nothing specifically wrong with that: after all, manufacturers have been successfully giving consumers exactly what they seem to want.

But the slender practicality of the SUV does suggest a vulnerability to ever-fickle fashion. A change that could easily be precipitated by the growing perception of the so-called ‘Chelsea tractor’ as an anti-social menace.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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