Once a hulking symbol of American excess, sport utility vehicles are quickly becoming the world’s favorite way to get around.
It’s a surprising rebirth for a vehicle that was the subject of obituaries when gas prices spiked in 2008. Automakers won back customers by making smaller, more fuel-efficient SUVs that also appealed to newly wealthy buyers in Asia and South America and former skeptics in Europe.
Indian drivers want SUVs to navigate rough roads. In China they’re a status symbol. European and American Baby Boomers buy SUVs because they’re easier to climb in and out of. Upwardly mobile Brazilian families like their spaciousness. Cheaper subcompacts like the Renault Duster are bringing in customers who couldn’t afford SUVs before.
Earlier this year, SUVs overtook four-door sedans for the first time as the most popular vehicle for individual buyers in the U.S. By 2018, analysts expect China to be the biggest market for SUVs in the world.
“The SUV genie is out of the bottle. They’ve been discovered by enough people that you’ll never put them back,” says Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with the car-buying site Kelley Blue Book.
Global SUV sales rose 88.5 percent between 2008 and 2013, to 15.7 million, according to IHS Automotive. That was three times faster than auto sales as a whole. By 2016, IHS predicts annual SUV sales will total 20.1 million, or about one of every five vehicles sold.
Automakers are finding some surprising converts. France — where environmentalists used to roam the streets slashing SUV tires — is second only to China in the growth of SUVs, with sales up 220 percent since 2008, according to Ford. Turkey is third.
Shrinking the SUV — and making it more fuel efficient — was the key to saving it. In 2008, less than half of SUVs sold worldwide were small, and customers had fewer choices. Twenty percent were large SUVs like the eight-passenger Cadillac Escalade, which defined the segment decades ago but had limited audiences outside North America.
Seeing the unmet demand, companies started making small SUVs that were even more nimble and efficient. Subcompact SUVs like the Chevrolet Trax — which is shorter than a Toyota Corolla — were born.
It worked. Sales of small and subcompact SUVs like the Toyota RAV4, Buick Encore and Ford EcoSport have more than doubled worldwide since 2008. New subcompact SUVs from Jeep, Honda, Fiat and others will arrive in showrooms soon and keep the growth going. Small SUVs now make up 58 percent of all SUV sales worldwide; the share of large SUVs has fallen to 12 percent.
The new crop of tiny SUVs is small enough to appeal to buyers in emerging markets but nice enough for downsizing buyers in Europe and North America. That’s good for automakers, who save money by designing one vehicle that suits many different customers.
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