Why We’re Still Being Driven to Buy SUVs
Despite the near-constant gloomy news headlines we’re so used to reading about the overall health of the automotive industry, the first nine months of 2017 in fact saw continued growth worldwide – albeit at a steady if unspectacular 4% – continuing the pattern witnessed from 2015-16.
Although the range of best-selling models worldwide remains fairly diverse across all continents, a key factor in this incremental increase appears to be our seemingly insatiable collective appetite for SUVs. They’ve enjoyed consistently improved year-on-year sales since around 2012; indeed, in the US, whose ongoing domestic industry struggles are so often responsible for those aforementioned gloomy headlines, today’s booming SUV market is frequently characterised as propping the sector up almost singlehandedly.
There’s also a similar story emerging in China, another market experiencing a slight but worrying slip overall. There, SUVs have accounted for more than half of all new domestic models to hit showroom floors over the past twelve months.
A sign of the times
The reasons why vehicle industries worldwide continually garner so much attention, of course, are threefold.
Firstly, there are an awful lot of manufacturing jobs tied directly to it, and many more that rely on it somewhere along the lengthy chain that runs from designers and tech developers to fleet owners, salespeople and professional drivers. Secondly, potential implications for the future of all those jobs remain under constant scrutiny as we continue our seemingly inexorable march towards a high-tech driverless future.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly from a global markets perspective, auto manufacture and sales data are commonly cited as bellwethers for the overall health of a given economy. To oversimplify somewhat, whenever there’s a significant dip in consumer confidence, new cars are one of the first things we stop buying.
In a slowdown, businesses and other commercial buyers don’t renew their fleets as frequently, which can have a surprisingly significant impact on major automakers (including Ford and GM). Personal finance loan rates – so often locked in a symbiotic relationship with levels of car ownership – fluctuate wildly. Sales of used cars creep up, which in turn leads to an increase in lease deals, pushing down the value of similar deals already done two or three years previously and impacting further on current manufacturer profits.
What’s in a name?
However, while our apparent reliance on SUVs for supporting domestic markets in certain key countries continues to earn a lot of column inches, the whole thing could yet turn out to be a bit of a red herring. Not because the figures don’t back up claims of SUVs being the current saviour – they certainly do – but because making any real, meaningful distinction between SUVs and ‘regular’ cars is becoming increasingly pointless.
15 years ago, when we really started talking about ‘SUVs’ and their growing impact on sales data, we would generally have been referring to a vehicle built more like a traditional pickup truck – a heavy, rigid, typically body-on-frame sort of model, notorious for guzzling fuel and handling like a suburban tank.
Fast forward to 2017, and the picture couldn’t be more different; most of today’s leading SUV models are essentially constructed far more like traditional family station wagons. (The mere fact that they’re enjoying such traction in Europe should tell us that, design-wise, we’re quite literally not in Kansas anymore.)
Sure, they’re raised a little higher off the road than the typical family runaround of yesteryear, and they frequently come bundled with optional all-wheel drive functionality – but even so, new models are essentially a station wagon by any other name. The majority of this year’s hottest-selling brands have been unibody, lightweight, nippy little people carriers that offer very comparable fuel economy to a regular sedan, don’t require a stepladder to get into, and are no more troublesome to park outside a grocery store than it is to return a shopping cart.
So yes, SUVs are still propping up the car industry in many nations around the globe (and very likely in yours, statistically speaking). But amid all the dozens of theories posted out there about precisely why that might be, we may just be overlooking the most important one of all: could it be because, to all intents and purposes, they’re...y’know, cars?