The SUV Conundrum

Posted: July 30, 2011 in Cars
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Okay, we’re going to get a little interactive here. Hands up if you own one of the following; Ford Territory, Subaru Tribeca, BMW X3 – X6, Toyota RAV4 or Kluger, Nissan X-Trail, Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorrento or Tucson, Mitsubishi Outlander, Holden Captiva, Mercedes M-Class, Volkswagen Tiguan, Honda CR-V or any other so-called SUV.

Right, got them up, good, now keep them up if you can tell me why. Seriously, what made you buy one of these over a regular station wagon? For the life of me I can’t figure it out and I deal with pretty much every one of the aforementioned vehicles on a daily basis. Where, you might ask? In the scrub? No. Out on a mountain trail? Again, no. In fact I deal with them on the daily school run. This makes the mystery of these vehicles run ever deeper.

In the commercials for these cars we see families leaving the city behind and heading into the bush. We see them climbing mountain roads and heading into regions that even Sir Ranulph Fiennes would balk at, towing a boat! They are the ultimate answer to a question that nobody has ever asked.

When the first SUV, or Sports Utility Vehicle, lobbed onto our shores, motoring journalists across the nation didn’t even know how to refer to them. The first term used was Soft Off-Roader and referred to the Toyota RAV4. Off-roader? Most of these things would have trouble climbing a leafy driveway. So that one was scrubbed and we borrowed the term SUV from the Americans.

When I think about the term SUV in its entirety I can’t even work out how that one fits. Let’s break it up. S stands for Sports. When I think of Sports and how it relates to vehicles I think Lotus Elise/Exige, I think Porsche 911, I think touring cars and Formula One. In other words I think lightweight track cars that make the driver and car connect in a way that ensures driving nirvana. I sure as hell don’t think of a near two-tonne lumbering barge that even when you really give it the beans has trouble getting to one hundred km/h inside double figures.

U stands for utility. Once you tick the option for the extra row of seats, (and yes, I’ll admit that having seven seats can be handy), the luggage capacity for one of these is reduced to the size of a hand-bag. So unless you’re carrying the average super-models lunch you’re going to run into problems trying to fit the shopping in, let alone heading out to Bunnings to pick up supplies for that little DIY project. Utility in Australia means just that. The Holden Ute, the Ford Ute, Toyota HiLux and others. They’re one-tonners and they get the job done. How many tradies do you see on-site with their Captivas waiting in the wings?

V stands for Vehicle, and when you get right down to it that’s what you’re buying. Forget everything else. At best they’re a niche market that’s gone mainstream. I would conservatively suggest that 85% of these vehicles are driven by women and I sometimes watch and wonder what they are thinking when they’re struggling to get into a Shopping Centre car park or trying to perform a three-point turn. I’m not suggesting that male drivers could do these manoeuvres any better, I’m just trying to point out they’re a big car and big cars are harder to park than smaller cars. It’s just common sense.

A friend recently bought a Ford Territory and I posed the question to him. Why? The best he could come up with was that it has a high-driving position. Personally, I hate a high driving position for a number of reasons. One, you’re high, and that means you’re further removed from the road and therefore less likely to be able to feel what the car is doing. Two, you’re high, this means that your centre of gravity is too. This is why back in the early days of these vehicles had a nasty tendency to fall over when navigating a slight bend. When it all comes down to it the only reason to buy a vehicle with a high driving position is so you can see over all the other idiots that have bought these stupid vehicles.

In Europe, sales figures of SUV’s have plummeted as the public have drifted back to station wagons. They have realised that there is no distinct benefit to buying one. You get no extra room, no extra features and a worse driving experience. Because these vehicles also have a token 4WD option you get a massive amount of weight which in turn pushes your fuel costs up until even people like me, with massive V8’s, are laughing at you as you fill your tank for the third time that week.

For example, as some of you may have read, last year I drove from Melbourne to Surfers Paradise in my V8. This was a trip that my father in law did in a Hyundai Sportage V6 not so long ago. The results: I managed 5000 kms at a combined average fuel use of 10.4l / 100 km. The Hyundai managed just 12.5l / 100 km. It was basically the same trip except I had more in town running which should have made my figures a whole lot worse.

Then you get that special idiot who’s bought one of these who comes out with the standard, “I like having the option of going off-road.” Yeah, really, how’s that working out for you Sparky? Let’s face facts, the closest any of these will go to being off-road is parking on someone’s nature strip, and even that will be a struggle. They are a compromise, they are supposed to drive like a car on the road and perform like a Range Rover when they’re off it. What we end up with is something that can’t do either. A real off-road driver buys a LandCruiser or a Range Rover which is fantastic in the scrub but handles like a boat on the road, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. No compromise and no excuses, they are what they are, dedicated off-road machines.

The SUV is a category of vehicle that should never have existed. There was no need for them then and no need for them now. The sales figures though suggest otherwise and prove that the idiots are indeed breeding. I urge you all, if you’re considering buying one of these mutants, take a wagon for a drive before making your final decision. You will thank me for it later.

This articles was first published in the May 2010 issue of The King’s Tribune.

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