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Is the SUV era slowly on its way out?

Is the SUV era slowly on its way out?
PHOTO: Volkswagen

Derided by most automotive journalists, yet loved by the people actually putting down money to buy cars, SUVs have only grown from strength to strength over the last 10 years.

A report by the IEA indicated that the global market share for such cars stood at 45.9 per cent in 2021 - nearly half of everything new pouring out onto our roads.

Against those trends, however, a newer body style appears to be emerging. It started with the Polestar 2. Then, last week, Peugeot announced its brand new European-market 408, while very controversial pictures of the next Toyota Crown were leaked.

This week, Volkswagen unveiled its all-electric ID. Aero Concept.

The common thread running through all of them? They appear to have to ditched the SUV label in favour of 'fastback'/'sedan'.'

Rise to apex predator: The SUV 

The modern history of the SUV is hard to pin down to one exact model.

But sometime in the transition between the nineties and noughties, it suddenly became clear that the seemingly parallel paths taken by hardcore off-roaders and conventional tarmac-centred cars… could actually converge.

Nameplates like the first-gen X5 (intriguingly, produced during BMW's brief ownership of Rover/Land Rover) and the second and third-gen Range Rovers arguably helped to cast a desirable glow over the two-boxed high-rider.

Then, in 2002, Porsche took the first leap away from its sports cars to introduce the Cayenne. It worked - all of it. Tried and proven upmarket, the potential for the SUV then became clear to even mass market models. One nameplate in particular that many will shoot a glance towards is the Nissan Qashqai.

It's easy - and frankly a bit lazy - to dismiss the SUV fandom as merely a mindless train people have hopped on, without digging deeper into why it's still chugging along steadily today.

So let's consider the buyer demographic first. Many who are at the wheel daily aren't necessarily driving because they like B-roads and red-lining; they're there simply to get from point A to B.

Where feelings of comfort and security are the top priority, SUVs provide an elevated view out onto the road, and couple this with a sense of safety, created (artificially or otherwise) by their chunkier bodies.

Secondly, however, SUVs actually serve as a canvas for versatility with space. Sedans may reign supreme in terms of default boot capacity, but the two-box shape of SUVs enables a larger variety of configurations when taking fold-down seats into account.

Thanks to the raised roofline, an extra couple of passengers can even fit into a third row in instances where the wheelbase is stretched.

The next era: New style meets new necessity?

Arguably, the longevity of any design is dictated by some basic principles of functionality. On the other hand, the concept of appeal is subjective and transient; contingent on the tastes and preferences of consumers which tend to be more fickle.

The perfect confluence of both has given rise to the SUV boom witnessed across the past decade. Yet it would seem that with cars like the Peugeot 408, large carmakers - and the industry as a whole - are trying to foretell what's coming next.

Take it from Polestar, the Volvo performance offshoot turned all-electric unicorn now galloping ahead in the new world of EVs. Its first volume-seller, the Polestar 2, is a vision of exactly what Peugeot is trying to do with the 408: Neither fastback sedan, nor SUV.

Such cars are arguably trying to break moulds, create new segments and stand apart on the basis of design. To those already tiring of the current field, they answer the call for something accessible yet different.

On the note of Polestar, however, another modern-day, automotive imperative is becoming even more pressing as the world burns faster and hotter than ever.

Apart from safety, efficiency has been of utmost importance in automotive designs over the last ten years, yet we are only on the cusp of its outsized influence as the industry moves rapidly into an electrified era. And since efficiency will reign supreme, drag coefficients will be king.

It is on this tangent that major carmakers are letting their pens flow freely. As extreme function meets new form, concept cars are increasingly reaching beyond the SUV era with sleeker silhouettes. Among them, the fastback has emerged more than just once.

Just look at the marathoning Mercedes-Benz Vision EQXX, as well as Polestar's Goodwood Festival debutante, the Polestar 5.

A line in the sand: Drilling down on the functionality-versus-appeal divide

It's hard to imagine it now, but there was probably once a time when the Qashqai was harder to sell than a Sylphy; when dramatised wheel arches and misleading chunks of plastic cladding spelt out 'niche' rather than 'mass market'.

In pursuit of a larger goal beyond what was immediately visible, however, Nissan sustained its push - and the Qashqai crossed over into the mainstream.

As cars like the Polestar 2, Volkswagen ID and Peugeot 408 blend new style and efficiency to attempt the Qashqai effect, will the SUV be inevitably supplanted in popularity? At least for now, the short answer appears to be 'No'.

The trend seen among the models with fastback designs is that they tend to be positioned more as flagship models, pulling out some of the very best a manufacturer has to offer (even the 408 wants to steal 3 Series and C-Class owners).

In contrast, the SUV body style is easily applicable across various sizes and budgets.For instance, an SUV would neither look out of place in Perodua's nor Audi's line-ups.

Apply the same thought to fastbacks and the assertion no longer stands. That silhouette simply doesn't have the same sort of one-body-type-fits-all-applications capability. All this, however, doesn't hold for a more specific offshoot: The coupe SUV.

As mentioned, what's stylishfunctional differs from what's purely stylish. SUVs tend to fall under the former; coupe-SUVs - like the BMW X6 and Renault Arkana - under the latter. With the fastback saloon coming to the fore, it is this particular oddball group that may get supplanted.

Is the SUV era on its way out?

Over the next 10 years, carmakers will continue to reimagine the shapes and forms that will mark their 'statement pieces' as aerodynamics and efficiency increase in importance.

SUV-oriented and inspired styling cues are likely to remain; you could absolutely argue that the raised fastback is just a coupe-SUV lowered slightly anyway.


But while we may not have sedans in the future, we're also likely to not have cars that fit - or that want to fit the (coupe-)SUV archetype so neatly today too.

For a reimagining of people-movers (in contrast to SUVs being the de facto seven-seater form right now), some interest in the van as a body style has also clearly been revived with Volkswagen's ID. Buzz, and Audi's slippery Urbansphere concept.

The undeniable fact is that as design teams pursue the question of "What next?", new paradigms of desirability are starting to hit the market.

With that, the SUV-era as we currently know it is certainly in the midst of change.

This article was first published in sgCarMart.

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