Are SUVs the Inevitable Future of British Motoring?


SUVs, or Sports Utility Vehicles as they were originally known, are a relatively new category of vehicles in the UK. If you look back at photos of 1970s roads in Britain, you won’t find a single picture of an SUV prowling along the kerbs.

Returning to the modern-day, you’ll find that about one-third of all cars on UK roads are now small or large SUVs.

In this article, we’ll examine the appeal of this booming category and understand what has driven its growth in recent years. We’ll also ask the question of whether, in the face of higher fuel prices, their popularity can continue.

What is an SUV?

An SUV is a non-commercial vehicle with a high stance on the road, giving visibility to other road users. SUVs began life in the shape of the land rover defender and consumer-friendly visions such as the Range Rover and the Mercedes GL series.

They’ve since taken many iterations to meet different consumer preferences. There are small SUVs like the Volvo X40, that give more driving confidence through ride height, and there are retro SUVs such as the Mercedes GL Wagon. There is also a group of SUVs that cut a more ‘saloon-like’ shape through the air, such as the BMW X6 and the Jaguar I-Pace.

It’s now quite difficult to define the boundaries of an SUV. Many mistakenly assume that the answer is that SUVs are 4x4s with all-wheel drive, but this is a myth. Many SUVs in the lower price brackets are rear-wheel drive, and the smallest of the category is front-wheel drive (much like their tiny hatchback cousins). Examples of front-wheel drive SUVs include the Nissan Juke and the Ford Mokka.

Why are SUVs so popular?

The primary drive of the SUV boom is driver and passenger safety. Ever since SUVs began appearing on our roads, they have received higher safety scores than saloons and hatchbacks.

The average age of a new parent is 29 years, and one of the decisions many new families make is to buy a safe car that will best protect their newborn from injury in the event of a road traffic accident.

Vehicle safety standards have evolved in leaps and bounds in recent decades, and the excellent crash results of the Tesla Model S show that you don’t need an SUV to enjoy top-class vehicle safety. But there is no denying that the higher ride height of an SUV helps to protect vehicle occupants (often at the expense of poorer outcomes for vehicles they collide with).

Used Mercedes in London such as the 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLC received a 95% adult occupant safety score from Euro NCAP when it was originally tested. That contrasts with an 84% score awarded to the 2019 Vauxhall Corsa hatchback.

Can SUVs remain popular when petrol is rising to £2 per litre?

SUVs are larger, heavier vehicles than lower-ride height vehicles and therefore consume more fuel to roll along the road, regardless of the size of their engine. Against the backdrop of a cost-of-living crisis, will consumers continue to favour a car that could cost more to run?

Petrol prices have only recently shot through the roof, and therefore we haven’t been able to observe the impact it could be having on new vehicle registrations.

However, vehicle manufacturers are hoping that new technology will solve this problem – hybrid power and battery electric vehicles.

The BMW IX, the Mercedes EQB, the Audi E-tronand the Jaguar i-Pace are the flagship fully electric SUVs that consumers can choose from instead of ‘gas-guzzling’ petrol variants. This way, consumers can sidestep the issue of fuel, fumes and carbon emissions by changing the powertrain rather than leaving the SUV category altogether.

The fact that many manufacturers chose to produce their first battery-electric vehicle in SUV form shows that they are convinced that this will continue to be a wildly popular category in future.