SUVs, Who Needs Them?

I happen to like the SAVs and SACs that BMW offers. They seem to be getting better and better over time, and I’ve never been as utterly astounded by a vehicle’s performance as I was by the last-gen X6 M with its brutal acceleration and braking capabilities, which I was lucky enough to experience firsthand at BMW’s Performance Center West some years ago.

BMW has been selling more and more of them as time goes on as well. Last month, over 7,000 new X3s were sold in the U.S. alone, while X5 and X7 sales amounted to approximately 6,700 units. Those that have been following BMW’s sales figures will also be aware that X model sales are the primary growth drivers at the moment, and they will soon account for more than 50% of all BMW models sold. The same is true on the macro scale, when looking at the entire automotive landscape as a whole. Remove the SUVs, and BMW is suddenly in a very different position.

SUVs are experiencing incredible popularity right now, and auto manufacturers the world over are scrambling to add as many models to their lineups as their bottom lines will bear. The demand is there, but some staunch holdouts like myself have been left wondering if it’s all really a self-fulfilling prophecy. The question can be phrased in a myriad of different ways, but what I’m really getting at is, who actually needs an SUV? In my estimation, hardly anyone, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist. On the same coin, it shouldn’t be an open invitation for all automakers to attempt to be all things, to all customers.

One could also say that BMW needs SUVs, considering how they’re quickly accounting for the bulk of sales—but this isn’t really the topic at hand. We know that BMW’s immense SAV and SAV business allows the company to build and develop the rest of the portfolio, including the M cars we all lust after. I’m really more interested in why the general public feels some sort of SUV necessity.

Consider the following hypothetical scenario: Let’s say that BMW didn’t have an enormous advantage building and selling SAVs and SACs in the U.S. thanks to its massive Spartanburg facility, and let’s also assume that the brand was willing to give us a practical 3 Series wagon lineup. xDrive is available, but only if you want it, and instead of the four-cylinder engine, you could choose the six. Pricing would be just a bit more than the 3 Series sedan, and this 3 Series touring would also be available with all of the purchase incentives, finance and lease offers that typically move the SAVs off dealer lots in volume.

In this scenario, who is still going to buy the X3? The X3 is an excellent BMW and a model for other automakers to learn from, but as we all know, a comparable 3 Series touring boasts advantages that car enthusiasts love to rattle off. Of course, to the average buyer, fuel economy and storage space are among the only real selling points to the wagon, and after so many years of sitting in highchairs, people are beginning to default to the more upright seating position found in SUVs.

Circling back to the question at hand though, who actually needs an SUV? I understand hauling the dog and human spawn around in comfort and style, but at the same time that SUV sales are on fire, the well-to-do customers who are actually buying them are having fewer children than ever before. So then, what is it? Aside from availability, pricing, and the purchase incentives mentioned above, what sort of value proposition is playing out in the average SUV buyers brain?

I’ll be the first to admit that I have no idea, and that I, too am guilty of the degenerative sin of desiring an SUV. Even worse, I’d like a model that skews towards luxury, although not at the expensive of performance or capability. The SUV that tops my list is the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, often referred to as the G Wagen, while the Lexus version of the Toyota Land Cruiser is a distant but more attainable second.

It should be clear that for me, a G Wagen would be a purely discretionary purchase. I don’t need it to haul or tow anyone or anything, as one of my current vehicles has quite literally never had a passenger in the back seat. The G Wagen also has a rather jarring and unrefined ride, thanks to its utilitarian origins, and fuel economy, interior room, and storage capacity aren’t particularly impressive either. Performance is decent if you opt for a modern AMG model, but I would be perfectly happy with a G550 or one of the older models sold during the early 2000’s, shortly after they become available here through Mercedes dealerships. But again, let’s not forget that this would be a vehicle bought under the most optimal, elective conditions, like a fine watch or other material item that is worth more than the purpose it serves, or even the sum of its market value.

In reality, however, conditions are much different. Although I’ve owned something like a dozen cars over the decade and a few years that I’ve been driving, every one except a Jeep has been something low to the ground. I’ve gone as practical as owning a few sedans, but over the past few years my interests have zeroed in on two-door models, and someday I might even consider going without a roof.

Lifestyle obviously plays a large roll here, and I’ve done my best to remain unencumbered. No offspring, no pets, no entanglements, or complications. I understand this isn’t the case with most, and we all seem to remember those who rushed into shacking up and starting a family right after high school. For a person such as myself though, there’s no need for more more than two doors, and scarcely a need for more than two seats.

Not everyone is this lucky, but while we’re still on the continuum of an SUV versus a conventional car, one has to remain curious where the true need exists on the spectrum. The vast majority of us could get by with a coupe, sedan, wagon, or hatchback, but our innate human desire to be ever prepared and never caught off guard continues to get the best of us.

In the end though, there’s a trade off. Sacrificing whatever enjoyment is left to be derived from the car you spend hours in each day, so you can be prepared to haul the subdivision soccer team—which sounds like torture, by the way—approximately once a year, if that. In my world, this compromise just doesn’t work.

But no one is listening, especially the automakers who are currently in the midst of doubling down on SUVs and crossovers. Even worse, with each new model year, there are brands that previously declared they would never build an SUV doing exactly that. The last big entrants to this sphere were the Rolls-Royce Cullinan and Lamborghini Urus, and the next on the horizon will be an SUV by Ferrari.

No one needs a Ferrari SUV, but as soon they start making them, people will come. In the old world, where core competencies mattered, and companies were best suited to focus on what they did best, none of this would be happening. But instead, we live in a world where increased integration, the break-neck pace of technological development, and component sharing have all done their best to homogenize nearly everything around us.

Perhaps that last statement is why the only SUV I ever owned was a Jeep, and why the only ones I will consider have a long legacy of defining the segment and traversing challenging terrain. In other words, they’re purpose built and specialized. It’s the same with my other cars; no they’re not caged and slammed on R-comp tires for the next track day, but they are dialed in to meet my needs, with little else on the mission scope. If I’m picking up family or friends from the airport, I’ll take my full-size four-door luxury sedan. It’s got room for passengers and luggage, and the plush seats are always welcomed after riding on an airliner. If the individual in need of a ride appreciates speed, I’ll take my 135i. If I’m not in a hurry and want to enjoy the drive, I’ll take my E30. Could one of these cars do all of the above? Absolutely, but there are certain parts of my driving requirements that would then suffer without question.

My solution? Drive what makes you happy, and the leave the three-row SUV to the guy with five kids and two dogs.—Alex Tock

[Photos courtesy BMW AG, Daimler AG, General Motors.]

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