The rise of the SUV

Traditional passenger cars are rapidly losing ground to the flexibility of Sports Utility Vehicles.

This year marked the moment so-called sport utility vehicles (SUVs) outsold passenger cars for the first time. By the end of November, with just one selling month remaining in 2017, SUVs – posting sales of 425,217 for the year to date – had comprehensively outsold passenger vehicles by nearly 12,000 units.

The dominance of SUVs in the local market was seen coming from a long way off, given the sales growth for the type long before it was known as ‘SUV’ – an American term with peculiarly local connotations in Australia. Where the Americans distinguish between vehicles that will go off-road and those that are ‘cross-overs’ or ‘CUVs’, the Australian market doesn’t make that distinction. They’re all SUVs here.

Why are they known as SUVs?

Up until 2003, sales of ‘soft-road’ vehicles like the Toyota RAV4, the Honda CR-V and the Nissan X-TRAIL were classed as light commercial vehicle sales, and the vehicles segmented as ‘All-terrain wagons’. VFACTS, the automotive sales statistician in Australia, recognised that some of these vehicles weren’t actually very capable off-road – and therefore hardly deserving of the title ‘All-terrain wagon’. So the industry adopted ‘SUV’ as a new class of vehicle and dropped the all-terrain wagon segments from the light commercial vehicle class with effect from 2003.

The timing was impeccable, with Ford introducing its soft-road Territory (pictured) the very next year. Since that ground-breaking (but not bush-bashing) vehicle, many SUVs brought to market have offered two-wheel drive only. It has resulted in a class of vehicle that is highly diversified – just like the LCV and passenger vehicle classes. SUVs can be a high-riding shopping trolley, like the Mazda CX-3 or Honda HR-V. It can be a high-riding sporty hatch, like the Nissan Juke or Toyota C-HR. It can even be a high-riding, prestige muscle car, like the Audi SQ5.

In short, imagine almost any type of passenger car, and there’s a high-riding SUV equivalent. Cars like Range Rover Evoque Convertible, for instance, and the Suzuki S-Cross highlight the broadening diversity of SUV design.

What’s driving SUV sales growth?

Other than the period immediately after the Global Financial Crisis, passenger-vehicle sales declined at roughly the same rate as SUV sales have risen. 

Passenger cars have been losing ground to SUVs in a patchy sort of way. Large cars were the first to fall out of favour and medium cars are struggling too. Light cars are faring worse than small cars, and even sports cars are in a worldwide slump that cannot apparently be arrested.

Few concessions

Industry experts point to numerous reasons for SUV sales taking off. There are the sheer flexibility and payload-carrying ability, plus the commanding view from the driver’s seat and ease of cabin access (hip point) for older drivers. These days there are few concessions to be made. Fuel consumption of soft-road SUVs is not much worse than comparable passenger cars and driveability is much improved from the good old days of ‘all-terrain wagons’.

It has taken SUVs as we now know them 15 years to overtake passenger cars for sales in the local market, but the avalanche is on the move, and there’ll be no stopping it.

Sales of passenger cars versus SUVs

2003 – 150,578 (SUV), 588,511 (PV)

2004 – 173,087 (SUV), 589,985 (PV)

2005 – 180,292 (SUV), 608,804 (PV)

2006 – 170,847 (SUV), 598,394 (PV)

2007 – 198,176 (SUV), 637,019 (PV)

2008 – 194,678 (SUV), 596,545 (PV)

2009 – 188,153 (SUV), 540,562 (PV)

2010 – 235,285 (SUV), 592,122 (PV)

2011 – 244,136 (SUV), 559,314 (PV)

2012 – 307,253 (SUV), 575,427 (PV)

2013 – 333,511 (SUV), 566,454 (PV)

2014 – 352,462 (SUV), 531,481 (PV)

2015 – 408,471 (SUV), 515,683 (PV)

2016 – 441,017 (SUV), 486,257 (PV)

2017 (up to November) – 425,217 (SUV), 413,264 (PV)

For more insights and analysis, check out Edition 9 of Auto Market Watch