SUVs – I don’t think I get it

I’ve spent the past week tooling around in an MG GS and before that, I took a Nissan Qashqai on a Tour of the North. Just before that, I sold my own Toyota RAV4. These three vehicles have combined to make me wonder what the point of an SUV is.

Only one of those vehicles had four-wheel drive – the RAV4 – though the Qashqai can be specified with all-wheel power, as can the MG in markets other than the UK. Here’s the thing though – buyers seem to be quite happy to buy SUVs with only two-wheel drive, so what’s the appeal?

The MG GS is very, er, SUV-shaped

Extra height, but is it actually a benefit?

I will say, I do like an upright driving position, with the feet considerably lower than the buttocks. I guess years of 2CV ownership have seen me grow rather accustomed to this. I’ve never been a huge fan of low, low seating positions. I may still be in my 30s, but I really can’t be doing with getting in and out of something that’s low to the ground.

But you don’t need an enormous vehicle to get such a position. The Nippa has a decent stab at it, as did my Daewoo Matiz from many moons ago.

Sure, neither offers the height of an SUV, but what does that extra height actually deliver in the way of benefit? With SUVs becoming ever more popular, it certainly doesn’t necessarily gain you that commanding view over other traffic that you might desire. Your view will simply be blocked by another SUV. It doesn’t get you a nice, low loading lip for the boot either, so you’d better build up your muscles for loading in the weekly shop.

One of the most successful British-built cars - the Nissan Qashqai.

You can’t stray far from the beaten track in a two-wheel drive SUV

It will give you less stability. No, you won’t wobble over the first time you go around a bend, but in a collision, an SUV may be more likely to take a tumble than a regular hatchback. It’s simple physics once you start raising a vehicle’s centre of gravity.

You aren’t necessarily safer either. These cars do a marvellous job of making you feel safer – all chunky styling that looks like it should repel other cars like water meeting the impenetrable barrier of a duck’s back. But, they don’t necessarily protect you any better in a collision than a regular car. In some ways (ah, stability again), they may be worse.

Then there’s the running costs. I was impressed with the 50+mpg of the Qashqai, but that’s pretty dreary these days for a family hatchback. Citroen was delivering such figures in the 1980s in a car with pretty much the same level of space, and a far better ride (though nowhere near the same interior refinement to be fair). The MG seems to be doing a terrifying 31mpg, which can be bettered by my 20-year old Honda with the aerodynamics of a fridge-freezer. I do not see the expected progress here.

It can go greenlaning, but it's not very good.

A pioneering SUV, and one that, despite four-wheel drive, just isn’t equipped for the rough stuff.

You can’t shove an SUV through the air as efficiently as a conventional hatchback. That chunkiness and raised ground clearance do not help here. Nor does the greater weight they have, though some weight has been saved by not bothering with the four-wheel drive system that you’d expect such a vehicle to have. You can even specify a Land Rover Discovery Sport with front-wheel drive only. I just find this laughable. It’s like buying a rain hat that isn’t waterproof. Sure, it might look nice and stylish, but when conditions turn, you’re going to be left looking foolish.

That came so close to happening to me this very weekend. Travelling back from Sussex in the MG, we encountered freshly falling snow. Grip was reduced by a very large amount, but thankfully we managed to get through. However, I can say with certainty that it wouldn’t have taken very much more snow for us to really start struggling. The fat tyres needed to keep an SUV from skidding off the road are absolutely no help in snow at all. Nor is not actually having four-wheel drive (before you query it, four-wheel drive does not make you invincible in the snow, but it can help you get moving).

All three SUVs seemed hampered by their suspension too. With the need to control a high centre of gravity, there’s not as much give as you might hope for. They’re all rather firm in the springing department.

So, they cost more to buy, cost more to run and actually do a worse job of ‘being a car’ than a more conventional hatchback or estate. I shall continue to be bamboozled by the rise of the SUV.

3 thoughts on “SUVs – I don’t think I get it

  1. Dare I suggest it is the modern disease of of form over function? Just look at modern TV advertising for cars. Seems these days it is how the car makes you “feel” is the important thing, whatever that means. God help us.
    I quite like little Suzuki 4X4’s personally, especially the Samurai, although I’m not sure if they would make a very practical everyday car either, having almost no boot space and very limited room in the back, but for playing in the mud and rocks they are absolutely brilliant. Anyhow, I am grateful to your musings on the pointless SUV for saving me from ever bothering to try one in the future.
    I guess the lack of four wheel drive is because there really isn’t any point if you have alloy wheels and low profile road tyres. Anyhow, the sort of person who would buy one is not going risk driving it over anything more rugged than a kerb outside the school, much like most urban Land/Range Rover owners…
    Keep the road tests coming, Ian, they are always interesting.

  2. I am not a fan of SUVs too, I dont get the appeal.

    But my wife has bought a 2010 Honda CR-V two years ago and now I understand, why they are so popular.

    My wife wanted a car with 4WD for austrian winters and with an automatic gearbox. And she wanted to sit higher than in a normal car. But she does a lot of autobahn-driving, so an offroader would not have been ideal. So an SUV was the only thing that came into mind.

    And it really combines all these things in one car. It´s practical too so all the stuff our baby demands can be driven around in it.

    A normal car (for example a Mazda 6 Estate) would be faster, cheaper to run, would have more interieur-space and would be more frugal. But no higher seating position is a no-go for a lot of people. For my wife too.

    • I must admit, I do like a higher driving position, but not enough for the greater costs involved. Besides, as I mentioned, you don’t get much benefit from that higher driving position if everyone is driving tall vehicles! Also, an SUV with 4×4 is genuinely useful. An SUV without it seems very silly.

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