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Market trends: Size matters in 4x4 sector

The much talked-about backlash against SUVs has failed to appear.

Luxury SUVs (Range Rover, Volvo XC90, etc) are enjoying their best year, while the new Toyota Rav4 is hardly sticking to the showroom floor. However, car companies need to plan for the long-term and the big news for 2008 is likely to be small SUV models.

It may seem an unlikely pioneer, but everyone is looking closely at the Suzuki SX4/Fiat Sedici. We are so used to hopeless small 4x4s from Japanese companies that no one really took much notice of the SX4 when it came out. However, Suzuki insists that demand exceeds supply.

At the same time, models traditionally seen as ‘compact’ have been growing steadily. The new Freelander is half-a-size bigger than the old model and the Rav4 is almost a full size larger than the original early Nineties model. Both models have been resized to suit American tastes, but that does leave a big part of the market without coverage.

As both nature and the car market abhor vacuums, almost every manufacturer is thinking about small 4x4s.

VW already has its Golf-based Tiguan under development and Ford showed the Iosis-X concept at Paris, which will definitely be going into production within 18 months. GM is said to be considering an Astra-based model and even Mini is almost sure to go into production with a 4x4. The big question is how appealing such a concept would be. A compact SUV is likely to be no more spacious than, say, a Focus hatchback.

Not that such a consideration is likely to rule them out of contention. If big SUVs are now associated in the public mind with rich buyers in Chelsea, an affordable SUV is likely to have a cachet that a hatchback or an MPV cannot match.

But can the appeal be quantified? In the lower-medium segment at present, 24.8% of sales are MPVs and 9.6% of sales are premium models, such as the Audi A3. Judging exactly how big compact SUVs will become is impossible, as there is so little data to analyse at present.

Could SUVs approach the share of premium models – also bought for reasons of prestige as much as performance? It’s quite conceivable, which would be ironic.

Ken Livingstone’s new congestion charge fees come into force around 2009 with the aim of driving SUVs off London roads. In fact, there are likely to be more of them than ever – just a bit smaller than the ones we are used to.

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