SUVs: the end of the rise?

Every second car sold in Europe is an SUV—or a crossover, akin to its nature. No body type has been so successful at winning over customers since it hit European soil, and the trend seems unending. Where does this unstoppable rise come from, and what has the future in store for a category that presumably possesses as many contenders as it has fans?

A few decades ago, the car market only distinguished between pure-bred offroaders and... the rest, which shuffled through traffic at the usual ride height. But in the mid-nineties of the last century, a handful of premium car makers, eyeing a stronger foothold in North America, blended that offroader with the comfort, road-holding and luxury of a normal car. A golden goose hatched from its egg. It was called the SUV, jargon for Sports Utility Vehicle, and its impact has been sensational. Some sportscar brands even regard its introduction as a lifesaver for their businesses.

An SUV still features the main ingredients of its source of inspiration: four-wheel drive, a raised ground clearance and bulky looks. Over time, these key features evolved, and when we talk about the affiliated body type of cross-overs, all-wheel drive has often dissipated while the car floats somewhat nearer to the ground. The overall spirit, however, didn’t vanish.

Don’t miss our CEO’s insights into the rise of SUVs in the European automotive landscape by watching the full interview.

Steady increases

With its sturdy appearance, practicality, family-oriented interior, elevated seating position, and even higher perception of safety, the SUV has proven to be a bang-on car recipe for customers—continuously so. According to the latest data from Jato Dynamics, after steady monthly increases, SUVs now secure a share of 51.3% of the European car market, an all-time high. Even the best-selling coupe/cabriolet of 2023 in the EU is a crossover! And worldwide, their slice of the pie represents 45%, a figure that excludes light commercial vehicles.

The peak of this popularity isn’t only attributed to the above-mentioned characteristics. Part of it is also model strategy, with some car makers opting for whole SUV policies, ending iconic model lineages that lasted for decades and leaving little choice for their customers. Furthermore, when charging cables and battery packs became a thing, SUVs proved a welcome technology bed as their spaciousness allows for less compromised installation, a good weight distribution, and a more noticeable positive side-effect on the centre of gravity while safeguarding roominess on board. Not to mention their ability to house larger battery packs, which remedies range anxiety. However, SUVs don’t make for ideal Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs). Their poor aerodynamics and disadvantageous kerb weight leave a lot to wish for. But, if anything, electrification is playing into the hands of their commercial success. And it leads to the demise of once-coveted car types, especially in Europe, where categories like the classic five-door executive or the minivan are becoming near extinct.

A change of heart

Ironically, Chinese brands, poised to take the lead in electric mobility, are instigating a return to these abandoned body formats. Though their home market is far from adverse to SUVs, their local showrooms are more diverse than in Europe. Long-wheelbase sedans are a favorite due to customer preference for backseat driving. And so are MPVs, which form the cornerstone of a looming evolution: the living room on wheels. Returning from work, the Chinese often like to spend quality time in their cars, watching TV or playing games on the infotainment systems. They think of cars as extensions to their homes and treat them likewise.

To some surprise, these Chinese brands are re-introducing traditional body types, minivans - and even roadsters - to the European public, but in battery-powered forms. While registrations are currently in their infancy, these more versatile BEV portfolios might kickstart a change of heart in customer preferences around Europe, dampening the SUV boom.

Environmentally founded trends are further putting up barricades. Our society’s changing mobility views let car types emerge that had seemed unfavourable for a long time. Microcars, for example. With their tiny footprint and Lilliputian cockpits, they’re worlds apart from the bulky and hefty SUV troops.

“To some surprise, these Chinese brands are re-introducing traditional body types, minivans - and even roadsters - to the European public, but in battery-powered forms.”

Higher seats, higher parking rates

A more existential challenge lies in the circular push on materials. As our economy model shifts towards renewability, the first of the three R’s from the mantra ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ will impact the future development of SUVs. Their oversized dimensions use up above-average materials. And as these need to improve on recyclability, car designers will be tasked with a fresh view of surface sizes and heights. Already, concept versions of next-generation SUVs showcase a diluted breed, a hybrid concept between a conventional station wagon and an off-roader.

Political movements are trying to undercut the popularity of SUVs in even more direct manners. We all know how SUVs are targeted as polluting gas-guzzlers by environmentalist groups (though their average emissions decline year after year), often defying the owner with tyre-deflating protest actions, but also some authorities are now publicly charging against SUVs. The city representatives of Paris, for instance, have decided to impose a higher parking tariff for oversized vehicles, as of the 1st of January 2024. A dash of hope: zero-emission drivelines are exempt.


Since their arrival in Europe, at the turn of the century, SUVs have gathered impressive momentum. But the context and the wind are gradually changing, and not in their favour. The most genuine of offroaders are leaving Europe, and the dwindling social acceptance together with the strain from environmental economics, are paving the way for a new breed of SUVs, or will it be a return to forlorn body types? The creativity of car designers will tell.

Geoffrey Heyninck,

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