Soft roader obsession

It seems that these days, all that automakers want to do stateside is introduce more and more crossover utilities, reports Huw Evans…

here once the sport utility was a niche product that was designed to combine off-road prowess with proper utility, such as the Chevy Blazer or Ford Bronco, today it’s become little more than a family estate car on stilts with roof rails and some form of all-wheel-drive system. Many of today’s SUVs feature unibody construction, front-wheel-drive architecture and can cope with little more than dirt roads when it comes to venturing off the tarmac.

Buick Envision

Buick Envision

Yet the high driving position and the image of the outdoorsy, backwoods, camping lifestyle these things are designed to project seems irresistible, never mind the fact that the blasted thing will get stuck and need to be towed out if you try to take a beauty picture of it on a beach or an earth mound. In fact the crossover utility craze has become so great that a few months back, Ford Motor Company declared that moving forward, it would largely cease any development on future passenger cars in North America and instead pour all its efforts into trucks and SUVs.

Okay, so stateside sales numbers illustrate that SUV sales as a percentage of the market continue to grow at a sizeable pace – more than 40% of all new light vehicle sales last year over here were compact and midsize SUVs, with the top performers outpacing perennial passenger car bestsellers such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Yet you have to wonder how much longer the momentum will continue. Trends come and go, demand ebbs and flows and what once was the flavour of the month can quickly fall victim to changing tastes and other factors. We’ve seen it happen with day vans, full-size cars, muscle cars, pony cars, station wagons and compact pick-ups.

There’s no doubt, as we move toward the third decade of the 21st century, sizeable changes are likely to happen within the automotive industry and while it’s difficult to say whether current fads like ride sharing and autonomous vehicles will take hold as much as some pundits predict they will, what is guaranteed is that market forces and buyer preferences will shift. And when they do, fortune will not favour those that have grown complacent.

There’s an old proverb that says never put your eggs in one basket and it seems that today, more and more automakers seem to be doing just that. In some ways I think the current strategy for automakers over here somewhat mirrors the way the market headed in the late Sixties and Seventies. Now while cars and trucks from that era resonate with many of us, and we covet them today, the fact remains that back then, Detroit automakers in particular focused nearly all R&D on larger and thirstier passenger cars.

That’s where the money was then and with little margin available from introducing thrifty compacts and subcompacts, there was consequently little incentive.

When the OPEC oil embargo hit late in 1973, in many cases automakers were left out in the cold, their factories and retail networks saddled with big, gas-guzzling sleds that couldn’t find buyers. Today the margins are all in trucks and SUVs, yet while the next major shift might not be the result of a fuel crisis, there’s a very real chance that all it will take is for one automaker to pay closer attention to market trends and introduce a new vehicle that’s right on target for the market.

And if other automakers are saddled with lineups heavy with SUVs that have fallen out of favour, given industry lead times they will likely end up playing catch-up for a while due to short-sighted product planning. While I think there is definitely a place for crossover utilities in the marketplace both now and into the future, I still think having a vehicle product portfolio that comprises of just two passenger cars and 10 SUVs probably isn’t a very sound move, especially in the long term.

Vehicles like the Buick Envision are all the rage these days, but how long will the trend last?

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