SUVs are like grey squirrels. They were an American thing until some bright spark introduced them to the British, at which point they quickly began passing diseases to and grabbing land from the native red species.
It’s the same in Europe. The grey was introduced to just a few localised environments in the mid-20th century and is expected to spread right across the continent by 2100, displacing its direct rivals at every turn. It’s not quite a perfect analogy for the introduction and spread of SUVs, but it’s good enough.
Astonishing new figures from automotive industry analyst Jato show the gulf between the popularity of SUVs and that of just about everything else. In March, SUVs took a 36.8 per cent share of all sales across all 27 EU member states; a three per cent bump versus the same month last year.
The next-biggest market segment was the so-called sub-compact, known in Britain as the supermini. It took 20.4 per cent of sales, trickling down from 20.7 per cent in March 2018. It’s also the latest segment to have to brace for SUV competition: for Jato’s analysis, the recently-launched likes of the Audi Q2, Volkswagen T-Roc and Seat Arona count as SUVs, despite being little more capable in mud than a Polo. Expect the sub-compact segment to keep ceding share to small SUVs.
After superminis came the Golf and Focus class with 17 per cent, down from 18.1, city cars with a 0.2 per cent drop at 7.8 per cent, mid-size cars down 0.1 per cent at 6.7 per cent, MPVs with a relative one-fifth fall at 4.6 per cent, executive cars at 2.4 per cent, having dropped 0.4 per cent, and then you get to sports cars. Sports cars constitute the second-smallest sector by market share with just 0.8 per cent. The only car class to sell in lower numbers is the one where you’ll find Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, high-end Maseratis and so on.
Doing some basic maths shows that SUVs are now 46 times more popular than sports cars. For every individual GT86, Cayman or MX-5 that gets sold, 46 actual buyers choose Qashqais, Tiguans and CR-Vs. That’s 46 profit margins versus one. Sports cars just don’t make the big bucks; the sums that keep car makers alive.
That’s not new information but it puts some perspective on what a flippin’ miracle it is that sports cars still get built at all. It’s true that some have very high profit margins per car, like most of the Porsche 911 range, but the sales numbers are comparatively minuscule.
It also explains why manufacturers have to join forces if they have any hope of building halo performance models or even simple sports cars. You can look at Toyota’s partnerships with Subaru for the GT86 and BRZ, and BMW for the Supra and Z4. If that’s not enough, try Mazda’s platform-sharing arrangement with Fiat (and by proxy Abarth) for the MX-5 and 124s. These cars just couldn’t get past the boardroom without joint ventures.
It’s also worth noting that the profits from worse-to-drive, more expensive and usually totally unnecessary SUVs subsidise the production of more interesting stuff. Without the cash flow provided by the Cayenne and Macan, Porsche wouldn’t be able to make its sports cars so good they can vie with supercars.
It’s brilliant that we still have options. Let’s take a moment to tip our caps to those manufacturers who still offer us cars that their accountants probably don’t want them to. Nissan’s 370Z just isn’t right for European buyers but you can still buy one. The Porsche Cayman has a tough life among tough rivals and it’s hardly a financial boon to its makers, but you can still buy one. The Subaru BRZ… well, you get the idea. Determined makers of these lovely red squirrels, we salute you.