Thursday May 8 2014

How the SUV game is changing

Mustafa: Paul, you have a Land Rover, you have an ML, what is it with sports utility vehicles?

Jude: He likes being up in the air

Mustafa: Let me hear it from him.

Jude: He likes seeing us from up there.

Mustafa: Is it that you have a farm and you need to visit all corners? But before you say anything, personally, I have always preferred sedans (saloon cars) over SUVs.

Paul: I think it is an issue that is more about functionality. SUVs tend to have the advantage of being high off the ground on our bad roads. And because SUVs tend to be four wheel drive, they tend to have stronger suspensions. The frequency of replacing suspension parts is longer. What Mustafa did not stress is the brand name- Land Rover. The best four by four by far! It is a bit of workhorse as well. It carries cement, plants, cargo and tools. So it is more of a functional vehicle. I can go anywhere in that Land Rover. I think those are some of the reasons people choose to buy SUVs and not the luxury aspect. My SUVs are old, they are practical and that is why I bought them.

Mustafa: You present an interesting point. Functionality is the most fundamental purpose of SUVs. But if you look at the SUVs of the 60s and 70s, these were tanks. But now they are more luxurious, the industry even has a new segment called cross-overs such as the Harriers. Manufacturers came up with vehicles that make you feel high up but at the same time giving you the feel of a sedan.

Jude: It is all about market dynamics.

Paul: Like Jude said, these days it is about the market. In the past it was actually government and some other institutions that were driving SUVs. It was the military, government administration, doctors etc. However, from the post-colonial governments era, SUVs now were wanted by private individuals. Globally, many people liked them thus creating a demand for luxuries. I think air conditioning was one of the first luxury features in SUVs.

Mustafa: I remember with some Land Rovers in the past, you would literally pour water in it and just mop it.

Paul: That is true. In there, you had steel plates, bare aluminium plates, metal.

Jude: Defenders just changed recently. These days their interiors have modern features unlike the older Defenders, which were more of field vehicles.

Paul: Remember the original Toyota FJ Cruiser? That was a real field vehicle. But if you see the FJ series of today, it is a luxury.

Mustafa: With all this luxury say like that of a 2012 Land Cruiser, it feels like you are in heaven! But does that mean it can still do the functionalities of me going uphill, go through rocks, go anywhere, does it have that “hardness”?
Jude: I don’t think so.

Paul: I think it can. Your question is very relevant. With comfort and practicality, here there is a tradeoff.

Mustafa: Some of these vehicles never go off road.

Paul: These days, there are a lot more plastics and electronics, you have electronic brakes, electronic transmissions, so some of these features are not ideal for field SUVs. People no longer buy SUVs for the purpose of field work. It is more of comfort.

Jude: Online car reviews refer to it as car like comfort. SUVs are these days getting features similar to those of sedans (passenger cars).

Mustafa: Paul, I would like to disagree with you on the issue of comfort. Comfort is relative. If I am pushing my S-Class Benz, I don’t care what SUV you are in.

Jude: What if I am in the G55 or G63 AMG?

Mustafa: It doesn’t matter.

Paul: But what is comfort? It is relative, it is many things. My comfort could be spaciousness. If the spaciousness I want is accommodated by the S-Class and not the Aristo, so be it (laughter). There is a certain level of comfort that the S-Class offers because of the spaciousness, leg room etc.

Mustafa: In every segment, there is luxury. Up, down, wherever, there is a bit of luxury. The reason I like sedans is because they are designed with luxury in mind. It is just recently, that SUVs are also adopting luxury. Because of the height versus body roll, they bring things like active body control. So there are issues like that. So you have these features in the new Range Rover, the ML, the new Land Cruisers. All this is done because they are trying to catch up with what is provided in the sedans.
Paul: Mustafa don’t mix comfort with safety. That is another topic. Comfort can be accommodated in both. Let’s not say that one is more comfortable than the other. There are challenges that are met or a cost when driving a sedan. The sedans cannot go anywhere. If I wanted to, I could even climb stairs (jokes). If you look around, most of the very important people drive SUVs. SUVs are practical when it comes to security or getting away.

Jude: But like I said, it is about market dynamics bringing us crossovers. These are not your ideal SUVs, most of them are actually referred to as soft roaders, some are not even four wheel drive.

Mustafa: To me crossovers are big sedans!

Jude: Most of them were produced from mid 90s todate after Toyota had experienced success with the RAV4.

Mustafa: The RAV4 should not be called an SUV!

Paul: Some Harriers and RAV4s are front wheel drive but you never see that in what we call a full size SUV. They have categories. You have medium size SUVs, full size SUVs and crossovers. There are many categories. But going forward, there is one thing people forget when buying cars. A car is a status symbol.

Mustafa: If we are going to Wina Classic for example and you arrive in a Land Cruiser.

Jude: The man has a Suzuki Maruti he didn’t mention.

Mustafa: If you arrive in the Maruti and I arrive in a Land Cruiser or S-Class, there is that sense of people wondering whether the man with the Maruti is in the right place.

Jude: But the Maruti is very practical.

Mustafa: Yes it is practical but the problem is people buy cars that are extremely capable but they will never make use of these capabilities. It is good to have them as options but when do you use them?

Jude: How many people use their four wheel drive option (those whose vehicles have it)?

Mustafa: Yes, they never use it but it comes in really handy when you really need it.

Jude: Most of the SUVs we have these days are not that practical, especially the crossovers.

Mustafa: The question is, is it an SUV? Yes, it could be high but not really an off-road vehicle. Look at the Harrier, how practical is it? It is just like a big sedan and not a real SUV. That is why I am saying some SUV manufacturers are moving away from the traditional functionalities of a typical SUV to something more luxurious and sedan like. If you want functionality, buy a pick-up. One may ask is the market of the old very functional Defenders or the Toyota Stout pickup shrinking, is it fading away?

Paul: If you look at the current pick-ups, they are more luxurious than your car.

Jude: I have been in the Volkswagen Amarok truck, it has a sedan like interior.

Paul: Even the current Hilux, the Ford Ranger, they even tell you the pickups have sedan like comfort.

Jude: But it is also a challenge to the manufacturers to keep adjusting things. There is a popular expensive sedan whose name I have forgotten but all I know is that the company now wants to do a crossover based on it.

Mustafa: I think it is Bentley. It is coming out in 2016. But also Lamborghini have toyed with the idea. I have seen some concept images. So for me I think functionality in today’s SUVs is second rate. It is more of the idea, having the shape of an SUV. In Uganda, people like SUVs because of our bad roads but globally, it is totally different.

Jude: That is why the crossovers have become very popular. Every manufacturer wants one.

Paul: Should we say the sedans are no longer popular?

Jude: They are popular but crossovers have also become very popular that is why Bentley, Lamborghini and others have done concept crossover SUVs. I think it is because of the sales. Rivals have seen the rise in sales of Porsche since they started making the Cayenne SUV yet Porsche was traditionally a sedan/sports car maker. It really worked for them so other manufacturers are copying the idea. The market is saying I want a car that is like an SUV but giving me a sedan like feel.

Paul: That is why BMW bought Land Rover. It was about kick-starting their SUVs, the X series. You now have small SUVs in the X1 and the X3.