When gasoline is below 4 dollars a gallon, which we can compare it with the psychological barrier of 1.50 euros a liter in Spain, the American consumer is much more likely to buy a tank, without turret or tracks. We have multiple examples, such as GMC Yukon XL, Chevrolet Tahoe, Toyota Land Cruiser 200, Ford Expedition... Right now the least are Premium, but wait a few years.
The high-end and premium alternatives, both at the same time, for the next few years are numerous. Only in the VAG Group we will have the Lamborghini Urus, Bentley Bentayga and Audi Q9, Porsche for the moment is served with the Cayenne. Other manufacturers that are or will be joining the asphalt tamping party are Aston Martin, BMW or Rolls-Royce. Ferrari, please don't do it. The F-segment already knows Range Rover, Lincoln Navigator, Lexus LX, Infiniti QX80, Mercedes GL(S) or Cadillac Escalade.
In fact, the current offering of those cars have more similarities to traditional SUVs - even industrial ones - than to passenger cars. And the next generation of large SUVs will be in the same group of contradictions as Porsche Cayenne, Lexus RX... In other words, engineers will be concerned about turning monsters of more than two tons into "sports cars", with expensive tires, sophisticated electronically controlled suspensions, brakes that withstand enormous punishment, special platforms... and whatever else they can think of to mention.
In any case, in Pistonudos we respect the laws of physics, and if we can protest because a sedan like the Audi A4 has a high polar moment for having the engine in front of the front axle, then we have to criticize these aberrations. I haven't driven any F-segment SUVs, but I have driven some E-segment ones: Cayenne, Touareg, RX 450h, X5 M and X6 M. In a straight line they can take the stickers off a compact or sports sedan, but start cornering.
Physics always comes into play, and we can have two-ton cars that are "fine" for the weight they weigh, but are still very clumsy under the circumstances of driving... minimally sporty. I'm not talking about spirited driving, things have to be done with moderation and responsibility, and you'd have to be crazy to go for a drive with something like this.
If I have to compare a Cayenne with a classic SUV, like a Defender, or a normal G-Class (not an AMG), obviously the Porsche does what is impossible for others. In the same way, if it rains a lot, some go home with mud all over them, and another one, which I won't mention, can stay there waiting to be rescued.
We are not only talking about weight, but also about power, and a lot of it. For dessert, almost all of them are gasoline-powered. They'd better have big tanks...
No matter how much you want to get close to traditional SUVs and off-roaders, they are extremes, and to go well on the road they have to go badly in the countryside, and vice versa. In fact, the more efficient and sporty SUVs are, the more useless they become off-road. It doesn't matter what segment we're talking about. And for the record, the X5 M and X6 M are all a piece of work even on the track, I can vouch for that. As for the Mercedes-AMG G-Class... I'm perversely curious, can it tip over or is it like a Citroen 2CV?
It is true that it is no longer essential to have a ladder chassis to have maximum rigidity, a well made monocoque with the latest generation of steels can be a real feat. However, the issue of suspension travel or axle geometry is still important. The G-Class, Wrangler, Land Cruiser... rely on absurd suspension schemes for sporty SUVs, but they go where others don't dare to go.
I'm going to imagine a conversation with an imaginary descendant, Julio (it doesn't get old), living in the 23rd century:
- Javier: Hello, dear great-great-great-grandson.
- Julio: Greetings, ancestor, how are you doing in the 21st century?
- Javier: Well, you see, we were at peak levels of concern about oil shortages, pollution, global warming, and all that?
- Julio: I've read something on HyperWikipedia... The same time when the manufacturers of those inefficient means of private transport kept coming out with more powerful engines and heavier versions... And on top of that, they were trying to reduce mortality in case of being run over. You old-timers were a bunch of mental freaks.
- Javier: Yes, that's where you got it. They behaved as if there was no tomorrow. At least it went out of fashion to have metal fenders that would make a deer go splat when you ran over it.
- Julio: What is "chóped"?
- Javier: Ah, you probably don't know what it is, nothing, low quality food, you know... They could make little slices out of it.
- Julio: What's a deer?
- Javier: Come on macho, look at the encyclopaedia, or are they extinct?
- Julio: Certainly, in your time you were a bit of an imbecile. I say that with love and respect, dear ancestor. Besides, if the roads were no longer dirt roads and almost everybody lived in cities, what did you want them for?
- Javier: For show. Off-road it was difficult to see them. A few years ago, people would buy an off-roader if they needed one, or a few to feel safer. It was the second thing that caught fire, believing that they were more protected like that. They didn't empathize much with those who rode in smaller cars.
- Julio: I read in HyperWikipedia that after a few decades, those cars were no longer wanted by anyone. They were taxed on weight, taxed on size, gasoline prices skyrocketed... At least the lightweight sports cars could be preserved with adaptations to ethanol, hydrogen or gas. Some of them are still in a museum, but not the big ones.
- Javier: You know what I say? That I'm not surprised at all. By the way, can you tell me the combination of the next Euromillions? And where will I meet the great-great-grandmother?
- Julio: I'm very sorry, it's forbidden by law to access sports or gambling results for IP conversations over time. As for the second thing, I don't want to provoke a temporal paradox, I'm very well alive, it'll show up...
- Javier: Darn...
In order not to look like a lunatic, just look at what happens in countries where car taxes are more... advanced. What has been achieved is that people tend to buy cars really adapted to their needs, not their desires or to satisfy complexes, see Japan or Norway. At the opposite extreme we have places like Dubai or Venezuela, where oil is cheap and taxes are not as much of a deterrent for large or expensive vehicles.
