Love ’em, or loathe ’em, you can’t avoid ’em – Anatomy of the SUV
Treated literally, the Sport Utility Vehicle is an horrendous misnomer, writes Iain Robertson, possessing some elements of all-wheel drive, on a hiked-up, family-orientated platform that ought to be called ‘Fashioned-Up Car Kit’ instead.
Stripping the automotive genre back to basics, the SUV class has certainly grabbed the zeitgeist. For a long time, I just did not get it. The concept of a top-heavy, pseudo off-roader that might struggle to make safe progress in a downpour was not a vehicle in which I would invest. Yet, thanks to remarkable advances in electronic chassis management, while the Laws of Dynamics cannot be defeated, at least they can be controlled and, to be totally fair, some SUVs have proven to be excellently responsive and eminently safe driving machines.
Most of them are taller, more upright, better accommodating and more comfortable than their family car progenitors, which explains why even the most popular Ford Focus is challenged in sales terms by the Kuga, the VW Golf by Tiguan and the Suzuki Swift by Vitara alternatives. Some of the pack are even incredibly sporty (expensive and profitable), such as the Lamborghini Urus, Alfa Romeo Stelvio, Audi RS Q5 and Bentley Bentayga. In fact, the SUV craze has been the saviour of some brands, even topping their sales charts with unceasing consumer demand.
If you have ever wondered what constitutes the typical SUV, you need not look much further than its wheel-arches. While ‘fenders’ have always been intended to cover the tyres and scarcely a pre-1960s car did not have wings of various profiles, it was developments in motorsport that led to blistered arches being formed, mostly to ensure that wider axles and grippier tyres were encapsulated legally. Initially of a bulbous design (as fitted to a Ford Escort rally car), they soon became stylishly chamfered (as on the Vauxhall Chevette HSR) and can be seen in various forms on each and every SUV.
Naturally, traditional 4x4s demanded similarly expansive wings in a vain attempt to contain mud splashes, greater vertical wheel travel and, when the SUV category arrived, to hint heavily at potential off-road capabilities, even though axle movement was quite restricted, as carmakers sought to engineer on-road stability into their new category of urban runabouts. Scarcely an SUV worth its salt these days is ‘fenderless’, with many resorting to flared arches full of little else but air but also fatter and more fashionable tyres that clad chunkier and more purposeful alloy wheels.
While traditional 4x4s were based on separate ladder frame chasses, onto which a metal body was attached, unlike the typical monocoque construction of the archetypal family car that was perceived as less reliant on torsional, or twist energy demands, many of the hardiest 4×4 manufacturers have resorted to combined, computer designed, chassis-body formulae in recent times. Naturally, there are variations on the theme, with separate sub-structures for engines, suspension and rear axles, and some carmakers applying colour-impregnated but non-structural, external plastic body panels to the core framework. Yet, all SUVs rely on monocoque platforms donated by ‘lesser’ models from a marque’s range.
Footprint is a vital measurement, in much the same way that up to seven seat MPVs needed to boast of greater practicality than their donor saloon/hatchback five seat variants, within similar external dimensions. It was an important selling point of a now ‘almost forgotten’ class of motorcar. As a result, the Suzuki Swift shares its wheelbase with the Vitara; the Focus with Kuga and so on, from compact to full-size variations on the SUV theme that now proliferate. Thanks to extra headroom, legroom and shoulder space, a more upright (and potentially ‘safer’?) seating position is enforced. Equally important is the hip-height entry-point. Whether the driver and passengers step into the cabin, or sit first on the seat before lifting in their legs, ease of access and egress are vital components and explain why a lot of less agile, sometimes older people, are drawn to the SUV.
Model naming policies can be crucial to the success of each new SUV. Of course, in a big bad commercial world, securing names that are not owned by an anonymous, unrelated and non-automotive body, or agency, can be fraught with issues. The keys lie in promoting freedom of access, devil-may-care leisure activities and a sense of the ‘great outdoors’. Hence, Land Rover and Range Rover demand little explanation but the Solihull firm’s first SUV was the FREElander. Mitsubishi, another 4×4 traditionalist, gave us the OUTlander, albeit badge-engineered as 4007 by Peugeot and C-Crosser by Citroen (which meant very little, other than compliance with their brand policies).
The Japanese coin a lot of model naming activities with numbers and initials (because they translate more readily) and Toyota, with its strong Landcruiser 4×4 reputation, gifted one of the earliest examples of SUV-ness with the RAV4 tag. Honda, on the other hand, had zero repute in the 4×4 scene but launched C-RV on the basis of Crosscountry-Recreational Vehicle. Yet, Subaru, which is still the granddaddy of SUVs, transitioned from non-descript GLF to Outback and Forester, when it realised that the SUV craze had legs.
As far as ‘utility’ is concerned, while traditional 4x4s are usually equipped with rubber floor mats, moulded dashboards and plastic seat coverings for quick hosing-out potential, only the earliest Subaru and Toyota models dared to be as basic, before the term SUV was introduced. Cloth, with leather trim options, compliant dashboard surfaces, a plethora of electronic interfaces (touchscreens, digital read-outs, sat-nav and hi-fi units) are common fitments that are enhanced the higher up the trim level and retail price ladder are escalated. It is no surprise and is a typical reflection of market demands that include ticking off the options on the accessory/personalisation catalogues.
Although I believed during the mid-1990s that the SUV cluster was little more than a fashion fad that would disappear as rapidly as it seemed to be growing, I have eaten the humble pie and invested in a practical Suzuki Vitara for personal motoring. Much like most SUVs, it is front wheel drive and possesses zero off-road capability. However, I relish driving it and it fits well with my lifestyle, which is what SUV is really all about.
Conclusion: While we can blame the Australians and North Americans for the SUV craze, there is no doubt that it is replacing the once typical family car that was the bedrock of UK automotive life for more than eighty years.