If you are shopping for an SUV or crossover, you’re not alone.
According to the latest industry stats from DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, light truck sales continue to outpace passenger cars, accounting for more than two-thirds of the Canadian market. And the margin is growing.
Okay, the light truck category also includes pickups – which are flying out of showrooms – and minivans, which are not. But keep in mind that although four of the five top-selling vehicles, overall, are pickup trucks, nearly half of the top-20 are sport utilities and crossovers*.
In particular, the small ones – more on that later.
SUVs are broadly defined as being based on a truck platform (body-on-frame), with high ground clearance and four- or all-wheel-drive. And they’ve been around longer than you may think.
Their history dates back to the post-WWII period, with names like the Willy’s Jeep Station Wagon, Land Rover Series I and II, and International Harvester Scout still resonating with collectors and enthusiasts. But the rest of us are probably more familiar with the later, and more common models like Ford Bronco, Chevy Blazer, Suburban, and the first-generation Toyota Land Cruiser.
These were the bruisers that dominated, before the term ‘sport utility vehicle’ was coined in the late 1980s. Big, thirsty, and with serious off-road ability, they were questionable daily drivers, yet garnered a large and loyal following. Some, like the original Land Cruiser, still fetch considerable dollars despite their vintage.
I won’t agonize over who launched the first modern SUV – we’ll leave that debate to the gearheads – but it came about when gas was cheap, and the station wagon was in a sorry state.
Indeed, the faux woodgrain-wrapped Ford Country Squires, Buick Roadmasters and other rust-prone crap from the seventies and eighties ensured there would be buyers interested in a better solution for hauling people and cargo.
And when it came, the early Toyota 4Runners, Jeep Cherokees and Ford Explorers caught the attention of buyers who might otherwise have settled for a wagon – or a small pickup truck.
Much has happened since then to spur the design of so many new models and variations, not to mention a quantum shift in buying. Smaller families, skyrocketing gas prices, and changing tastes have all made their mark.
On the latter point, although buyers initially fell in love with the ruggedness of a truck-based SUV, they fell out of love with its relatively coarse ride and handling. Hence, the crossover (or CUV) was born. It unibody structure and car-based suspension and underpinnings ensured more civilized driving dynamics, without giving up cargo room, all-wheel-drive, and a commanding view of the road.
Purists will argue the AMC Eagle of the 1970s and 1980s was the first ‘modern’ crossover. But I’m not a purist and will point out that the Eagle was long gone by the time the need for a CUV surfaced, and the segment was created.
So let’s talk about Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester – and the Nissan Murano that followed. These are worth mentioning because they were well-designed and continue to sell in big numbers. And they pioneered the segment.
Like SUVs, CUVs come in small, medium and large sizes. Although the current trend is to go smaller. Many buyers are realizing they don’t need a ‘school bus’, and can enjoy the benefits of each on a smaller footprint.
One that is less thirsty.
Indeed, small is becoming big business and when you look at sales rankings of all 101 SUVs and CUVs available in Canada – yes, there are that many! All of the top five are compact or subcompact*.
In the ‘subcompact’ class, you’ll find Buick Encore, Chevrolet Trax, Fiat 500X, Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-3, Mini Countryman, Nissan Juke, Nissan Qashqai and Subaru XV Crosstrek.
The ‘compact’ class is even larger: Buick Envision, Chevrolet Equinox, Dodge Journey, Ford Escape, GMC Terrain, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Cherokee, Jeep Compass, Jeep Patriot, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Mitsubishi Outlander, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4 and Volkswagen Tiguan.
Whether you’re buying small or mid-sized, automakers are moving away from V6 engines and embracing the inline four. Especially the turbocharged four cylinders that are offering the same or more horsepower, with better fuel economy.
Naturally-aspirated four cylinder engines (no turbo) and smaller turbo fours are typically found in subcompacts, with horsepower ratings in the 130-190 range. They are not meant for serious hauling, but some will tow personal watercraft and small trailers.
Larger compacts like Outlander, Equinox and Escape can tow up to 3,500 pounds, when properly equipped. Midsize offerings like Toyota 4Runner, Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot are a better option for towing, able to pull 5,000 lbs, with Durango maxing out at 7,200. But that’s with a V8.
In the mid-size class, SUVs and crossovers not only have more muscle, but some even have three rows of seating. The back bench typically won’t match the leg room of a minivan, but these seats will work for kids and shorter adults. Check out vehicles like Traverse, 4Runner, Pilot, Explorer, Santa Fe XL, CX-9, Pathfinder and others if you need to carry seven or eight occupants.
Full-size models are still best for moving big families – and all their stuff. With all three rows of seating upright, some still have loads of cargo room behind. Chevy Suburban, for example, can comfortably carry eight passengers along with 1,112 litres of space for groceries or gear.
No surprise that it also packs a V8 under the hood, as do Toyota Sequoia and GMC Yukon. Ford Expedition employs a twin-turbocharged 3.5-litre V6, but it outperforms many eight cylinder engines with its 365 hp and 420 lb/ft of torque.
You might think that SUV and CUV pricing closely follows size, and you’d be partially correct. Some of the small, entry models start in the mid $20K range, while full-size SUVs can hit the wallet at two to three times that, plus options.
Yet many of the smaller rides offer premium features like heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, leather upholstery, premium infotainment systems, and a full suite of driver aids like radar cruise control, adaptive front lighting and lane-keeping assist. These can drive pricing upwards of $40,000.
Buyers with bigger budgets can explore even more posh offerings. Here, you’ll find marques like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Lexus, Infiniti, Lincoln, Cadillac, Land Rover and others who produce vehicles that rival the best luxury sedans in terms of build quality, technology and comfort.
Features like seat cooling and massage, self parking and other semi-autonomous technology are available on certain models, not to mention leather seating and premium audio systems that rival – or outclass – what many people have in their homes.
And although most of these vehicles will never face anything more challenging than cottage roads, some like Land Rover/Range Rover, Mercedes G-Class and even Porsche Cayenne boast significant off-road cred. You may question the sanity of going rock crawling with a $100K-plus vehicle, but it’s possible with some of these!
So do your research – after all, this is a big investment – and be sure to get ample seat time. Remember that although you may have high expectations of your SUV or CUV in terms of towing, hauling or off-roading, it is probably also your daily driver. You don’t have to sacrifice comfort for capability. With the many advancements in ride technology, even the burliest of today’s rides now have excellent road manners.
By Neil Moore
Motoring Contributing Writer