The Sport Utility Vehicle: America’s Gift That Keeps on Giving

Not to sound overly patriotic or offend my Canadian coworkers, but United States is responsible for giving the world so much greatness that it’s difficult not to get a little misty eyed when I stop to think about it.

America’s long history of inventiveness has blessed the globe with modern marvels like sunglasses, chewing gum, kitty litter, the atomic bomb and, of course, sport utility vehicles. While the atomic bomb doesn’t get much broad praise these days, the rest of the aforementioned items are exceptionally popular outside the nation’s borders — especially SUVs and their bastard offspring, the crossover.

In fact, they’ve been such a runaway success that SUVs accounted for over 25 percent of all European passenger vehicle sales in 2016. That’s up from 21 percent in 2015 and there’s no sign of it stopping anytime soon. Sport utility vehicles are expected to surpass a third of the region’s new vehicle market by 2020. Assumedly, America’s own SUV sales will be hovering around 100 percent by then — maybe more. But let’s not discount how crossover-crazy the rest of the globe has become or forget to remind ourselves that most of the world’s best-selling SUVs aren’t exactly “Made in America.” 

“It’s a global phenomenon that started in the U.S, spread to Europe and China and is now shaping emerging markets such as Brazil, India and Southeast Asia,” said Felipe Munoz, a global analyst for JATO Dynamics told Automotive News Europe.

This year, automakers are forecast to sell more than 4 million SUVs in Europe, which would push the market share past 28 percent and debunk the Western notion that Europe is a continent filled entirely with adorable vintage hatchbacks and small homes with ugly wallpaper.

China is even crazier for SUVs. According to figures from the Chinese Association Of Automobile Manufacturers, SUVs accounted for roughly 40 percent of the 2017 market’s 4.5 million total sales. That figure only accounts for the first half of the year, but it is at pace to result in a number many times higher than in 2011.

Since U.S. sales statistics typically place crossovers, SUVs, and pickups (which America also invented) into one big category, truck sales amassed a 60.7 percent share of 2016’s 17.5 million deliveries. Crossovers represented 33.8 percent the national total, creeping up from just 16.8 percent in 2007.

If you’re wondering why everyone seems to love them so much, automakers wonder the same thing. While their surging popularity initially seemed to wane as gas prices surged, they returned stronger than ever. They also returned in more shapes and sizes, meaning it was easier for customers to rationalize paying more for something they didn’t necessarily need.

“Prices are led by what consumers will pay, and clearly they’re valuing SUV robustness, the driving position, the big wheels, or they wouldn’t be buying them in the way they are,” Citroën CEO Linda Jackson told Automotive News Europe. “Clearly, SUVs are very profitable for any manufacturer,” she said.

Citroën was one of the few manufacturers without a comprehensive sport utility lineup and it’s funky little fleet hasn’t been able to see the kind of gains SUVs almost guarantee an automaker. It released the C3 Aircross earlier this year and plans to introduce more SUV/Aircross variants as it begins shying away from MPVs.

It’s not really Citroën’s fault for being behind the times, though. Not everyone in Europe could have possibly seen this trend coming because few North Americans did, either. A lot of automakers have been caught with their pants down. While most companies have fleshed out their lineups to include plenty of high-riding options, getting into segments early and playing with a complete deck has proved a massive advantage. The Nissan Rogue, Ford Escape, and Honda CR-V are all doing just fine, but even old-school body-on frame SUVs appear to be enduring the market slowdown rather nicely.

However, in Europe there are concerns that the growing outrage toward diesel-powered vehicles will severely hinder SUV growth, as that’s the dominant engine. Automakers are trying to mitigate this by accelerating electrification efforts and keeping fuel economy high (because EU fuel prices definitely will be). But, even if they fail, it’s not going to be enough to kill the segment. People are already paying extra money for SUVs when a simple hatchback would suffice, so there’s no reason they won’t spend a few extra dollars, pounds, euros, or yuan for a gasoline-powered SUV if diesels vanish.

The only thing likely to ever stop the SUV’s momentum is for it to become passé or so ubiquitous that we don’t really regard them as “different” anymore.

[Image: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles]

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