Evolution of the SUV

During the Second World War all the belligerents developed light combat vehicles for reconnaissance and to quickly move small groups of soldiers over rough ground to areas of conflict.

The Germans, French, Russians, Japanese, British and Americans all made a number of models. The most successful by far was the American Willys Jeep first made in 1941 that served in almost every theatre of war. Though 647,000 units were manufactured, a huge number of cheap post-war surplus vehicles were found to be very useful on farms in America, Britain, Australia, South Africa and elsewhere. It was also to become popular with macho young men who wanted a rugged low-cost car. The American Jeep and the larger British Land Rover soon became the most popular models.

When these cheap surplus vehicles were no longer available, most of the global automakers began producing a range of utility vehicles (UVs) with softer suspensions, better engines, more space, air-conditioning and more features for pleasure and comfort. Though they were more expensive they proved to be quite popular. Bigger models built on small truck platforms became known as Suburban Utility Vehicles that were actually the first SUVs. In 1999 BMW the luxury car maker attempted a bold fusion between such utility vehicles and a luxurious sporty saloon and launched their very successful X5 model that they called a Sports Activity Vehicle. It drove like a luxury sports car but had big wheels capable of taking it over bad roads. It appealed to the increasing number of rich sporty young consumers which in turn led to competition from the Audi Q7, Mercedes-Benz M-Class, Mitsubishi Pajero, Toyota Land Cruiser and others aiming for the same segment.

Stiff global competition made the automakers look for areas to further widen their markets. After the Gulf War, the huge Hummer gained a large following for a short while. However this vehicle, designed to operate on the open deserts of Iraq, was impractical for the increasingly crowded city streets, and so the trend soon moved to smaller vehicles. The carmakers however understood that most SUV buyers rarely used their expensive vehicles for really rough terrain, but rather liked its masculine ‘macho’ look more than its off-the-road capabilities. This macho look managed to attract many women buyers as well. Fiat’s small Panda and Toyota’s Terios did very well for several years and the SUV look began to quickly appear on a large number of smaller platforms and models like the Hyundai Creta or Ford EcoSport, bringing the SUV flavour to a car that was otherwise a much more affordable executive saloon.

Toyota had been very successful with UVs like the Innova and Qualis before it introduced a bigger and more expensive SUV, the Fortuner, that was also a hit. India’s Mahindra & Mahindra, who had been a major supplier of jeep like UVs to the army and police, made the Scorpio SUV followed by models like Xylo, Quanto, Bolero, KUV and TUV that were successful because they were practical and affordable.

Then the `crossover’ label appeared with an SUV look imposed on still smaller and cheaper cars that had no ambition to be a utility vehicle of any kind. Renault led the pack with the popular Duster and the very small Kwid. The Maruti S-Cross, Tata Safari and Hexa and Honda WRV also successfully exploited the trend.

—The author is the region’s most celebrated automobile columnist