SUV Mania

Big, Bad and Beloved

Bratislava SUV assembly getty
Audi's latest climate change device, the Q7 SUV.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Even as fears of manmade climate change continue to grow, the popularity of large, gas-guzzling SUVs shows no signs of abating.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Audi chairman Rupert Stadler says the manufacturer is only responding to consumer demand by building polluting SUVs.
    • SUVs currently account for 30 percent of all vehicles sold by Audi, but Mr. Stadler believes it will reach 40 percent by 2020.
    • Purchasers of SUVs are driven more by emotion than other car buyers.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

Rupert Stadler pointed to an imposing car – a shiny blue Audi Q7, five meters long (16.4 feet), two meters (6.6 feet) wide — and said: “It comes at the right time.”

Audi’s management board chairman couldn’t resist the opportunity to personally present his pride and joy in the mountains of the Swiss canton of Valais.

On the 55-kilometer, or 34.2-mile, drive from Sion Airport to the village of Verbier in southwestern Switzerland, Mr. Stadler explained the letter Q at Audi stands for sport utility vehicle, or SUV, for short. He waved off questions about the need for such a large vehicle, noting the Q7 is “up to 325 kilos (716 pounds) lighter than its predecessor” and that the six-cylinder diesel engine emits less than 149 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer.

“It cuts a damned fine figure in the area of CO2,” Mr. Stadler said. “That’s really awesome.”

Environmental activists might consider such cars as contributing to global climate change, but the Audi chairman may be right on the mark with his expectations for success with the new SUV. Nothing sold on car markets around the world is hotter than the beefy vehicles known for their wide stance, huge fenders and high driving position.

Already, every fifth new car sold in Germany is an SUV or off-road vehicle. They’ve doubled their share of new car registrations in the past five years alone.

In the United States, where SUVs originated, more light trucks including SUVs and powerful pick-ups were sold in 2014 than all passenger cars combined. In China, the SUV is just starting to take off with 50 percent more sold in the first four months of 2015 than in the same time period last year.

It’s not surprising Dieter Zetsche, Mr. Stadler’s counterpart at Daimler, has declared 2015 to be the “Year of the SUV.”

Audi is keeping pace. About a half million first generation Q7s have been sold in eight years while the next generation debuting this fall is expected to sell up to 70,000 units a year.

Why are buyers on every continent embracing these massive cars?

“The customers are super happy,” Mr. Stadler said. “Because they are sitting higher. They feel like they have a better view of everything and can travel in incredible comfort on long trips.”

The SUV boom began in Germany in the late 1990s when BMW and Mercedes-Benz built new factories in the United States and marketed the big vehicles as a fashionable alternative to large sedans and limousines. Porsche and Volkswagen quickly followed suit. But instead of appealing to drivers in rural areas, city dwellers were most fascinated by the four-wheel drive vehicles, even if any adventurous driving took place in their imaginations and not on muddy mountain trails.

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