End of the road for the SUVs

August 14th, 2008 - 9:22 am ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger
By Reino Gevers
Hamburg, Aug 14 (DPA) The days of the huge SUVs such as the Hummer, Porsche Cayenne and Audi Q7 are numbered as high fuel prices and a bad eco-image are causing sales to plunge. Manufacturers are offering a better alternative in the compact SUV segment. Hollywood stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron were often seen driving the fuel-guzzling Hummer in the 1990s, making it the ultimate male status symbol in wealthy suburbia.

The trend towards full-sized SUVs then spread rapidly from the US to many European countries. In London, the Range Rover Sport was a favourite among the jet set who did not have to worry about exorbitant parking fees, taxes or fuel prices.

Dubbed the “Chelsea tractors” or “Yank tanks”, the SUVs were considered polluters and terrified pedestrians and cyclists. In some cities, it was not uncommon for drivers of such vehicles to find notes tucked to their windscreens, vilifying them as polluters.

Politicians joined forces with the critics and even former London mayor Ken Livingstone described the owners of such SUVs as “complete idiots”.

Paris Green city council member Denis Paupin called the SUVs “a caricature of a car”.

But manufacturers such as Mercedes, Toyota, BMW, Audi and Porsche soon joined the lucrative SUV market, offering their own versions of 4×4 in combining all the off-road qualities of a rough-terrain vehicle with the comfort and luxury of an upmarket sedan.

However, with fuel prices soaring, sales of fuel-guzzlers are falling.

General Motors has scaled back production of the Hummer by a third and is mooting plans to sell-off the Hummer division, after sales fell by 40 percent this year. Toyota had to suspend production in the US of the Tundra pick-ups and Sequoia SUVs for three months.

The Audi Q7 saw a 42 percent sales drop in June compared to the same month in the US last year.

German car analyst Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer says “the best days of the SUV are over”, predicting a massive downturn for the segment of full-sized SUVs in the next few years.

“There might still be a few wealthy people driving them who don’t care about high fuel prices,” he says, but most car makers are offering small compact SUVs as a better alternative.

The compact SUVs are smaller and more economical than the full-sized SUVs while merging off-road qualities with those of a typical hatchback. The VW Tiguan has become an instant success, becoming the most popular SUV in Europe with 34,179 units sold during the first five months since its sales launch this year, outselling its main competitor in the segment - the Toyota RAV4.

The Tiguan’s 2.0-litre-TDI mit 125 kW/170 hp engine, that also finds itself in the Audi Q5, has a listed consumption of 6.7 litres of diesel per 100 km, putting it into the category of most sedans.

Other SUVs in the compact segment are the Ford Kuga, the BMW X3 and the Infiniti FX37. Mercedes is offering the GLK with four-cylinder eco-friendly Bluetec diesel technology as an alternative to the bigger M Class.

Schwarzenegger, now governor of California, is urging Californians to buy more economical cars and converted his own fleet of Hummers to run on hydrogen and biofuels.

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