Why Have SUVs Become So Popular? What Is Driving This Change?

Over the past few decades, SUVs have become increasingly popular in the automotive industry. 

These vehicles have become a common sight on the roads, and – depending on who you ask – it’s not difficult to see why.

SUVs offer a range of benefits that have helped to make them a popular choice for drivers of all ages and backgrounds, while at the same time becoming a point of ridicule and scorn for many motoring enthusiasts and “purists”.

One of the main reasons why SUVs have become so popular is their versatility. These vehicles are designed to be able to handle a range of driving conditions, from city streets to off-road terrain (albeit usually light terrain, there are scant few SUVs that can properly handle off-roading unless you step up to something like a Range Rover or seek something like an original Volkswagen Touareg that was a pioneer in terms of offering a refined on-road driving experience with genuine 4×4 capabilities).

They also offer plenty of space for passengers and cargo, making them an ideal choice for families, outdoor enthusiasts, and anyone who needs to transport large items on a regular basis.

In addition to their versatility, SUVs also offer a sense of safety and security that many drivers find appealing. With their large size and sturdy construction, SUVs are often seen as safer than smaller vehicles, especially in the event of a collision. Sometimes this is true, sometimes it isn’t. Many SUVs also come equipped with advanced safety features, such as lane departure warnings and blind spot monitoring, that can help drivers avoid accidents and stay safe on the road. Drivers also tend to enjoy the higher seating position that gives a more commanding view of the road.

In this article we’re going to look at some of the reasons why SUVs have become so popular – to the point of effectively dominating the industry – how they stack up to “normal” car types (sedans, hatches etc) and what the downsides are … because despite what auto makers would have you believe it’s not all good news when it comes to SUVs. 

SUV Market Share Growth 

SUVs (sometimes called CUVs) have become increasingly popular in recent years.

Don’t believe it? Here’s a simple chart showing the growth (in terms of market share) of SUVs in key automotive markets:

This isn’t the most up-to-date chart, and our understanding is that SUVs now comprise well over 50% of auto sales in the American market, for example. 

Look at a company like Mitsubishi, whose lineup once consisted of all sorts of interesting sedans, hatches, coupes and more, with legendary names such as the 3000GT/GTO, Evo and FTO. 

Now the lineup is basically all SUVs, most of them PHEVs or hybrids, with the cheap-as-chips Mirage lurking in the wings. In fact, Mitsubishi is very clear about the fact that they basically intend to focus only on the SUV segment going-forward. 

The reason for all these SUVs and crossovers?

$$$$ – it’s what the customers want to buy (there is a misconception in our view amongst some of the automotive community that SUVs are being forced on to customers; businesses will sell what customers want to buy, and that is clearly SUVs). 

They offer a combination of features that many drivers find appealing, from their size and power to their comfort and versatility.

Reasons Why SUVs Have Become So Popular

Comfort and Space

One of the main appeals of SUVs is their spacious interiors. They typically offer plenty of room for passengers and cargo, making them ideal for families, road trips, and other activities that require a lot of space.

In addition, many SUVs are designed with comfort in mind, offering features like plush seating, climate control, and advanced sound systems that make long drives more enjoyable. In the early days you’d need to opt for a more premium SUV like a Volkswagen Touareg or Porsche Cayenne to get the “boujee” features but now they are commonplace on even affordable brand cars.

Ride Height

Another factor that contributes to the comfort of SUVs is their height. Because they sit higher off the ground than most cars, SUVs provide a better view of the road ahead, giving drivers a sense of control and confidence. Ask an SUV driver what they like about their car versus a comparable (spec and performance-wise) wagon or hatch and the answer will often involve the superior driving position and ride height.

The higher ride height also makes getting in and out of an SUV easier for older drivers and their passengers who might have comprised mobility, as well as anybody else who might have a bad hip or other mobility challenges. It also makes loading children into car seats much easier as well.

Versatility

Another reason why SUVs have become so popular is their versatility.

They are designed to handle a wide range of driving conditions, from city streets to more rugged terrain such as dirt track or gravel roads.