In defense of the luxury manufacturers, it must be said that most of that production is going to places like China, the Middle East, wealthy areas of the US, drug dealers' mansions, and so on. For example, Lamborghini defends the Urus because they have customers who, yes, live full throttle, but in their country the roads suck, and moving around in an Aventador is bad for the health of the spine.
And of course, in an Urus with rims over 20 inches and a compressed tyre profile, they will go much better and they won't get punctures. They'll be higher off the ground and torture their bodies less, but if they want to ride a Lamborghini like it's Aladdin's magic carpet, I want to try the same drugs they do. Air suspensions can work miracles, yes, but let's not forget what physics is, please.
Fortunately, in Europe we're not exactly going to see a plague of big SUVs, petrol has a sufficiently dissuasive cost and they're not very accessible models. What's more, mainstream manufacturers don't and won't offer SUVs over five metres, just as they've already been scalded out of the E-segment. The US is still a different story: you can park them, you can drive them without ruining families, etc.
Collective amnesia and the Hummer case
We've talked a lot in the past about this cursed brand, but they were one of the pioneers of the concept. Have we already forgotten in the collective imagination the conversations about the excessive consumption of the Hummer H2, its clumsy performance and high maintenance costs? It's a good thing that US government officials, when they rescued General Motors, liquidated that brand.
One of the causes of the decline of Hummer, and the American industry as a whole, was to focus on the damn SUVs, while gas prices kept rising and European and Asian manufacturers kept gaining positions. Of course, those who don't know their past mistakes are condemned to repeat them. If right now the price of oil were to rise to more than 120 dollars a barrel (today less than half that) and the pumps were to shoot up, the market value of the big SUVs would plummet. The midsize ones too.
And that's because, folks, there's nothing like expensive gas to help people be more eco-friendly.
The current lull we're having in the pocketbook of record highs in the barrel, week after week, which we seem to have already forgotten about, isn't going to last forever. And it is a myth that the wealthiest are impassive to the price of oil, if the price of stock rises they use their cars less in one way or another, although they themselves do not know it. The demand curve is not so inelastic.
Let's think in strictly rational terms. Between now and 2020 virtually all of the models I mentioned will be on the road, especially where gasoline and taxes are not repressive. Those cars have to have a commercial life, recover the money that was invested in them, and when they are halfway through, decide if there will be a successor or not, as things go with inertia in this business.
How many of those "tanks" are going to have a successor? They may continue to be manufactured, but with anti-pollution regulations looming, it will be increasingly difficult and more expensive to get something that is naturally inefficient (tall, heavy and large) to have low emissions and not be repudiated from major urban centers. Arabia will go on its roll longer. In China they need more traffic jams that last for days on end, and more suffocating in noxious gases to get the message, which they don't quite get.
Probably, as the years go by, future managers will be pulling their hair out over the management of their current namesakes. I don't know if they will be ruinous investments in the medium and long term, what is clear is that in the short term a lot of money is going to come into the big car companies, or the most luxurious and exclusive ones.
At the end of the day, SUVs are, like any other luxury item, susceptible to increase in price, and as long as there are those who are willing to pay those prices, the cycle feeds back. Their high profitability as products makes them ideal. More profitable is to disguise a Land Cruiser 200 and sell it as a Lexus LX, but the customers themselves are compounding the problem.
For example, in the case of Lexus, there are customers who want something very big, but that rides like a sedan, and fits a lot of passengers. These contradictions are driving engineers up the wall. I've been a passenger in a Lincoln Navigator in Dubai, and you know something? I was more comfortable in a Citroën C6, although it's not the same in terms of madafaquism. It's also not the same to show off with almost opaque tinted windows, than with the window down in a roadster. It's more posturing with a convertible.
But we can go deeper into the grotesque. As more than one client of these cars will be people of dubious reputation, not to use the words crime and organized in the same sentence, they will have special needs... special needs, or in English, armour. A good VR7 protection, which withstands the discharge of automatic rifles such as AK-47, can take more than one of these critters to over three tons.
I can give you a synonym, more than 750 kg per tire, and that in dynamic conditions totally calm or stopped. If Michelin had to make special tyres for the first generation of the Cayenne, now there must be a lot of people sweating at Goodyear, Pirelli and company so that the mastodons of tomorrow have a decent dynamic behaviour with so much weight.
The last straw will be to see what alternatives are offered by manufacturers with worse R&D for those wheel dimensions, maybe we will start to see a lot of big SUVs in the ditch for not equipping the best tyres on the market. Or maybe I'm an exaggerator who oozes hate from every key on his computer, since a guy with a Lamborghini LM 002 rear-ended me when I was a teenager. I strongly deny the latter.
Surely the engineers of the most prestigious brands have great data that assure them a profitability for the entire project throughout its life cycle, and that no matter how much I protest, these are models that the market demands, even if they are only a few thousand units. Much more worrying should be the plague of SUVs and crossovers of lower segments, soon there will be more of those than locusts in Egypt at the time of Moses.
Is that what the market is asking for? The market is becoming too irrational. If it is not enough for us to be on the verge of one of the biggest energy crises in history, to move extra kilos of ostentation and opulence, then society will have to learn the hard way: with taxes. And please, manufacturers should stop selling us as something urban and sporty that is far from that definition. Regulation in advertisements, now!
Fifty years ago, American industry popularized, even among the less well-off, huge cars. The oil crisis of 1973 and the one that followed in 1979 made more than one person think twice. In 2008 also changed the chip a few, when the gallon exceeded 5-6 dollars, or the barrel of 130-150 dollars. The immediate apathy for SUVs, which was real, almost bankrupted Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. We're not talking about hobbyists making cars in a garage.