Yes, they are incredible engineering achievements sometimes, but are SUVs a sign of progress for the auto industry?
I would say no.
It is common to hear our elders talking about the old days. The good old days. It is also a sign that you are getting older when you yourself start reminiscing about something that came ‘before’. And before, clearly, was always better.
My ‘before’ comes before the SUV frenzy we live in. Make that ‘SUV hysteria’. It all started with the first BMW X5 20 years ago, the first high-riding 4×4 you could drive just like a normal car. That was a success, so they built a coupe version of it, the X6. That one sold almost 250,000 units worldwide. Wow.
The competition followed suit and, soon, people were looking at these high-riding machines not only as something that they needed for their daily life, but something they badly wanted as well. A lifestyle statement, if you’d like. And since each and every one of them is more profitable than the equivalent saloon or estate, well, they started popping out like flowers on a spring day from every major constructor, in all sizes and shapes.
Except, I believe, things have gone a bit too far now. Hence my ‘oh, the good old days’ adage. I mean, shouldn’t we be building smaller, more space- and fuel-efficient cars? Let’s take the US as a basis for analysis, where from the mid-70s to the early 80s, fuel economy improved by a whopping 60%.
Then, with all those pick-ups and gigantic, mafia-like 4x4s, it stalled for 25 years. In 1982, cars accounted for 80% of the market and pick-ups and SUVs only for 20%. By the end of the 90s that number was 50:50. And get this: in 2016, US fuel averages were only 20% better than in 1982. It’s like progress never happened.
In the UK, from 2015 to 2016, the average new car CO2 emissions improved by only 1.1%, even with electric and hybrid cars showing a 22% rise in sales. Experts predict that from 2016 to 2017 the evolution will actually come out negative.
It really is amazing how much we want to be looking down on the next driver at the traffic lights. Between BMW, Mercedes and Audi, there are 16 different SUV models on sale. But now, the rarefied part of the market is joining the party, with sometimes disastrous results.
Lo and behold, the Rolls-Royce Cullinan. The most luxurious SUV on the planet. The sign that you have done well for yourself and now want everybody else to acknowledge it. ‘Move out of my way; I am rich’. Man, I hate this car.
First of all, the name: Cullinan. This most famous of diamonds was discovered in the South African gold fields and has become as much a symbol of wealth as, if not slavery, at least colonial exploitation – in 1905 South Africa was still under England’s domain. The Cullinan was then sent to Amsterdam, where it was cut before becoming part of England’s Crown Jewels. Surely there were other, more classy names to identify this car.
Second, in trying to be so opulent, Rolls-Royce achieved something altogether new for the brand: vulgarity. Luxury is not a tangible concept; luxury is an idea, a concept, a quest that can or cannot be materialised in a product, an ambience, a location. Get it right and it shows man’s ingenuity at its best; get it wrong and … well, you get something like the Rolls-Royce Cullinan. Makes me want to buy an X6 for its classy understatement.
Rolls-Royce have always been about dignity, about a kind of automotive grandeur other brands never quite achieved. And now, instead of designing its own path, it chose instead to follow the herd in search of a commercial logic that, while undeniable, may just destroy everything Charles Rolls and Henry Royce dreamt of back in 1904, when they created the most luxurious name in the business.
As a lover of cars and an apologist of some of them being true works of art, I am deeply saddened by this new orientation. The Cullinan may be the one I have the biggest problem with, hence it taking centre stage in this text, because I understood what Rolls-Royce used to stand for, but soon even my beloved Ferrari will sell you a four-door, high-riding, pseudo sporty thing. I can’t imagine how I will be able to handle that. Probably with sedatives.
But it is what it is. Just look at the Bentley Bentayga, the Lamborghini Urus or the Maserati Levante and you have to accept a new reality has come to stay. Historic brands, constructors who have in their back catalogues the greatest machines ever built have succumbed to the easy money. And it makes me mad that they are trying to sell us the idea that they need to do it to survive. Sorry, but they don’t. They want to do it, because it pays very, very well.
It’s all a bit nonsense, really, but I suspect that if I started an anti-SUV movement, I would be pretty lonely. It’s what people want. People are strange and getting stranger. #Just Saying.
By Guilherme Marques