SUVs are going to dominate the road

Big ungainly vehicles will pull ahead

Business

The moment of triumph for the “sport utility vehicle” may have already arrived. In July 2017 Ferrari*, maker of the super-fast sports cars that embody Italian glamour, announced that it was to build its first SUV. The decision represented something of a handbrake turn. The upright stance and imposing bulk of SUVs, it had always been said, were an ill fit with the firm’s low-slung racers. But in the end, the moneymaking potential was too good to refuse. The company will call the car an FUV, or Ferrari utility vehicle, in the hope that this will distract motoring purists from its four doors and oversized wheels.

But 2018 could bring another milestone. For the first time, over half the sales of new cars worldwide will comprise SUVs and their close cousins, if the trends tracked by JATO, a firm that compiles car statistics, keep going. Whereas the popularity of most types of saloon car and hatchbacks decreased in 2016, sales of suvs rose by 20%. CUVs (crossover-utility vehicles), people-carriers and pick-ups also gained ground.

SUVs appeal to drivers and carmakers alike. Owners fall for the idea that the off-road lifestyle will provide fun and adventure, even if the toughest obstacles they are likely to encounter are speed bumps and kerbs. Parents on the school run find that suvs give an added feeling of safety, despite there being little evidence that these bulkier beasts are any less risky in a crash. Large interiors can at least accommodate more luggage or shopping. And the raised driving position helps with visibility­—though the ability to peer over smaller cars is diminishing as the proportion of suvs grows. 

For carmakers the appeal is obvious. They have packed their ranges with models to suit the pockets of all drivers, from the super-rich—a Lamborghini Urus starts at €170,000 ($201,000)—to the most modest budget. The desirability of SUVs means carmakers can charge higher prices and make fatter margins. 

As these boxes on wheels dominate, it is not only nostalgists who will lament. Larger cars are, with more bodywork to cart around, less fuel-efficient than smaller ones. A higher centre of gravity affects handling; it is possible that the cars are more likely to tip over in a high-speed turn, thinks the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an American government agency. Some road users moan that drivers of SUVs, ensconced in their fortresses, begin to feel invincible, which results in unsafe driving. And they take up too much room in parking spaces, and on the road itself. Still, with even Ferrari changing lanes, the advance of SUVs appears unstoppable. 

*John Elkann, chairman and chief executive of Exor, an investment firm with a controlling stake in Ferrari, also sits on the board of The Economist’s parent company

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