The modern SUV is a remarkable example of back-from-the-brink reinvention. Remember just a few years ago, how the spectre of the gas-guzzler roused fury in even the most mild-mannered of pedestrians? How owners were having to watch where they parked in case of unprompted attacks on their vehicle? How many were simply cutting their losses and running into the hot seat of a coupe-convertible, lifestyle estate or anything else that wasn’t a big and heavy 4x4?
It was arguably only fair. After all, the SUVs of seven or eight years ago were more than a little dinosaur-esque. They were, yes, very heavy, and guzzled gas at a rate that would leave you in no doubt why they were called so. Big petrol engines dominated the marketplace and even the relatively rare diesel alternatives were far from parsimonious.
Let’s remind ourselves of what people were first dashing into and then sliding from: the BMW X5, for example. The 286hp 4.4i V8 officially averaged 20mpg. Ouch. There was later a 3.0d, but this wasn’t a sea change either – it still emitted 259g/km CO2.
In 2004, BMW launched the X3 – again, only with petrol engines. The 2.5i didn’t sound too much of a guzzler, with its 192hp 2.5-litre straight six. But we’d be wrong. Just 25mpg was the official combined, combined with 272g/km CO2. From a ‘compact SUV’!
Let’s not pick on BMW, either. Remember the L322 Range Rover? You had a choice of 17mpg V8 or 25mpg diesel. Staggering. It took a diesel engine to help the 1998-series Mercedes ML struggle over 30mpg. Even so-called ‘eco’ models such as the Land Rover Freelander could only average 36mpg. And that’s with a diesel. Choose the more popular (head gasket-chewing) 1.8-litre petrol and this plummeted to 27mpg.
Such planet-damaging performances led the sector to the brink. Many actually pulled back from the SUV entirely, giving up on something that was once lucrative but was now a burden.
Then, two things happened. One, Nissan invented the European crossover sector, with the Qashqai. This was an SUV wannabe, with mild off-road pretentions and the all-important high seating position plus chunky looks that drew so many to 4x4s in the first place.
Today, it’s a top-10 best seller.
And, irony of irony, the environment also played its part, in a most unexpected way. For two successive winters, the snow fell for weeks on end and left millions stranded, inconvenienced or merely fed up. But what was the one thing that we saw on TV news time and again, helping the stranded become mobile again? Yes, the 4x4.
From zero to hero in weeks. Suddenly, a Range Rover was to be celebrated. More than that, now a 4x4 was the vehicle to be seen in. New and used car dealers couldn’t get enough of them and distress selling was now turning into distress buying, simply to ensure the queues of people willing to pay sticker price was managed.
Today? The crossover sector continues to thrive, with new entrants looking to ‘do a Qashqai’ and snap up people bored by hatchbacks and distressed by the thought of MPVs. And the big 4x4 sector continues to prosper too, something car manufacturers have ensured continues by bringing the big 4x4 into the modern age.
Look at today’s version of that 4x4 icon, the Range Rover. It can average over 38mpg in most-economical TDV6 guise and, next year, will get even better still when a new diesel hybrid version is launched. 45mpg and sub-170g/km CO2 emissions, from a vehicle that Land Rover promises will be no less capable off-road and no less imperious on it than any other Rangie? Line up here.
The Range Rover Evoque is a blinder, averaging over 57mpg and meaning even the style council can do their bit. And while the others are lagging behind, they won’t be for long. Land Rover knows there’s serious market success in making green 4x4s and it’s certainly going to capitalise on it.
Everywhere you look, though, there are extraordinarily fuel-efficient and planet-conscious SUVs. BMW’s just released the first two-wheel drive X3, which emits 135g/km CO2 and averages 55.4mpg. There’s a BMW X1 EfficientDynamics that can do nearly 63mpg and puts out just 119g/km CO2. Even the big X5 xDrive40d can back up its 306hp and 6.6-second 0-62mph dash with average economy of almost 38mpg (compare that to a decade ago…).
The SUV was nearly a goner here in the UK; the anti-4x4 establishment almost got their way. Manufacturers wizened up, though, and the planet played a timely card in showing just why we still need all-wheel drive vehicles with good ground clearance and plenty of wheel articulation.
The fact that sealed the deal, though, is the plain and simple fact people like 4x4s. They like ‘em enough to even forgive the foibles of the last generation – but when it comes to the power of the planet and our pockets, even this isn’t enough.
Behold the 4x4 reinvention, then. Crossovers help people pretend they’re in one and improvements to the real deal mean they don’t suffer if they are. It means we really still can have our cake and get it home in all weathers to eat it.
To be honest, driving a SUV and then going back to a 5-door convertible brings on the strangest feeling... I myself am a 'big car' driver... well, I say that and then I usually drive an Auris. Nice post.
October 22, 2012
Bravo for the above article. Given that many motorists want all wheel drive when snow or slippery roads happen, here's something I'd like automakers to develop: Why not take the familiar Toyota Prius, and mount traction motors on the rear wheels? This would offer added traction to make it easier to get moving under said driving conditions.
The same could also be done with the Chevrolet Volt, or other electric/hybrid electric cars with front wheel drive.
For rear wheel drive vehicles with electric and hybrid electric drive trains: If one were to mount traction motors on the front wheels, this too would offer the advantage of added traction under difficult driving conditions. In addition, said motors would provide regenerative braking.
October 17, 2012