Here's why the SUV is ruining the auto industry
The SUV is ruining the auto industry. There have been many who have been saying this for the past two decades, but I've finally come around to it. This isn't to say they are useless things, moving gear and people around in harsh or super remote places is probably best done in a well-equipped sport-ute. What I'm referring to are the soul-sucking mini-SUVs (also known as crossovers), the ultra-luxury high-performance editions, and the faux-warriors of the suburbs -- the so-called "family SUV." These are vehicles that serve no purpose, other than affording the owner a sense of superiority previously reserved exclusively for Prius owners.
I wrote a while back about how there are no small cars anymore. Small cars have gone the way of non-obese American children; there are a few, but they are boring and poorly behaved and are constantly broken. They are no longer exciting. The sense of danger and excitement that could only be felt in a car that weighs 400 kilos, powered by a turbocharged lawnmower engine, is gone. Yes, the current assortment of small cars is objectively better, but they lack a certain coolness that comes from being super bad. You can tell as soon as you get into a modern compact or sub-compact that the designers and engineers spent a lot of time thinking about how not to kill their occupants. Apparently, they didn’t think very hard, however, as their solution was to just build a bigger car.
Who is to blame?
This is 100% the fault of the SUV. As automakers started realizing that they could nail a couple boxes to a truck frame they had laying around. They could slap on whatever tire they had attached to their previous model family sedan, brand it as a Sports Utility Vehicle, and families who were too “manly” for a mini-van would be kicking down their doors to get one. These families could get a massive, and supposedly very safe (see massive) family hauler that wasn’t the station wagon they had had as children. All for the same money as a full-size sedan.
OJ didn’t help, either.
If Orenthal James Simpson hadn’t hopped in the back seat of the world’s most famous Bronco, taking the world on a tension-filled joyride through Los Angeles, the SUV might not have been so quick to take over. That Bronco looked so cool, though. Leading dozens of miserable, police issue Crown Victorias into the California sunset with thousands of people lining the streets cheering it on. I imagine there were many thousands of people watching, thinking to themselves; “If AC just takes that thing off-road, the cops are done. What if I need to take my car off-road to evade the law? I got to look into getting one of those…” The “need” for a capable trail vehicle that wasn’t useless in populated urban centers was born.
It’s this “need” for a city dwelling population to own vehicles that are capable of scaling mountains that I fail to understand. To make them usable in the city, all new SUVs are fitted with either really cheap all-season — sometimes called all-terrain, which is super disingenuous — or a summer tire that would be more at home on a 500HP supercar. Both tire options render any SUV utterly useless in an environment they were designed and built for. Then we must talk about the drivetrain. About half of the SUV/CUVs sold are fitted with two-wheel drive, with a majority of those being front wheel drive. Only about twenty percent of the models sold with four-wheel drive are considered all-wheel-drive vehicles, which means that at any given time a wild majority of SUVs are being propelled in the same manner as a Kia Rio. If your SUV utilizes a limited slip diff and you’re not using an all-wheel-drive, depending on traction conditions, you’re probably only using one wheel to impede traffic.
What is the point?
If your intention is to get an economical car that is safe, comfortable, practical, and affordable — why get an SUV which is none of those things? If you intend to traverse mountains or cross rivers and all of the donkeys and boats are unavailable, why get an SUV that can’t handle smooth pavement when it gets too damp? Especially if that car is only being driven by one wheel at any given moment. Why not buy something that suits your needs rather than something that doesn’t? If the best argument for spending more money to get a less safe, less economical, less attractive, less practical, less exciting, slightly easier to get in and out of car is that you “sit up higher”, you really need to be questioning whether or not you should be driving in the first place.
Honestly, if you can’t see the absurdity and illogical nature of that type of decision making, how can you possibly be making the correct decisions when operating the thing? Imagine that you get an eye infection. It’s the first one you’ve ever had and a total fluke. You take your gooey eyeball to a specialist who puts some drops in and after a few days you’re right as rain. Now imagine that your unscrupulous cousin, who sells lemons for a living, tells you that you could have saved a bundle just putting a couple drops of lemon juice in your eye. “It’s acidic,” he says, “acid kills everything.” He then recommends that you put a couple drops of his “special” lemon eye-tonic — which he just invented — in daily to ward off future eye-infections. And you, being a rational, sane, human adult who does adult things, does it. Enthusiastically. Sounds nuts right?
This is the same exact logic that the automakers use to sell you a six-thousand ton, lifted EcoSport hatchback rather than the Fiesta that you should be interested in. All manufacturers make a reasonable non-lifted hatch or wagon that would serve the needs of 99% of city dwellers. Yet they have managed to create this need for a supposedly capable off-roader because those urbanites might someday need to venture out of the confines of civilization. Grown people, young and old, are choosing to spend tens of thousands of their dollars for something that they might only need once over the entire length of ownership.
Worse yet, so many SUVs have been sold over the last few years that even brands with storied histories and reputations for excellence are having to join in or disappear. Bentley has an SUV for crying-out-loud. Lamborghini has unleashed the Urine upon us, permanently leaving a stain on their reputation as a company that produces vehicles for insane people with interesting jobs. Rumor has it, even Ferrari will join in shortly. I’m all for disrupting the status quo, never holding things sacred and all that, but this feels different. This feels like extortion. Car buyers who would instead put lemon juice in their eyes than make a rational decision are strong-arming our institutions into degrading their core beliefs.
The bit where I blame the media.
Car journalists haven’t helped, either. There was a period of time, just a few years ago, where journos turned their collective noses up at these rolling compromises. Even Consumer Reports, the worlds most boring company, wasn’t too keen on the idea of a lifted wagon hatch thing. However these opinions, no matter how firmly held, began to wither and die once the manufacturers started throwing around ad money and supplying certain journalists with effectively free cars. To be fair, the general public is a force that can generate massive change in a short period of time with their opinion. This public opinion became a significant factor in what content was published monthly in the industry rags and on the early internet sites, further fanning the public’s flame of desire for the SUV.
So, there you have it.
The SUV is a scourge placed upon our societies by manufacturers to bilk us out of a few thousand more dollars to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. It’s at this point, however, that I must say that none of this matters. The industry has changed. People want SUVs. Me and every other “motoring enthusiast” whining about it doesn’t change that fact one iota. We’re a tiny voice squeaking at constant change like a grain of sand pleading with the ocean not to alter its tide. I suppose all that matters is that people are still buying their own vehicles rather than moving to public transit. Maybe we, the enthusiasts, should embrace that people are still interested in driving and encourage them in their choice. Let’s help them make the right decision when selecting their dreary, boring lifted hatchbacks and maybe, just maybe they will stop buying anything other than a Volvo.
Buying what you like