As promised/threatened my last couple of posts here have been relatively car-free, I guess only readers can judge as to whether my writing still remains as enjoyable and informative (ha!) when the focus moves away from four wheeled machines but rest assured this post is going to focus on cars again…well SUV’s anyway, quelle surprise.
In the last few months there has been a large number of this type of vehicle launching across the globe and now it seems that the reviews of these models are beginning to filter down through the world of automotive journalism, which in all fairness is usually the closest I get to trying out new vehicles properly! Of course there have been other product launches, but as regular readers know my interested is always piqued by something with chuky styling and a smattering of ground clearance to boot; the Volvo XC90, Audi Q7 and Honda Pilot are but 3 of these latest models and on the face of it posses quite a degree of commonality. All three are 7 seat SUV’s/crossovers which feature a swanky infotainment system and in the US market can be found at a price around $50k (albeit at differing points in model hierarchy – that would buy you a top-spec Honda or a base Audi), but whilst the Volvo and the Audi will be able to buy on UK shores, the Honda remains a model only available in SUV-centric markets like North America and the Middle East. With the UK falling ever deeper in love with all things crossover it made me query as to why so few mainstream brands offer anything like this type of vehicle in our market?
OK so let’s not beat around the bush here – by far the most obvious reason as to why manufacturers like Ford and Honda don’t offer their larger vehicles here is the fact that British drivers are snobs…there I said it! In the days where the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C Class regularly outsell previous top-sellers like the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Insignia (nee Vectra) it is very clear too all but a few dopey car execs that we Brits would much prefer a vehicle with a German badge even if it is severly lacking in space, equipment and power when compared to a more mainstream rival. Buyers in mainland Europe are arguably little better, but fierce nationalism at least ensures that cars like the new Renault Espace (now a crossover believe it or not) sell in reasonable numbers…add in the fact that Britain is a RHD market and the expense of re-engineering the car seems near pointless given the likely low sales even a previously admired nameplate like the Espace would acrue.
Japanese car manufacturers have been a little more adventurous than the Americans admittedly – cars like the Toyota Land Cruiser and Mitsubishi Shogun arguably started the movement toward family friendly off-roaders in the UK and inspired the original Land Rover Discovery, high praise indeed considering how much of a darling to the middle classes the Discovery has become. Japanese vehicles have the benefit of being engineered in RHD for their home market anyway (and Australia too) so it is not too difficult for them to stick a few on a cargo ship every year and send them in our direction. However in recent years the Japanese manufacturers seem to have been content to let their larger models grow long in the tooth – the Shogun has long become a joke and is based on a platform nearly 15 years old, whilst Toyota’s pair of Land Cruisers have stuck close to their off-road mission and continue to rise in price. Only Nissan seem content to ride the crossover wave in the UK but even they have discontinued their larger models in favour of focusing on bigger sellers like the ubiquitous Qashqai and slightly larger X-Trail.
US-style SUV’s have been imported before though; Ford brought their insanely popular second-generation Explorer over to the UK for several years in the late 1990’s, Chevrolet did the same with their mid-sized Blazer and Jeep have admittedly held relatively steady sales with several models since the early 1990’s! However the former two models were only available with thirsty V6 engines and had the unfortunate symptom of most similar vehicles of the day in that it drove very sloppily and had a dodgy interior quality. All but the latest Jeeps have been criticised for their interiors too, but they have the benefit of a badge adorned with romantic images of America and diesel engines…not great ones but still providing fuel economy at least a third better than their petrol engined compatriots. Japanese SUV’s also offer diesels, but whilst better than the sluggish ones in many Jeeps they are neither as powerful, refined nor economical as anything being produced by ze Germans.
So what is the point in me going over all of this information? Well I think that there could well be an emerging gap in the market which could be very easily plugged by manufacturers with plenty of ready made global models at their disposal. It is hard to overlook the last half decade in which buyers have started to choose crossovers and SUV’s in their droves – whether it be the more compact and mainstream variety or those made by premium manufacturers, most of the market growth in the UK car industry has come either from these vehicles or compact cars. Another trend which has coincided with this product shift has been the growing list prices of cars – I mean of course most new cars are bought on some kind of finance, but even then it is notable when a Land Rover Discovery goes up in price by £20k in the past 10 years and the average Ford Kuga sells for well over £30k – the popularity of top trims is so much so that Ford have added an extra one to capitalise on those who want nothing but the best.
