Australian car market: Car sales, statistics and figures
We Australians have a long and proud history of punching above our collective...
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The big, hulking, hairy-handed LandCruisers, Patrols and Pajeros started the trend, but it's now the mid-size SUVS, like Hyundai's new Tucson or the segment-leading Mazda CX-5, that are taking it to new, not-quite-so heights.
The medium SUV segment is now the second largest in the Australian industry, its sales are up 13 per cent this year and it's heading for 140,000 units in 2015.
Like it or lump it: SUVs and crossovers are quickly becoming the most popular body styles in town, and country.
But why are these never-off roaders, many of them two-wheel drive, so popular? As we've discussed, it's not the allure of adventuring off the beaten track to places unreachable without all-wheel drive. As any armchair critic will gladly tell you, the furthest most SUVs go off road is a gravel carpark.
And while they'll probably argue that SUVs should go off into the wild blue yonder, the common consensus is pretty much the opposite. As perverse as it may seem, SUVs can actually be a sensible choice for use on the open road and even in the city centre.
For the most part, it comes down to space. Short of buying a van or people mover, there is no better way to cram everything you own and love into one vehicle. Motoring writers tend to put this under the vague title of 'packaging'; basically, it's what you can fit into the space you have.
And SUVs do it better than almost anything; the high roof, low floor and wagon shape give SUVs comparatively boundless headroom, legroom and storage space.
This setup works wonders when getting in and out of the car, especially for people who aren't as limber as they used to be. The higher ride height, taller doors and shorter sills mean drivers and passengers don't have to bend and stoop like they would in sedans and hatchbacks, which means less effort, less pain and more dignity.
The "command seating position" and excellent all-round visibility are also highly sought after, particularly by the non-beard-growing population.
SUVs are the Swiss Army Knife of cars
Higher ride height also helps in the city and out of town, granting a certain insulation from the potholes, kerbs and road plates. The longer suspension travel softens the blow and spares the bodywork.
SUVs are the Swiss Army Knife of cars; you can drive them on good roads, bad roads or in the absence of roads and they'll take it all pretty much in stride.
The popularity of SUVs actually helps make them a better purchase too, as more manufacturers angle for a slice of the increasingly meaty pie. This means more competition and better prices as a result. It also means car makers are carving out new niches in the segment so you'll be able to find a very close approximation of what you want.
If you want the same in a wagon, the choices are actually pretty poor; only 16 manufacturers offer new wagons for sale in Australia, and only three offer a seven-seater option. Twenty manufacturers offer a seven-seat SUV, yet only 12 sell seven-seat people movers. Infiniti, Lexus, Nissan and Toyota will even sell you eight-seater SUVs.
Like it or not; for utility alone, an SUV is fast becoming your only recourse.
Let's face it: the anti-SUV movement has lost and the big road hogs are here to stay.
Today, for the most part, other drivers won't mind what you're driving. This is partly because most of them are already in SUVs themselves.
The one-size-fits-some approach of old, big off-roaders has been replaced by an almost made-to-measure market; if you want an SUV or a crossover, there are myriad choices of sizes and specs, screwed down to pretty much whatever budget you have.
The common bugbears still apply, but in every case you'll find that manufacturers are doing all they can to round off the last of these jagged edges.
Fuel economy has always been an Achilles' heel for SUVs, due to their weight and side-of-a-barn aerodynamics. Today the gap between the behemoths and sleek sedans is closing.
Thanks to shaving and remoulding small bits here and there, SUVs can slip through the air with unprecedented ease, like a shipping container with a nose cone.
They'll never match small cars, of course, and more consumption also means more pollution but, with global emissions targets tightening, car makers are using every tool at their disposal to limbo under the limit.
The sheer scale of SUVs means they do get battered by sidewinds and the higher centre of gravity and all that mass means they'll always lose a contest with a normal car when it comes to handling, control and stability.
It's easy to get used to how SUVs perform and drive accordingly
The bigger they get the more prone to rollover they also are, because the bulk of an SUV's weight is carried higher up than a regular passenger model.
The high roll point also makes evasive manoeuvres more difficult but, with the advent of stability control, newer SUVs can handle emergency situations with unexpected grace. You'll never confuse it with a regular sedan or hatch, but in day-to-day driving, it's easy to get used to how SUVs perform and drive accordingly.
This also applies in off-road situations. SUVs, much maligned for their off-road pretensions, can actually fare pretty well with a little preparation and by driving within the limits of a regular car.
And that's what modern SUVs are doing – cherry picking features from hatches, sedans, wagons and off-road vehicles to create a car that's not great at any one thing (except sometimes the one thing you'll never ask them to do), but good enough at all of them.