The Activewear of Australian Motoring
A recent study by ING Direct found that three in five Australians spent money on activewear in the past 12 months, despite only one in five Australians holding a gym membership. What does this have to do with cars, you ask? Well Australians are set to buy more SUVs (including 4WDs) than cars by the end of the year. SUVs would then make up nearly half of all new car sales in 2017, with the remainder going to light commercials. Just as a disproportionate number of people bought activewear last year, SUVs are making up a greater proportion of new vehicle sales than the number of people who live on dirt roads, have four kids or go camping or skiing regularly. than For driving enthusiasts looking for a practical daily is a worrying prediction particularly for those of us in RHD markets. If the market share for sedans, hatches and wagons gets too small, carmakers might stop producing them. How did SUVs become popular in a market hostile to people movers and unfriendly to wagons? What happens next?
First, a brief history lesson. Unlike Americans or Europeans, Australians have always had an aversion to buying explicitly family-orientated cars unless absolutely necessary. That's why in the 1990s and early 2000s families of four or five never bought seven seat people movers like American families did, or why we don't buy 5 seater people movers like the Renault Scenic and Ford C Max. It's also why in the late 1990s families needing seven seats started migrating from Toyota Taragos and Honda Odysseys towards 4WDs, primarily the Mitsubishi Pajero and Toyota Prado. Part of this was the lower import tariffs on 4WDs, intended to make them more affordable for farmers, but mostly it was down to two factors. The first was the perception that 4WDs were safer than people movers. The second was an emotional one, people movers were uncool. What really fuelled the increase in 4WD sales was station wagon drivers looking for something new and supposedly safer.
At the same time, the Toyota RAV4 was taking sales away from smaller cars, but it was too small for families. Ford Australia recognised this trend in 1998 and developed the Falcon-based Territory, which was brilliant. They asked 4WD owners what they were looking for, which was the looks and practicality of a 4WD, with car like handling and mild off road capability. What Ford produced met these requirements better than anything before or since. Because It was the first SUV made in Australia, it grabbed headlines in a way that the Toyota Kluger couldn't, and it was the first with a cheaper RWD model. It then became the first and only SUV to win the Wheels Car of the Year award, the most prestigious automotive award in Australia. it got dads who wouldn't be seen dead in anything other than a sedan started taking interest. As a nation we didn't know what to call this new class of vehicle, shifting between soft roader and crossover before settling on SUV, but we bought a lot of them. Because SUVs weren't strictly family cars, they were popular and people without kids who didn't ski started buying them. A proliferation of new models targeting a wide range of people has seen sales rise to the point where they're about to overtake cars.
The present day SUVs fail to meet the original objectives of the SUV. Many of them look like big hatchbacks, rather than 4WDs. The Mercedes Benz GLA and Audi Q2 are particularly bad in this regard. A growing number of them are FWD and even more of them will never go off road. Recently a Kia executive said AWD is no longer relevant for most customers. Not that it was relevant in the first place. Australia's not like the northern hemisphere where it snows in major cities, an SUV would be used there, but not here, not even in Hobart. Okay it has been known to snow in Hobart, but it's very rare. The AWD models do make sense if you regularly drive in snow, because you'd have to use chains in a 2WD car, or you live on a dirt road, where having a bit of extra ground clearance is helpful. But the average buyer in suburban Melbourne or Sydney, what do they get out of them? It can't be that they need seven seats. The current birth rate in Australia is 1.93 children per woman, and it hasn’t been above two since 1977, so there can’t be that many families of six or more. Most SUVs don't have seven seats anyway. The most popular SUV in Australia last year was the Mazda CX-5. Just what does a FWD Mazda CX-5 offer to the city or suburban driver over a same same size Mazda 3 to justify its higher price? The more expensive models are AWD only, but if AWD is irrelevant, why not stand out from the crowd and buy a larger, faster, better handling and more fuel efficient Mazda 6? The mid range CX-5 GT costs the same as a Mazda 6 GT. At least Mazda offers AWD as an option on all their SUVs, even the baby CX-3, giving them some additional functionality for those who need it. The Holden Trax, Peugeot 2008 and Kia Soul are FWD only, as are the petrol Kia Sorento and most Kia Sportages. My dad was given a Trax on one of the many occasions that his company Captiva was at the dealer for repairs. This car costs about the same as a Cruze, which my mum owns, but a quick drive in the Trax revealed that it's smaller and and doesn't drive as well. That's no surprise given the high centre of gravity and the prehistoric GM Family II 1.8L engine. Why anycome out with a Trax instead of a Cruze is beyond me. To be fair you can buy a Trax with the 1.4L turbo engine, but it will cost you $29,990. 30 grand for a jacked up Barina. You could buy a 1.6 turbo Cruze SRi-Z with change left over. you could buy a Golf, Focus, Abarth 595, Camry, Polo GTi or one of many other cars all better than a Trax. If gets worse than that. A Jeep Renegade will set you back $28-40,000. You could buy an equivalent sized and specced hatchback and a used 4WD for that.
The good news is that at some point we will reach a saturation point where everyone has an SUV and it's no longer cool to have one. But what will that be? As a nation we don't like people movers, and wagons are a bit of a niche market these days. They're doing a lot better than in America but still not as well as well as they deserve to. Wagons though could represent the best chance to bring the SUV to its end, particularly high riding AWD wagons like the Subaru Outback and Volkswagen Golf Alltrack.
There are also performance wagons, which are a relatively new idea.People often perceive SUVs as sporty, why not buy something that actually is. A wagon can still facilitate all the leisure activities that you partake in or want your neighbours and co-workers to think you partake in so you appear too busy to spend time with them. More importantly, once everyone else has an SUV, having a wagon will make you stand out from the crowd. It will make you look interesting and ahead of the curve just like the Territory did in 2004. Once wagons draw these people away from SUVs, the rest will come easily. If you buy a Mazda CX3, you're not trying to convince people you spend your weekends hiking, that's what the Subaru Forester’s for, you're following the crowd. You're just buying what’s considered cool right now, even though you'd be much happier with a Mazda 2 or 3. Once the leisure activity trendsetters get bored with SUVs, the herd will follow. SUVs then have actually become the activewear of cars. Yes they do have their place, but they've spilled out of that place into everyday life. You haven't come from the gym, you either want people to think you have, or you saw other people doing it and thought you'd join in. Eventually you'll find some other bandwagon to jump on.
What was once a good way to get skiers to the slopes without snow chains, and for parents with too many kids to retain their dignity has now become the default choice for new car buyers. Only a small section of the population requiring both seven seats and mild (grass, gravel and light snow) off road capability actually need an SUV. If you only need one of these, a Citroen Grand Picasso is a better seven seater and a lifted AWD station wagon is nicer to drive on and off road. If you're thinking about buying an SUV, think very hard about whether you really need it, then buy literally anything else. You'll be much happier.