Despite this there remains a lack of larger vehicles between the £35k and £45k mark – admittedly this is smack bang where models like the BMW X3, Audi Q5 and new Land Rover Discovery Sport sit, but they are by no means the people movers that some people need. Until recently the only real answer was the Volvo XC90 – the first generation was heavily discounted in it’s later years and as such a brand new model 7 seater with a relatively premium badge could be had from around £30k! But with it’s replacement targeting vehicles like the BMW X5 and new Audi Q7 in terms of desirability and ultimately price, anyone looking for a 7 seat SUV with usable rear seats can only really look towards the Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe unless they are willing to commit to spending significantly more on one of the aforementioned models.
I’m feeling my sense of writing direction beginning to flail a bit so I’ll simplify things by mentioning a few potential candidates for UK immigration and why they could sit very well in our market:
To start with we have a car which should, in some shape or form, be coming to Europe in the next year or so to replace the ancient Vauxhall Antara. GM has a strong range of crossovers like the Chevrolet Traverse and it’s derivatives, but they have failed to replace the decade old Antara even though it was behind the times when new! With Buick being twinned with Opel/Vauxhall globally it seems we will be getting a push of upmarket models and the Envision will be one of the first – interestingly the Envision has only been launched in China so far, likely to be it’s biggest market!
Much like it’s Envision sibling, the Enclave is an example of Buick’s renewed climb upmarket and although the current generation is now long in the tooth it should be being replaced within the next couple of years if GM has any sense. Badged as a flagship Vauxhall model to compete with the Explorer it might fare reasonably well if priced correctly and indeed at one time there were rumours of a large Vauxhall crossover, but I suspect that residuals may end up being quite poor and as a result leasing rates would be uncompetitive when compared to premium rivals.
With Chevrolet’s withdrawl from the UK there would seem little hope of the Suburban ever coming here aside from some limited import companies, but what if GM had the balls to bring a few of their iconic models over the Atlantic like Ford has done with their Mustang? The Camaro is meant to be coming back as is the Corvette, but only in right hand drive unfortunately.The Suburban may be vastly over sized for UK roads but with an efficient diesel engine it may find a market with executive chaffeur companies who currently have to lump around in Mercedes V-Class’…and they aren’t exactly cheap either!
Again Dodge is another brand which has disappeared from these shores after a brief resurrection; the Durango is effectively a stretched version of Jeep’s Grand Cherokee with room for 7 and a lower price to boot! Admittedly interior quality is a small step below the Jeep but it is several steps above the previous Dodge models which have found their way to the UK. Some of those models have been rebadged as Fiats on mainland Europe but I think the Durango would have a better chance as a Jeep, which may well be what happens eventually if the much rumoured ‘Grand Wagoneer’ ever appears in Jeep showrooms…they have the diesel sorted anyway.
Could now be the time for the Explorer’s triumphant return to the UK? Well now based on the same car platform as many global Ford and Volvo models the Explorer is now near the top of it’s class in North America and has won much comparison with Land Rover’s models in terms of looks and certain interior details (albeit not all favourable!). It remains a large car but not any bigger than something like the current Discovery or Volvo XC90, and with Ford finding buyers for £35k Kuga’s I doubt very much that they would have problem shifting Explorers for £40k or so. The problem could lie with engine choices, but with Ford’s partnership with PSA over engine technology, I am sure that it wouldn’t take much effort to shove the 3.0 HDi/TDV6 engine under it’s bonnet, or even a 2.0TDCi seeing as though they offer a 4 cylinder petrol in the States.
If Ford are hesitant about engineering the Explorer for our RHD market then what about one which is already made for one? Ford Australia have been churning out their mid-sized Territory with reasonable success for over a decade now and it already comes with a 2.7 TDV6 diesel and a modern infotainment system to go with Ford’s latest corporate grille and car like handling. I prefer the beefier looks of the Explorer but if it’s easier to bring the Territory here like Vauxhall do with the Holden Monaro/VXR8 then so be it.