Many SUVs are equipped with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, which makes them ideal for off-road adventures or driving in inclement weather.

In addition, SUVs can be used for a variety of purposes, from hauling cargo to towing trailers.

Many models offer fold-down seats and other features that make it easy to transport large items. Some even have built-in roof racks or cargo carriers that allow drivers to carry even more gear.

Reputation/Appearance

Another factor that most buyers won’t admit to, but which is a component of the SUV success formula is that typically they are perceived by mainstream automotive buyers as as more premium option.

Park a Mazda 6 wagon next to a Mazda CX-5 (roughly comparable in price, performance and spaciousness) and we guarantee that nine out of ten buyers would say the CX-5 is the higher end car.

Apart from the cast of Selling Sunset very few people like to admit that the perception of the products they buy – including cars – is an important purchasing factor but marketing science informs us that it really is true.

Overall, the appeal of SUVs lies in their combination of comfort, space, and versatility – and the fact that their popularity and desirability as more premium vehicles has become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Marketing and Branding

Target Demographic Focus

SUVs have become increasingly popular in recent years, in part because of effective marketing campaigns that have targeted specific demographics.

One of the primary demographics targeted by SUV manufacturers is families with children. SUVs are marketed as being capable of handling the needs of a family, with ample space for passengers and cargo and an ability to make life easier when it comes to doing day-to-day tasks like loading up the shopping or putting the kids into the car.

Additionally, SUVs are often marketed as being safer than other types of vehicles, which is a major selling point for parents who want to protect their children. In fact, there was an entire episode of The Simpsons based around Marge Simpson discovering the joy of driving a whopping great SUV and the added safety it brings, only to then discover the downsides.

“Can-yo-ne-ro” … don’t pretend you don’t remember the song.

Another demographic that SUV manufacturers target is outdoor enthusiasts. SUVs are marketed as being capable of handling rugged terrain, making them ideal for camping, hiking, and other outdoor activities. Sometimes SUVs talk a big game in this department but are terrible once the tarmac runs out (more on that later) but increasingly manufacturers are improving the off-road chops of crossover vehicles. 

This demographic is often drawn to the rugged, adventurous image that SUVs project.

In our recent article on why Subarus are so popular, we went into more detail about how Subaru has been so successful in using its ubiquitous AWD technology to corner the market in people who want SUVs with actual off-road capability. 

SUV Downsides

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, it’s not all good news and rainbows and unicorns when it comes to SUVs.

Despite the staggering rise in their popularity as a class of vehicle, there are some clear downsides that you need to consider. 

Inferior Driving Experience

In terms of having a higher driving position and more commanding presence on the road, SUVs beat normal cars like sedans, hatches and wagons.

However, for driving purists who enjoy more spirited and engaging driving, an SUV will almost always be worse than a comparable non-SUV.

For example, drive a VW Golf versus a VW Tiguan and you’ll immediately see what we mean; the Golf is just so much better to drive in terms of handling, body roll, precision and more.

There is a growing class of “hot SUVs” (like the Hyundai Kona N, which basically rips the running gear from an i30N/Veloster N) which – and let’s not beat around the bush here – are primarily marketed so that driving enthusiasts can convince themselves and their family members that they are buying a sensible, practical SUV while also enjoying some added thrills … but the actual hot hatch/performance sedan or wagon equivalent is always the better drive.

It’s worth considering here that most people don’t really care that much for driving experience, at least in terms of how a car performs when pushed. As long as acceleration is brisk enough, braking is good, and handling isn’t too wallowy (a problem on older 4X4s and earlier SUVs) the vast majority of buyers will be happy. It’s primarily the small-but-vocal group of us automotive enthusiasts who dislike the way that SUVs drive relative to other body styles. 

Practicality Versus Normal Cars

Although SUVs are always sold and marketed as being the more practical choice, this isn’t always the case. A comparable wagon will often have more boot space and often in a superior loading configuration.

