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Saying utes and SUVs are popular isn’t a cutting insight on the Australian automotive landscape. But recently events have got me thinking about the types of cars we are buying as a country.
The new car sales for February made interesting reading, with only a single passenger car inside the top 10 (the Hyundai i30 was the ninth best-seller for the month). The rest were either utes or SUVs, with the Toyota HiLux, Mitsubishi Triton, Ford Ranger and Isuzu D-Max all amongst our most popular new models.
It just so happens that in February, I spent time in one of that quartet (the Ford) and it struck me that for all the progress made with modern utes in terms of drivability and user-friendliness, they are still no match for the convenience of a conventional passenger car.
I was fortunate enough to live with a Volkswagen Passat wagon for the last three months, so it gave me an opportunity to compare and contrast the pros and cons of modern utes (and SUVs) compared to a good ol’ fashion station wagon.
Don’t get me wrong, I see plenty of merit in buying a ute if you need it for work or regular play, but if you’re spending the majority of your time driving around the city and suburbs it just doesn’t make sense.
As good as the Ranger is, and it’s a genuine class-leader in terms of ride comfort and handling even as it’s about to be replaced, after a few days using it for the school run I got tired of it and switched to the Volkswagen.
In contrast to the Ranger, the Passat has a more compliant ride, more direct handling and a quieter, more refined engine. These are elements a ute will likely never match given it is still required to be a working vehicle, so the chassis and suspension needs to be tuned for greater capability at the expense of everyday comfort.
That’s a specific example, but the overall trend for buyers to ditch passenger cars in favour of utes and SUVs has me questioning if we, as a broader driving society, have forgotten about the benefits of hatchbacks, sedans and wagons.
Another look at the February sales figures shows passenger cars now make up less than 20 per cent of all new vehicles sold in Australia in the first two months of 2022 (19.5 per cent to be precise). That compares to SUV sales at 52.4 per cent and light-commercial vehicles (LCVs), which includes vans as well as utes, at 24.8 per cent.
In contrast the split was 37.8 per cent cars, 39.2 per cent SUVs and 19.9 per cent LCVs just five years ago, and passenger cars made up a massive 51.9 per cent of all sales a decade ago.
The problem is, because buyers have shifted away from the driving enjoyment of passenger cars in favour of seemingly more practical utes and SUVs, the writing is on the wall for the traditional car.
Car companies are giving up on passenger cars already. Starting at the bottom end of the market we’ve seen the likes of the Hyundai Accent and Ford Fiesta (sans the high-performance ST grade) dropped to clear space for the Venue and Puma SUVs.
On a more high profile level, cars like the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon were both selling strongly just a decade ago, but when the time came to replace them both General Motors and Ford chose to let these once strong models die.
Even Kia, which has been a hold-out on passenger cars and enjoyed sales growth because of it, has hinted that the clock is ticking on hatchbacks and sedans.
Some of the biggest and most memorable nameplates could join the likes of Commodore and Falcon on the scrapheap in the coming years and for those of us who appreciate the driving experience they offer, that’s not an exciting future to look forward to.