It used to be that sport-utility vehicles were for workmanlike pursuits—a nicer version of a pickup, something to carry your horse tack or fishing tackle, something for the rancher to drive when helping out the hired hands on the Ponderosa. The emphasis was on enclosed utility. But it was still essentially a truck.
And although utility still remains a key SUV selling point, today these vehicles have more to do with hauling children, hockey pads, and bags of mulch. SUVs have become the mainstream people hauler, replacing the family sedan and even the minivan (although, to be fair, the modern minivan still has far better cargo carrying capacity than a similar-sized SUV).
The SUV is a lifestyle choice for the glamping survivalist. It’s also a mode of convenience for aging, aching baby boomers who find it far easier to lean back into the high hip-point of a crossover vehicle than to flop into the bucket seat of a traditional sedan.
How much has the market swung away from cars toward SUVs? Check out the chart. It’s almost a one-for-one volume switch, when citing three key years over the past decade—2007 being the last boom year before the Great Recession, 2014 the first big year for auto sales after it, and 2017’s record sales pace. In the past three years alone, passenger car sales have dropped by 1.9 million units while SUV sales have surged by 2.3 million units. (Intriguingly, sales of pickups have remained fairly consistent over that time.) Some automakers (Ford, FCA) are so alarmed that they’re trading out car assembly lines to build more SUVs.
But let’s look at some of what is being built and described as an SUV. Toyota markets the C-HR as an SUV, as Nissan does the Kicks, but neither comes with the staple of all-wheel drive. In fact, the C-HR has a lower ground clearance than the Corolla sedan. Both are built on car-based unibody platforms (Toyota on the TNGA shared with the Prius, Nissan on the Versa econobox). Essentially, these are tall hatchbacks, not off-roaders.