Honda like to think of themselves as a cut above mainstream manufacturers here in the UK…comparable to Volkswagen and in some ways the thinking man’s BMW, Honda built a reputation as making extremely reliable and mildly sporting cars for much of the last 30 years. However this image has faded somewhat recently, as have sales, and the only model which really sells with any conviction is the evergreen CR-V (and likely will the upcoming HR-V do the same). The Pilot is a large crossover which has just entered it’s third generation and by all accounts it looks to recapture much of the sales momentum of it’s smaller siblings; the previous Pilot was a little too boxy and old school to top the sales charts, but the new one is sleeker and gets a 9-speed ZF transmission in higher trim levels alongside a rejigged infotainment system. A new range topper such as the Pilot would sit pretty well in Honda’s UK line up, but the main caveat remains a diesel engine, as Honda’s largest is only 2.2L which would definitely not be sufficient for the large Pilot. Maybe a hybrid model could grab some sales but unless Honda engineer a larger diesel (unlikely) the Pilot is probably not going to land on these shores.
With the CX-5 and 6 Mazda really seem to have hit the right note with customers – OK so sales aren’t class leading but the mix of attractive looks, affordable running costs and reasonable price are key Mazda strengths which continue to win fans. The CX-9 is a large crossover which top’s the firm’s line up in the States and has won applause for it’s size-defying handling if not the dated interior; a second generation CX-9 must be on the horizon, but if not then a successor to the thirsty but stylish CX-7 would fit well in their growing UK line-up. I won’t hold my breath for either though, because as with Honda the Zoom Zoom manufacturer has never engineered a large diesel engine before.
Mitsubishi has actually sold the Challenger in the UK before under both that nameplate and as the Shogun Sport; effectively an SUV version of the L200 pick-up, it was always below par in most respects but sold on attractive styling and low price. When the current L200 launched in 2008 the Shogun Sport was discontinued and the ‘regular’ Shogun took the place as the brand’s only large-ish SUV…now that car is due for a replacement but also the L200 is about to be refreshed too, so why not bring the Shogun Sport back alongside a flagship Shogun a la Range Rover and capitalise on the higher show-room traffic, lord knows they need the sales!
Again another nameplate which sold not too long ago in the UK, the Pathfinder has undergone a complete transformation since it’s former days as a lumpy riding competitor to base level Discoverys – now a fully fledged crossover with a much nicer (and spacious) interior, the Pathfinder has reaped the benefits of it’s update and sales have risen massively in the US. It seems a little more likely that it would be the stylish Murano which returns to the UK as a flagship for Nissan’s brand, but the Pathfinder offers a more interesting option for probably the same amount of money. Again a diesel engine is the key here, but whilst the previous Pathfinder could be found in other markets with a 3L V6 derv, I doubt that would easily be transferred to this very different successor.
In the Highlander Toyota has found an impressive seller which competes well with the Explorer and it’s ilk, but in an arguably more efficient package both size and fuel consumption-wise. In the UK Toyota offers more off-road focused options than the Camry based Highlander, but in all honesty it probably sells more RX’s than Land Cruisers over here which coincidentally is very similar to the Highlander too. With no sign of the rumoured 7-seat RX, the Highlander could be an interesting proposition to those in the UK looking for a car based Toyota SUV with 7 seat ability…and as a bonus it already comes with a hybrid option as it’s not likely that Toyota’s 4-cylinder diesel would do well under the bonnet of this heavier car.
With the Fortuner Toyota has another, more rugged option which it could select; effectively a modern version of the much-loved Hilux Surf which was imported in the early 90’s from Japan, the Fortuner is a passenger version of the Hilux pick up truck. Similar to the Mitsubishi Challenger mentioned above but with much more investment, the Fortuner is a bit old school but is a sales success in the Far East and Australia where it has RHD and a diesel option! In all likelihood the motoring press would call the Fortuner a backward step if it were to come here, but as a cheaper alternative to the Land Cruiser it would have some honesty and merit.
It’s clear from the above models that it really wouldn’t take too much imagination or innovation to see them over here, and of all manufacturers it seems to be Ford who are picking up the mantle and will be offering the mid-sized Edge crossover in both the UK and Europe by the end of this year. I would personally favour the Explorer coming over, but seeing as though the Edge is a lot newer under the skin and probably sized more appropriately it shouldn’t be a surprise to many that this is the model the have chosen to take the plunge with. I won’t be holding my breath as to any of the other models coming here anytime soon, but who knows with some future developments and continued popularity of such vehicles they may just do so.