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PUBLIC UTILITIES

Manufacturers are downsizing their premium SUV products – and a new niche is being born in the process

PUBLIC UTILITIES

We have lived with the oxymoron of ‘compact SUV’ since the first energy crisis of the 1970s when French and American designers shrunk the full-size Wagoneer and came up with the ubiquitous Jeep Cherokee. Responding to the international warning that oil was on its way out, American Motors saw the ‘little’ Jeep as the way forward. Nearly 40 years on and oil is still with us, as are the pocket pioneers.

Now the weight of public opinion is such that a new way forward is required, and manufacturers are coming up with ever-inventive ways to sell small but stay big. The most effective method to date is to move SUV bodies off bakkie chassis onto passenger car architecture. Road car chassis are lighter, more adaptable and require less energy to make and propel. Happily, the development of composite metals means that strength is no longer an issue. This trend has swept the globe, as motor manufacturers are now effectively upsizing their compact cars, rather than downsizing their behemoths. Overhangs are being added and height given to cabins.

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Strictly speaking, these vehicles are no more SUVs than reality television is real. However, contemporary behaviour no longer requires a genuine bundu-basher anyway – the promise of a weekend in the wild is enough. More important is comfort, economy and adaptability.

Daimler AG chairman Dieter Zetsche summed up the contradiction recently when he said: ‘There is a very strong demand from our customers for SUVs and compact vehicles.’ His company’s response has been the new Mercedes-Benz GLA, based on the A-Class platform but with greater height and large overhangs. The A-Class’s success was just the shot in the arm the GLA needed – it will feed off the kudos of its squat sister and, along with the fairly modern CLA (a booted version of the A-Class) attract new customers to the traditionally conservative marque. GLA is demonstrably a road car (the 4Matic all-wheel-drive system is optional) and it is highly likely that Mercedes will sell more of the fire-breathing GLA 45 AMG than the top-spec all-wheel-drive car.

Audi also understands the true nature of the compact SUV market, which is as much about fashion and cutting-edge design as it is about actually going anywhere muddy. Its contribution to the trend is the new Audi RS Q3, which is even less of a dirt road vehicle than the Mercedes-Benz GLA. Made to compete with the GLA 45 AMG, it features a turbocharged 2.5l TFSI engine that produces a massive 228 kW. That’s good for a 0-100 km/h time of 5.5 seconds. But the torque peak and delivery and the sports RS suspension make it less than ideal for the R355 through the Tankwa Karoo. The RS Q3 is Audi’s first sports SUV and it signifies where the company believes the market is going – to the mall, rather than the Waterberg.

Audi may be right. Porsche certainly think so. Arguably the most anticipated car of 2014 is Stuttgart’s small SUV, the Porsche Macan, a shrunken Cayenne and the marque’s acceptance that not everyone wants a monster, even if they can afford one. Macan, meaning tiger, is based heavily on Audi’s Q5 and will initially feature Porsche’s 3.0 and 3.6l V6 engines. A smaller diesel is also available and a four-cylinder two-litre petrol unit may follow in future. Expect to pay in the region of R600 000. As with the Mercedes GLA and the Audi RS Q3, Macan will compete in town rather than in the country, although Porsche’s all-wheel-drive system is standard.

The true nature of the compact SUV market is as much about fashion and cutting-edge design as it is about going anywhere muddy

With no pretences to real off-road prowess, the Peugeot 2008 is even more lifestyle orientated. The car, based on the Car of the Year nominee 208, shares much of its underpinnings with its hatchback sister but boasts longer overhangs and is substantially taller. It does battle with a raft of newcomers in the most active end of the SUV market. Among them are Chinese manufacturer GWM’s M4, Citroën’s new C4 Picasso on its new EMP2 platform, Kia’s updated Soul and the Fiat 500L. Peugeot is hoping to take market share away from all of them by offering better pricing and spades of ‘élan’. The engine mirrors the 208 as well. Peugeot’s award-winning 1.6l petrol unit makes light work of most landscapes. Peugeot’s Grip Control traction system will be optional on the top of the range model.

Equally à la mode, though bigger and better on the rough stuff, is the upgraded BMW X3, scheduled for a year-end launch in SA. The X3 has been in dire need of refurbishment for some years now and the new car gets a nose job that sees it lose its pterodactyl visage in exchange for a new BMW company look, as well as redesigned diesel engines and an upgraded xDrive off-road system. Just as important to BMW will be the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer, its crossover SUV, shown at the Geneva Motor Show recently. It will go head-to-head with the Mercedes-Benz B-Class and likely feature the 1.5l three-cylinder unit with direct fuel injection seen in the new generation Mini.

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The X3’s bigger brother, the BMW X5 has had a more substantial makeover, though cosmetically Munich has taken the evolution rather than revolution path, perhaps realising that X5 owners are a grown-up lot and the young guns will be out playing in the sand with any one of the company’s many other, trendier X machines (X1, X3, X6 or even the peculiar 3 and 5 Series GT crossovers). There are new interiors for the X3, featuring smart new iDrive screens, new materials, better seats and improvements to both road and wind noise.

The design inside is very appealing, a well-wrought combination of plains and curves that work better than most contemporary BMW interiors. Underneath the tightly pulled skin is a reworked chassis with a raft of updated driver aides, ensuring a duck-on-the-water approach to off-roading – all calm up top, all hard work underneath. Indeed the X5 is a decent off-roader despite the town-centric property speculator reputation. Thank the automatic differential brake for that as well as the useful departure and arrival angles. The flagship is the X5 M50d, which retails for a cool R1.1 million.

Contemporary behaviour no longer requires a genuine bundu-basher – the promise of a weekend in the wild is enough

Joining the evergreen large SUVs are two new bruisers, the Chevrolet TrailBlazer and the Infiniti QX80. Chevrolet’s Fortuner-buster has had a great reception, its enormous interior and seven seats winning it friends across the land. That it drives beautifully and belies its bulk on the road is a bonus. The 2.8l turbo-diesel is the one to have, the smaller 2.4l engine being underpowered.

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Receiving less press is the Infiniti QX80, a beast soon to be imported to compete with the Toyota Prado and even bigger Lexus LX570 at the very top of the large SUV market. Built on the new Nissan Patrol platform, QX80 will feature a 5.6 l V8 engine and enough seating to accommodate a rugby team and their cheerleaders. Expect it towards the end of 2014.

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The evolution of the SUV continues, with dynamic change at both ends of the sector. It is likely that the downsizing trend (or, in reality, the upsizing of passenger cars) will continue apace, while the larger contenders scale down in engine size and take advantage of new technologies to maintain outputs and power. One thing is certain – fashion and cutting-edge design have indeed come to the SUV sector, imbuing it with the street cred it previously lacked. Porsche has nailed its colours to the mast; now stand by for players from Bentley, Jaguar and Volvo.

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By Peter Frost
Images: Daimler Media, Subaru Media, BMW Group Media, JaguarLandrover Media, Porsche Media