What is an SUV? According to car makers, it’s just about anything with a high roof and some taller seat mounting brackets. The name has become so bizarrely widespread that everything from a clumsily embiggened Vauxhall Corsa to a V8 Hellcat-engined Dodge enormo-wagon all get labelled the same way. Including, of course, our new fleet acquisition: an Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio.
This badging frenzy is as insane as telling a seven-year-old with a Nerf gun that he’s ready to fight on the front line, dropping him off at the trenches with his foam dart-blaster and letting him crack on. It’s putting false ideas in people’s heads and, right off the bat, smacks of corporate opportunism manifested through sheer force of misdirection and repetition. Let’s take the lid off the ubiquitous acronym, unpick what it means and pour cold water on this daftest and most frustrating of fires.
Sport Utility Vehicle: a vehicle that has qualities suitable for sports and utilitarianism. To be fair we can’t fault any of the current limp crowd of soft-roaders on one of the three counts: they are, unquestionably, vehicles. But then again, so is a Renault Twizy. As for the sport side, the term is believed to have originated in the USA, obviously, where gun sports were – and are – extremely common.
The SUV was never meant to be stiff or handle well; derived from military vehicles it was meant to carry weapons for recreational use in off-road settings after WWII. As a concept it quickly developed with a big load bay, proper all-wheel drive and a split or bottom-hinged tailgate, because it’s important to be able to sit down somewhere that isn’t the ground. On the ground you have less protection and will immediately be eaten by a bear. And if you prefer to eat your own mid-hunt picnic while standing, a bottom-hinged tailgate puts your coffee and doughnuts at the perfect height.
Somehow, manufacturers based in Europe forgot or ignored this and decided that the ‘sport’ bit meant that they had to make what were essentially hatchbacks, just so massive that their gravitational pull caused small dogs to veer off the pavement. To do so they mounted vast and heavy suspension on vast and heavy chassis with reduced ride height for road use, ensuring that in one fell swoop they blindfolded the letters S and U, stood them up against a brick wall and executed them by firing squad.
The BMW X5 caused quite a stir when it came out in 2001, not because it truly handled well, but because compared to the invertebrate excuses for road vehicles it usurped, it handled vastly less badly. Almost – but not quite – like a hatchback. Unless you have powers worthy of the Avengers you can’t alter a thing’s mass, and, like most large four-wheel drive vehicles since then, the X5 was a chuffing porker.
So, you had a vehicle that wasn’t sporty and was trying to be the wrong type of sporty anyway, and it had surprisingly little utility either, showered as it was in leather, electronics and a carpeted boot. At least it had a split tailgate. No, this was no sport utility vehicle. It was Frankenstein’s hatchback. It jumped for those letters, missed and landed on something else entirely. Possibly the Haynes guide to truck-racing.
Still, it was marketing dynamite. In Europe we don’t all have guns and as a whole we don’t really go off-road much, so this particular Americanism was ripe for its spurious and empty-headed rebrand. I expect the blatant offence caused to our friends Stateside is why America has finally returned the insult with Bridgerton. After that there was no turning back, until we arrived at a point where manufacturers aren’t even bothering to raise the ride height of new models’ chassis any more before churning them out as SUVs. Take a look at the latest crop – if you can stay awake – and you’ll see they have less ground clearance than a football hooligan’s knuckles.
It’s like they’re not even trying any more. Sure, some so-called SUVs have quite big boots (if you’re willing to stack high), but they’re luxuriously carpeted throughout and set at the wrong height, often with a deep boot lip that makes them useless for carrying/hiding large and heavy items, like for example the cubed remains of the supermini that dared park in your usual spot at Waitrose last week.
Making an SUV has degraded into an exercise in lifting the roof and interior of an existing front-wheel drive hatchback. There’s nothing wrong with that, apart from the pointless waste of resources, unnecessary weight, increased purchase prices, inherently worse handling properties and being more difficult to clean. If buyers want to sit higher and see further ahead, let them. Except… now half the civilised world is rocking around in these high-roofed hatchbacks, their view ahead is almost as bad as it used to be. And they still can’t make it through flood water any better than the neighbour in his old VW Polo.
So, if the false prophets bearing the letters aren’t fit to be called SUVs, what kind of car suits the tag better? In my opinion the basic full-fat Range Rover is still the only semi-true American-style SUV this side of the Atlantic. The Bentley Bentayga and its ultra-luxury ilk are amazing machines, but ultimately not built to get axle-deep in fox poo while carrying a brace of shotguns and a modest hillock of dead pheasants. Nor are the big German or Japanese offerings. I’d still prefer a farm-spec Range on steelies with vinyl seats and hose-down footwells, but you can’t have everything.
If you look at the European definition, though, where an SUV should aspire to be sporty-handling and spacious, then really you can’t look any further than a fast wagon. Something roomy and low to the ground for centre of gravity gains, but with a big boot and an engine to match: let’s say an Audi RS6 Avant or BMW M5 Touring. You’re still battling with outrageous luxuries you don’t need, but cling-film the entire interior and you’ve got a genuine, bona fide EU-spec sport utility vehicle. Which, given our love for fast wagons and hatred of most things labelled SUV, is so hurtfully ironic we’ll still be salving the burns this time next week.