SUV definition takes sharp turns

Some rebrand their crossover cars or ‘raised hatchback cars’ as SUVs, others claim they make authentic SUVs that can be driven off the road

SUV definition takes sharp turns

When Maruti Suzuki launched the S-Cross in 2015, it was branded as ‘The Premium Crossover’. When the same car was given a new design (facelift in automotive parlance) in 2018, the carmaker called it ‘The Refined SUV’.

Either the carmaker was confused whether the S-Cross is a crossover or an SUV, or it wanted to ride the SUV-wave by calling its crossover car an SUV.

According to data compiled from carmakers, the share of SUVs (short for sport utility vehicles) to total passenger vehicle (PV) sales has been rising. In FY16, SUVs formed 17% of overall PV sales, which increased to 19% in FY17, 23% in FY18 and FY19, 26% in FY20, 32% in FY21 and 41% in FY22.

But what exactly is an SUV?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, an SUV is a high-performance “four-wheel-drive” vehicle. A crossover, on the other hand, is an SUV-like or a wagon-like design on a sedan or a hatchback-based platform, and is usually not a four-wheel drive.

If one goes by that definition, barely 5% of SUVs sold in India are SUVs, an automotive analyst told FE. “Most of the SUV-like vehicles sold in India are two-wheel drive, i.e. only the front wheels receive power from the engine,” he said.

What do carmakers say?

Veejay Nakra, president, automotive division, Mahindra & Mahindra, said anyone making a vehicle with a slightly macho-looking design thinks it can pass off as an SUV. “At Mahindra, we have been making differentiated, adventure-ready, authentic SUVs for decades, and have a definition for the same,” he said.

According to Mahindra, an SUV must offer ‘thrill of driving’, and for that it should have at least a 1.5-litre engine, and if it’s 1.2-litre, it should be turbocharged. Also, an SUV needs to have a ‘bold stance’ and high seating position. For that, the tyre should have a diameter of about 660 mm, the distance of the seat from the ground should be more than 660 mm, and the vehicle should have high ground clearance of at least 180 mm.

Mohan Savarkar, vice-president, Product Line, Tata Motors Passenger Vehicles, said that the definition of an SUV is evolving over time, depending on customer preferences and changing design trends. “An SUV is all about muscular external styling, commanding seating position and high ground clearance. This segment is also witnessing affinity towards premium design combined with the ‘go-anywhere attitude’, comfort, safety and convenience,” Savarkar said. “We, at Tata Motors, have been at the forefront of filling white spaces in the SUV segment, with consumer-centric products across the range. These include the Punch, Nexon, Harrier and Safari, which have helped made us the top SUV brand in the country.”

Maruti Suzuki, which has been on an SUV launching spree of late — it launched the all-new Brezza in June and unveiled the Grand Vitara last week — said an SUV is a vehicle in which the seating position is high, the bonnet is higher than in a similarly-sized hatchback or a sedan, and the A-pillar (the pillar connecting the windshield to the front windows) is more upright than in a sedan or a hatchback.

CV Raman, chief technical officer (Engineering), Maruti Suzuki, said that, traditionally, an SUV has been defined as a big vehicle that has 4×4 drive system, has large tyres and can be driven on all terrains. “But that definition has changed; today, what customers want is an urban SUV, so it can be small, it need not have a 4×4 drive system and it need not even have large tyres,” Raman said. “Customers expect it to look like an SUV but drive like any hatchback or sedan would. Even in these urban SUVs, the seating position is higher than in a similar-sized sedan or hatchback.”

While bodies such as the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) haven’t clearly defined SUVs — the SIAM broadly classifies PVs into ‘passenger cars’ and ‘utility vehicles’— the closest official definition of an SUV is found in Notification No. 5/2017-Compensation Cess (Rate), released by the department of revenue in 2017, when it levied a 22% cess on “motor vehicles of engine capacity exceeding 1500 cc, popularly known as sports utility vehicles (SUVs) … for the purposes of this entry, SUV includes a motor vehicle of length exceeding 4000 mm and having ground clearance of 170 mm and above.”

Most automotive analysts FE talked to believe that instead of going by the purist definition of an SUV — rugged, 4×4, large tyres — it’s fair to call today’s raised-stance vehicles as SUVs. “SUVs were developed decades ago when the global road network wasn’t good enough and you needed vehicles with off-road driving capability to reach remote areas. Today, with roads almost everywhere, there is no need to develop such vehicles,” said an auto expert. “Lookalikes will do just fine.”

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