Anyone who reads DRIVING&LIFE regularly knows I am very much anti-SUVs. In a role fit for purpose, they are practical, versatile and appropriate. However, it shouldn't escape your notice that most SUVs are not used for their intended purpose, so this piece struck a chord with me.
It’s an interesting take of the phenomenal jump in the sales of SUVs by Matt Reynolds in ‘WIRED UK’ on December 6, 2019, and their real impact on our world. This is just an extract, but you’ll get the point.
In 1973, while petrol stations filled with long queues, the powerful American automotive lobby was whispering in the ear of Congress, which was in the middle of devising new taxes to be placed on fuel-inefficient cars. In 1978 Congress voted that vehicles which fell too far below federally-mandated fuel targets would be hit with a heavy levy which is still in place today. But light trucks – the category into which domestic SUVs fell – were exempt from this tax, after rural and auto-manufacturing states pleaded that it would unfairly hit farmers, who used their vehicles for work.
But the law had another effect: encouraging car manufacturers to start producing SUVs, which they could charge more for, while avoiding the fuel levy. When oil prices started tumbling in the mid-1980s the last barrier to SUV ownership was gone, and cars started growing bigger and less fuel efficient.
By 1999 the sale of SUVs and light trucks exceeded the sale of regular passenger cars for the first time.
By 2022, nine out of every ten Ford vehicles sold in the US will be an SUV or truck.
|Britain's rolling green hills and tiny villages - probably the most inappropriate place for SUVs.
For decades, the UK resisted the rise of the SUV. “The trend for many years was for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars,” says David Bailey, Professor of Business Economics at Birmingham University’s Business School.
That all changed in 2007, with the launch of the Nissan Qashqai (left), which offered a more svelte alternative to the hulking SUVs popular in America.
In addition to being heavy and gas-guzzling – the average modern petrol SUV emits over ten per cent more CO2 per kilometre than the average petrol car – SUVs have long been marketed as a way of getting people back to nature.
SUV adverts are replete with images of cars off-roading over rugged and unexplored natural terrain.
In reality, SUV ownership tends to cluster in urban areas and only one to 13 per cent of drivers ever use their vehicles for off-road driving, according to Keith Bradsher’s 2004 book ‘High and Mighty: SUVs – The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way’.
With conventional car sales stagnating, car manufacturers are pinning their hopes on SUVs and their very seductive and lucrative profit margins. Of 2019’s ten best-selling cars in the UK, three are SUVs. And while more fuel efficient and electric cars are starting to make a dent in the passenger car market, SUVs have been relatively resistant to electrification.
While overall emissions from passenger cars fell by 75 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (MtCO2) between 2010 and 2018, emissions from SUVs grew by 544 metric tonnes – more than the increase from heavy industry, aviation, trucks or shipping.
With their hulking weight and high driving position, SUVs exude a feeling of safety for those behind the wheel, but it can sometimes be an illusion. In 2003, traffic data from the US government found that people driving or riding in an SUV were 11 per cent more likely to die in an accident than people in cars – thanks to their high centre of gravity and tendency to roll over in crashes.
|An example of my own personal experience in 11 North American winters in both New Jersey and Michigan. SUV drivers totally underestimate the impact of a high centre of gravity and believe 4WD will 'save' them from an accident. Well, Duh!
Laura Cozzi, the chief energy modeller at the International Energy Agency (IEA) said: “When you drive in a regular old sedan on the highway, everyone else's headlights are right in your face,” she says. “It actually is hard to drive when you are the only one left on the road in a normal car.”
They’re even worse news for pedestrians: SUVs are around twice as likely as cars to kill pedestrians they hit. With their high bumpers, SUVs tend to hit pedestrians in the chest and knock them to the ground, rather than flipping them onto the relatively soft bonnet, as is the case in passenger cars.
Despite being less fuel efficient, more polluting and sometimes more dangerous than passenger cars, the SUV isn’t going anywhere.
|Lamborghini Urus launch in Capetown, South Africa
Growing sales in Africa and the rest of the developing world suggest that when car drivers become more affluent, they start thinking about upgrading to larger vehicles. But if we can’t kick our love affair with SUVs, how else can we get out of the environmental cul-de-sac we’re driving down?
But the clock is ticking. Transport is Europe’s biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions and oil consumption in the EU, and rising at its fastest pace since 2001. The European Commission has set the EU the target of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, while the UK has set itself a legally-binding goal to bring greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.
Any monumental confusion among today’s SUV owners, and how their choice of vehicle relates to the protection of the environment, or gas-guzzling does not appear apparent right now.
Just look at Toyota's ad campaigns aimed at millenials who might originally think of buying a passenger car - only to be seduced by deals on SUVs, because .... the profit margin is higher!
Perhaps, after a couple of year’s ownership, the full impact of the poor fuel economy, the increased servicing costs and the dreadful residual values will hit home. SUVs may accommodate a growing family and all their stuff, but they are probably the most inappropriate choice for family motoring – when I believe a stylish station wagon, like the Skoda Superb, would be a much smarter choice.
However, the truth is, I’m out of touch. SUVs will be with us for a while longer, although current sales stats show demand for mid-size and large SUVs is tapering off in favour of small and compact models.
Mind you, a decent compact petrol hatchback is still probably a better choice for more economical motoring that won’t destroy the planet.
|Kia Cerato (top) and Audi A5 Sportback