When consumers speak, automakers listen. While this may seem a simple concept, many success stories in today’s auto market got their start from consumer reactions to automotive blunders rather than from design or executive genius. The SUV, or Sport Utility Vehicle, is a perfect example of this.
In the mid-1970’s, ‘SUV’ choices were essentially limited to the International Scout, Ford Bronco, Chevy Blazer and Suburban. These were low volume, niche products largely lacking broader consumer appeal. Now – the SUV has become a major component of the US automotive market.
DEFINING THE SUV & THE CROSSOVER
Currently, SUVs and Crossovers account for nearly 30% of all vehicles, and over 60% of the entire light truck market in the US. But what, precisely, do these vehicle terms refer to?
A Sport Utility Vehicle is designed off of a truck chassis. It is rear-wheel drive, with optional four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive capability. The engines are typically larger and the vehicles heavier. Sturdiness, strength and stability, both on and off the road, are critical design criteria for SUVs.
Crossovers, on the other hand, are designed off of a passenger car body-frame structure. Front-wheel drive cars lack frames similar to rear-drive truck, so they achieve structural integrity by integrating floor, sides and roof together with a short stubby “frame”, yielding the front-wheel drive engine and transmission. This is called a “body-frame-integral” design, or ‘BFI’ for short.
In 1980 the vast majority of the market consisted of full-sized pickups and vans, full-sized cars, mid-sized cars and some sporty rides such as Mustangs, with only a small number of larger gas-guzzling Ford Broncos, Chevy Blazers and Suburbans on the road.
NEW REGULATIONS FOR AUTOMAKERS & THE BIRTH OF THE LIGHT TRUCK
In the late 1970’s, the government passed strict new fuel economy and emissions standards that initiated Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) targets, and also required automakers to report current and future year anticipated compliance.
Car and trucks each had an average fleet fuel economy goal, based on sales. For example, in a given year Ford would calculate a single CAFE number, based on the sales for each type of truck in the Light Truck category. The same held true for passenger cars. The government required an accurate calculation not only for that sales year but for four years into the future as a forecast. It was illegal not to plan to meet the aggressive future goals.
Leading into the 1980s and faced with CAFE targets, gas shortages and rising prices, automakers jumped on the bandwagon and promptly downsized the bulk of their passenger cars. ‘Land Cruisers’ were largely discontinued, with passenger cars converted to front-wheel drive and designed lighter and smaller. New compact cars were also designed from scratch, the GM J-car being most notable.
The Light Truck market responded much differently choosing to diversify and add new product segments. The new small truck (GM creatively named theirs the S/T Truck) and the Chrysler minivan were thus created. These smaller vehicles would then offset the bigger ones and allow the CAFE for Light Trucks to be met with room to spare.
A NATURAL EVOLUTION
While the new government standards for passenger cars had been met, the new smaller lighter front-wheel drive cars had lost significant towing and storage capability without a significant gain in fuel economy. This oversight cost billions of dollars and took several years to correct, as many consumers reacted negatively to the under-performing “look-alike” cars in the mid 1980’s.
This resulted in a wholesale shift of consumers from passenger cars to light trucks, including SUVs, compact/mid-sized pickups and minivans. The light truck CAFE number had plenty of wiggle-room, so the automaker could meet growing consumer performance criteria while still fulfilling the government’s CAFE requirements - and thus the truck-based passenger utility vehicle was born.
THE SUV TODAY
Today, all SUVs (Explorer, etc) and Crossovers (Lexus RX350, etc) that meet a minimum height, width and interior volume spec are legally “light trucks”, providing the automakers with great flexibility to meet a strict single light truck standard. Without this we would undoubtedly not have the robust ‘SUV’ market we currently enjoy.
The Lexus RX300 was a breakthrough product example in this category that ultimately every automaker wanted to emulate and has led to wide proliferation of luxury crossovers today.
So – the next time you hop in an SUV and go for a spin, give thanks to new governmental rules that ultimately allowed the utilitarian needs of consumers to be met within the overall fuel economy improvement strategy by the development and evolution of the small truck, SUV, and Crossover.
About Author John Weber
Offering a true insider’s perspective, John has provided automotive-related insight to the corporate conference rooms of General Motors Corporation, Isuzu Motors, Mitsubishi Motors, J.D. Power and Associates and others, covering a wide range of topics involving product policy and strategy, product development, quality, manufacturing and customer satisfaction.
A member of the Society of Automotive Engineers boasting degrees in both mechanical engineering and business, John is additionally recognized as an automotive industry expert by the US Department of Energy. When not providing valuable expert content to Auto.com, he enjoys traveling with his wife around the globe.
Where was John during the development of the SUV?
"I was working in GM Corporate Product Planning at GM headquarters so I had insights and input in many high level issues impacting the industry. For the small truck project my job was to develop the best plan for manufacturing the future volume of trucks contained in the sales forecasts." - John