SUV’s are very popular in the US market but most do not know that they were virtually non-existent for the first 80 years of the evolution of the auto industry. The following is backstory about their sudden emergence, followed by some practical tips for those considering purchasing an SUV.
IN THE BEGINNING
By the early 1980’s, very few consumers owned an SUV. The vast majority of vehicles sold were sedans (4 door cars), coupes (2 door cars), sporty cars and full-sized pick-up trucks. So what changed since then? SUV sales result in 6 out of every 10 ten trucks and 3 out of every 10 cars and trucks combined; needless to say, this has been a dramatic shift in the auto market. Are there signs of further dramatic shifts ahead? Let’s explore.
Fuel Economy Laws
With the advent of fuel economy laws, new smaller cars could not provide the functionality consumers needed; thus, automakers began to design new light-truck concept vehicles with “passenger car-like” comforts. This window of opportunity (some say ‘loop-hole’ in the law) allowed new light-trucks to be designed that appealed to passenger car consumers, while still ‘technically’ being classified as a light truck and thereby subject to much less stringent fuel economy requirement.
Incidentally, the catalyst for the lower light-truck fuel economy law was due to the recognition that many pickup trucks and vans were used for small businesses, thus there was a desire to avoid economic penalties to small business owners.
The first of these new designs to appear in the market was a compact SUV developed off the Chevy S10 pickup truck in 1983. It was fairly limited in capability, being released with only two-wheel drive and two doors. Very soon other automakers followed with new concepts that had broader appeal, such as being a little wider (Ford Explorer) and also offering four-wheel drive.
Eventually, this emerging market started seeing compact trucks with extended cabs, short and long pick-up boxes and four-doors. From here an explosion of development emerged that saw mid-sized trucks, SUV’s and large trucks boasting a proliferation of features for broad consumer appeal.
Some luxury brands were a bit skeptical, at first, about associating their brand with a truck image. One good example is Cadillac, who chose not to offer Luxury SUV’s for fear that it may somehow weaken or diminish their luxury image and uniqueness within the marketplace. Only after the Lincoln Navigator, Mercedes ML, and the Lexus RX300 were in development did Cadillac finally start working on an SUV.
Today there are close to a dozen luxury automakers offering forty-five SUV models. Although many factors are taken into consideration when a new product is offered, there is one overriding concern – profit margin. Simply put, luxury vehicles bring in much higher profit margins to the automaker than common four-door sedans.
Overall, there are twenty-five total automakers offering SUV’s, with over one hundred different models to choose from in the US market including several specialty offerings and hybrid models. So how do you know what is best for you?
Car-Based vs. Truck-Based
Car-based SUVs, sometimes referred to as a CUV, or crossover utility vehicle, generally provide attributes associated with cars, like better handling, higher fuel economy, a quieter, more comfortable ride and more interior room. Truck-based sport-utility vehicles are sturdier and heavier and can tow more weight and generally provide better off-road mobility.
Compact SUVs offer both four- and six-cylinder engines. The midsize versions usually come standard with six-cylinder engines, with optional four- and eight-cylinder engines as well. Full-size SUVs feature V8 engines. The most economical four-cylinder SUVs can usually achieve combined mileage figures in the low-to-mid 20s, while most six-cylinder models average in the upper teens. Full-size vehicles generally get between 12 and 20 mpg. A new class of SUV is also emerging, using gas-electric hybrid technologies that offer the highest fuel economy yet.
Many luxury brands offer automatic climate control, heated seats, iPod interfaces, navigation systems, and keyless start systems. Other perks such as Bluetooth capability, rear-seat entertainment systems, flat-folding third-row seats, special storage bins and rear seats that slide and/or recline are also fairly common. Today, a large cross-section of luxury automakers offer an SUV, including Acura, Audi, BMW, Buick, Cadillac, Infiniti, Land Rover, Lexus, Lincoln, Porsche and Volvo.
Passenger Capacity/Interior Space
All but a few SUVs are designed to carry at least five passengers. Most compacts provide enough rear legroom for full-size adults, with several offering seat adjustments to extend either passenger space or cargo capacity. The same goes for larger SUVs, but these wider vehicles are more likely to accommodate three-across seating.
Many larger SUVs and even some midsize ones offer the option of adding a third-row seat for additional passenger capacity. Such seats are generally best suited for kids, but a few full-size SUVs have third-row seats that can comfortably fit adults.
Every sport-utility allows you to fold or remove the rear seats for more cargo capacity. When the rear seat is folded, compacts can provide as much as 70 cubic feet of capacity, while midsize SUVs can expand to almost 100 cubic feet. Full-size SUVs offer cargo areas in excess of 100 cubic feet.
Two-wheel drive (2WD) means that only the front or rear wheels provide power to the vehicle. Four-wheel-drive vehicles allow the driver to select either two- or four-wheel drive, and the four-wheel-drive (4WD) system sometimes features dual-range gearing for even more traction and mobility while off-roading.
All-wheel-drive (AWD) vehicles automatically distribute power in varying degrees to the wheels with the most traction, and they are typically best suited to all-weather driving rather than pure off-roading. All-wheel drive generally weighs far less than a 4WD system, but there is typically an impact on fuel efficiency. Part-time 4WD and AWD systems attempt to minimize fuel-efficiency compromises by permitting two-wheel drive.
Since compact SUVs are generally smaller, lighter and have less complex four-wheel-drive systems, maintenance and fuel costs are generally lower. With broader size and larger engines, midsize and full-size SUV’s by and large get worse mileage and are more costly to insure. This is especially true of truck-based models.
J.D. Power and Associates conducts routine surveys of thousands of auto consumers to determine their views of quality after the first 90 days of ownership. Their study is called APEAL, which stands for Automotive, Product, Execution and Layout. For 2013 they show the top vehicles in the following SUV categories:
- 1. Compact Multi-Purpose Vehicles - Kia Soul
- 2. Compact Premium CUVs – Audi Allroad, Audi Q5, Land Rover Evoque
- 3. Large CUVs – Nissan Armada, Toyota Sequoia, GMC Yukon
- 4. Large Premium CUVs – Land Rover Range Rover, Mercedes Benz GL, Infiniti QX56
- 5. Midsize CUVs – Nissan Murano, Buick Enclave, Honda Crosstour
- 6. Midsize Premium CUVs – Porsche Cayenne, Audi A7, BMW X5
- 7. Subcompact CUVs – Buick Encore, Volkswagen Tiguan, Hyundai Tucsan
The quality of vehicles in general has jumped considerably since the advent of the SUV, yielding the emergence of this new and highly competitive marketplace.
About Author John Weber
Offering a true insider’s perspective, John has provided automotive-related insight to the corporate conference rooms of General Motors Corporation, Isuzu Motors, Mitsubishi Motors, J.D. Power and Associates and others, covering a wide range of topics involving product policy and strategy, product development, quality, manufacturing and customer satisfaction.
A member of the Society of Automotive Engineers boasting degrees in both mechanical engineering and business, John is additionally recognized as an automotive industry expert by the US Department of Energy. When not providing valuable expert content to Auto.com, he enjoys traveling with his wife around the globe.