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The SUV debate - debunking the myths


When the history of the modern vehicle is finally written, a chapter may well be devoted to the rise and fall of the Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV).

The term was coined to embrace a category of vehicle that emerged in the 1990s, born out of “tough” 4WDs but refined for suburban school and shopping mall runs. SUVs proliferated over the following decade, new models appearing in a wide range of shapes and sizes, some without even the drive to all wheels that was once a prerequisite.

The future of the SUV seemed unlimited and might have been were it not for outside forces. Rightly or wrongly, SUVs became identified as “gas guzzlers” and destroyers of the environment even though the fuel use of many compares quite favourably with station wagons and vans and most never went farther off-road than the grass verge of a suburban street. They’ve also had bad press for being “unsafe” and killers of pedestrians when the two collide.

Those are broad and silly generalisations, based on elements of truth – it’s like dismissing all cars as total rubbish because of the build quality and unreliability of the East German Trabant.

Car buyers also move on to other things. Auto Adviser wouldn’t be silly enough to predict the doom of the SUV, but the gloss has now worn off the genre and there’s a movement among manufacturers to evolve them into a cross between a SUV and people mover/wagon – or even a sports car! These are commonly known as crossovers.

Closer to home, Holden is pitching its interesting new VE Sportwagon, the latest iteration of the Commodore wagon, partly as an SUV alternative. So should you still buy an SUV? Will it attract punitive taxes as it has in some countries? Will your neighbours throw stones because of its perceived effect on the environment? And if it “guzzles gas” like critics claim, can you afford to own one? Forget about most new SUVs if you want to go off-road; many won’t perform well for a number of reasons, including lack of suitable tyres, lack of low-range gearing or lack of ground clearance. And would you want to take your expensive SUV into the bush, where risk of panel or undersides damage is a clear and present danger?

If that’s what you want to do, buy a Land Rover Defender, Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, Land Cruiser 70 or a used-import Nissan Safari or Toyota Land Cruiser. Or a 4WD ute. SUV buyers are more usually attracted by the vehicles’ usable space, the high seating position, and perhaps because the four-wheel drive can be useful in bad weather or on unsealed roads.

Most mid-size and full-size SUVs have three rows of seats, enough to accommodate seven and useful for people with a big family. But you can get the same thing with equivalent people movers (MPVs) or vans. Commodore and Falcon wagons also offer great accommodation, but lack the height of an SUV. Like cars, some SUVs handle better than others; some have better safety ratings than others. Whether yours handles well or has five-star crash performance is a matter of shopping around, taking test drives and asking questions. The reason why many SUVs come to grief is because they’re thoughtlessly driven. If you want to push a heavy vehicle with a high centre of gravity through a 50kph corner at 90, the chances of something going wrong may well be greater than if you were in a sports car.

The gas-guzzler label is a red herring. Because SUVs are generally larger vehicles, generally heavier and generally possessing unimpressive aerodynamics, they’re bound to use more fuel than an economical car. But any large vehicle with a large seating/cargo capacity will use more fuel – and the need for them will remain until all families of six or seven are happy to cram into a Toyota Echo or Suzuki Swift.

The extra fuel consumed on-road by just having a four-wheel drive mechanism and its associated extra weight is almost inconsequential. Auto Adviser has no qualms about recommending a SUV if you think that’s what best meets your needs. Drive it well and enjoy.

Term of the week: Zerk fitting

Save this one for trivia night. It’s a nipple-like lubrication fitting through which grease is applied to a chassis or suspension joint with a grease gun.

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