Furthermore, SUVs will sometimes have reduced legroom compared to hatches, wagons and sedans – my Touareg is a great example of this, having mediocre rear legroom despite being an enormous car. Something like a Passat of a similar vintage is far more accomodating in the rear quarters.

Excessive Size On The Road

There is a growing trend towards smaller SUVs (pun intended). In the earlier days, SUVs tended to be more accommodating and luxurious versions of actual 4x4s, with the original Porsche Cayenne, Audi Q7 and Volkswagen Touareg being a good example. These are massive vehicles.

However, even smaller SUVs – think something like a Honda HR-V – tend to be larger than the equivalent hatchback, wagon or sedan either in terms of length and/or width.

This extra size on the road means less space in carparks or down narrow streets with on-street parking. From a social responsibility perspective, SUVs tend to crowd out cyclists and other road users compared to smaller vehicles. 

Environmental Concerns

SUVs have been criticized for their negative impact on the environment. In fact, much of the push back against SUVs has typically been for environmental reasons.

This section will explore the environmental impact of SUVs with a focus on fuel efficiency and emissions.

Fuel Efficiency

Compared to smaller cars, SUVs have lower fuel efficiency due to their larger size and weight. This means that they consume more fuel and emit more carbon dioxide (CO2) per mile driven. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average fuel economy of SUVs is around 20 miles per gallon (mpg) for city driving and 25 mpg for highway driving. In comparison, the average fuel economy of cars is around 25 mpg for city driving and 35 mpg for highway driving.

However, it’s worth noting that some SUV models have improved their fuel efficiency in recent years. This is due to advances in technology, such as hybrid and electric SUVs, as well as improvements in engine design and materials. For example, in our home market of New Zealand many buyers are opting for electric SUVs such as the MG ZS EV or the BYD Atto; and forget about getting your hands on a hybrid RAV4 any time soon, you’ll be waiting at least a year for your order to arrive. 

Some SUVs now have fuel economy ratings that are comparable to smaller cars, so if you want an SUV but are also concerned 

Emissions

SUVs emit more greenhouse gases (GHGs) than smaller cars due to their lower fuel efficiency. GHGs, such as CO2, contribute to climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere. According to the EPA, the transportation sector is responsible for about 28% of GHG emissions in the United States, with passenger vehicles being the largest contributor.

In addition to GHGs, SUVs also emit other pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) in typically higher amounts than smaller, more efficient cars. These pollutants can have negative health effects, such as respiratory problems and cardiovascular disease. However, newer SUV models have lower emissions of these pollutants due to stricter emissions standards and improved engine technology, as well as the shift to hybrid technology and pure EVs.

Conclusion – Why Are SUVs So Popular These Days? 

Overall, the popularity of SUVs can be attributed to a variety of factors. Firstly, they offer a high driving position and spacious interior, which many drivers find appealing. Additionally, the rise of electric and hybrid SUVs has made them more environmentally friendly, which is an important consideration for many consumers – to many customers you can truly get the best of both worlds now. 

Another factor contributing to the popularity of SUVs is their versatility. They are suitable for a range of activities, from family road trips to off-road adventures. This versatility has made them a popular choice for many drivers who want a vehicle that can handle a variety of situations.

Finally, the perceived safety of SUVs has also contributed to their popularity. Many drivers feel safer in a larger, heavier vehicle, and SUVs often have advanced safety features that provide additional peace of mind.

While there are certainly drawbacks to SUVs, such as their lower fuel efficiency and higher emissions, it is clear that they have become a popular choice for many drivers who perceive the pros outweighing the cons.

As technology advances and environmental concerns become more pressing, it will be interesting to see how the SUV market evolves in the coming years.

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  • Sam

    Sam focuses mainly on researching and writing the growing database of Car Facts articles on Garage Dreams, as well as creating interesting list content. He is particularly enthusiastic about JDM cars, although has also owned numerous European vehicles in the past. Currently drives a 3rd generation Suzuki Swift Sport, and a Volkswagen Touareg (mainly kept for taking his border collie out to the hills to go walking)

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