SUV Mania Big, Bad and Beloved

Despite environmental concerns, automakers such as Germany’s Audi are churning out bigger and more powerful sport utility vehicles, which fetch higher prices than standard coupe and sedan models.
Audi's latest climate change device, the Q7 SUV.

Rupert Stadler pointed to an imposing car – a shiny blue Audi Q7, five meters long (16.4 feet), two meters (6.6 feet) wide — and said: “It comes at the right time.”

Audi’s management board chairman couldn’t resist the opportunity to personally present his pride and joy in the mountains of the Swiss canton of Valais.

On the 55-kilometer, or 34.2-mile, drive from Sion Airport to the village of Verbier in southwestern Switzerland, Mr. Stadler explained the letter Q at Audi stands for sport utility vehicle, or SUV, for short. He waved off questions about the need for such a large vehicle, noting the Q7 is “up to 325 kilos (716 pounds) lighter than its predecessor” and that the six-cylinder diesel engine emits less than 149 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer.

“It cuts a damned fine figure in the area of CO2,” Mr. Stadler said. “That’s really awesome.”

Environmental activists might consider such cars as contributing to global climate change, but the Audi chairman may be right on the mark with his expectations for success with the new SUV. Nothing sold on car markets around the world is hotter than the beefy vehicles known for their wide stance, huge fenders and high driving position.

Already, every fifth new car sold in Germany is an SUV or off-road vehicle. They’ve doubled their share of new car registrations in the past five years alone.

In the United States, where SUVs originated, more light trucks including SUVs and powerful pick-ups were sold in 2014 than all passenger cars combined. In China, the SUV is just starting to take off with 50 percent more sold in the first four months of 2015 than in the same time period last year.

It’s not surprising Dieter Zetsche, Mr. Stadler’s counterpart at Daimler, has declared 2015 to be the “Year of the SUV.”

Audi is keeping pace. About a half million first generation Q7s have been sold in eight years while the next generation debuting this fall is expected to sell up to 70,000 units a year.

Why are buyers on every continent embracing these massive cars?

“The customers are super happy,” Mr. Stadler said. “Because they are sitting higher. They feel like they have a better view of everything and can travel in incredible comfort on long trips.”

The SUV boom began in Germany in the late 1990s when BMW and Mercedes-Benz built new factories in the United States and marketed the big vehicles as a fashionable alternative to large sedans and limousines. Porsche and Volkswagen quickly followed suit. But instead of appealing to drivers in rural areas, city dwellers were most fascinated by the four-wheel drive vehicles, even if any adventurous driving took place in their imaginations and not on muddy mountain trails.

Since SUVs are larger and heavier than an average car, it’s shape and size creates more wind resistance, resulting in lower gas mileage and higher CO2 emissions

Paolo Tomminelli, professor of design concepts at the Cologne International School of Design, believes urbanites discovered a new form of escapism. The SUV craze reached its glaring high point when a repurposed military vehicle, Hummer, moved into exclusive American neighborhoods, but the wave crashed on the reefs of the financial crisis and soaring gas prices.

It was only a brief interruption.

Owning an SUV is now no longer the prerogative of the rich and trendy as the all-terrain vehicle look extends over all car categories. The driver of an Opel Corsa can switch to the compact Opel Mokka while the Fiat fan can opt for the swollen 500X and the VW Golf owner has the Tiguan as an alternative. Soon, even drivers of a Lamborghini or a Bentley will be able to make the move from a super sports car or luxury coupe to an SUV.

Back in the Swiss mountains, Mr. Stadler turned the Q7 onto a road winding back and forth to the ritzy ski resort of Verbier with the heavy car taking the tight curves with a vengeance. Since SUVs are larger and heavier than an average car, its shape and size creates more wind resistance, resulting in lower gas mileage and higher CO2 emissions.

Mr. Stadler was asked if the SUV trend was destroying the progress made in reducing carbon dioxide. But he didn’t want his driving enjoyment ruined. “SUVs are hip,” he said. “We resolved the subject of gas mileage long ago. Thanks to lightweight construction technologies and new engines, an SUV today has the same range of gas mileage that a sedan couldn’t reach ten years ago. And, we have reduced gas mileage in the new Q7 by 30 percent over the previous version.”

