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Market trends: Fighting for SUV sales

The final sales statistics show that only one type of car was an undisputed success last year – the SUV.

Despite the allegations of '12.0 mpg' Discoverys from Greenpeace (the true figure is 22.3 mpg for the Discovery, as demonstrated in market trends last year), customers are happy to shell out for SUVs in ever greater numbers. Sales were up by 8,000 units to 187,000, representing an increase in market share from 7.0% in 2004 to 7.7% in 2005.

There are really four types of SUV in the UK today (see chart). Mini SUVs are still to catch on: the Daihatsu Terios and Suzuki Jimny have never made much progress in the UK. Now the far more credible Suzuki SX4 is trying to find a niche as an alternative to a top-end supermini.

The compact SUV segment has seen huge growth, as family hatchback buyers moved into models such as the Honda CR-V, Land Rover Freelander and Toyota RAV4.

Full size SUVs such as the Mitsubishi Shogun and Nissan Pathfinder, the traditional heartland, have experienced slower growth.

At the top of the market are the luxury SUVs such as the BMW X5 and Range Rover, which have done such damage to luxury saloons.

Are there any limits to the progress SUVs are currently making? At present, buyers are concentrating on the advantages of SUVs. They have better visibility than cars, without the mumsy image of the MPV and they are perceived as a safe way of transporting the family.

The disadvantages – primarily fuel efficiency and clumsy driving performance – are not being taken too seriously.

The rise in SUV sales might suggest that manufacturers are enjoying fat profit margins: growing markets usually avoid the price competition of shrinking ones.

However, they are all so desperate to take a slice of the one pie that is expanding, that something of a price war has broken out in the mid-market. Jeep has added huge amounts of kit to the Cherokee – the top model now gets ESP, tyre pressure sensors, sat-nav and heated, part leather seats – plus a price cut of £1,035.

Nissan has created the X-Trail Aventura with the price of the old SVE, but with £2,000 of extra equipment.

From the manufacturers’ point of view, the only trouble with SUVs becoming a mainstream segment is that it has become as competitive as all the other mainstream segments. With so many new SUVs being launched in 2006 (eg Chevrolet Captiva, Land Rover Freelander, Toyota RAV4, Vauxhall Frontera), pressure can only increase.

SUV growth 2000-2005

Even within the SUV segment, there is some evidence of downsizing. Compact models, such as the Freelander, have been growing at the expense of full size models like the Shogun.

Nissan is even positioning the X-Trail against the Focus C-Max. Luxury SUVs are hardly an example of downsizing, but they are getting their sales from a completely different quarter – executive and luxury saloons.

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