What to buy, an SUV or a wagon?
Sales of SUVs are booming, but most people are buying front-wheel drive SUVs, so why not just buy a wagon?
THE SUV IS a global sales success story. Sales of the things are booming with a new model lobbing onto the market almost weekly, or so it seems. Indeed, SUVs are so popular that the humble station wagon, long a family favourite, has been reversed into the shadows. But is that fair? Is the SUV really a better type of vehicle for families? And we should clarify that when we’re talking about SUVs here, we’re focussing mainly on the likes of Mazda CX-3 sized vehicles against, say, Skoda Octavia sized competitors.
There are several points about the SUV that make it both attractive and at the same time perhaps not so attractive. So let’s look at the arguments many people make to defend the reason for buying an SUV.
An SUV provides a commanding driving position with good visibility… Yes, that’s true, but it can also mean they’re more cumbersome to drive with any sort of enthusiasm, leaning heavily in corners. Indeed, unless your SUV is an Audi RS Q3, it’s unlikely to match a wagon for on-road driving dynamics. And, not all SUVs offer greater visibility either, especially some makes which often have only slightly more ground clearance than a wagon – many are worse with their big, slabby rear ends that tend to block rear-three quarter vision. That said, looking at the NRMA’s reversing index you’d believe that there’s no difference in the rear vision of an SUV or a wagon, with almost all makes and models scoring a 5 out of 5. Most of the cars tested are fitted with reversing cameras, but that’s not what we’re talking about here, rather it’s the rear three-quarter or the size of the rear windscreen itself that can restrict rear three-quarter vision in an SUV compared with a wagon. Sure, a camera helps, but it doesn’t equalise all cars in real-world rear vision situations.
The SUV is a safer option… Many buyers cite the SUV’s perceived safety in their decision to buy one. Chief of these pluses – at least in the buyer’s mind – is that because the vehicle sits high and it generally has more metal than a car, it will come off better in a collision. That is usually the case, if only because of the weight of the average SUV and not because its crumple zones or active safety systems are better than an equivalently priced wagon.
Child safety is also given as a reason for buying, again mainly because the perception is the child is surrounded by lots of metal and airbags and because the SUV is up there above other road users. But cars too have plenty of metal and are well built from a safety perspective with air bags to cocoon passengers in the event of an accident.
The minus with an SUV – as has often been reported – is because of their shape and the slabby rear end and sometimes small rear windscreen it can be easy to miss pedestrians, particularly children when reversing out of a driveway. That said, reversing cameras and cross-traffic alert systems are now becoming more common on SUVs.
The SUV offers more room… Here’s a surprise – generally an SUV is no roomier than a comparably sized car. Just because the SUV sits higher doesn’t mean it is bigger inside.
Look at the boot space in some SUVs and it’s woeful, like the Subaru XV for instance. The reason? Twofold – those SUVs with all-wheel drive often lose space to the drive system. It means the floor has to be higher, which negates any extra space you might get by being taller than a car.
Secondly, many SUVs make a major point of three rows of seating. All well and good, and yes that extra row can often be folded up when not in use but they still take up boot space. So, ironically, you can get seven people in many SUVs, all sitting comfortably and surrounded by airbags, but you can’t get their luggage in.
The SUV has true go-anywhere ability… Well, up to a point. But there has been a tendency by vehicle manufacturers to cash in on the SUV body format – that rugged no-nonsense design – and yet jettison the all-wheel drive for less expensive front- or rear-wheel drive. In fact, the Ford Territory – which was an Australian success story – sold considerably more rear-wheel drive versions than the all-wheel drive variant. That then begs the question, why pay more for an SUV with extra weight and fuel consumption over and above a comparably sized – well comparably internally sized – wagon?
Partly that seems to be down to taste at the moment, which has shifted to the bolder look of the SUV. It can’t be to do with the go anywhere ability because many of these SUVs are overwhelmingly bought in front-wheel drive, or on-demand forms and while they are higher off the ground than a typical wagon they don’t necessarily have better grip.
Now, if you choose an all-wheel drive SUV then for sure it can go places your normal front-wheel drive SUV (unless it’s a Suzuki Vitara) or lower slung wagon cannot even dream of, but if you’re not going to use the all-wheel drive to tackle fire trails then it’s hardly worth having. Why have all that extra weight and consequent fuel sucking if you’re just going to be driving around town most of the time?