Once upon a time, not very long ago, sport utility vehicles (SUVs) were specialised products for people who had to drive off the road—for leisure or for work. Hatchback cars were for the masses. And for people who’ve “arrived in life,” the four-door sedan was the dominant choice. At this year’s Auto Expo, however, the major focus of carmakers was on compact SUVs and premium hatchbacks. There was a sedan or two showcased—Toyota Yaris and new Honda Amaze—but this body shape no longer appears to be the focus area. For instance, Maruti Suzuki India unveiled a concept compact car with SUV traits, called the Future-S. “Compact needs a fresh design language, one that is bold, confident and dynamic. Our designers created this new design, aggressive on the outside, and bold and inviting interiors,” Maruti Suzuki MD & CEO Kenichi Ayukawa said at the unveiling. Similarly, Tata Motors showcased two concept vehicles—the H5X and 45X—one is an SUV body shape and the other is a large hatchback. Pratap Bose, head of Design, Tata Motors Ltd, says, “An SUV offers a unique sense of presence to a customer. I foresee that, in 5-7 years, there will be an SUV body shape in India at every size and every price.”
Global car designers argue that, among all body shapes, the SUV shape is the most practical as a people carrier—it has comparatively more cabin space, it can be made to look good, and egress and ingress is easier. However, Bose adds that “while they are practical as a vehicle, SUVs have an emotional function, too—they make you feel stronger. You sit higher, you have a better view of the road, and you feel safer in an SUV, even if it’s a compact SUV.” Laurens van den Acker, senior vice-president, Corporate Design, Groupe Renault, says that SUVs are the trend at the moment. “It’s a body shape that appeals to buyers globally. For example, sedans are strong in Asia, particularly China, and in the US. Pick-ups are strong in South-East Asia and America. Hatchbacks are strong in Europe. But SUVs are strong everywhere,” he says. Renault, in fact, became a household name in India only because of the success of its Duster SUV.
On practicality of design, van den Acker says that SUVs have evolved hugely. “They have become much lighter, more spacious, more comfortable, and you simply get more car for your money.” Alfonso Albaisa, senior vice-president, Global Design, Nissan Motor Co, whom we met at CES in Las Vegas in January, doesn’t believe that carmakers are moving away from sedans and focusing, instead, on SUVs. “It’s hard to say if this is the trend right now globally, but the fact is that the SUV shape has multiple advantages—higher H-point, greater visibility of the road, better overall functionality … these are the things that make an SUV, or a crossover, a more functional design compared to, say, a sedan,” he said during an interview with FE last month.
SUVs and electrification
A few years into the future, with electrification and stringent fuel-efficiency norms, cars will need to be far more aerodynamic. SUVs, however, appear to be less ‘slippery’ compared to sedans, and so won’t the SUV shape go out of style almost as fast as it became fashionable? Bose doesn’t think so. “An SUV, if it’s designed properly, can be extremely aerodynamic. Just because it looks blockier doesn’t mean it’s any less slippery than a sedan.” Taking the example of Land Rover Velar SUV, which was launched in India in January, Bose says, “Its drag coefficient, or air resistance, is so low that it can embarrass some sedans.” Van den Acker says that aerodynamics plays a defining role in case you are driving long distance. “Electric cars for long-distance, especially the autonomous ones, will become low and long, to give you a longer range and space. Initially, when the batteries are not yet at their maximum efficiency, aerodynamics will play a defining role in the design of electric cars. But if we manage to hugely increase battery capacity in the same volume, the design play might be slightly different,” he says. However, he adds that SUVs will continue to appeal to buyers, and so designers will keep experimenting with the space, and carmakers will keep investing in them. “SUVs make you look younger, more attractive. They make you look less family. And people want to stay young forever.”