Despite efforts to slim down the second generation Q7, the 333-horsepower engine still must move some two tons of sheet metal and rubber. According to European Union fuel standards, the vehicle guzzles just 7.7 liters of gas per 100 kilometers, but what happens when a driver hits the gas on the German autobahn?

Mr. Stadler steered around the question, noting that driving habits could make the mileage much higher. “The gas mileage greatly depends on the driving style,” he said, adding Audi will introduce a plug-in hybrid with a four-cylinder diesel engine capable of traveling 53 kilometers on electricity to the SUV-hungry Chinese market. Normal gas consumption is 2.5 liters.

Axel Friedrich, a freelance automobile consultant who for years monitored automakers for the German federal environmental agency, said the numbers given for normal gas mileage are “all a deception. The numbers are determined on the test bench and all of the manufacturers are now using tricks to manipulate them.”

A study last year by the independent environmental organization ICC found actual gas consumption numbers were, on average, about 38 percent higher than the standards. And the gap is constantly widening, especially with the SUVs, Mr. Friedrich said, adding, “With them, it’s up to 70 percent more.”

The illusion of lower gas really evaporates on the autobahn, he said, because “gas consumption increases exponentially as speed increases.” And the higher degree of wind resistance is especially prevalent with the boxy shape of SUVs.

Mr. Friedrich said manufacturers have actually managed to lower the standard numbers of many SUVs to only 0.3 to 0.4 liters above comparable sedans, but that is largely attributable to the unrealistic driving cycle E.U. standards prescribe. Manufacturers use another trick to lower weight and reduce gas mileage. Weight can be reduced not only by using lightweight construction methods, but also by eliminating the four-wheel drive option. Many of the SUVs sold by mass market manufacturers such as Hyundai, Ford, Opel, Nissan and Skoda as well as upscale BMW and Mercedes models – as many as 70 percent – are driven by only one axle.

Generally, SUV’s also have a more powerful engine under the hood. Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, director of the CAR Institute at the University of Duisburg-Essen, found that last year, the average newly registered passenger car in German boasted 140 horsepower, but SUVs averaged 167 horsepower.

Customers are aware of poor gas mileage and difficulty of finding parking for a much larger car, but it doesn’t stop them from buying the gas-guzzlers. Those who choose to purchase an SUV also are prepared to spend considerably more money and typically sign on for all kinds of extras. Audi is hardly the only manufacturer cashing in.

For example, the base model of BMW’s smallest SUV, the X1, has a price tag of just under €30,000 ($33,503), which is €7,000 more than a BMW 1 Series with a similar engine. Mr. Dudenhöffer found that across all brands the average new car buyer in Germany in 2014 spent €27,000 on average, but SUV buyers shelled out almost € 33,000 not including any extra features.

It is a genuine shift in buying trends or is the clever advertising of carmakers moving customers to buy an SUV? Audi’s Mr. Stadler offered a simple answer. “The customer is looking for safety, comfort, and dependability,” he said. “And he gets that down to the toes in an SUV.”

SUVs suggest an image of virility and power, said Bonn-based psychologist and transportation researcher Georg Rudinger. “Emotion is more important in buying an SUV that rational calculation,” he said, adding there is zero awareness of sustainability. People have “the illusion of having everything under control from their raised driver’s seat,” he said, noting SUVs express something akin to “latent aggression.” The driver of such a powerhouse doesn’t need to display openly aggressive behavior as other drivers naturally make way for them.

About 30 percent of all Audis sold today are SUVs, Mr. Stadler said, adding, “By 2020, the SUV share will go up to 40 percent.” Meanwhile, two new Q models, a smaller, more nimble model and a big SUV coupe, probably equipped with E-drive, are planned.

Asked if it wouldn’t be in the best interest of the environment to curb the SUV boom a bit in favor of other models, Mr. Stadler got riled up, even after the relaxing 40-minute drive in the new Q7. “I am tired of hearing such arguments,” he said as he prepared to exit the vehicle. “We don’t want to tell the customers what to do. We certainly don’t tell them whether they should get a one-room apartment or a single family home. We offer a wide range. The customers decide what they want.”


This article originally appeared in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]